When my wife Nomi was pregnant with our second son Navonel, she was forced to spend an extended period in hospital lying on her back. Adir, our five year old, and I used to come and visit her every day.

Understandably, spending several months lying on her back was not always easy. On one particularly difficult day, as Adir and I were about to leave the hospital and return home, Adir turned back to his mother and said: “remember Imma, keep your mind up.”

To ‘keep the mind up’ means to keep it above the constant swings in our emotions. To keep the mind up means to be detached from the changing moods of the lower self. To keep the mind up means to rise above the daunting difficulties in our lives and not let them drag us down.

One day, Swami Brahmananda went to visit Girish Ghosh, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s devotees. Girish was going through a particularly ‘dry’ spiritual period at the time and was feeling quite depressed. When Brahmananda arrived, Girish told him all about his troubles. We had finished speaking, Brahmananda laughed and then lovingly replied:

“Why worry about it? The waves of the ocean rise high, then they go down again, and again they rise. The mind is like that. But please do not be troubled. Your present mood is due to the fact that you are about to rise to a much higher level of spirituality. The wave of the mind is gathering strength.” [1]

The spiritual life follows the natural cycle of all life: just as there is night and day and spring and winter, there are periods of great awakening in the spiritual life that alternate with periods of profound dullness – moments when God is close and moments when He/She is far away.

The aspirations in the spiritual life are so high that it is no surprise that those on the path have occasional periods of low intensity. The constant effort that is needed to sustain such an elevated state of consciousness puts enormous stress and strain on the mind and body. As a result, there are moments when it all becomes too much and it feels as if everything has completely shut down.

When such periods come upon us, we should simply recognize them for what they are: the manifestation of the fundamental limitations of this physical vehicle that we inhabit. If we see our ups and downs in this light, then we will learn to ease our way through these periods, rather than lose ourselves in anxious worry about our spiritual ‘fall’. This period of rest, or low ebb in the mind and body, will then slowly gather strength and become a new crest wave of positive spiritual force.

These shifts in our consciousness, however, do not mean that we should give up on our spiritual practices. The Hasidic Master, Menachem of Chernobyl, teaches that the Rabbinic saying  “Even if a snake is wound around your heel don’t stop praying,” comes to tell us that no matter what happens, we must never stop doing our spiritual practice – never stop turning to God. Even as we struggle with spiritual dryness and exhaustion, we must keep steady in our inner work.

In her autobiography, Saint Teresa of Avila tells how at one point in her life, she gave up meditation or ‘mental prayer’ as she called it, because she felt frustrated and unworthy. Later she came to realize that this was the worse thing that she could have done. In her writings, she constantly commands her nuns to never give up their mental prayer – not to abandon their inner work at all costs.

The Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, believed that these shifts in consciousness are more than simply the spiritual life’s natural movement, they are part of the process whereby God draws us ever closer to Him. He compared these shifts in consciousness to the manner in which a father teaches his young child to walk.

When a father is trying to teach his child to walk, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak says, he withdraws a few steps from the child, so that the child will make the effort to stumble towards him; then just before the child reaches him, the father withdraws yet another few steps in order to push the child a little further on. He continues withdrawing in this way, until finally the child is able to walk steadily on his own.

Similarly, God comes close to us and then withdraws Himself. Then He reveals himself again to encourage us onward, and then withdraws once more. Until finally, we learn how to stand on our own two feet and walk the path on our own.

According to Rebbe Levi Ytizchak, then, these periods of darkness are God’s way of forcing us to dig deeper into ourselves. It is His way of making us draw on our inner resources to find greater spiritual strength and forge new and higher spiritual connections. These periods of darkness are God’s way of teaching us how to keep on walking further and farther until we reach His ‘outstretched arms’.

When one of Swami Brahmananda’s disciples complained that they were worn out and overworked, yet they had still made no spiritual progress, Swami Brahmananda replied:

“Never be discouraged by your failures. Repeated failure is inevitable in the beginning, but keep your faith and redouble your efforts. Try hard to live up to your ideal…

“What is the use of this body and this mind if they do not help you to realize God? Do or die! What does it matter even if you die in the attempt!” [2]

There is, in fact, nothing natural about the spiritual life. On the contrary, the spiritual life is about forced evolution – it is about pushing ourselves beyond the rate of inner growth that is the natural movement of this world. On the spiritual path, we are trying to pack more than one life into this incarnation – to accomplish the goal of many lives in this single stay upon the earth.

To ‘keep the mind up’ ultimately means to keep the mind focused on the true goal of life. It means to not let any of our worries and fears get in our way. It means to not let the momentary spiritual lulls distract or discourage us. We must continually strive forward no matter what obstacles are in our way.

Let us resolve to keep the mind up. Let us learn to rise above the turmoil of the lower self. Let us lift our minds beyond the confines of this material consciousness and reach up to touch that which is infinite and eternal.

Copyright © 2016, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Eternal Companion, Swami Prabhavananda
  2. Eternal Companion, Swami Prabhavananda