I sometimes fall into a habit of thinking about spiritual matters in a black-and-white fashion. But the deeper I go into spiritual matters, the more I find it necessary to make finer and finer distinctions. Two distinctions are useful over (1) whether detachment is always a good thing and attachment always a bad thing and (2) whether enlightenment can actually be won by effort.
In the area of detachment, it isn’t useful to simply say that detachment is always good and attachment is always bad. There are things in life which are useful to attach to. As far as I’m concerned, Krishna made the clearest statement of one thing that can always be attached to with benefit:
“I am all that a man may desire
The law of his nature.” (1)
God is all that anyone can desire without incurring negative karma. If there are 360 degrees to the compass, only one degree can be followed without incurring a price and that degree is the one that points to God.
If life is a journey from God to God, and its bias leans towards anything that helps us to know God, then we can safely attach to those things that speed us on our journey of realization. Or we can attach to them for now and detach from them later when a more effective means arises to speed us on our way to God.
In the area of spirituality, attachment to God is usually called “devotion.” The three steps often recommended as both a good spiritual practice and a description of our overall journey through life can be summarized as: discriminate between the Real and the unreal, detach from the unreal, and devote yourself to the Real.
There are many paths to God. The path of devotion is known in Hinduism as Bhakti. It cleanses and purifies the individual and draws one to God by the Law of Attraction.
Krishna gave God’s promise to the follower of the path of devotion (and all of us seekers may find that we do follow it, to a greater or lesser extent, in this lifetime or another).
“Give me your whole heart,
Love and adore me,
Worship me always,
Bow to me only,
And you shall find me:
This is my promise
Who love you dearly.” (2)
On the second matter, I personally don’t believe that we win enlightenment as a result of our own spiritual efforts, practice, or sadhana. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to do sadhana to the extent that it would “win” us enlightenment.
If I were to set out from the West Coast of North America to travel by foot to the East Coast, I might at best make a few hundred miles with many thousands left to go. It’s probably not humanly possible to walk all the way, at least not in a reasonable amount of time.
Now suppose that an angel suddenly swooped down on me when I had walked all I could and transported me to the East Coast. That’s perhaps the only way I could make that journey.
I think our situation is like that with regard to enlightenment. We may take what amounts to steps towards God, and that may exhaust our total abilities, but God then crosses the equivalent of miles to close the distance.
Bernadette Roberts hints at this when she says: “At a certain point, when we have done all we can [to bring about an abiding union with the divine], the divine steps in and takes over.” (3) I think that exactly describes our situation.
Like Roberts, Sri Ramakrishna tells us that we must do all we can before God bestows grace on us: “A man does not have to suffer any more if God, in His Grace, removes his doubts and reveals Himself to him. But this grace descends upon him only after he has prayed to God with intense yearning of heart and practised spiritual discipline.” (4)
So we aren’t being urged to do superhuman spiritual practice because those efforts will win us enlightenment; we’re asked to do as much as we can before God bestows grace on us. The difference may sound slight, but I don’t think it is slight.
Moreover, as Brother Lawrence tells us, “the greater perfection a soul aspires after, the more dependent it is upon divine grace.” (5) Or as Sri Ramakrishna assures us: “Through His grace even the impossible becomes possible.” (6) Not only does it become possible, but I believe that it’s only possible through grace.
We hear description after description of enlightenment acknowledging that it’s by grace. Here are some examples:
Swami Sivananda Saraswati: “Worship of the Divine Mother with intense faith and perfect devotion and self-surrender will help you to attain Her grace. Through Her grace alone you can attain the knowledge of the Imperishable.” (9)
But, though we hear these statements repeatedly, I don’t think we fully comprehend that enlightenment is, if I’m correct, only attained by God’s grace.
So therefore it isn’t that we’re supposed to detach from everything; attachment to God is a very good thing. Devotion invites divine grace, which is the only means I know of through which enlightenment can be achieved.
(1) Sri Krishna in Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trans., Bhagavad-Gita. The Song of God. New York and Scarborough: New American Library, 1972; c1944, 71.
(2) Ibid., 129.
(3) Bernadette Roberts, “The Path to No-Self” in Stephan Bodian, ed. Timeless Visions, Healing Voices. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1991, 131.
(4) Paramahansa Ramakrishna in Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1978; c1942, 116.
(5) Attributed to Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1963 22.
(6) Paramahansa Ramakrishna in GSR, 293.
(7) Sri Ramana Maharshi, Maharshi’s Gospel. Books I and II. Being Answers of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi to Questions Put to Him by Devotees. Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam,1979; c1939, 37.
(8) Paramahansa Ramakrishna in Swami Prabhavananda, First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1987 , 82.
(9) Swami Sivananda Sarasvati in Swami Sivananda Radha, Kundalini Yoga for the West. Spokane: Timeless Books, 1978, 25-30.