Some people believe that living a spiritual life is austere, difficult, or unpleasant. Not fun at all. They think, “That’s the price you must pay until you reach the summit of eternal joy.” If you think this, then I’ve got good news for you: nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that enlightenment, just like any other endeavor, requires discipline and sincere effort. However, walking the spiritual path need not be a painful journey.
An excellent way to discover this truth is to study the lives of people who’ve achieved the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment. Reading and studying the lives of saints is inspiring, often entertaining. We learn that all of them were born as normal human beings, just like us. When we read their stories, we begin to realize that we might also enjoy attainments like theirs.
Quiet Karma’s posts on Spiritual Masters introduce you to some of these great souls and their teachings.
What is a Saint?
Eastern and Western definitions of the term saint differ. From the Eastern point of view, a saint is a human being who has achieved the highest state of spiritual enlightenment. In rare cases, a saint is born enlightened. However, most saints have evolved through consistent spiritual practices. Other terms used for saints are: holy person, sage, avatar, realized being, etc.
Such a person might become a teacher or leader, or they might choose to live a quiet life in solitude. Many saints are householders, married with children. One of Yogananda’s disciples, James Lynn, was a business executive. Some saints are wandering ascetics. Very few of them are famous gurus who attract large crowds. True saints don’t advertise their exalted status, so we could be walking next to a saint at any time without knowing it.
A time-honored practice for spiritual aspirants is to keep good company. We can do this by studying the lives of saints. We have many to choose from and much to learn from them.
Human beings tend to admire and look up to people who have achieved greatness. We give them medals and standing ovations, and we build statues to honor them. It’s called hero worship. Most of us have practiced this in one way or another, beginning with our parents at a very young age. As we grow up, we might look up to superheroes, like Wonder Woman or Spiderman. Or we might idealize sports heroes.
Think about how this might have been true for you. Have you ever had a mentor—perhaps a special teacher or a coach? Have you ever read the biography of an influential person? In America, we value the stories of our Founding Fathers. Washington, Franklin, and Adams were great influencers in the formation of the country. Their work has affected the minds and lives of citizens since then.
When we seek to know the extraordinary, it’s essential to have examples. We need to know people who have achieved or experienced what we want. They inspire and teach us by the stories of their lives and by the wisdom they share with us.
Just as a person may learn to cook or tend a garden by watching an elder, we can experience the qualities of saintliness by studying an enlightened being. That’s why we keep company with saints.
In the Bhagavad Gita (aff link), we read, “Whatever a great person does, that others follow; whatever he* sets up as a standard, mankind follows.” (3:21)
In my Guru’s commentary on this work, he says, “Most people are influenced more by the living examples of others than by philosophical teachings.”
*Editor’s Note: Do not be put off by the pronoun he. In Indian literary works the pronoun he is commonly used. Unless gender is specified, the pronoun he refers to both male and female.
Colorful Stories That Instruct
Milarepa, a Buddhist master, is a prime example of a person who was not born a saint. His story teaches us that anyone can become enlightened. Milarepa began in humble and ordinary circumstances. He had worldly thoughts and ambitions. Pressured by his mother, he learned black magic to take revenge on his uncle. Milarepa performed many heinous deeds, some of which caused others’ deaths. He was not the ideal character to achieve great spiritual heights. Yet with his sincere desire and arduous effort and with the help of his Master he achieved the highest spiritual state. Such a high state, in fact, that his example is remembered and followed centuries later.
Another colorful story from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (aff link) illustrates the importance of having a burning desire for our most treasured goals. Contemporary motivational teachers often cite this example:
A devotee humbly asks, “Sir, please tell us what kind of yearning gives one the blissful state of mind.”
Ramakrishna answers, “One feels restless for God when one’s soul longs for His vision. The guru said to the disciple: ‘Come with me. I shall show you what kind of longing will enable you to see God.’ Saying this, he took the disciple to a pond and pressed his head under the water. After a few moments he released the disciple and asked, ‘How did you feel?’ The disciple answered, ‘Oh, I felt as if I were dying! I was longing for a breath of air.’”
As you can see, studying the lives of saints is not a dull, dry exercise in academics. Their stories inspire us and help us take stock in our own activities and intentions.
Cultivate the Garden of Your Mind by Reading the Lives of Saints
Your mind is like garden. In that garden, you can let weeds grow, or you can plant seeds of beautiful flowers. In fact, if you don’t nurture and protect the flowers, the weeds will surely overtake them. It’s the same with the mind. A peaceful and cheerful mind does not happen by mistake. It requires cultivation, like a flower garden.
