Work: Why, and What

This, our life, is the boundary-mark whence one may take an upward or downward path. Each of us must decide, in one way or the other, for lasting good or lasting ill. I have understood this to be the chief end of our present term of life.Milarepa


The ‘Work’ referred to here is a general term for all the practices needed to see and change oneself in order to reach one’s spiritual goal

Only a few: It is not so many people who actively follow a spiritual path. Those who do usually have either an inborn inclination (karma, if you will), or an aim triggered by some upset—some suffering—in life. For those who do not, our authors suggest that they may have either a fear of the new, or at least anything new in the area of how-the-world-works; or too strong an attachment to the world that prevents them from seeing further than just themselves; or they hold the belief that we are only the body and that the mind and spirit are simply extensions of, and belong to, the physical world (the usual scientific view) (see).

The Higher is not seen: But if we accept for now the visionaries’ assertions that higher worlds do exist, we may still ask why it is that the ordinary person is not already in communication with these worlds, given the importance they have to the understanding of life and to our need for spiritual development. Among the answers given are that in our current state this could be dangerous for us, the mind would get unbalanced, the experience would be overwhelming, and that we would in turn endanger others due to our immaturity and inability to control the new abilities acquired from this higher level (see). If we accept this too, the question still remains as to how one can communicate with these worlds, what is needed on our part—noting, of course, that since we currently are not aware of any of these higher worlds, there clearly must be something else needed in order to accomplish this. One practice that might do the trick, and which most of us have already heard of, is renunciation or asceticism.

Why asceticism: During any study of spiritual practices, one question that inevitably arises is why it is that so many practitioners on the spiritual paths tell us it is necessary to control and curb the body and the senses, and that ascetic practices are the means used to overcome them. Initially, what seem to be excessive mortifications and behaviors defy any normal explanations. We do not see the reasons or connections between these bodily restrictions and the spiritual side of the teachings. So, to help us understand better what is going on, and perhaps even to join in if the explanations are sound, it is worthwhile investigating what the practitioners have to say about this.

An analogy: Can a simple analogy help here? If we wanted to live in Tibet, or the high Atacama desert, and not just for a visit, something would have to change in our physiology to allow us to live successfully without succumbing to altitude sickness; some kind of training, certainly some acclimatization, that is, some preparation would be required. And it is clear that rather than reducing the altitude—getting the indigenous peoples to somehow modify their land to accommodate us—it is we who would need to change and adapt to them and their climate if we wanted to live in these places.
As to why this (spiritual) journey always seems to be uphill, one way to look at it is from the point of view of the Absolute: the creation is, as it were, an outward flow, from higher to lower—”downhill”—ending up with nature and the planetary worlds and the realm we investigate using the everyday sciences. To make the reverse journey is thus to go against the current—”uphill”—which makes it, in a sense, an unnatural direction, even a ‘going against God’ when seen from the viewpoint of Nature. Hence we get the usual arguments criticizing the interest in the spiritual, and the practice of asceticism, even the milder sort, as being unnatural, contrary to societal norms and so on. So for the aspirant, who is going against society’s expectations, it really is like mountain climbing (no obvious reason, and up, up, up).

Training is needed: The form this climbing takes is one of a denial of the outer and sensual world in the sense that one needs to leave them behind in some way to get nearer to the source. One can sum up the aim here in a single word, and that is Detachment: one is aiming at detachment from the ordinary world in all areas, the body (the senses, desires), the world (riches, fame), and the mind (uncontrolled activity), while still living in the world. But the world is not bad in itself. Asceticism is a practical and necessary preparation for the higher experiences in this new world, for otherwise we would not fit in.

Emotion is needed: One problem here is that when explained only as a matter of fact it does not carry enough emotional oomph to elicit action. So these teachings are often added into, or perhaps are integral to, most religions in the form of some kind of morality, which provides this emotional element. It is similar to the education of children: one makes brushing one’s teeth a ‘good’ ie. moral activity, that is, with an emotional element (perhaps with reward and punishment as well) added into the exercise to make the new habit stick, so that later on it becomes simply a habit with no effort or resistance. Because the body is resistant to curbing its desires, and such training gets more difficult as one gets older, acquiring these habits early on is also important. Taking Christianity as one system that addresses this, one is fighting “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and it is “the flesh” that takes the longest to overcome; so it is the ‘earlier the better’ for this kind of work.

Further incentives: The religions often introduce further notions that not only is it right to do these practices, but that the body is in fact evil, that the devil is involved, and so on—all this to add more emotional incentive to push against the ordinary world and rise into the higher realms. Whether these notions are true or not, they have been helpful to many, and there are many stories, for instance from the Desert Fathers in Christianity, that support the idea that even if the body is in itself neutral, there are some entities that actively strive against our progress. This leads to the whole topic of being tested and tempted, another aspect to the spiritual path (but not one discussed further here).

Sexuality: Indulgence in sexual activity is also particularly ‘immoral,’ and it is usually just assumed that one should if possible completely omit such activity. Here there is often no explanation, it is taken as obvious. But at least in one system—the 4th Way—it is stated in plain unemotional language that up to a certain point sexual activity is not a hindrance, but beyond that (that is, at a certain point on the Path), it needs to come to an end. The reason is simply one of energy: to reach the higher world one needs to conserve and redirect sexual energy inwards, so the outer expenditure has to stop.

The aim of asceticism: Whether the devil is really involved, or is just a personification of the body resisting the training, there is general agreement that the final aim is for the spirit to be in charge, to be active, and the body to be obedient and passive. Why? Because the demands of the spirit are themselves difficult, and the body must not interfere with this new life. So the end point of all asceticism is the same, to get control of oneself—the mind is included here—in order to form a basis for exploring the higher spiritual world (see).

Within limits: Although asceticism and renunciation are strongly encouraged, they must be practiced within sensible limits. The final aim must not be to get buried under excessive mortifications. Getting attached to curbing the body puts one back where one started, putting attention only on the body and not on the higher aim for the spirit (see).

To reinforce these general remarks on asceticism and work—the answer to why-does-this-path-have-to-be-such-a-pain—here are some extracts that may help to make a successful foray ‘up the mountain’.

  • The heart needs to be quiet in order to listen to the spirit: because the latter is not bodily, and the body gets in the way of seeing the spirit within. For the same reason, the heart needs to be empty of mental images and void of passions (see)
  • The spirit is higher than the body, but the body monopolizes perception; so we must actively purify ourselves of, and detach ourselves from, sensory objects (see)
  • Self-love and self-seeking hide the higher from us, and can be curbed by acknowledging them; the aim is to be free, free from desire, free from pride and prejudice (see)
  • We have limited energy and time, so limiting what is needed for bodily life to a minimum increases the amount of energy and time available for higher things. This is an ordinary commonsensical idea that applies to any study or craft (see)
  • But the instruction goes further than this, saying that the two worlds are not compatible, even exclusive, so one can only work on one of them at a time (see)
  • Similarly, the soul’s powers need to be concentrated on the interior work to be effective, so will is required (see)
  • In the higher world the very conceptual framework that we use for understanding—space, time, causation—differs, so the ordinary mind needs to remain passive, even inactive, for the higher to emerge; the false picture derived from the senses needs to recede (see)
  • The proof of God is direct perception, but this perception is not sense-perception, so training is needed to take us beyond the senses; the mind needs to make itself similar to the higher, to God (see)

More on What

“God works in us from within outwards; but all creatures work from without inwards.”
Ruysbroeck (‘Adornment of the Spiritual marriage’ II.3)

Aim and verification: We live in times when esoteric knowledge is abundant, available, even if buried beneath an avalanche of pseudo-teachings and practices. It is in troubled times that this knowledge gets released, with the troubles covering over the knowledge from the view of the many. This then leaves everything up to the aim of the seeker: the knowledge is there, he has found it, but how strongly does he want to put it into practice? This is the first step.

Know yourself: With a strong enough aim established, pretty much all the major religions and philosophies, even the oldest shamanic traditions, set one on the path of self-knowledge, the Know-Thyself, which forms the basis for, and is the main component of, work on oneself (go to Search page, ‘self-knowledge’, for the full list). One may have thought that the job was to find the answers in the outside world, in the secret texts and practices, and so on, but it slowly becomes clear that it is just as much an inward journey, ferreting out our own limitations and the ‘veils’ that keep us from seeing things as they are: for a great deal is there right in front of us but we have failed to see it, and the reasons for this become apparent as we get to know ourselves better.

Individual path: The whole process is very individual, like following Ariadne’s thread back out of the maze where each of us is our own maze and minotaur. So even though all the Ways encompass the same steps, each person takes them in a different order, and with different emphases.

The task is not easy, and we have some descriptions that hold nothing back:

  • struggle
  • a taming of wild beasts
  • coercing oneself in every respect
  • put out your own candle
  • practice being contented with a little
  • willingly give himself up to the wheel of anguish
  • vice may be had without trouble, but before virtue the gods have set toil
  • hard and sharp in the beginning
  • one’s body should be lean, and one’s heart broken
  • to get at the kernel means breaking the shell
  • he must hoist himself up above himself
  • you must even run away from your Self
  • fasting, self-control, patient endurance, courage, stillness, prayer, silence, inward grief, humility
  • must be won by forcing ourselves
  • is not a bed of roses
  • requires work and heart-felt suffering, not acquired without labor
  • never excuse yourself, but always accuse yourself
(See here for the ‘not-easy’ quotes).

But there is also encouragement:

  • no effort is ever lost and no obstacle prevails
  • change yourself, and your fortune will change too
  • the highest nobility lies in taming your own mind
  • easy for the one who perseveres in faith, hope and love
  • there must be mistakes, you can only do your best
  • if only a man does his best, nothing more is required
  • the beginning is half of the whole
  • do not lay stress on your present impure and mean condition, but rather on what is possible
  • whether financially, physically, or morally, as long as you perform it with a pure motivation
  • from every point on earth we are equally near to heaven and to the infinite
  • think courageously, and act courageously
  • up, noble soul, put on your jumping shoes, leap your own understanding
  • pick up the shovel of holy fear of God and let the hand of love guide it
(See here for the ‘encouragement’ quotes).

And some helpful hints:

  • become passers-by
  • nothing to do with your instrument; all about tuning; the key is to know how to tune your life
  • not to accept everything, but to understand everything; not to approve of everything, but to forgive everything
  • leave your thoughts alone, but maintain a constant vigil over your actions
  • must always be breaking fresh ground, always cultivating some new perception
  • chisel away from your Soul what is superfluous
  • lead your life so you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip
  • take up arms against the passion which troubles you most, not a different one each day
  • not to fight against all the passions at once, but one at a time
  • try to perfect yourself in order that you may learn how to love
  • ever fight self, and you need not trouble about any other foe
  • put up today with this little bit of suffering
  • in favorable events or in contradictions, say always: I must reap something from this
  • humility, extreme attention, resistance (to thoughts) and prayer
  • every day we should keep ourselves as though we were to appear before God
  • renounce self-love, the mother of evils
  • you ought in good days to look at evil ones, and in evil days not to forget good days
  • if someone abuses you, you take the benefit of the abuse by building your tolerance and patience
  • possess those things that no one can take away from you
  • desire earnestly to arrive at that which transcends all sense and all feeling
  • accepting all that happens
(See here for the ‘helpful hints’ quotes).
All the above are selections from “Work, summary/overview” (under ‘Inner Life/Practices’ on the Search page).
For further advice look at the remaining ‘Work’ entries in the same section.

The authors also give us observations on the various stages of inner growth that we may pass through:

  • the circle of man’s life is to know, to understand, to will, and to do
  • we do not progress from error to truth, but from truth to truth, and each stage is true
  • spirituality can never be attained until materiality is gone
  • spiritual progress is not a process of accumulating from without; it is a process of unfoldment from within
  • so long as a person can still talk of things divine, and can relish, understand, remember and desire them, he has not yet come to port
  • in the region of the known the last thing to be seen and hardly seen is the idea of the good
  • the soul must lose itself
  • we must gain our soul first, and surrender it afterwards
  • there are two steps and an arrival: take one step from the world and one step from the afterworld and, behold, you have arrived at the Master
  • intellect is replaced by inspiration; inspiration is transformed into illumination
  • discipline and contrition, then sanctity and meditation, then intimate solitude and contemplation
  • refraining completely from evil actions, renouncing all thoughts of mental consent to evil, stillness of passionate desire, complete purification from even the barest and simplest images
  • a path of cleansing, then an illuminative path, then a unitive path
  • the purgative, the illuminative and finally the mystical
  • practice virtue, desire perfection, true annihilation, true transformation
  • three stages of salvation: virtue, spiritual knowledge, theology
  • Valley of the Quest, Valley of Love, Valley of Knowledge or Enlightenment, Valley of Detachment, Valley of the Unity, Valley of Amazement, Valley of Annihilation of Self
  • the final station of the knower is freedom
  • progress of the soul through these [6 subtle and mental] spheres is entirely in imagination; in the seventh plane the involving process is complete, imagination comes to an end and Reality is realized
  • the novice shuns death, the advanced love death and yearn after it, at a higher stage he chooses neither death nor life, the stage of resignation and acceptance
  • renunciation, submission to a religious way of life, obedience to spiritual direction, then humility, and then God-imbued love
  • he languishes in love, then he dies in love, then he lives in love
  • this is the great joy of this awakening, namely to know creatures in God, and not God in His creatures
  • when you have perfected yourself you will no longer exist, but God will remain
  • to study God, to feel God, to experience God, to become God
  • But enough of this. Get to experience this truth for yourself; words are of little avail here
(See here for the ‘stages’ quotes).
All the above are selections from “Way, stages, signs of progress” (under ‘Inner Life/Practices’ on the Search page).

Personal Observations
There must be many incentives to keep going on this path. One is conscience, perhaps not immediately on starting, but active later on when one starts to see the more unsavory aspects in one’s psychology. You may have had the same observation, that somewhere ‘in the background’ of one’s mind there is an almost perpetual murmuring that is judging other people, and which starts up as soon as one meets them and continues when they have gone. I can remember passing this door (to one of the rooms of one’s inner “house”), and one day being brave enough to open it up and see where the chatter was coming from. And there they were, the Judges, sitting in a row, pontificating on with their continual criticisms, which, when one sheds more light on them, turn out to be completely unfounded. Basically, they are the front for one’s own love of self that pours out this verbal noise in order to keep one from allowing others in, and admitting that yes, these ‘other people’ are in many ways better, certainly valid, genuine folk also trying to make the best of their lives.

This kind of observation has a knock-on effect, in that other negative emotions and attitudes also diminish as the judgment diminishes; so, for instance, you might find, as I did, that, rather imperceptibly, self-pity slowly evaporates away; and, even more surprising and most welcome, love of neighbor, and compassion, start to fire up. So just the seeing, and the acknowledgment that one has these weaknesses, is itself enough to start to reduce them.

At this point the results of work become part of the incentive to continue, and add to one’s personal verifications that the spiritual path is not nonsense, or a fool’s caper, but real, life-changing, profound; and, moreover, they hint that these other claims made by our authors may well also be true.

Each person has his own path, both on what needs to be seen, and on what needs to be done. In the monastic ways (Christianity, Buddhism etc.) and, with more emphasis, the 4th way, work needs to be done to stop all the useless internal talk in the mind, that is, uncontrolled imagination. The term ‘recollection’ is often used to describe the state one is aiming at. One thinks that the attention needed to stop this should to be directed onto the mind itself, that is, ‘into the head’, but the true focus, as told us by the Desert Fathers (Christianity) needs to be on the heart, literally ‘on the heart’, which one finds to be the source of this imagination. Once one discovers this one can make real progress to quieting the mind, which leads to more success in meditative practices, if that is the path one is on.

Again, when one finds that what was suggested actually works, and adds this to one’s store of verifications, one is even more inclined to accept the further, and perhaps wilder, teachings given by our authors.

And so it goes on. New discoveries about oneself lead to unexpected perceptions about life, which in turn add to one’s aim.

Two more things. The first is to beware back-sliding, a resting on one’s laurels, where one thinks a success – maybe overcoming negative emotions – is now permanent and needs no more work. Not true! One does not notice this back-sliding, but it is an ever-present danger which may only be detected if luck allows some external event to bring the failure back to our notice. This has happened to me, and the conclusion I have made is that I need always to be suspicious of myself, always checking myself out. Progress may be small, but is always forwards so long as it is kept it up throughout one’s life. In order to do this one’s aim needs to be ‘continually warmed’. So to those who reckon that they have already climbed the mountain enough but did not reach the top and now seem to be falling off, I would say that gravity is not what it seems, there are still some things that can help maintain the ascent:

  • remember the original ‘attraction to the higher’ and accompanying ‘repulsion from the lower’ (ordinary life), that is, why one started in the first place
  • keep one’s own personal experiences alive, not to forget them. Many people have higher experiences or at least hints of them, but are pressured to dismiss them because society rejects them, or they themselves fail to record or acknowledge them when they happen, and so the memory fades away. We need to believe in ourselves and gather ourselves together! (see)
  • similarly keep the personal experiences related to one by close friends and other people one trusts. Most of us with any spiritual interests have been told these, and they can be added to one’s own spiritual store
  • similarly for the experiences of strangers, that is, from books and other indirect material. Although some may be lying or exaggerating, much is true and should be paid some attention. Much of the material affirming the existence of the spiritual life comes from these sources. So Plato, Meister Eckhart, and so on should not be regarded as ancient cranks whose intellects were not as advanced as our own, but as if they were alive today and relating to us what they have found
  • one was told at the start that this work could take a lifetime or more, also that no sincere effort is lost; so the long haul is to be expected

The second thing is how these internal changes happen. It is a hidden process occurring in our emotional nature, our will, and is not directly observable, certainly not as it is happening. But it is clearer in hindsight. There is more on this here (in section 2).