One day at Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Brahmananda overheard a senior disciple admonishing a younger disciple for negligence in his work. He immediately went over and reproached the senior disciple:

“Of course, it is wrong if this young man neglects his allotted duty. You have the right to scold him for that. But tell me, do you ever inquire if he is doing his duty to himself? Do you ask him if he is meditating regularly or if he has any difficulties in his progress towards God? Is the work of the [charitable] Mission more important than this boy’s spiritual growth?” [1]

There are two aspects to the spiritual life: service and contemplation. Some religions stress one aspect and some stress the other, but both aspects are equally important to our spiritual development.

Swami Vivekananda enshrined this idea in the motto of the Ramakrishna Order: “for one’s own salvation and for the welfare of the world.” In Judaism, we speak about tikkun neshama – fixing our soul, and tikkun olam – fixing the world.

On the one hand, we have come into this world in order to evolve and grow as individuals and souls.  At the same time, we also are born with a specific spiritual task to fulfill in the Plan of God. Some of us have a major part to play upon the stage of life’s drama, and others have only a small role behind the scenes, but all of us are part of the plan, and all of us contribute towards the goal of moving humanity forward in its evolution.

In the beginning of creation, God poured His infinite light into the finite vessel of the primordial cosmos. The fragile creation, however, could not hold the enormous power of the Divine emanation. As a result, the whole of the nascent universe collapsed. During the process of this ‘breaking of the vessels’, sparks of Divine light became mixed with shards of physical matter, thereby creating the myriad forms that make up the four levels of this physical reality: inert, plant, animal and human.

According to the Baal Shem Tov, each of us has specific Divine sparks that are linked with our individual soul that can only be raised up to their source by us. These Divine sparks are scattered around the world in diverse people, objects and places. God, therefore, arranges our life in such a way that we will naturally take up the kind of work, and travel to the specific locations, that will enable us to raise up those Divine sparks that are uniquely our own.

The major elements of each of our gilgulim or incarnations are mapped out for us before we come down into this world. Whatever is required to develop the particular Divine attributes that we are striving to perfect during this incarnation will be incorporated into the plan of our life. The opportunities that open up for us, and the personal encounters that present themselves, will be just the ones that we need for our spiritual evolution. All the specific experiences, actions and meetings of our life will be tailored to enable us to take the next step in our spiritual journey.

The particular needs of our own personal evolution will be coordinated with the workings of the Divine Plan. A task in this world will be designated for us that will simultaneously provide the components for our personal growth, as well as fulfill a mission in the Plan of God. Our labours will be watched over and guided by the great souls in the higher worlds who are responsible for the unfolding of the Plan. They work in a unity of consciousness that is infused with the light of the Universal Divine Mind.

The Tzaddik or enlightened soul is the master of this process: he draws the souls that are connected to his own soul towards him like a magnet. All great teachers bring with them a group of souls who are an integral part of their work. They take up incarnation on this physical plane together with their ‘eternal companions’ for the sake of the evolution of humanity.

Ramakrishna had a vision of a higher realm from which he called down his intimate disciples to come and incarnate with him in this physical world.  According to the Kabbalistic tradition, Raabi Isaac Luria and his followers were the incarnation of Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai and his circle in the Zohar. The Baal Shem Tov once told his Hasidim that his soul had refused to come down to this world until God gave him sixty great souls to incarnate with him, who would watch over the Baal Shem and help him with his work.

These group incarnations show us the kind of potent vortex of spiritual power that is created when the work of tikkun neshama and tikkun olam mesh strongly together. They are an example of what can be achieved when there is both an outer and an inner alignment among human beings.


On one level, it is a question of finding the right balance in our lives between service and contemplation. On another level, it is all a matter of having the proper state of consciousness.

In the second paragraph of the shma, it says: “to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” It is only when we combine service with the love of God that it becomes alive and vital. And there is no greater service then the emanation that pours forth from an enlightened soul. As Ramana Maharshi explained, when he was asked what good he was doing by simply sitting all day long on his couch:

“The sun is simply bright… Because it shines the whole world is full of light. Transforming yourself is a means of giving light to the whole world.”[2]

“A realized one send out waves of spiritual influence which draw many people towards him. Yet he may sit in a cave and maintain complete silence. We may listen to lectures upon truth and come away with hardly any grasp of the subject, but to come into contact with a realized one, though he speaks nothing, will give much more grasp of the subject.”[3]

Service done in the right spirit becomes worship, and the true contemplation of the Self turns naturally into world service.


In essence, there are two aspects to the spiritual life: serving God by acting and also serving God by not acting – by being in movement and by being at rest. This is also another way of looking at the two paths of service and contemplation.

The Hasidic text, Or Haganuz, sees this two-level division of spiritual practice reflected in the composition of the mitzvoth or commandments:

 “There is Divine service through movement which is all the active mitzvoth and Torah learning and prayer…and there is service through stillness like when one sits in solitude and silence and thinks about God’s greatness. And in this way, he will bring himself into the world of thought, which is the world of stillness. And this is how he should proceed when he wants to be bound up with God (devekut), he should sit still in awe and devekut and focus his mind on holy thoughts…”

We must develop both these facets of our spiritual life: stillness and movement. The path to acquiring this dual spiritual capacity is outlined for us in a passage from the Bhagavad Gita:

            “He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is a yogi and accomplisher of everything.” – Bhagavad Gita 4:18

Swami Vivekananda interprets for us the meaning of this passage:

“Mind requires to be cultured both in society and in solitude. If the mind can maintain its equilibrium and calmness while being engaged in a roaring battle, it is seeing inaction in action. While one is bodily detached from the turmoils of the world and placed in a far off deep mountain cave, if one’s mind goes Godward steadily and earnestly, it is seeing action in inaction.”[4]

Like the Or Haganuz, Swami Vivekanada also sees the ideal path as one that develops both aspects of our consciousness:

            “It will not do for the mind to be lop-sided in its development. There are those who are habituated to solitude. If such people be dragged into the tumultuous society, they go mad. There are others immersed in the throngs of the world. A day of solitary confinement is enough to turn them insane. Both of these types of men are partially trained. The perfectly trained alone are at their best both in solitude and society. They are tuned both to action and inaction.”[5]

The spiritual life has two dimensions – service and contemplation. To fulfill both these aspects, we must learn to be both still and in movement. We must become masters of action as well as inaction. We must know how to fix our mind in God under all condition and all circumstances. Only then will we become true yogis – perfect vessels for the Will of God.


Copyright ã 2008, by Yoel Glick



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Eternal Companion, Swami Prabhavananda
  2. Living by the Words of Bhagavan, David Godman
  3. Be as You Are, David Godman
  4. Quoted in Bhagavad Gita with commentary by Swami Chidbhavnanda
  5. ibid