How to Perceive Spiritual Truths
March 23, 2012
Sometimes in the past, I’ve found it difficult to know why certain things are happening in my life — or even, if I’m totally honest, what is happening in itself at all, apart from my emotions, desires, hopes and wishes.
Recently, I had an experience that really helped to put things in perspective.
In January, a friend of mine generously donated some time to teach me the general principles behind HTML, a computer programming language (don’t worry, that’s about as technical as this post gets!)
One of the things he mentioned was that when it came to programming some changes in the text — like a bold or italicized entry — there was an important principle to follow:
“When you’re trying to remember what tools to use,” he said, “Don’t think about what the text looks like; think about its true quality.”
That was a little puzzling at first, so he explained, “If you were trying to make something bold, you’re not trying to “bold” it, right? You’re trying to emphasize it.”
Clarity helps you see essential qualities
It turns out that in the language computers speak to each other (and to themselves also!) instructions are very clear. A programmer tells the computer to give a paragraph of text, for example, an “essential quality” like emphasis. The computer responds by changing the text to reflect that essential quality.
The appearance of the text may not always be the same — one time appearing as bold text, another time as italics — but the computer knows what to change, because it knows that what is really being expressed is the essential quality.
In a nutshell, essence drives appearance.
How does this apply spiritually?
Clarity looks beyond appearances
I was thinking about it, and it really struck me that when I’m trying to understand what’s happening, I often used to start by looking at all the aspects of the event’s appearance.
I asked myself, “What are all the details of what’s going on?” or “What specific thing happened before to cause this?” and “What new things are now going to happen, because of this?”
My mind really loved going into those details. But if what I’m seeking is clarity and true understanding, more and more it feels like the actual question should be, “What’s trying to happen here?”
In other words, once I take my own personal angle out — sometimes difficult to do! — I can see what’s really happening in a big picture way. This is especially important when the decision affects a lot of people, or myself very deeply.
And here’s the important thing, I think: that question, “What’s trying to happen here?” can’t be answered with any amount of data, no matter how hard the mind tries. Only calm, intuitive feeling… the kind that comes from meditation, for example… can give rise to truly clear, impersonal answers — and those are the answers I need most, especially in times of difficulty or confusion.
Calmness plus clear feeling leads to insight
I had an opportunity to learn this lesson recently, when after a pretty blissful stay through the beautiful Christmas season at Ananda Village, I was trying to discern what direction to take in a certain area of my life.
For some time, I’ve been deeply considering taking formal vows of renunciation. Actually, it goes quite far back: when I was a small child, I wanted to be a monk!
Later, I found a great deal of inspiration in the stories of King Arthur’s knights — soul-dedicated, priestly warriors devoted to the light: how deeply I longed to be one of them!
But to actually be in a place, spiritually, to take such vows — for a long time that seemed like an unapproachably sweet ideal, or a guiding star far ahead of me in the night. It was only with coming to Ananda, through meditation and devotion, that a space opened up and gradually, I became the kind of person whose desire could be for inner communion and joy. For this blessing, I am more grateful than for anything else in my life.
But if I made this commitment, it would be a big step; a significant change that would affect — well, everything! I wanted to be responsible. So at first, despite a sweet certainty that belied rational thought, I tried to really think it over.
Thinking alone falls short of perfect clarity
Using all the powers of my logical mind, I thought of pros and cons, wrote in my journal, and tried to predict future effects and outcomes.
My mind was happy to generate many outcomes and scenarios. I thought, as I imagine many people who take vows of celibacy do, about relationships past or future. To some extent my mind was trying something akin to mental calculus… tracing out the curve of a line beyond sight.
Soon I was mentally many years in the future, thinking about the effects of a decision I hadn’t yet to take, on further actions that will… if they happen at all… almost certainly not happen in the way that I was envisioning them!
(A friend of mine recently posted a perfect quote about this whole process, which reads, “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.” So true! How can we even know, on the cusp of life-changing decisions, the full impact they will have? All we can do is find our own truest course, and trust.)
Eventually, my mind was exhausted. It had become so unsatisfying to try and think this decision through — tiring on a bone-deep level. And I think, as we often do, that I already knew the answer.
In that moment, the heart spoke up with a still and small voice — crystal clear.
Refining clarity in meditation
In that moment of inspiration, things felt so clear. But sometimes, on a big decision, it’s good to take some time; even the right intuitive decision, if taken too quickly, can lead to second-guessing later.
To use an explicitly spiritual example, it reminds me of the Biblical quote, “Render unto God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Despite originally being in the context of paying taxes, this quote is about meeting each level of reality appropriately, on its own level. So, with intuition it is appropriate to know immediately, in an instant. But it’s also appropriate to give reasoned consideration its due.
The next time I went in to meditation, after practicing the techniques, when I felt calm… I took some time just to breathe and open space in my heart for that still voice.
As minutes went by, the small spark of knowing, given room to grow, created a definite feeling of calmness and clarity about the decision.
On New Year’s Day, when I took my vow, I felt blessed.
Clarity helps us trust into the future
Now as options and opportunities emerge following this commitment (and the others that have arisen and will arise from it!), I’m still trying to apply what I learned, beautifully, from computers and higher intuition, too.
Not to focus so much on thinking, or even on the appearance of things. Instead, just to feel ahead calmly, with openness and joy… and trust that feeling.