One of the nice examples of rich symbolism that can be found in Yoga teaching is the comparison of spiritual growth with the growth of plants that in their maturity produce sweet smelling flowers. Some people may think that this example is overly naïve and simplistic, but sometimes simple is the best way to go. So it is proved with the example of the flower – a simple story, but one that is full of meaning.
What do we need to grow the flowers of spiritual life in our hearts? Just like ordinary flowers, we need well fertilised soil, a seed, regular watering, someone to take care of any weeds, and also we need to protect the plant carefully. If the seed is planted in well fertilized soil, then that gives the best chance for strong growth. The seed can be understood to be spiritual desire and it develops from the point when we first hear about spirituality. If our hearts are soft and receptive, then the desire for spiritual growth can grow there very nicely, just like a seed will expand very nicely if it is planted soft warm soil.
Will any old spiritual seed suffice? In one sense – yes, but that is really a diplomatic answer. The reality is that different seeds have different potencies. Some seeds may appear to be very ‘spiritual’ on the outside, but internally they may have no real potency – they may be rotten or mouldy, or they may be seeds that produce a plant that does not yield flowers, or the plant may yield flowers that do not have a very nice scent. All these variables are facts of life, so before we open our hearts completely, we need to be as careful as we can to ensure that we receive a good quality seed.
In these modern times when the world is awash with the sellers of all kinds of so called ‘spiritual’ seeds, that may be a difficult task – but still, it’s not advisable to become completely cynical and close up our hearts altogether, as many people unfortunately do. Genuine spiritual potency exists in the world, and it is definitely possible for that potency to manifest and take root in our hearts. Do our hearts need to be perfectly soft and warm and receptive for this to happen? No. Just like a plant can sometimes be seen to be growing out of a rocky place where there is very little soil, so it is with spiritual growth. Even if our hearts are mostly very hard and cynical – if there is even a little bit of softness there, then the plant can still take root and grow.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t use that fact as an excuse for being lazy. We should try our best to create as much warm, soft and fertile soil as possible – so that our plant of spirituality has the best chance of establishing a strong root system. These are the plants that will thrive, while those that are grown in rocky ground cannot grow as strongly. Not only that, but they are more easily uprooted or blown away completely.
So then how can we create good ground for our spiritual plant to grow in? How can we make our hearts soft, warm and peaceful – as receptive as possible to spiritual influence? According to Yoga teaching there are four specific guidelines that we can follow in order to achieve this.
As we briefly mention them one by one, it will not be difficult to appreciate that these guidelines are no big secret or mystery – they are a matter of plain common sense. Another interesting point is that not only do they serve the purposes of people who are trying to grow spiritually, but they can also serve the purposes of people who are simply interested in a peaceful and hassle free material life. Of course there are limits in this regard. The fleeting nature of material life and happiness makes it so that even the very best case scenarios are always characterized by some degree of anxiety.
In any case, the first two guidelines can help us create a more stable and tranquil mental condition, while the third and fourth go even further by helping to soften our hearts. The first guideline is that we refrain from taking intoxicants. This is a very simple principle to appreciate and even many materialists are naturally inclined to follow it. We could go on and on, giving one example after another about the negative and destabilizing effects of various kinds of intoxicants – from the incoherent and boorish drunk, to the hallucinator who thinks he can fly, to the person who can’t get through the day without their particular type of fix, to the people who can’t function normally or communicate properly or even think straight – so many people have unfortunately handicapped themselves in one or other of these ways.
And of course ‘destabilizing’ is a nice way to put it. In many cases, the taking of intoxicants has proved to be absolutely destructive – both physically and mentally. In this way, both spiritualists and materialists (the ones who are a little perceptive at least) can appreciate that the taking of intoxicants, although sometimes glorified in modern culture, is actually a royal road to nowhere. A side point with regard to intoxicants is the question of exploitation. Do the people who sell the alcohol and the tobacco and the various other kinds of addictive substances really care about our happiness? Silly question – right? Of course they don’t. They all promise us bucket loads of happiness, but their real motive is that they simply want to hook us on their particular ‘product’, and they don’t really care about any negative consequences. Whether it be a legal product or an illegal one – this same mentality is behind the ‘pushing’ of the sale. Do we really want to support these exploitative people with our hard earned money?
In summary, we can say that by refraining from the taking of intoxicants, our mental clarity and peacefulness is more easily assured – and if we want to progress quickly in our meditation practice, we should understand that peacefulness and clarity are essential. In future posts, we will discuss the three other ways of creating the stable and fertile ground that are conducive for rapid spiritual growth, and we will also discuss some of the best ways to water and protect our spiritual garden.