At some point, all of us face the need to evolve. It's almost an imperative in spiritual practice that if we are to experience the aliveness of life, we must keep growing. And sometimes that means letting go of what no longer serves us or that we serve whole heartedly. If we don't let go, we suffer. And yet doing so can be grueling. I wanted to share a teaching from 'The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna' about knowing when to let go. Ramakrishna was a 19th century, Indian mystic.
When we plant a sapling we put a fence around it so that cattle will not eat it or nobody would accidentally crush it under one's feet. But when the plant starts growing into a large tree, the fence should be removed and taken away. If the fence is not removed in time then it might even hinder in the growth of the tree. The trunk of the tree may even get trapped within the fence. Moreover, after the sapling turns into a big tree neither can cattle eat it up fully nor can people crush it under their feet accidentally. Likewise, the tree will drop fruit that will feed the cattle and the people who once threatened its very existence.
Whenever we begin anything new, especially the discipline of spiritual practice, we need to protect the fragility of our endeavor. When I first started my yoga practice, it took me a few years, but I had to learn the discipline needed to maintain a daily practice of yoga: going to bed early, waking early, eating properly, resting enough, getting enough mental and emotional stimulation, etc. I needed that discipline in order to grow within my practice. And I loved it!!! It fed me deeply.
But, after awhile, I started to feel like the fences I'd created for myself only created more rigidity. I'd find myself judging non-practitioners as "unconscious." The fragility I'd once felt around my practice gave way to a quality of spiritual arrogance. A lack of curiosity is a sure sign for each of us that either we need a new challenge or we need to find a new way into the practice we're committed to. This is where it's critical to remove the fences that once kept our fragility from being devoured. Distinguishing when it's time to give up or alter the discipline and what exactly to give up is highly individual. That's where having a good teacher or a community of friends on the journey with us can be extremely helpful. What is clear, though, is that at some point aspects of the structure stop empowering transformation and, instead, only harden us.
Very few of us have the courage to let go of what no longer serves us, though. Why? Because our identities get wrapped up in the external recognition and kudos we receive. These external boons can be enticing, but they can easily be traps for all of us. When you're considered 'advanced' in a community and you're identified with your role in it, it can be a sort of identity suicide to let go. I am not saying that we should completely stop looking to the outside for recognition. As humans, we long for and need this recognition. But we're all so starved for it, that we tend to forego our own authentic experience and expression of fulfillment in order to be loved, liked, wanted, admired, needed. And then we miss the opportunity to live a rich and full life on our own terms.
Knowing When We've Deceived Ourselves
When we're attuned enough to our inner wisdom, however, we know when we're 'b.s.'-ing ourselves. But when we're not, it can be extremely helpful to have people in our lives that offer us the space of honest communication. If we don't have this, it can be helpful to empower our inner witnesses, the neutral part of us that is noticing all the time, noticing what we're saying, doing, and experiencing. That part of us can notice when we're "should-ing on ourselves." I love this expression. When we're "should-ing," we say we do what we do not because we love it but because we "should" do it. That's a good sign that our heart is no longer in it.
The point of all practice is to bring us to the heart of our innate wisdom. It is not to end up more disciplined. Paul Meuller-Ortega aptly said, "Eventually as Seekers, we must become Finders." Knowing when you've discovered an access to your innate wisdom is not a form of spiritual arrogance. It's just something that's not empowered within spiritual traditions. What is empowered is hierarchy. Tapping into our innate wisdom does not necessarily lend one to becoming recognized in the external sense. But that it isn't recognized by a community of seekers is not of significance. What's important is that we not only recognize this indweller that the yogis call the purusa, but that we share it, that we have the courage to give our gift. That's the part of Ramakrishna's story in which the tree drops fruit for everyone, even the cows and humans who previously threatened its existence.
The point of all spiritual practice is to attune us to our truth, our innate wisdom, and our joy. This is what the yogis call, Sat-Chit-Ananda. The point isn't to win in some hierarchical game that all traditions can't help but maintain. The point is to find access to our inner strength, our magic, and our gifts and to trust them. I'll end with the following quote from Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who inspired the Star Wars trilogy and who coined the term, "follow your bliss." In this quote Campbell helps us to not mistake the trees for the forest:
What is important about a lightbulb is not the filament or the glass but the light which these bulbs are to render; and what is important about each of us is not the body and its nerves but the consciousness that shines through them. And when one lives for that instead of the protection of the bulb, one is in Buddha consciousness. Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. 2011. The Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF)