By Venugopal Acharya (Vraja bihari dasa)

“May noble thoughts come to us from all sides.” –          

Rig Veda (Ancient Indian scripture)

When we moan about life, spirituality seems vague. That’s when we wonder what exactly spirituality is and we’ll likely dismiss it as an impractical concept. Therefore the first step is to differentiate between the material and spiritual. Material means matter – our daily routine and the surfeit troubles that keep us busy. Spirituality however, means a reinvigorating experience; a feeling beyond the mere relief moments that is part of our daily lives. If you try the following, you might see spiritual life is real; the experience is verily the best confirmation.

 First level – A glimpse of practical spirituality

Write down five things that you are deeply thankful for. The experience of happiness induced by a gratitude practise is obvious for you. Most people remain disconnected and find spiritual joy inaccessible because they only see bad in their lives. But this first step to thank our good fortune is a liberating experience; from despair we have entered slowly the space of celebration. This celebration is real unlike the hard partying by those who seek to escape their daily worries. A positive celebration of life is more fulfilling than a denial of suffering through sensual experiences.

Although the focus here is still the self, it’s healthier because we aren’t focussing on our discomfort but our blessings. There are men and women however, who tap a richer source of contentment. They take their spiritual experience to the second level. Second level – From ‘I’ to the other person After thankfulness for what you have got in life, you could try thanking a person for not what he has done to you, but for what he is, and for what they do independent of you. Here, the focus is on the wonderful qualities of the other person; his or her being who they are is a cause for festivity. It’s the other person centric approach, and a new and effective way to tap divine happiness. Often we are centred on ourselves; even when we appreciate, we are happy because of the benefits that have accrued to us. And that means we are still at the level of ‘I’. Now if we appreciate others for their existence and activities in general, we begin to touch a higher dimension of happiness. 

‘There’s more to life than me and my worries’ is the message we send to the universe. That’s when we also learn to see our existence in general and our miseries in particular as tiny compared to the vast goodness in this universe. It’s a paradox: we feel insignificant, yet deeply satisfied. If you have a healthy practise of thanking others- friends, strangers, things, experiences or events- beyond yourself, you are ready to enter the third level of spiritual experience. To be continued…

Third level – Moving from specific to abstract       

The third level of a spiritual experience is when we move from others to the force that governs them; we appreciate them but now we reflect on what is it that actually moves others to do or be what they are. For example I once thanked a friend in our monastery for his consistent cooking services. I was one of the hundred plus fortunate monks who were the daily recipients of his benevolence. As he heard me patiently, I realized my appreciation was about how his cooking had given me satisfaction and nourishment. I decided to take my appreciation to the next level: I focussed on him, rather than my own needs and joy. I wondered aloud how he manages to balance his tight schedules, and the special skills that he has developed over time. His humility and willingness to learn is a great inspiration.

 As I genuinely praised him, I could see he felt happy and encouraged, and I had entered a spiritual space; life in general and the day in particular seemed to be blissful. My worries and anxieties seemed insignificant in comparison to the rich goodness that prevailed in our monastery. Then I decided to take my appreciation to the third level- who is responsible for his being so wonderful. What is the energy that is common amongst many good men and women of this world; what is this force which has inspired people over millennium to contribute, love, and sacrifice for others’ welfare? How does goodness spread in a planet even as hate and anger threatens to destroy our world? Slowly, I could see my consciousness enter a larger space- from I, to him, and then to it or the real Him. This force is known in our culture as Krishna or God. I was now connecting to God or the spiritual being that inspires goodness in me and others in this cosmos.

Daily application at the Three levels –

I, He, and God Practically speaking this is what I did: at the first level I thanked my cook friend for what I got; then for what he is; and now finally to God for giving food to countless living entities daily. From a tiny ant in my room to huge elephants in Africa, somebody or some force is providing for all. I thank that force and enter a spiritual space, almost instantly. On another occasion two hundred of us monks went to a holy place for pilgrimage. My spiritual practise was a simple gratitude practise at three levels: First level – I thanked a friend who organized the four buses to transport us from one place to another. That was a big relief and help in that remote village. I also thanked my stars for escaping bee stings when a bee have got disturbed and the bees went on a rampage. Although I had offered a sincere expression of thanks, still my spiritual practice was at the lowest level.

Second level – The bus organizer is an engineer by profession and didn’t take any money for his services. I thanked him for his example and meditated on his dedicated services over the last decade. Here I was appreciating him not for the help he offered me, but for his being who he is. I also spent time with my other friends who were badly stung by the bees. In my kindness to them, and in my silent appreciation for their tolerance of the pain, I was being human and also spiritual; the experience of the heart is real. In giving we receive is an old adage and we discover its truth when we raise the bar of our living at the second level.

Third level – I thanked God for no accidents and overall safety during our pilgrimage. The boys who got stung recovered in three days. Had the bus fallen over the cliff, many of us would have died. Therefore this was a good bargain and was a cause of gratitude and celebration. We returned in trains and I reflected how daily eleven thousand trains ply in India and there are hardly any fatal accidents. I thanked the universe for protection and shelter. It’s time we realize we are all connected in one way or other. As the American author and Astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “We are connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically.” Let’s recognize this connection and celebrate – that’s spirituality!