Americans don't like to waste time. We've got so much going on all the time. Even children have incredibly busy lives. We live in a culture where we like to get things done fast! We don't like waiting around for anything.
On the freeways, we have "fast lanes" and "carpool" lanes. In the supermarkets, we have the "express check-out lanes" and, of course, we have our famous fast-food culture where food is served seconds after you're done paying for it. To facilitate our fast-paced culture, many establishments provide drive-thru windows, so you don't even have to get out of the car. These are just a few of the many examples that are out there.
Too often, our results-oriented mood also spills over into our spiritual practices. We want to get as much as possible, as quickly as possible, from as little commitment as possible. I pick up on this after the meditation sessions I lead where people get a glimpse into how unpredictable and completely scattered their minds are. Even though everyone tries their level best to keep the mind focused, the mind escapes to a thought, a plan, a conversation, or a fantasy without the individual even realizing that it went somewhere. This experience often inspires them to ask me, "How long did it take you to control your mind?" My response every single time is, "I'm still trying."
It seems as if we have a need to accomplish something. We're always trying to reach the finish line so that we can feel a sense of completion and move on to something else. However, meditation and spirituality are never quite like that. The other day, someone wrote me a question on Facebook: "What is the fastest way for one to remove one's bad karma?" I responded by saying, "I wish there was a fast way to burn off karma. The purpose of karma is not only to give us a reaction for our positive or negative actions, but also to teach us valuable lessons about life, our character and behavior, and our interactions with others. These things in life usually can't be rushed. Otherwise, we wouldn't learn from them."
There's a beautiful passage in the Puranic texts of Hinduism that wonderfully elucidates the method by which spiritual advancement is achieved:
"The highest devotion is attained by slow degrees, by the method of constant endeavor for self-realization with the help of scriptural evidence, theistic conduct and perseverance in practice."
The first point of emphasis in this verse is that genuine spiritual advancement has to be made in "slow degrees." It's not possible to jump over or skip steps. Each and every step is meant to help us confront our inflamed egos and overcome our weaknesses. Too often, we get really fired up to engage in a certain practice and go full force for some time and then drop the practice like a hot potato. Hence, this verse is recommending a slow and steady pace.
The next step that is emphasized is "constant endeavor and perseverance in practice." Even if we feel discouraged because of what we see in our ego or lack enthusiasm toward the practice, we need to find the strength to keep pushing forward. Confronting our ego and acknowledging our shortcomings can be very difficult and too often it's easier to walk away than to proceed forward. This is where associating with other like-minded practitioners can give one the strength to keep moving forward.
Rupa Goswami, one of the most important teachers of the Vaisnava tradition, makes similar points to the verse above. He says that while one is engaging in a regulated spiritual practice, one needs to be enthusiastic, confident, and patient.
"Enthusiastic" means one needs to be eager to practice, even if the eagerness isn't always there. One needs to be confident that the goal of liberation will be achieved. If one isn't confident, then naturally one will call it quits real fast. Being in the association of other serious practitioners allows one to witness their advancement, whereby we develop faith that it is possible.
Of course, our patience will be tested over and over again, especially when we fall short of our goals and standards, or we get distracted by other ambitions. Some days will be easier while some days the mind will rebel and make it feel like you're pushing a boulder uphill. This is the real test in our spiritual life. Achieving spiritual perfection may take us multiple lifetimes.
In our "pill-popping, quick-fix, I-want-it-now" culture, patience isn't something that's valued a whole lot. While we can try to maintain that culture in our professional lives, it will be quite counterproductive if we implement it into our spiritual lives. Purifying the soul of its material conditioning -- greed, anger, envy, and pride -- has to take its own sweet time.