Making Our Entire Life an Inner Pilgrim’s Journey
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Taking up the path of pure devotion, is to take up the pilgrim’s journey. “Pilgrim” is defined in the dictionary as traveling to a holy place. However, the Shrimad Bhagavatam advises us not merely to make an arduous journey for the sake of taking a holy bath, but to hear from saintly persons who embody the holy place and sacred teachings. Our spiritual awakening may include an outer expedition to leave the mundane and live sequestered from material life by becoming a spiritual hermit or monk, yet the real life of a pilgrim is a difficult inner voyage which turns out to be an adventure of self-discovery on many levels, both physically and spiritually. The externals of our life may or may not facilitate this growth. As obvious as this might sound to you, a theoretical understanding is much easier than applying it practically. For me, a great deal of maturing over many years by trial and error was required for me to really understand this.
I have lived as a monk and a family man, and both have been very helpful to me on my spiritual path, and in discovering the necessity of balance and authenticity. Timing, or at what level of awareness we do things, facilitates our understanding. In other words, what may work for us as a young person often no longer supports us as we age and change. Whether we wear saffron and live out of a milk crate in an ashram (as I did), or wear business attire and have a family, our external situation is meant to help us find support and peace for the long haul of a lifetime of endeavor in uncovering our soul, and our love for Krishna. Giving our life and heart to Krishna is a process, and for the majority of us it doesn’t happen overnight, in spite of our initial enthusiasm.
My early pilgrim’s journey was living in nature while reading spiritual books. Every day, the sunrise represented another day on the quest for enlightenment, part of which was making sense of my life, and setting my permanent compass toward the spiritual sun, even on cloudy days or in the darkness of night. For one year I was obviously on a spiritual search, or the pilgrim’s journey. In addition to observing nature, I also explored many spiritual and religious paths, until I found how much Krishna consciousness spoke to me. In a short time, after meeting devotees of Krishna and reading Bhagavad Gita and other small books by Shrila Prabhupada, I gave up my worldly possessions and became a Hare Krishna monk, or celibate student (brahmacari). I was absorbed in learning the ins and outs of the path, but in a strange way I gradually lost the intensity I had in my search for a spiritual path. I became outwardly busy in service, but I failed to adequately cultivate spiritual knowledge and my inner life.
From my study this often happens when a person “finds the truth.” A complacency may set in which can be a stumbling block for deeper spiritual advancement. We may equate the externals, or the religious rituals of the path with its actual goal. Rapid progress is made until we reach the level of advancement we obtained in our last life. Coming to a spiritual path is like struggling through a door, only to find more doors along a very long, high set of steps. Going through the first door is the beginning, not the end, of our travels. To move up those steep steps requires great determination because this is where the most difficult work of self-examination lies. There is a sense of security being on the path and freed from our material ignorance, yet staying in familiar “sunny valley” is much different than climbing up the unfamiliar, often stormy, jagged mountain of spiritual attainment which towers beyond our vision.
During my first ten years as a devotee I traveled to many locations throughout the world (Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Hawaii, (all in the United States), and then overseas to India, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and back to Berkeley—full circle. I do understand that this was part of my destiny, yet I have also analyzed that I didn’t understand the nature of inner spiritual work, nor did I have experienced elders to show me the way. I was, or any of us are, only ready for change when we have the necessity to progress, often through some type of distress, or inner prompting that is difficult to ignore. We don’t get off the hook for essential transformation by just beginning on a path, as we have to become aware of our material conditioning that doesn’t serve our growth and relationships.
It wasn’t until I had married and moved out of the temple community and matured sufficiently, that I encountered the urgency to do inner work, and could then see my life as a pilgrim’s journey. I know a few devotees that retained the mood of the pilgrim’s journey, or kept the flame of their spiritual quest alive their whole lives, and as a result have gone far in their devotion and love for Krishna. Not being one of those fortune souls, I have progressed much more slowly. I have made sense of what seems like many wasted years as only a religious devotee—or one who only officially kept on the path without living and breathing for spiritual progress.
Fortunately Krishna also helps and inspires those slow in spiritual understanding, and so change can be begun unknowingly by creating proper conditions, or having them imposed upon us by grace, something like the slow growth of a plant. When the plant manifests its flowers and fruits, we may be surprised, and only then gain clarity about what was an unconscious unfoldment process. Looking back on my life, what appeared to be unrelated activities to my spiritual growth were actually a necessary incubation period, or Krishna’s timing in action. This is why we must be careful not to criticize those who are weak in divine faith, or lax in spiritual practice, as we don’t know where they are in their devotional journey. Sometimes we may appear to go backward in order to make progress over the long run. We have to always remember, and remind others, that our entire life is meant to be the pilgrim’s journey toward prema (loving service to Krishna), and though we may stumble we will know the goal is worth our effort and struggles. Our attention to the inner life of Hare Krishna japa meditation will greatly assist us at every stage, and help us remain on the path through difficulties and doubts.
“But an ordinary man or woman with firm faith in the eternal injunctions of the Lord, even though unable to execute such orders, becomes liberated from the bondage of the law of karma. In the beginning of Krsna consciousness, one may not fully discharge the injunctions of the Lord, but because one is not resentful of this principle and works sincerely without consideration of defeat and hopelessness, he will surely be promoted to the stage of pure Krishna consciousness.” [Shrila Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad Gita As It Is 3.31]