To spend more time cultivating your spiritual growth, read the lives of saints. It’s easy, pleasant, and often entertaining
Choose your “heroes” with care. To gain the most from this valuable practice, you should, from the start, choose someone whose life is divinely inspired. Following is a list of books that I recommend. They have been close to my heart—and my hands—for many years (the list below contains affiliate links.):
- Autobiography of a Yogi: This colorful classic is not simply a story. It’s a saint’s journey beginning from childhood. Along the way, he describes the lessons learned from his Guru and other saints. I prefer the reprint of the original.
- The Essential Sri Anandamayi Ma: Life and Teaching of a 20th Century Indian Saint: Anandamayi Ma was a woman saint who radiated love and bliss by her presence. This beautifully designed book contains a detailed biography, many of Ma’s teachings, and a wealth of photos.
- The Life of Milarepa, Tibet’s Great Yogi by Lobzang Jivaka: This book has long been out of print. It appears occasionally through various booksellers and is worth the search. The author, one of Milarepa’s direct disciples, tells his Guru’s story with humor and affection.
- The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Abridged Version): An excellent introduction to the life and teachings of Ramakrishna.
- The Eternal Companion, Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings: This saint, a direct disciple of Ramakrishna, was a leader of the Ramakrishna Mission after his passing.
- Life of Christ by Fr. Giuseppe Ricciotti is available in both full version reprint and popular version. I recommend the popular version because of its length. Fr. Ricciotti clearly describes the times and places in which Jesus lived.
- My Life and Lives, The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation by Khyongla Rato is a rare account by a Tibetan monk who lived during the time of Chinese takeover.
- God Alone, The Life and Letters of a Saint by Sri Gyanamata is a biography and collection of letters written by this woman disciple of Yogananda. Before joining his hermitage, she was a devoted wife and mother, demonstrating that family life can also be fully spiritualized.
Putting it into Practice
When we read the stories of saints, our awareness of their qualities increases. Those same qualities begin to take root in our minds, and we become more like a saint. The opposite is also true. Spending too much time on social media, watching television news reports, or listening to talk radio affects our mental state for a long time.
Select one of the above books, or use another that appeals to you. Start each morning and end each day by reading a chapter from any of them. As you read, look for lessons, both subtle and direct, within the life stories of saints. During your day’s activities, try to remember what you’ve read in the morning. Watch for opportunities to apply those lessons to your own life. At the end of the day, review your reading and make a mental note of its effects.
Do you have a favorite spiritual leader, Eastern or Western, who inspires you to be a better person? Please add your comment below to share your recommendations with other readers.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
When meeting a wide variety of people through ones work, it often becomes a challenge to keep good company. Perhaps being a witness is the best way not to get involved.
Your comment touches on an issue that most of us contend with, James. We must work for a living. Work can never be used as an excuse to slight our spiritual path or practices. Witnessing can help you understand the workings of your mind better, and you will know when excuses come into play. That said, when we find that work makes keeping good company a challenge, then it’s that much more important. We must find a balance, and that might mean putting even more time and effort into your spiritual practices. I wish you the best in that endeavor, knowing that many have overcome that challenge before. Namaste.
Hello. The life stories of great saints—their struggles and successes—do inspire me. I’ve given a number of copies of Milarepa’s biography to self-identified Buddhists who had never heard of him. They all loved it.
Yogananda’s autobiography was singularly important to me. Reading it lifted my imagination beyond dead saints and relics to the possibility of a living Master. I appreciate your reading list, there are a couple of titles I will look into today…and the others are all awesome. Thank you.
Thank you for commenting on your favorites from the list, Rob. When you’ve had a chance to familiarize yourself with the others, please return and let us know what you think. — You might have seen the video Monk with a Camera, the story of an American Buddhist monk. His teacher’s story is the book recommended My Life and Lives, The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation. I found it especially interesting from a historical perspective, seeing how one’s spiritual principles can endure through the worst circumstances. I know you will enjoy it. Namaste.
A man is known by the company he keeps. Reading the lives of the saints is the second-best way I know to keep truly good company.
Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. It reminds me of another: A tree is known by its fruit. They are related–we become like those with whom we keep company. And our actions, like fruit, become sweet and pure through the effects of holy company. Namaste.
“Do you have a favorite spiritual leader, Eastern or Western, who inspires you to be a better person?” Yes, I do. I see how he is and how he lives. He inspires me to be a better person. I feel lucky and blessed. Peace, Moe
Thank you, Moe. It looks like you’re experiencing the best fortune that can befall a seeker. Not only is it the chance of a lifetime, but the rare effect of many lifetimes of spiritual effort. You are indeed blessed. Namaste.
The saints show a passion and discipline for realization that is truly inspiring. Not only is their attainment an inspiration; their dedication and love is as well.
Thank you, Tim. Passion, discipline, attainment, love: They’re all yours through keeping company with saints. Namaste.
