Discover the three gifts of grace outlined by Adi Shankara, essential for spiritual awakening and conscious living.
Adi Shankara's teachings on the three gifts of grace provide a profound roadmap to spiritual awakening and a life imbued with divine consciousness.
In The Crest Jewel of Discrimination, the great sage Adi Shankara wrote about three gifts of grace or three things in life that are needed for spiritual awakening and are very difficult to attain.
What do we need to live a spiritually conscious life? Clarity and focused determination.
Paramahansa Yogananda said his teacher, Sri Yukteswar, would often say: “The boat that carries souls across the river of delusion is ready to depart. Who will go? Who will go? If no one goes, I will go!” Such unwavering determination is what we need. Divine grace blesses us with three gifts that make it possible.
The first gift of grace Adi Shankara mentions is taking birth as a human being. Life as a human being with the body, brain, and nervous system offering us the capacity to awaken is nothing short of miraculous. To be able to observe the mind, reflect on our choices, discern and imagine possibilities, and move attention and awareness beyond sensory input and thought to experience our essential spiritual nature is a rare gift of grace. Think of all the life forms on this planet—billions of them! And we have been blessed with a precious human body as a vehicle for enlightenment.
I remember becoming self-aware as a child, seeing my reflection in the mirror, and thinking, “Whoa! Who is That? How did this happen? What am I doing here?” Then looking around at my family with a similar thought: Who are they, and what are they doing here?
To be conscious in a human body and mind with its great potential for experience, reflection, discernment, and ultimately, enlightenment is a blessing indeed.
The second gift of grace that Shankara mentions is the yearning for liberation. This yearning is the soul’s innate desire to express its unbounded nature and live without limitation. When consciously in touch with our longing for the highest freedom, we embark on the spiritual path and seek to awaken fully. A quote in the Bhagavad Gita says only one person in one thousand truly seeks, and of those, hardly anyone succeeds.
Who cares to seek for that perfect freedom?
One person, perhaps, in many thousands.
Then tell me how many of those who seek freedom
Shall know the total Truth of my being?
Perhaps one only. (ch 7.3 Sw. Prabhavananda trans.)
Regarding this verse, my guru, Roy Eugene Davis, would say: This is good news! I wondered how that could be good news. It didn’t sound very encouraging to me. He would explain: This is good news because it shows it is possible. If it is possible for one person, then it is possible for you. And you must think of yourself as the one who succeeds.
He once asked his guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, “How many of the saints you wrote about in Autobiography of a Yogi are now liberated?” Paramahansaji replied, “Not many. Because most saints are content to stay with the experience of bliss. But you must go “all the way” to liberation. He was pointing out that even the heavenly perception of bliss is temporary; therefore, we should seek that which is unchanging, beyond even blissful states of consciousness. He added to his admonition to “go all the way” the encouraging words, “and you can.”
As we reflect on why more people don’t experience the reality of God, several apparent factors exist. Top of the list is that not many people are actually interested in Self- and God-realization. Many people are simply preoccupied with everyday needs and wants. When we look around at family, community, and the world at large, we can see the strength of the Gita verse’s assertion: one in one thousand sincerely seeks.
And then there is distraction—a prevalent obstacle! It seems we do not have time to devote to spiritual study or practice. Our preoccupation with personal concerns, interests, problems, circumstances, and relationships supersede our interest in spiritual matters. Lahiri Mahasaya, an enlightened sage in this Kriya Yoga tradition, who was married, had five children, and worked a full-time job, said: It is not true that you do not have time for God-realization.
Both lack of knowledge and conflicting beliefs can also be a barrier. Even when we are interested in enlightenment, we may lack knowledge about what it is or insight into how to proceed. We may hold beliefs that conflict with our deepest desire to realize God, such as thinking God cannot be known, should not be known, or that it is not possible for us. Other obstacles we may face are emotional unrest, mental confusion, delusions, addictions, self-defeating attitudes, and unwise behaviors. Spiritual practice can facilitate healing from these obstacles, restore health and wellness, and support realization.
As we recognize the precious gift of a human body as our vehicle for enlightenment and become aware of our yearning for liberation, what else do we need?
Our yearning for liberation must be beyond mild interest in spiritual matters. We need to be steadfast, consistent, and determined. That awareness brings us to the third thing on Shankara’s list of what is difficult to attain.
The third gift of grace is the protective care of an awakened sage or the support system of a spiritual teacher and a path. If you are aware of your yearning for liberation but do not yet have a spiritual teacher, there is no need to worry or start a search. Because all three gifts flow from divine grace, you will find a teacher at the right time.
All of these precious opportunities are indications of the activity of divine grace at work in your life. Awareness of the opportunity we have in this lifetime, the support that we have, combined with insight into the fleeting nature of time is a strong motivation. And through it all, recognizing the presence of divine grace.
Spiritual awakening is learning to cooperate with the Infinite and its gifts of grace. It is letting go of self-will and opening to divine will. It is allowing ourself to live a grace-filled life.
The teachings, the teacher, and the spiritual community are all a refuge from being lost in a world of dissatisfaction. Paramahansa Yogananda’s teacher, Sri Yukteswar would often say, “The boat that caries souls across the river of delusion is ready to depart. Who will go? Who will go? If no one goes, I will go!” Such unwavering determination is the way.
A lack of attunement to God and our guru—to our true Self, can turn our life into a burden. When that occurs, our precious human life becomes weighted down with tasks, distractions, work, or burdens.
Spiritually conscious living is letting that go. It is releasing that sense of burden and finding the peace and bliss of the divine life of the soul. It’s a different way to live, a different orientation to life.
Jesus said: Come unto me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke (i.e., yoga, my discipline) upon you. Learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28)
This is the invitation of the guru. Come to this higher state of consciousness. It will transform your life. The guru introduces us to our divine Self, shows us how to live harmoniously in the world, and find liberation.
Living our eternal life, we live in the world as the divine soul that we are, awake to the reality of God as our life. To be immersed in That, in Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, all the while performing our duties. When that is our way of life, we recognize that divine grace comes to meet us in every situation.
Lahiri Mahasaya said: Forget your past suffering and troubles. If you set your mind on self-realization and work towards your spiritual upliftment, you will receive immense benefits. Keep doing everything with an eye on God and guru. Inherent in that is your good, since atma or your soul is your real guru. Those who surrender everything to God while continuing on the path reap immediate dividends.
All three gifts of grace, human birth, desire for a spiritually awakened life, and availability of a true spiritual teacher are difficult to attain. When we have all three, the question is whether we are aware of our precious, rare opportunity. Are we willing to honor that opportunity?
The boat that carries souls across the river of delusion is ready to depart. Who will go? Who will go?
© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian