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Spiritual vs. Material Fulfillment: Who Says You Can't Have Both? (Part I)

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The Oxford American Dictionary defines fulfillment as "the achievement of something desired, promised, or predicted," and "satisfaction or happiness as a result of fulfilling or developing one's abilities or character." It's worth noting that both of these definitions are attainment-oriented, something you feel whenever you satisfy a want or desire, or reach a goal.

You first experienced this kind of fulfillment before you could even ask for what you wanted and whatever you desired was provided to you in response to your cries. This kind of fulfillment continued, evolving into the elation you probably felt on Christmas morning if the presents you were hoping for were under the tree, the pride of receiving the merit badge you aspired to as a Boy Scout or Brownie, the pleasure of buying something you really wanted, the excitement of your first kiss, the high of a promotion at work, the thrill of your stocks going up, the joy of discovering that someone you are attracted to felt the same about you. The more you've desired something, the longer you've waited for it, the more of this kind of fulfillment you are likely to experience when it's finally yours. At least for a while.

The pull to find happiness through this kind of fulfillment is a powerful and commanding force. The life of almost every human being is, for all intents and purposes, entirely influenced by it. Though the specifics of what will provide you with this kind of fulfillment will surely change over the course of your life, the longing to achieve it will not. It endures to the instant before your last breath -- when the object of your desire will likely be another lifetime of breaths. Fulfillment through attainment -- whether the object be material or non-material, substantial like a new car or intangible like a particular emotion you long to feel -- is preeminent, and perhaps that is why it is the only definition you find in the dictionary. It's important not to miss the fact that this kind of fulfillment is temporal: new cars are not new forever, the exhilaration we feel when things are going our way do not endure indefinitely.

Thankfully, there is another kind of fulfillment, one that the dictionary fails to include -- a kind that most spiritual traditions assert is critical to understand and ultimately learn to embody if you are going to realize true or lasting happiness and fulfillment. This other type of fulfillment is not dependent on attainment or on any thing. It is based on a recognition, a shift in perception. You could even say it is a revelation. The second kind of fulfillment is not dependent on circumstances being just right, nor is it derived from anything in the outside world. It comes from you. It is you. "It is not inaccessible nor is it in distant places: it is what in oneself appears to be the experience of bliss, and is therefore realized in oneself." This quote from the Yoga Vasistha, one of the most comprehensive and esteemed of yogic scriptures, reveals everything you need to know about the kind of fulfillment not mentioned in the dictionary. This kind of fulfillment is usually hidden, masked by the world of things -- the world that most of us normally see and with which we engage.

This other fulfillment is constantly and permanently available, provided you know how to access silence. "Be still and know that I am God," we find in Psalms of the King James Bible. Similarly, a yogic scripture, the Shveashvatara Upanishad observes, "Only by a stilled mind can He be known." In other words, only when you find a way to still the otherwise endless pursuit for the first kind of fulfillment can and will you be able to realize the second kind. The reason that so many ancient spiritual traditions developed methodologies like meditation, contemplation, and prayer is precisely so that we could -- through the gateway of silence -- access sublime fulfillment. In other words, their aim was to enable us to experience enrichment beyond the limits of the first type of fulfillment, which are always subject to gain and loss, success and failure, creation and destruction, fame and obscurity -- the very world that most of us spend our whole lives blindly pursuing.

The second kind of fulfillment doesn't wait for your dream lover to appear or for a breakthrough in your career or for the roses to start blooming in your garden or your child to finally come home with good grades. Fulfillment of this kind is always available because it emanates from something that is unchanging. It is, therefore, a complete and enduring fulfillment. It is, as we are informed by every spiritual tradition, a kind of wealth far beyond the riches and accomplishments found in the material world. It is an indestructible treasure, one that can never be lost or taken away. Throughout the ages it has been described in various ways as the unfolding of the most glorious presence, a contentment that words can never fully convey.

As lofty as this second type of fulfillment might sound, it is important to understand that one does not have to choose one or the other. However, not everyone, and certainly not every spiritual tradition, sees it that way. It is not uncommon that some of us, consciously or unconsciously, believe that we have to choose one kind of fulfillment over the other. In my experience, the people most prone to believing that they have to make a choice between one or the other are those seeking "spiritual" fulfillment.

Unfortunately, I've seen how this kind of either/or point of view can have a negative impact on people on both sides of the material-versus-spiritual fulfillment debate, making it harder to achieve any kind of genuine fulfillment.

Indeed, ensuring that your life is graced with both kinds is crucial to leading a rich and fulfilled life. Coming in Part II of this article, we look at why and how to ensure that you do experience the best of both worlds.

Excerpt adapted from The Four Desires by Rod Stryker. Copyright © 2011 by Rod Stryker. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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