I recently returned from a 2-week spiritual retreat in New York. These retreats were originally run by my spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, who moved from India to Queens in 1964 and they have continued without interruption ever since. Over the years Sri Chinmoy has attracted thousands of followers and disciples, many of them attend his retreats. I’ve been going quite regularly for the past 35 years and I always return from them feeling refreshed and inspired, and I have asked myself why this is.
For one thing, it’s always nice to get away from my daily routine. Attending spiritual retreats reinforces three needs, which are fundamental to spiritual growth. The first is to have a teaching to follow. For this, it is not necessary to have a living teacher. My teacher passed way in 2007, but I still find inspiration at our retreats and wisdom in his writings and in the life example he set for his disciples. A spiritual teaching is a code or set of higher values that guide your life. It’s good to keep focused on your higher values and spiritual retreats do just that.
A second fundamental is community. We need similarly inspired companions. When Ananda, Buddha’s relative and close disciple, asked him about the role of friendship in their practice, the Buddha replied that spiritual companionship was the ‘whole of the spiritual life.’ We live in relation to others. If those others are have a like spirit and inspiration, you will run swiftly toward your goal, because spiritual friends will support you in your spiritual practice. Spiritual retreats and yoga retreats offer the experience of spiritual community and one may make lifetime friends there.
The third essential element of spiritual practice is personal effort, or ‘aspiration.’ Aspiration puts our inspiration into practice. Aspiration expands our capacity and our insight in a way that inspiration without effort cannot. Aspiration transforms inspiration into life experience. There is a quote from my teacher that goes something like this, “People are willing to do anything for enlightenment, except work for it.” How sadly true!
Manifest Our Inspiration in Every Circumstance
But how do we put inspiration into practice? This becomes a difficult question if we overlook the countless opportunities every day life presents. We imagine we need special circumstance to manifest our inspiration, when all we have to do is just start loving where there is too little love, encouraging those who are discouraged, giving of ourselves without expectation of reward or return. These kinds of actions consecrate our life and open doors through which our inspirations can spontaneously manifest. We don’t have to create special conditions; we just have to make the effort within our present circumstance. The value of the ‘special circumstance’ of a spiritual retreat is that it reminds us we have what it takes to manifest our inspiration in every circumstance.
Find your Teaching
One perspective on the spiritual life is that it is just perfecting these three fundamentals: our devotion for understanding and following a dharma (teaching), of harmonizing with a community of inspired persons, and of successfully managing our energies so as to maximize our aspiration and inspiration. To jump start your spiritual journey, here are some suggestions: Look for the teaching or teacher that deeply touches your heart. It is not to agree or to like, so much as to fall in love with the teacher’s soul, his or her inner sincerity. If you have a teacher then you have a teaching. Without the teacher, seek the teaching that most inspires your heart, then do your best to understand and follow.
Finding a community that resonates with you may be a bit more daunting. Before I discovered the Sri Chinmoy Centre, I engaged about ten different spiritual paths, some like Christianity, quite extensively. First efforts are not always successful – ‘Seek and ye shall find.’ – If you keep on seeking. Don’t give up! Continue seeking and let your deep heart decide the matter. The mind is enamored by first this and then that philosophy. It likes excitement and charisma. These ‘shiny’ things may prove to be unreliable.
Cultivating Personal Effort
As for cultivating personal effort, that follows naturally from having a goal in life. Of course, we have countless ‘goals’ that are usually just momentary desires. A goal that will increase your life energy and make every effort a joy will arise only from a truly spiritual inspiration. You will know it when you feel it, for it will strike your heart and resonate with a tone that is ‘perfect pitch.’ Until then, get to know your heart more intimately. Meditate and don’t wait for an epic inspiration, work on the everyday variety. Giving value to small inspirations will cause great inspirations to seek you out.
Giving value to small inspirations will cause great inspirations to seek you out.
Cultivate these three fundamental principles: Follow a teaching, practice within a community and everyday make an honest and sincere effort. Do these things to uphold your spiritual practice and your practice lift you to heights you did not think possible.