Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

Spiritual Reading

By Eknath Easwaran

On the spiritual path, we all need the human companionship of others following the same disciplines. But we also need transcendent companionship. The highest form of spiritual association is with someone who embodies our highest ideals and aspirations, someone we want to be like in every possible way. It might be Jesus or the Compassionate Buddha; it might be a great saint like Sri Ramakrishna, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, or Thérèse of Lisieux.

In the Indian tradition, the human soul in its search for God is represented as a beautiful woman named Radha who is always meditating on Sri Krishna. When the Lord appears to her one day, Radha is so overwhelmed that she tells him, “I love you so much, I meditate upon you so passionately, that one day I am going to become you!” And Sri Krishna replies delightfully, “Radha, I love you so much and think about you so much that the day you become Krishna, I am going to become Radha.”

This is the real principle of satsang: we become like those we love. If I can in any way account for the small measure of spiritual awareness that has come to me, the only explanation I can offer is that I loved my spiritual teacher, my mother’s mother, so deeply that I made it possible for her to convey to me a small part of her awareness of God. Today, in a very small way, I have become like her – not because of any special virtues I might have had, but because I loved her so utterly that I absorbed some of her consciousness through a kind of spiritual osmosis. In this sense, spiritual awareness is not taught; it is caught.

This does not require a physical presence. Jesus, the Buddha, great sages and saints like Sri Ramakrishna, Mahatma Gandhi, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, all continue to guide us. They are not dead. Their bodies are gone, but their spirit moves about freely in the world, helping those who turn to them with a unified heart. Similarly, my teacher is much more real to me today than she was when I was a child. And for Francis and Teresa, Jesus was a friend with whom they conversed intimately, just as Sri Ramakrishna did with the Divine Mother.

Even for people like you and me, luminous figures like these in every religion can be living companions – much more real, much more influential, than flesh and blood friends whose lives are scattered. By reading about them, thinking about them, meditating on their words, we can bring their presence into our daily lives.

Whenever our confidence ebbs – for most of us as frequently as the ebbing of the sea – we can turn to the words of these men and women of God and renew our hearts, draw fresh breath, and bring back into sight our supreme goal. Their trials put our obstacles into perspective, and their triumphs give us courage. We see just what we can be as human beings: our capacity to choose, to change, to endure, to know, to love, to radiate spiritual glory. Personally, I never tire of reading these precious documents. How blessed it is to be in the holy presence of a Saint Teresa or a Sri Ramakrishna!

Read Widely, but Distinguish Between Inspiration and Instruction 

The treasures of mysticism can be found in all religions, and we should not confine ourselves to the tradition most familiar to us. No one age, no one people, no one persuasion has any monopoly on spiritual wisdom; the prize is there, and always has been, for any man or woman who cares and dares to look for it. Of course, whichever mystic we turn to, we will meet the same truths, because the mystical experience is everywhere the same. There is only one supreme reality, and there can be only one union with it. But the language, tradition, mode of expression, and cultural flavor will differ. In this lies the beauty of spiritual literature: on the one hand it reflects the fascinating diversity of life; on the other, the unchanging principles that stand behind that diversity, irrespective of time and place.

And if you want to know the mystical tradition, don’t rely on books about the mystics; go directly to the great mystics themselves. A scholarly presentation may have its place, but personal testimonies are infinitely more helpful.

Here, however, it is helpful to draw a practical distinction. On the one hand, there are books we read primarily for inspiration. They can be glorious, we need them, but taken together they encompass diverse ideas, disciplines, and methods of meditation. If we try to follow the exact letter of what we read – say, this week the Hasidic masters, next week Saint Anthony – we will be dancing and singing for seven days and living on bread and water for the next seven. So the other kind of spiritual reading I call instructional – the works which actually bring us the detailed advice of our spiritual teacher. We should draw freely on the classics of all great mystical traditions for inspiration, but this should never take the place of reading and rereading the instructions we are trying to follow in our daily lives.

Read Our Books for Instruction

Sometimes, when I look back over the books I have written, I think how much easier it would have been for me if such books had been available when I was learning to meditate. And that is why I have written them. Our book on meditation, for example – I would have given anything to have this kind of guide at hand to answer my questions, and there was nothing like it available. It would have helped me so much!

All my books have been written for the same basic reason: to support those who are trying to put this eight-point program into practice. They are written entirely from personal experience, both in following this program myself and in teaching it in this country for more than twenty-five years.

All of my books are practical, and their sole purpose is to help readers make their highest ideals a part of their daily lives. You can find many writers on spiritual topics who present theories, speculations, opinions, or beliefs. Some of these books are scholarly, and valuable in their own right. But I write only about the actual practice of spiritual disciplines, and you can be confident that if I recommend something, I have been doing it myself for many, many years and have seen it work, not only in my own life but in the lives of thousands of people whom I have taught. Over the years, I have become intimately familiar with the difficulties and challenges people experience as their meditation deepens, and my books anticipate their questions. 

Read Slowly, and Reflect

Even an ordinary book, of course, is not complete without a reader. A great book, coming from the depths of one person’s consciousness, has little or nothing to say to a superficial reading. It needs to speak to depth: “deep calleth unto deep.”

Books chosen from the annals of mysticism should be read slowly and well. We are not after information, but understanding and inspiration. Take in a little every day, reflect on it, and then try to practice what you have learned. In spiritual reading, too, it takes time to assimilate the truths we meet. Far better to read a few books and make them your own than to read many books quickly and superficially. 

I have found spiritual reading especially beneficial after evening meditation. When I have finished, I go to bed and repeat the mantram until I fall asleep in it. The reason for this sequence is simple: what we put into consciousness in the evening goes with us into sleep. If we use this valuable time to fill our mind with agitating stuff from books, movies, or television shows, that is what we will see and hear in our dreams. On the other hand, if we follow this nightly sequence of meditation, spiritual reading, and repetition of the mantram, our dreams will gradually reflect an evening wisely spent. We will grow in patience, security, wisdom even while we sleep.

I suggest, then, that you include half an hour’s reading every day, preferably at night. If this is not possible, have fifteen minutes. Probably you will soon want more time for such reading. It will become something you hunger for – rather like your dinner, which I am sure you don’t care to miss.

This excerpt is from the Blue Mountain Journal Spring 2016.