There are two things that guide our way of life. The first one is Divine Grace and the second one, yet the most important one is our karmic imprints. Divine Grace will not wipe out the existing karma; however future karmas will not accrue. Divine Grace is possible only when we surrender unto the Divine through our mind. There are certain practices to reach the goal of our lives, Liberation or cessation from transmigration. Living is always painful to everyone. Difficulties and challenges will come from any source. Neither happiness nor sadness is perennial. Most of the times, they will take turn to be with us. This is how karma acts. Now the question arises about the purpose of following spiritual path. When we are praying day in and day out to God, why He makes us to suffer. Sufferings are due to our karmic account and prayers have nothing to do with experiencing our accrued karmas. What we had sown, so we have to reap.
There is a distinct differentiation between religious life and spiritual life. Former is related to body and mind and latter is related to prāna (breathing), mind and consciousness. Religious life is always associated with the material world. For example, performing puja, yajña, etc. They are called ritualistic worship, where we have to use both our body and mind. Here mind is active. On the other hand, in spiritual life, mind is to be quietened down though prāna, which gives us access to purest consciousness. The purest form of consciousness is Brahman. (Conscience is different from consciousness.)
Transformation from ritualistic path to spiritual path is difficult, as we are used to these kinds of worships for a long time. However, ritualistic path is absolutely necessary for a strong spiritual path. Ritualistic path lays strong foundation for perfect spiritual path by inculcating certain dos and don’ts. Based on one’s exposure to ritualistic path, one puts his or her step forward towards the Divine by entering into spiritual path. All Upaniṣad-s, philosophies and Vedānta teach spiritual path. Though the goal is same (Liberation), there are many paths to the destination. In general, following are the steps in spiritual path.
1. Spiritual path begins under the guidance of a teacher or spiritual guide, who is often called as Guru. Without a Self-realized Guru, moving forward in spiritual life will be too confusing. First step in this direction is initiation of a mantra. There should be only one mantra and too many mantras will cause confusion resulting in stagnation. All gods are same and this is the first thing that should be understood in spiritual path. This is what Upaniṣad-s and Vedānta reveal. In the initial stages, a devata is visualised with a particular form. This is only to improve the level of our dhāraṇa (intense concentration of the mind upon some object).
2. Immediately after initiation, the initiated mantra is chanted with a murmur with lip movements. This is necessary to ensure proper pronunciation of the mantra. A mantra loses its potency if it is pronounced improperly. First, a japa mālā is used and the number of repetitions are counted. Later on, when one becomes conversant with the mantra, japa mālā is dispensed with and he or she starts mental recitation. Concertation at this stage is fixed on either on the mantra or on the devata.
Each bījākṣara causes subtle vibrations in our psychic body and combination of various bījākṣara-s cause movement of energy from lower parts of our body to the upper part of our body.
3. When the intensity of vibration is profoundly felt, dhāraṇa on the form of devata is shifted to the vibration. We have to note here that form of devata is unreal and the feeling of energy is real and is experienced. This is a crucial state. There will be a confusion in this stage as to where to concentrate – on the mantra, or on the devata or on the vibration at the forehead. This stage has to be divided into three parts and each part can approximately vary from 15 days to a month or even more, according to intensity of practice. In the first part, mantra is to be concentrated. This is the period where one should attempt to align his or her breath with the mantra. When mantra and breath are synchronised, mantra is embedded in our subconscious mind and this is the stage where the mantra is made to repeat in the mind perpetually. In the second stage, mental rendition of the mantra enables us to focus on the form of devata more profoundly. After the mantra is made to sync with breath, we should consciously attempt to slow down our breathing rate. All these combinations cause subtle vibrations at our forehead area and over a period of time, this vibration is more intensified, which makes us to fix our attention here. During this time, our concentration on the form of devata wanes away. This is the stage when mind gradually gets detached from the material world. That is, we are not disturbed by external sound and bodily discomforts. Now meditation is triggered automatically, without our conscious efforts.
4. From this point onwards, we are not associated with any form of devata. We learn that God is omnipresent and there is no need for us to seek Him outside our body. Now with this in our minds, we begin to mediate using various techniques as advised by Guru. During this stage, our mind is purged of all impurities and as a result, our consciousness (awareness) also becomes pure. The purest form of consciousness is God. Mind is the cause of māyā and when the mind is pure, obviously we reach the Self within. Here again, there are many stages and these stages are nothing but the intensity of meditation which leads to samādhi, known as trance. During samādhi we become one with the Self within and regain our consciousness after sometime. From this point onward, no Guru is needed and Divine Force will take us over and lead to the end of our spiritual journey.
5. We have to always remember that first we have to understand and realize māyā, only then the Self within can be realized. Divine Force or māyā is known as Śakti and the Self within is known as Shiva. To put it in other way, unless Śakti is realized, Shiva cannot be realized.
6. During meditative sessions, we have to keep away from lamps and incense sticks, as they will affect the quality of prāna. It is not necessary that one should sit on the floor and meditate. One can sit on a chair or a couch. If one is resting his or her back against the wall, there should be a pillow between the wall and the spine.
7. Guru’s guidance and instructions overrides every other thing.