When I was on my football team at Amherst College, there was writing on the wall, which said, “You must learn to follow before you can lead”. I remember how important this was. At first, as a starting varsity player as a sophomore, I didn’t even talk. I played hard and did fine and got to the point where I got to be the captain of an undefeated team in my senior year. As captain it was my duty to talk. I was happy not talking, but that was my new role. Years later, when I was in India living in an ashram, I saw the same sign. It said, “You must learn to follow before you can lead.” This time, it was very different. The meaning was that spiritual life requires some level of thoughtfulness, preparation, background, and internal character development, before you can really teach in a meaningful and authentic way. That was interesting to see the same message on the football field and in the middle of India in an ashram. It’s obviously an important life message.
As things unfolded, I began to understand how important the teachings of the great Advaita Vedanta masters such as Shankaracharya, who started Advaita Vedanta in 600 AD, Dnyaneshwar Maharaj, Ashtavakra, Ramana Maharshi, and Ramakrishna. These are some of the great enlightened Indian teachers, who all taught the same thing. They were a little bit more sophisticated, however, in the details than my college football coach. The details are important for us to understand because the teaching was very straight forward, as it is in the Kabbalah, which says that you need to be 40 and married before you are mature enough to study the inner Kabbalah. What these great masters talked about is that you have to develop your character and your qualities before you are ripe enough to perceive and understand the higher teachings and to hold the energy of these teachings. This is a message that has been there for literally thousands of years.
As I look at this teaching, which I consider to be important spiritual teachings, the truth of character development involves some expansion of consciousness as well. The classical teaching about character includes a variety of qualities. Viveka is the ability to distinguish between the deeper cosmic truth in a situation without getting caught in the superficial relative truth of what is going on. If we cannot get to that deeper level, everything else is a joke. It is merely playing at spirituality. In social situations, we have the opportunity not to play at spirituality but to actually act in an honorable, moral, ethical, and spiritual way. This is the ability to distinguish the cosmic reality from the temporal reality. If you’re playing football or another sport, you have the temporary reality of the field and the rules and you are clearly playing as in life. Unfortunately, people often forget that they are playing in life, and, because they forget, they take it very seriously. In life, which is both a game and paradoxically also a way to build spiritual character and spirituality, we have the same metaphor. People are playing the game of life, but become so seduced that they forget that it isn’t the truth of anything. Yet we have the opportunity, through our life experience, to expand our consciousness. However, this is still the temporary reality. It is not the cosmic reality of oneness. These are not opposites. We have to hold both. That’s important, but it requires the ability to hold that paradox in our consciousness.
Another character quality to develop is vairagya, which means equal vision or seeing God in all people equally. It takes some awareness and some character development to hold this awareness.
A third quality is samadhi shakta sampadi, which means the six qualities of the mind. These need to be developed to receive the higher awareness. The six qualities of mind are: 1) shama – mental focus; 2) dama – control of the senses, so that one is not affected by hot or by cold for example; 3) uparati – staying centered in the midst of paradox; 4) titiksha – perseverance in the face of obstacles; 5) shraddah – faith; and 6) samadhana – one-pointed focus on God in the midst of everything going on. These are qualities take some development and intention. You don’t just walk on to the field and start throwing passes and calling plays, without knowing the playbook. You have to follow a bit and listen to the teachers and have discipline and strength.
Another spiritual quality is spiritual courage. In Hebrew we call this ometz. Spiritual life requires courage because, when one is serious, one is ready to step out of one’s comfort zone and into the unknown. This is being willing to peacefully face whatever is coming and the go beyond your comfort zone, and also beyond carrying the past around. This is symbolized in the Torah by Moses walking up the mountain into the unknown. Spiritual courage is a critical and important quality. Another quality is honor. Honor is more important to spiritual life that we sometimes think. Unfortunately, people have misused the word honor and given the false message that your word does not matter or that honor is about ego. This is a very shallow understanding but the truth is the great teachers in the great traditions talk about honor. They don’t teach that you should slander your neighbor, or stealing of the mind, or deception for personal economic gain. These actions are spiritually dishonorable. Maintaining spiritual honor requires building character. All of these character qualities are important and your word counts.
The perennial, classical, spiritual teachings are that to get to the higher consciousness levels, one necessarily and naturally has to master these character qualities. One can have different spiritual abilities but these don’t matter if one can’t master these basic qualities. There is also musar, which is upholding the morals and the ethics. Then there is also arvut, which is responsibility. Some people think that spiritual life is not connected with being responsible. We see this in the New Age, where it is “all about unconditional love” and one doesn’t really have to be responsible or honor commitments. These character qualities are seen as being out of date. Character is never out of date. These have been the perennial teachings for thousands of years. It will continue to be relevant, no matter how we want to create a relative reality. This is because they are the foundation required for the spiritual path. They build the vessel to hold the energy.
May everybody be blessed with the ability to be open to the great traditions in their classical form and the summarizing teaching – “Before you can lead, you need to follow.”