Studying the lives of saints inspires us along our spiritual journey. We learn about the possibilities of our own achievements through their examples.
Part one of this article defines a saint and explains the value of hero worship. A saint, by the Eastern definition, is a human being who has achieved spiritual enlightenment. You might find a saint in any walk of life: managing a business or a family, teaching crowds of devotees, or living in a mountain cave. There are no physical characteristics that fit each and every enlightened person. A saint walking down a crowded street doesn’t look any different than you or me.
In this post, we continue to explore how studying the lives of saints can support us on our paths, both worldly and spiritual.
When we study saints’ lives, we might come to either of these conclusions:
- They are so exalted and special, we could never achieve their state, or
- They were human beings, like us, and as fellow human beings, we too can experience a life of peace and happiness.
Obstacles to Understanding
One of the biggest obstacles on the spiritual path is the belief that we can’t achieve a state of saintliness. That belief holds us back. It drains our inspiration and motivation. Like any effective obstacle, it impedes our progress. But this is an obstacle that is within our power to remove.
The Importance of Faith in Our Potential
We must have faith that Self-realization is possible for us. Studying the lives of saints helps us develop that faith. It’s the saints’ inner holiness that we want to achieve—perfect peace, joy, and love. As spiritual aspirants, we must believe in our potential—that we can achieve spiritual enlightenment—in this body and in this lifetime.
This quote, published by a wise and successful businessman is appropriate:
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” ― Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich
The Notion of Miracles
Another obstacle on the spiritual path is the notion of miracles or special powers.
There’s no reason to doubt the existence of miracles. Milarepa was known to fly through the sky. Many saints were miraculous healers. Some brought the dead back to life. A few saints have been reported to physically ascend to heaven after death.
We like miracles and are attracted to them. In fact, miracles are so intriguing that those are the stories that last the longest. The problem with a focus on miracles is the mistaken belief that all saints perform them. What might follow is the belief that to become saintly, we must also be able perform miracles.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a bible among yoga enthusiasts, outlines the practices needed to obtain special powers. Interestingly, Patanjali also warns that attachment to these powers is an obstacle on the spiritual path. They are to be avoided by anyone who seeks the highest realization.
Expectation of Fame
Another obstacle worth mentioning is seekers’ expectations of being recognized for their achievements—fame. Most enlightened beings don’t become famous. They live quiet lives outside the notice of others. Most of them don’t even become teachers of any great status.
Persons of quiet, unrecognized holiness do not attract crowds. They don’t get written into history. And yet, they exist.
We Can—and Must—Become Saints Ourselves
Several years ago, my Guru visited Yogananda’s headquarters in Los Angeles. A young starry-eyed nun led the tour, singing the praises of her Guru (as she should). While describing her Guru, she admitted, “But we can never reach his high state of Self-realization.”
Later, as Gurudev was relating this story to us, he said, “What is the point of being a disciple if you can’t become like your Guru?” That’s something I appreciate in any teacher—especially one who has reached the summit of spirituality.
Ideally, human beings evolve during the course of their lives. Eastern philosophy teaches that the individual soul evolves through many births. That evolution leads to enlightenment. A great teacher will say, “If you want to know what I know, here’s the way,” and then encourage, instruct, and support the student until the goal is met.
Self-realization is no more difficult to achieve than becoming a concert pianist, a doctor, an engineer, or an Olympic gold medalist. What these occupations have in common is focused dedication over a long period of time.
Make Your Selection Carefully
Just as we select our food carefully, being attentive to its nutritional content, we must also choose our mental food with care. Reading or studying is a form of keeping company. The choices we make have a direct effect on our state of mind. Choose well.
If you’re new to the spiritual path and feel unable to make your own wise choices, it’s best to seek help. The list provided in part one of this article is a good start.
Avoid Doubt, Criticism, and Fault-Finding
The first ingredient to benefiting from studying a saint’s life is to keep an open mind. The often-quoted saying that “attitude is everything” also applies to reading the lives of saints. In his autobiography, Baba says:
“It is not at all desirable to question the characters of great men, their noble qualities and extraordinary actions…Do not judge their actions by the criteria of vice or virtue. Each action of theirs is sacred, being divinely inspired.”
Even in everyday life, doubt, criticism, and fault-finding disturb our peace of mind. When we read about the lives of saints, such negativity is even more detrimental. If a saint’s story is not resonating or inspiring to you, then find another that does.
Understanding develops over time. Sometimes a reader is not sufficiently ready. Reserve judgment. Most spiritual seekers return repeatedly to their favorite stories and texts, discovering a deeper meaning each time.
Spend Quality Time on the Lives of Saints
Studying the lives of saints is worth adding to your daily list of practices. Set aside a few minutes each morning and evening to read about your favorite inspirational person.
The following is a verse from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by…meditating on the heart of an illumined soul, that is free from passion.” (1:33, 37)
As you study the life and teachings of your chosen saint, try to imagine what he or she looked like. What was the life and culture like at that time? How did he spend his day? What sort of hardships did she endure? Look for the lessons in their lives and teachings, especially those that are easily applied in your own life.
Use your imagination and feel that you are in the physical presence of a divine being.
Have Faith in Yourself
Put aside any doubts you might have about your abilities or worthiness. Remember this: you have the supreme blessing of a human body. You have the ability to make choices and take actions. And you have a mind that is capable of great things.
As you read about the lives of saints, you are keeping company with them. Through their company, your mind becomes purified and holy. Gradually you become like them.
All yogic texts and great teachers tell us that enlightenment is within our reach. Start with a tiny seed of belief in your own possibility. Plant that seed in the fertile soil of sincere effort. Nurture its growth until the fruits mature—those of perfect peace, love, and bliss.
The Lives of Saints: Share Your Favorites with Others
Has a spiritual leader, