One of our favorite parts of Easwaran's writings is when he uses the life and teachings of a spiritual figure to illustrate an aspect of spiritual practice in the modern world. This week we’re sharing with you an excerpt from the Blue Mountain Journal in which Easwaran shares inspiration and practical advice from the life and works of Saint Teresa of Avila.
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, later to become loved around the world as St. Teresa of Jesus, grew up as a beautiful, high-spirited girl from one of the most distinguished families in the sixteenth-century Spanish town of Avila. With charm, intelligence, keen artistic sensibilities, and a saving dose of common sense, she seemed to have the world at her feet. Yet while still in her teens, this passionate young woman had already begun to find the attractions of worldly life too small to satisfy her. She felt their pull – would be torn in two by it, in fact, for more than twenty years. But nothing could silence a much deeper appeal, a call to a far higher destiny.
Some dim awareness of an infinite promise deep within her must have prompted her to turn inward. In her writings, Teresa describes candidly what was taking place inside. “All the things of God gave me great pleasure,” she recalls, “but I was held captive by the things of this world.” Yet the inward pull would not let her go:
Reason tells the soul how mistaken it is in thinking that all these earthly things are of the slightest value by comparison with what it is seeking. A little recollection reminds it that all these things come to an end. And faith instructs it in what the soul must do to find satisfaction. . . .
Young Teresa had seen what life offers on the surface, and it was not enough. She longed for much greater challenges, deeper awareness, something more lasting than this world of change. “There is no joy in the finite,” the Upanishads say. “There is joy only in the Infinite.” Teresa’s soul yearned for the Infinite, and nothing less would satisfy her.
Teresa of Avila is so appealing a figure, so human and yet so inspiring, that we naturally want to know her secret. What enabled her to turn herself inward, heart and soul? Is it something that we can follow?
As it happens, Teresa did leave us her “secret.” In her autobiography, she stresses over and over the one quality she found vital: determinación, determination, decision, will. “Those who have this determination,” she declares, “have nothing to fear.”
Determination? Is that all? Surely, we think, some loftier, finer qualities must come before this mundane one. But then we reflect on our own experience. In any walk of life – arts, sciences, sports, entertainment – wherever excellence is achieved, there is one quality we almost always find: the sheer will to overreach oneself, to keep going whatever the odds until the goal is attained. St. Teresa is simply reminding us that we need this same quality to reach an infinite goal. The same determination with which we pursue passing, personal satisfactions can be used for spiritual growth.
If we find that we are not making the kind of progress we would like on the spiritual path, Teresa is suggesting, the reason may be simply that we are not trying our hardest. We may have all kinds of other reasons, but often the problem is simple lack of determination.
The first challenge to determination, of course, comes up every day. “Shall I meditate today at my regular time and place, for the full length of time? Or shall I fudge a little?” So many things can come in the way!
This one little question is so common, so insidious, that I want to stress just how important it is. Nothing you can do will strengthen your determination more than the regular practice of meditation: at the same time, and for the full length of time, every single day.
No one finds this easy or convenient. Everybody faces obstacles: you are traveling, you have a cold, your baby starts crying, you get interrupted by a phone call, you have to wait for a call that never comes . . . The list goes on forever. Some obstacles, I agree, cannot be removed until you change your job circumstances. But most can be dealt with through surprisingly simple measures which never occur to us – unplugging the phone, for example, or getting up early enough to let the baby sleep. Just by meditating regularly, you are deepening your determination immeasurably.
So be regular in your meditation, be systematic in following the instructions, and try to sustain your enthusiasm no matter how you feel. Every morning when you sit down for meditation, renew your determination. If you believe in a personal God, ask for the help of Sri Krishna or Jesus or the Divine Mother to make this decision unbreakable. If you do not believe in a personal God, ask for help from your own deeper Self, the Atman. Either way, it is important to remember that you are appealing to a power deep within you, not to anyone outside.
Meditation, of course, is only part of the effort. I cannot say too often that everything we do throughout the day has a direct effect on the mind. I feel perplexed when I see someone put in sincere effort in meditation and then proceed to quarrel at breakfast, stomp out of the office in a huff at lunch, and not go home at all for dinner. I say bluntly, “You have undone all that you did so carefully in meditation.” To keep going forward, we have to go on making our best effort to keep calm and kind throughout the day.
All this requires endless determination, as I am sure you are already aware. The first stages of meditation are rough going, and the only consolation I can offer is that below the surface of consciousness, the going gets even rougher. As you enter the immense, uncharted realm called the unconscious, there are so many imponderables you have to deal with, so many indecipherable scripts you have to learn to read. Even the most daring intellect looks around in vain for familiar landmarks and throws up its hands. “I don’t understand this! There is nothing here that I can grasp, touch, see, or think about. I don’t know what to do.” The will lies down and goes to sleep, and every morning you have to try to rouse it again. This is a long, tough, terribly challenging battle.
But the rewards are infinite. If you read the annals of the great mystics, they seem to be having the time of their lives – dealing with intangibles, breaking codes that have never been broken, reading scripts that have never been made out. Every day there is a miracle in meditation. You have to fight against an enemy you cannot see, in a battle in which the lines cannot even be drawn. Yet you know you are learning to face these challenges; you know you are moving forward. That is all the inspiration you need, all the thrill you could ever hope to find. Throughout the day you do everything possible to clear your path into the unknown. And when you go to bed at night, you have a sense of having really lived – an awareness that no achievement in the external world can give.
I want you to know that this is just how I learned too. When I took to meditation, I was not living in seclusion in a cave on the Himalayas. I was a busy professor on a large campus in India, deeply interested in my students and in my subject, which was literature. In addition, I wrote a regular column for a national newspaper and spoke to sizable audiences over All-India Radio. I mention this simply to show that you do not have to drop out of society and go into hiding to pursue your spiritual goals. You do not have to slough your responsibilities so you can learn to meditate at your leisure – in fact, meditation is going to make you even more responsible. Meditation is a skill for living. You can draw on its benefits wherever you are – with your family, with your friends, on your campus, in your office, at your clinic, in your home. You can drive a taxi and still explore Infinity.