Discover the essence of spiritual practice, blending art and science for a life of wisdom and compassion.
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Embrace the transformative power of spiritual practice as we explore its art and science, guiding us towards a life of profound wisdom and compassion.
To live with wisdom and compassion, we need to learn how to combine the art and science of spirituality. Incorporating a consistent spiritual practice into our daily lives enhances our understanding and deepens our connection to our essential nature. Through such practices, we not only gain insights but also cultivate habits that align us with our true spiritual essence.
Spiritual practice prepares us to live in the world with clarity, wisdom, and compassion. The science of spirituality provides us with insights and clarity, while the art of spirituality involves participating in everyday life with faith and dedication.
"With consistent spiritual practice, we realize we are not journeying alone through this world. The One Reality, called God, is guiding and supporting us each step of the way."
—Yogacharya Ellen Grace O'Brian
We all yearn for that innate experience of wholeness and naturally want to live it. One of the first yearnings that brought me to the spiritual path was wanting to know the truth about life. I wanted to know how to realize it for myself and not just believe what I was told. One of the great attractions to the path of yoga was the insistence that philosophy must be realized through direct experience.
I wanted to know how to make wise choices. And I wanted to know how the experiences of inner peace and happiness that came to me in moments of spiritual inspiration could become steady instead of fleeting.
Early on my spiritual practice journey, I had many experiences of going to a worship service, a yoga class, a meditation retreat, a seminar, or even a pilgrimage and being so inspired that I felt ready to change my life. My heart and mind were peaceful; I was filled with a sense of higher purpose and spiritual presence. I would come away with a commitment to be a better person. I declared I would make wiser choices. I would be kinder, more compassionate, less selfish, and more generous. Yes, I will do that! I will love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and my neighbor as myself. I would plan to have a daily practice, get up an hour earlier, meditate longer, be more patient with my children, and be kinder to everyone.
I was absolutely sincere with my intentions and an abject failure in carrying them out.
After a while, I became suspicious of the pattern and knew I needed a more effective strategy—so I wouldn't lose my balance whenever the winds of change blew my way. I needed a living faith, not just momentary spiritual experiences. I needed to learn how to walk steadily in the world with inspiration, clarity, wisdom, and compassion.
What was going on?
Spiritual practice prepares us to live in the world with wisdom and compassion. Learning how to do that is both an art and a science. We study the science and develop insights and clarity. We master the art of living by participating in daily life with faith and dedication.
I had not yet developed the skills to bring the art and the science of spiritually conscious together.
When we study Vedic teachings, we learn that we are that Supreme Consciousness. We are expressions of the one Reality that is God, and that is our true nature. We are That, and our vehicle for expressing ourselves in the world is the body-mind. Here's the critical insight that I was missing: they don't always agree. Soul, mind, and body may be at odds. And the mind itself has several components that can disagree or not be aligned.
When we decide what we are going to do, we need to discern what part of us is making that decision.
Usually, when we are inspired by a higher idea or purpose, our intellect, or buddhi, the function of the mind that is the faculty of discernment, says yes! Great idea. Let's get up an hour earlier every day to meditate. Absolutely.
The next morning, we remember it's winter. It's cold, and when the alarm goes off, the body says no way. The thinking mind, or sense mind, says we're too tired; we didn't get enough sleep. Then buddhi, our intellect, which was initially inspired, becomes clouded and enrolls in the program of the sense mind. Buddhi changes its tune and makes up reasons why staying in bed is a better idea! Our mind will cite current research about how essential it is to have a full 7 hours of sleep for health and longevity.
It's not because we weren't inspired or sincere or had insufficient willpower. We just failed to get everybody on board with the plan, so to speak.
We tend to overestimate the power of our discernment and underestimate the power of the senses and the sense mind. Swami Sarvapriyananda (from the Vedanta Center in New York) talked about this challenge and referred to the intellect as being like the mahout who guides an elephant with a little stick. It only works to turn the elephant with a little stick if it's where the elephant wants to go.
This lack of understanding of the power of the senses is an age-old human fallibility. Many scriptures point it out.
In his letter to the Romans (7:15), St. Paul wrote: I don't understand what I am doing. For I don't practice what I want to do, but instead do what I hate.
Here's what we find in the Bhagavad Gita :
2.67 When the mind runs after the roving senses, it carries away the understanding, even as a wind carries away a ship on the waters.
2.66 For the uncontrolled, there is no intelligence; nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration and for one without concentration, there is no peace and for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?
2.64-2.65 A person of disciplined mind, who moves among the objects of sense, with the senses under control and free from attachment and aversion, that one attains purity of spirit. And in that purity of spirit, there is an end of all sorrow; the intelligence of such a person of pure spirit is soon established (in the peace of the Self).
Spiritual practice prepares us to live in the world with wisdom and compassion. Learning how to do that is an art and a science. We study the science and develop insights and clarity. We master the art of living through participating in life every day with faith and dedication.
Spirituality as a science is understanding what we are as spiritual beings, what the mind is, and how the body and mind operate.
The art of spirituality is putting that knowledge into practice. It is learning how to change the mind. Calm the sense mind by reducing selfish desires. Purify the intellect so it can guide our thoughts, speech, and actions in the highest way (without wavering).
When I go out for my morning walk, I watch people walk their dogs (or dogs walk their people). The other day I saw a beautiful dog walking next to its owner with no leash but absolutely right alongside, in perfect pace with complete, undistracted focus. When the owner stopped at the curb and made a simple hand movement, the dog stopped. Then with the next hand gesture, the dog proceeded to cross the street with her. When I got closer, I saw a small pouch on the owner's hip. It was a little stash of dog treats she was judiciously handing out as rewards. Walk, treat. Stop, treat.
How do we walk in the world with steady wisdom and compassion? We train the mind for it. And we practice.
Religious and spiritual traditions emphasize the significance of spiritual practice for training the wild elephant or puppy mind (the sense mind). Daily practices such as meditation and contemplative prayer are regularly at the top of the list. We have to train. Practice. Help the mind along.
Saying of the Buddha from the Dhammapada:
My own mind used to wander wherever pleasure or desire or lust led it. But now I have it tamed, I guide it, as the keeper guides the wild elephant. 
From the perspective of the ancient practice of Kriya Yoga, meditation trains the mind to focus and purifies its restless nature. It also provides an opening to the direct experience of the divine Self--the reality of God within and around us. Repeated experiences of that reality are the treat.
We realize we are not walking alone thru this world, solely trying to make our way through our own efforts. That One Reality (called God) is guiding and supporting us each step of the way.
 Versions after translations from S. Radhakrishnan, Harper Torchbooks, 1948.
 Thomas Byrom, trans., The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Budha (New York: Vintage, 1976), 122
© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian