The Fourth Pillar of Practice

Tim Boyd – India, USA

Theosophy TB b

The author, profound, observant, creative and all-embracing

One of the somewhat paradoxical goals of spiritual practice is to become less self-centered. The results of practice might be described as becoming “unselfed”. Expressed in simple terms spiritual practice focuses on diminishing the limiting influence of the personal self by shifting the center of awareness to a Greater, or Universal Self. It is paradoxical because in order for this shift to take place there has to be an initial commitment of the unrefined personality to the process — a commitment to a future exaltation that to the personal self looks a lot like extinction.

In its early stages one has no grasp of what it might mean to diminish the personal self, much less to extinguish it. Most people who come to a practice do not arrive at it with the idea of becoming less. The normal wish is to acquire more — more peace, freedom from suffering, renown, knowledge, love, understanding, better relationships, better mental and physical health, and for some, more material wealth. One of the ironies of spiritual practice is that all of these desires can, and, for many, do, find fulfillment.

In the business world there is a marketing principle stated as “It’s the ‘I’ in what you buy”. Simply put, the products and services to which we are drawn make us feel. In the advertising world much of the focus is on appealing to emotional needs and desires. In our time it has become a “normal” approach to living — normal in the sense that there is a broad consensus that material, or even psychological possessions can give satisfaction and happiness. “What’s in it for me?” is the prevailing, if unacknowledged, question for many — at least initially. This is a common state of mind that people bring when they begin the attempt to find clarity and peace. It is something J. Krishnamurti described as the workings of our “beastly little mind”.

I have great admiration for the genuine spiritual teachers who have appeared in our world, and for those among us now. It is a difficult task they willingly undertake — to utilize our undeveloped mind and personal desires as catalysts that lead to our progressive unfoldment into a Greater Life in which the personal imperceptibly transmutes to the Universal.

The difficulty real teachers face is a “How to . . .?” question. How to move us from small personal beginnings to a deeper state which they would describe as “Reality”. In the Bhagavadgitâ Krishna makes the profound statement that “By whatever path people approach me, on that same path I meet them.” This is not a point of view that conforms to our usual “spiritual” imaginings. For the normal, spiritually engaged individual it is clear that spirituality is only accessible along certain lines that promote “purity”. While this is the general rule for most of us, when we examine the lives of the truly great spiritual people, we find that those who were considered the most debauched, immoral, negative, and impure became not merely their disciples, but in many cases the most revered and respected teachers in their traditions.

For Saint Francis his interaction with the “Prostitute of Damietta” led to her conversion and sanctification. One of the more notable disciples of the Buddha was a man who was known as Angulimala. The name speaks about the inner potentials of even the most extreme and “evil” among us. Angulimala was a mass murderer who collected the fingers (anguli) of his victims, and strung them into a necklace (mâla). Although few of us find ourselves in such extreme conditions, the point is that the realization of our deepest, truest nature is possible at every moment, regardless of our sense of limitation.

So, how do we participate in the unfoldment process we call “practice”? In “The Three Pillars of Practice” (see the April issue) I outlined three fundamental components of such a practice: (1) Study, (2) Meditation, and (3) Service. I also expressed my preference for a more nuanced description than those three single words convey. For me these three pillars of practice are:

  1. Elevation of the Mind
  2. Experimenting with Quiet, and
  3. Conscious Compassionate Activity.

I find this more accurate in describing the inner condition of the practitioner. In terms of spiritual practice “study” involves more than the intellectual activity of collecting information. We proactively extend the “upward” reach of the mental aspect of consciousness. If we are honest and have some understanding of what genuine meditation is, we recognize that only on rare occasions are we actually in a state of meditation, but in our “meditation practice” we are always engaged in experimenting with the varying depths of quiet. Service in terms of spiritual practice is not dependent on specific actions, but the cultivation of a conscious self-rooting in compassion and those internal and external activities that express it.

Over time I have come to the conclusion that there is a fourth pillar of practice. Before applying a name to this pillar, let me ask a question: What value would you place on an activity that requires no movement or special training; that has the scientifically proven capacity to boost physical, emotional, and mental well-being; that can reduce stress and depression; that can promote longer life and greater happiness; that elevates the same endorphins, hormones, and neurochemicals as meditation; and that you fully understand and utilize right now? And all of these qualities only address its personal and immediate effects. This fourth pillar also functions at a deeper, spiritual level by rewiring the synapses of the brain, by broadening one’s perception of compassion, of the unity and interdependence of all life, and by moving one toward a direct perception of reality — a genuine wisdom. Might this be something worthy of your consideration?

The word for this fourth support of spiritual practice is “Gratitude”. In the normal meaning of the word, it is regarded as a strong feeling of thankfulness and appreciation to someone, or something, for the help or kindness received from another. It is the mood or emotional response that comes over us when we acknowledge some benefit that has flowed our way. It is also normal that much, if not most of the good, we experience goes unacknowledged, unrecognized, and unappreciated. We receive it as if in a vacuum and go on about our business as if it is our right.

Gratitude, like Love, Compassion, Harmony, Patience, Meditation, Generosity, spans a spectrum of ways it presents — from a self-centered mood to a state of being, from an individual act of thanks to an experience of integration in the life of a Greater Whole. A biblical statement of the scope of Gratitude is “In all your ways acknowledge him and He will direct your path”. Whether one regards “him” as God in the sense of an overarching, all powerful external being, or as an omnipresent, indwelling presence within which all things “live, move, and have their being”, depends on our belief and conditioning. But regardless of belief, it is the act of recognition and acknowledgement that activates the direction of one’s path. Making it conscious is crucial.

One of the difficulties we face as people, certainly as members of the Theosophical Society, is that we are predisposed to complexity — so much so that simplicity can be suspect. In a field of study in which we acquaint ourselves with teachings on the birth and unfoldment of both Humanity and the Cosmos, with an array of sevenfold stages of consciousness and development and with occult forces, cycles, agencies, and agents of limitless unfoldment, the self-evident fact of complexity can become our default lens for seeing the world.

However, the truth of complexity cannot be allowed to diminish the more potent truth of simplicity. Across traditions love is seen as the most vital expression of elevated consciousness. Even though love enfolds the entire range of human experience it is radically simple. Love, whether the limitless love of the world savior or avatar, or the love between husband and wife, parent and child, student and teacher, is one thing.

Like many things in our time, expansive realities become diminished by an insistence that they conform to our personal needs and desires. The great wit and thinker, Voltaire, made the comment, “In the beginning God created man in his image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” So, Yoga is reduced to a series of exercises and postures promoting health; Love becomes lust; Kindness is mistaken for weakness; Peace becomes suppression of war; God becomes “Him” — a bearded, elderly white man, angry at his creation. There is nothing so pure that it cannot become tainted by the touch of the untransformed human mind.

Gratitude of any scope is beneficial, but it takes on a different quality in the context of spiritual practice. In much nonwestern practice the role of the teacher is strongly emphasized. “Guru devotion” is the term for the acknowledgement and gratitude to one’s teacher for their irreplaceable role in one’s unfoldment. In the Lam Rim practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the opening words beginning any practice session are, “Following a kind master, foundation of all perfections, is the very root and basis of the path. Empower me to be mindful of this and make every effort to follow well.” This expression of thankfulness is considered to be essential, so important that without it, productive practice is not possible.

An ordinary Google search gives long lists of the benefits to body and mind that flow from the practice of gratitude. Everything from how to practice gratitude, how to keep a gratitude journal, how to do a gratitude meditation, how gratitude affects the brain, biology, and relationships, the value of daily lists, gratitude workshops, and more show up in even the most cursory search. It can be a little off-putting to see how it has blossomed into a mini-industry, complete with all the commercial trappings. However, it has become so highly valued for a reason. It meets people at their level of need.

In the medical community there is great concern today for what doctors describe as an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation”, particularly in urban environments. The sense of being disconnected from others and from the natural and isolation”, particularly in urban environments. The sense of being disconnected from others and from the natural world is affecting physical health and a sense of well-being. It is the nature of gratitude that it is completely focused on connection to others, and to a more expansive shared life. Every cause for thanks can come to be seen as originating from this ever-present Life that channels its blessing to us through others. With every acknowledgement of thanks, the reality of connection is affirmed. This has been demonstrated to have a healing effect — healing in its true meaning of restoration of a sense of wholeness. With a deepening practice, fragmentation, disconnection, longing, and inadequacy diminish. Over time the experience of interconnection with its accompanying awareness of interdependence take root.

In The Voice of the Silence the seven pâramitâ-s, or Perfections, are presented. The seventh is prajñâ, or Wisdom. It is said that even if the other pâramitâ-s are undeveloped a connection with wisdom can illumine. But what is wisdom? From the perspective of the pâramitâ traditions, wisdom is not simply extreme knowledge, or great depth of study. It is the perception of reality. This perception is attained by contemplation along two lines. The first is often named “emptiness”. The idea is that nothing has any inherent, or essential nature — they are empty. Sometimes the example of a chair, or a tree, or a car, or any other object is used, and the question is asked: “Where in that object is the essence that makes it what it is.” One is encouraged to examine and try to identify its essence. With a chair its essence is not the wood, or plastic, or metal that composes it. It is not the number of legs it has, its shape, or the thought in someone’s mind. When you look closely there is no essential “chair” there. What we see as one thing is made of infinite components.

The second truth of “reality” is called “dependent arising”. In a nutshell it is the idea that everything is dependent on an infinite number of other things and conditions for its existence. “Interdependence” is the nature of things. Thich Nat Hanh preferred the term “Interbeing” to emphasize how intertwined we and all others are. It is along this line that gratitude can become a powerful practice to move us toward wisdom. If you boil it down, gratitude at any level is the recognition of interdependence. Anywhere we look with a discerning eye the presence of an infinite number of things reveals itself. In the words of the poet, William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

Every bite of food we eat requires the sun, air, water, hundreds of people to plant, harvest, ship, and sell it, insects to prepare the ground and pollinate the plants, countless lives that have gone back to the earth and become part of the soil, and on and on; it is endless. Perseverance in the process of seeing and appreciating, moves us to the wisdom that we, and all things, are dependent on each other.

When I graduated from university a very wise and simple man named Sandy Mack gave me a book as a present. He was a profound spiritual teacher for a number of reasons — his accumulated wisdom, humility, extensive knowledge, and the ease with which it expressed in his life. It was an excellent small book, but his inscription is what has stayed with me all these years. When you graduate, the normal salutations you receive congratulate and praise you, and speak about the life ahead.

Mack’s inscription said:

Please know that the Life Current is now flowing from the Alpha and Omega to all beings in creation, and you are one of them

Our specialness does not derive from accomplishments or accolades, but from our own realization that just like “all beings in creation”, the current of the One Life is unceasingly flowing to and through us. This realization is the height of Gratitude.

And it all begins with “Thank you”.


This article was also published in The Theosophist, VOL. 145 NO. 8 MAY 2024

The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.

To read the MAY 2024 issue click HERE

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