Before we embark on a spiritual path, we must prepare to do so.
Written in relation to meditation, there is a classic meditation manual by the great eighth-century scholar Kamalashila that is surprisingly relevant today.
His Stages of Meditation elucidates six conditions, or advice, to be considered before beginning practice.
It directs the secular meditator to consider “practice” in a more holistic context, wherein adjustments to one’s worldview, attitude, and lifestyle are as important as the state of mind cultivated through practice and the technical instructions on how to meditate.
Interestingly, with the onset of climate change, Kamalashila’s advice for contemplation could be adopted by those hoping to live more sustainably on our planet.
The six conditions are:
(1) Seek a conducive environment.
(2) Live simply with few needs.
(3) Be satisfied with what you have.
(4) Avoid being too busy.
(5) Live an ethical life.
(6) Give up pleasure-driven pursuits.
(1) Seek a Conducive Environment
Anyone who thinks their external environment plays no part in internal well-being need only sit in a cathedral or temple, or gaze at a sunset.
Kamalashila lists the elements of a suitable atmosphere for meditation as safety; food and clothing; freedom from disease, malevolent forces, and toxic people; access to friendship with like-minded, well-intentioned people; and quiet with few distractions.
Safety is primary—without it, the nervous system can never fully process information, learn, and evolve. It follows that we’d want to be physically comfortable and supported by a like-minded community.
When it comes to finding a suitable place to meditate, it might not be possible to go on retreat, but whether it’s your local dharma center or a corner of your bedroom, the environment influences the mind, so begin to envision and create a sacred space.
(2) Live Simply with Few Needs
This is the heart of the dilemma between a contemplative culture, in which simplicity and minimalism are cornerstones of well-being, and our consumerist culture, in which we are addicted to chasing the high of accumulating but are suffocated by all our stuff.
“Live simply” is not a recommendation to return to a hunter-gatherer society; that’s neither realistic nor necessary, but modern life could be radically improved if we adopted an ethos of simplicity, particularly if we hope to benefit from meditation and proceed along a spiritual path.
Part of the shift asks us to discern between what we need versus what we want, and then to work with our impulses of greed, yearning, and fear that drive us to thoughtless consumption.
(3) Be Satisfied with What You Have
In Western culture we’re influenced by media and commercials that prey on our fantasies and insecurities, convincing us that if we buy the right car, go on vacation, or meet the right partner, we’ll be happy. When it doesn’t work out, we are offered new enticements.
Conversely, Buddhist science sees inner satisfaction as a basic capacity or skill of the mind that can be developed through introspective practice independent of external circumstance.
By systematically turning attention inward and cultivating emotional balance, we can consciously recalibrate the nervous system toward safety and gratitude and away from its negativity bias.
As we exercise this shift, we become less preoccupied by what we lack and more focused on appreciating what we have, savoring while letting go, and can redirect our inner resources to meditative, eudaemonic (flourishing by way of pursuing virtue), altruistic pursuits.
(4) Avoid Being Too Busy
Digital overload, time-is-money multitasking, bigger-is-better culture, and how we’ve come to be ashamed of not being busy are ways we diminish our psychic inner space, distracting us at best and overwhelming us at worst.
We stay busy as a pain-avoidance strategy, to tune out our inner doubts that we are worthless, unlovable, and alone, and that the world is unsafe. Busyness is an addiction like any other—an impulse of escape—yet it is prized, privileged, and reinforced in modern culture.
The sickness of paradigm underpinning consumer capitalism, materialism, and nihilism keeps us in an orbit of self-perpetuating dissatisfaction and compulsive fear, robbing us of the inner space to access our inherent goodness, which can only be found when we shift from doing to being.
(5) Live an Ethical Life
The interrelationship between karmic causality, ethical actions, and psychological liberation will grow apparent as we progress on our spiritual journey.
Our actions—lifestyle—cannot be isolated from our life and how we feel, see, experience, and relate to the world and the people in it. We are all interconnected.
When you enter a traditional ashram or meditation center, you are asked up-front to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, being sexually inappropriate, and clouding your mind with intoxicants.
There is an assumption that the way we live either supports or contradicts our aspiration for well-being and liberation.
As we become disciplined and restrain hedonic impulses, we grow sensitive and concerned about our actions, which has a positive effect on our state of mind, abating lethargy, restlessness, grasping, hostility, and self-doubt.
As these afflictions subside, greater perceptual clarity becomes possible—like water in which the sediment settles when the glass is no longer agitated.
That clarity fosters insight into the nature of things—or awakening—making ethics not only relevant to mental well-being but a critical foundation.
From the Buddhist perspective, an ethical life is not about blind faith within the dogma of religion, rather it’s the rational outgrowth of consequential thinking within a psychologically minded culture.
(6) Give Up Pleasure-Driven Pursuits
The ancient Greek Stoics distinguished between two orienting ambitions in life: hedonia and eudaemonia.
Hedonia involves a life propelled by what Sigmund Freud named the “pleasure principle”—often involving indulgence and gratification of the five senses.
Eudaemonia is the pursuit of virtue, meaning, and purpose, each for their own sake, which leads to a flourishing of the mind.
Consider what it would look and feel like to be driven not by pleasure but purpose, finding meaning and satisfaction in living a good life for its inherent worth.
During my trips to India I was humbled to meet people of limited finances—rickshaw drivers, cooks, and tailors—who derive satisfaction from treating their customers well and performing their service with dignity, in contrast to the wealthy and often miserable CEOs I’ve encountered in my therapy practice who have confused wealth with happiness.
We must go beyond capitalism, scientism, and nihilism if we want to reconnect with spirit and pursue meditation [and a spiritual path] the way it was intended—for the development and liberation of consciousness.
Source: Excerpted and lightly adapted (to suit the context of this website) from Neale, Miles. Gradual Awakening. Sounds True. Kindle Edition.