Reading about the lives of saints is inspiring and rewarding, but since none of them think or act alike, perhaps we too will be unique when we are enlightened. We must find our own truth and live it with passion and commitment. God expresses Himself uniquely in each individual.
“Learn Everything that is Good from Others, but bring it in, and in your own way absorb it; do not become others.”
“You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.”
“The greatest religion is to be true to your own nature. Have faith in yourself.”
“All power is within you; you can do anything and everything. Stand up and express your divinity.”
“There is no God separate from you, no God higher than you, the real ‘You’.”
Om Peace Amen
You have made a good point, Ruth: the unique quality inherent in saints’ personalities. What’s not so obvious is their common experience of the Divine, the Oneness of all. That experience is what we seek as spiritual aspirants.
Thank you for sending quotes from Swami Vivekananda, one of Ramakrishna’s chief disciples. Many people are not aware of Vivekananda’s contribution to yoga in the West which began with his first American visit in 1893. His life story is available through many books and online, and he was mentioned in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna many times. Namaste.
The story of the disciple who was fighting for air when his Guru dunked him into the pond reminds me of an incident when I was quite young. I remember one hot summer in Imperial Valley when I pestered my mother endlessly to take me, my brother and sister to a swimming pool. She told me, “You don’t even know how to swim!” “Yes I do!” I lied. She said, “if I take you, you will have show me by going into the deep part.” I assured her I would. When we arrived, she instructed me to dive into the deepest part (8 feet deep!). In I went, and I remember struggling mightily for air – if it hadn’t been for younger girl swimming by I wouldn’t be here to tell this true story. So, unless you’ve had a similar experience, or have been waterboarded, you can’t appreciate the meaning of the story of the “dunked disciple.” Thank you Svāmi, for the lesson on what it takes to see God.
Thank you for your story, John. How wonderful that you have a direct and personal experience so similar–you can really relate! Most of the time we’re not aware of how desire motivates us in everything we do. And, since desire is so powerful, we can harness that power for whatever is most important to us. May you use your experience to inspire you to its greatest good. Namaste.
I love this, it is so intelligent and pertinent for spiritual seekers. I learn something new every time I read Quiet Karma, and yes it does bring back memories of long ago which is heart warming. I personally enjoy Autobiography of a Yogi; I have read it many times and am thrilled with it every time I read it. I am very interested in the life of Jesus, thank you for the source.
Thank you for your comment, Mary. Autobiography of a Yogi has the been the starting point for many spiritual seekers. It is a gift to mankind. I’m sure you will enjoy Life of Christ. I make a point of reading from it regularly, especially around Easter and Christmas. Namaste.
I’ve always been inspired by Yogananda’s disciple, James Lynn. Yogananda said that businessmen make excellent yogis. Successful businessmen are disciplined and methodical. Their success comes because they earn it. When they apply that same mindset to spiritual attainment, they succeed there too. Lynn’s biography, “Rajarsi Janakananda (James J. Lynn): A Great Western Yogi,” tells how he managed to balance his work and spiritual life:
Conditions at his home were not favorable, so he arose early each morning and went to his office to meditate. To ensure that he was not interrupted, he would leave a note on his secretary’s desk, which she would see when she came to work: ‘I am in conference. Please do not disturb.’ He smiled when he said to us: ‘Of course, I never let on that I was “in conference” with God.’
Thank you for the recommendation and explanation, Roxie. James Lynn’s story is an inspiration to yogis working in the world. It proves that living the spiritual life doesn’t require leaving work and family. Namaste.
Sri Gyanamata, in “God Alone,” is most inspiring. She was obedient to her Guru and provided selfless service to the younger sister disciples. Her love was transparent!
My favorite book, however, is “Play of Consciousness” by Baba Muktananda. Use the 1974 edition, or earlier under the title “Chitshakti Vilas.” I have studied this book at least 4 times and it has helped me grow considerably.
Thank you for the recommendation, Richard. I agree with the 1974 edition of “Chitshakti Vilas.” It is a rare gem. Another early version of Baba’s life story is Swami Muktananda Paramahansa by Amma. It’s worth searching for on the used book sites. Namaste.
Hi, this article can be alot of fun because it brings to mind good memories. Keeping company with saints: lifts you above the doldrums of worldly life. East-West bookstore was encircled with the pictures of saints. Our Guru lent purity and his divine vibrations to the Rosicruition temple. I remember when I was young I would sit in a chair and make a half circle surrounding myself with great minds offering protection and upliftment. Love Tony
Thank you for your comment, Tony, and for sharing your personal practice of keeping company with saints. It sounds like you’re well acquainted with letting saints influence your life. You’re most fortunate to have the personal company of a saint in your life. It’s a rare and special blessing! Namaste.