The Most Important Thing

Linda Johnsen, M.S., is the award winning author of Daughters of the Goddess: The Woman Saints of India, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hinduism, and six other books on spiritual traditions. This article was initially printed in the American Meditation Institute's (AMI) Jan-Feb, 2014, magazine Transformation  and is reprinted here with kind permission of the AMI. Please see AMI's website at

What is the single most important thing in spiritual life?

The Most Important ThingEvery yoga teacher I ask has a different answer. Some say bhakti, all-consuming devotion to God. Others say don't obsess so much about God, focus on seva, selfless service to humanity instead. Another answer I've gotten is satsang, which means spending as much time as possible with saints and sages, or at the very least with other people who're also sincerely on the spiritual path. This keeps you inspired so you're more likely to be conscientious about your spiritual practices.

Swami Rama of the Himalayas completely surprised me with his answer to the question. He said nothing is more important in spiritual life than viveka, discriminating intelligence. Huh? Viveka means the ability to tell what's of lasting value and what's just a temporary fix. It helps you distinguish between real and unreal, true or false, what's genuinely helpful and what's enjoyable but ultimately self-destructive.

All of us watch our friends and family members struggle with a lack of discriminating awareness. There's the uncle who loves to be sociable but doesn't realize he alienates everyone when he drinks too much. There's the mother who believes her kids feel loved when she indulges their every whim. She doesn't recognize that their incessant demand for instant gratification and the resulting lack of self-discipline will serve them poorly when they go out into the world. Being clear and honest with oneself could prevent so much grief! But stubborn clinging to bad ideas -- and the need to interpret every circumstance in life in a way that flatters our ego -- can cloud our judgment.

It's so easy to delude ourselves! My friend Marie was madly in love with a handsome yoga student named Greg. Every time they passed each other in the hall at the local yoga center she sensed an unmistakable spark of magic between them. She couldn't understand why he didn't ask her out.

Well, I knew the reason -- it was because he was secretly engaged to Peggy, with whom he was madly in love. Marie's existence barely registered in his awareness. Greg and Peg had sworn me to secrecy so I couldn't tell Marie the truth, and all my subtle attempts to suggest that perhaps Greg simply wasn't interested in her -- that she was just imagining he was attracted to her -- fell on deaf ears. It's incredibly hard to listen to good advice when we don't want to!

All of us have had a crush on someone at one point or another, mistakenly believing the feelings might be reciprocated. This is called moha in Sanskrit, meaning a sort of delusory infatuation. We are hit by Cupid's arrow (in India they'd say by Kama's flowery darts) and our ability to see the situation realistically is shot to pieces.

But there are far more serious ways in which we subvert ourselves when we can't see life with clarity. Most people naively mistake their own opinions for reality, never stopping to evaluate whether the "certainties" on which they build their lives are actually true. We constantly get in our own way by confusing our personal biases with God's will, when the deity we're really serving is our own egotism. "What my political party says is always right; what yours claims is always wrong." "I have the right to force my religious beliefs on you because I know what God wants and you don't." "Alternative medical modalities are always better than modern Western medicine, which is totally evil" or "Modern Western medicine is always right and people who experiment with alternative treatments are nuts." Life is rarely so black or white; reality usually lives in the gray zone in between.

Heeding the Inner Guru

In India, saints and sages have always been valued for their ability to arbitrate between delusion and reality. These gurus' years of meditation and non-attachment give them a higher perspective that cuts decisively through their students' wrongheaded thought processes. The guru has earned the spiritual authority to speak bluntly to erring souls in a way family and friends cannot -- everyone knows the guru is objective and has no ulterior motive when offering advice.

Historically, Indian rajas had spiritual advisors who were allowed, without penalty, to criticize them, speaking truth to power, when they made serious errors of judgment. Also, on those rare occasions when a fully self-realized yogi arrived at his court, the king was obliged to rise from his throne and bow before the saint, who was his superior in discriminating intelligence. Counsel from such a wise adept was more valuable than the kingdom itself.

It's very easy -- whether you're a king or a commoner -- to see other people's shortcomings, but it's incredibly difficult to be honest with oneself about one's own faults. My friend Holly is the living stereotype of "the little old lady" behind the steering wheel: she drives 35 in the 55 mph zone. She's completely oblivious to the quarter mile backup of irate drivers who aren't able to pass her safely on the winding roads in our county. But if she's in a hurry and the driver in front of her is going beneath the speed limit, she's so angry she spits fire. Don't we all have a problem recognizing that often the things we criticize others for, we're guilty of ourselves? I flinch when I hear people speaking about others in a petty way, but don't flinch enough when I catch myself doing it! A guru figure can provide the insight we lack about our own attitudes and behavior. Because we respect him or her so much, we take their comments seriously, rather than self-servingly dismissing them.

The problem of course is that not all of us are fortunate enough to have an enlightened mentor living nearby. We need to cultivate our own viveka, our discriminating awareness, so we can find our way through the morass of our confused understanding. We do this through regular, focused meditation, which helps us expand the part of our mind that's self-aware. As our self-insight broadens, we're no longer constantly driven by unconscious habits and untested assumptions. We start paying full attention to what we're saying, doing and thinking, keeping a firm hand on the steering wheel of our mind.

In this manner we begin to veer away from a neurotic engagement with the world characterized by constant worry, unfulfilled craving, and inevitable bitter disappointment. We can be more realistic about what this troubled world has to offer us, and shift our focus to what we can offer the world.

Studying the scriptures of our tradition and carefully applying its precepts to our own behavior is also a practical way to hone our discrimination.

Coming to Grips with Reality

"Lead me from the unreal to the real," begins a 5,000 year-old Vedic prayer. This sacred text is not about seeing through our romantic fantasies or consciously observing highway speed limits. It's about igniting our discrimination so we can blossom spiritually. The second line goes, "Lead me from darkness to light." Ultimately it's about dying as a free and illumined soul. The third line concludes, "Lead me from death to immortality."

In the Vedic tradition immortality means that at death our soul is free to take another body, to abandon embodied life altogether, or to attain a vastly expanded state of consciousness that both contains and transcends the material cosmos. Typically we get so caught up in the minutia of our daily lives that we forget there are larger possibilities for those of us who deepen our experience of spirit. But to consciously direct our afterlife we need to be serious about spiritual awakening right now. That means being particular about how we focus our attention -- on things that we'll lose the day we die (or even sooner), or on skills and qualities we'll need not just in this life but in our lives to come. Serenity, wisdom, compassion -- these make better travel companions in the long run than fame or fortune. There is a lot we need to do to survive and thrive in this body, but viveka reminds us not to forget bigger picture. The soul's life is far, far longer than that of the body, and its needs are neglected at our peril.

India's great epic, the Mahabharata, notes that the biggest mistake we make is assuming that we won't die, at least not for a very, very long time. Having done hospice work, I've been amazed at how some people, even hours from death, remain in denial about the impending reality. Because we don't believe death is imminent, we're not in a rush to prepare for it. We ignore our discriminating intelligence when it prompts us to make spirituality a larger part of our lives, to turn our focus from the unreal to the real.

The Vedic tradition claims that mankind experiences four great ages, a first of relative ease and happiness, a second, shorter one of some increasing difficulty, a third and still briefer era of serious problems, and a fourth and by far the shortest (the age we're in now) where the world order completely collapses. This is a metaphor for each individual human life. In our childhood an aeon seemed to pass between one Christmas and the next. By the time we reach old age, the years whiz by so fast we've barely finished wrapping Christmas presents for our grandchildren before it's time to go Christmas shopping again. It's said that at the point of death, one's entire life seems to have flashed by in a split second.

This is the reality we close our eyes to. Swami Rama urged us to use our discrimination to put this physical life in the broader context of spiritual existence. We need to recognize that in order to become free from unhappiness and fear we must become enlightened, and to strive day and night toward that illustrious goal. Discriminating intelligence helps us find an appropriate and fulfilling career path, choose friends and partners who will support the best in us, and make healthy lifestyle decisions. But most importantly, it helps us understand that this universe is impermanent, our time in our present body is limited, and that to face death freely and fearlessly tomorrow, we must expand our experience of a higher reality today.


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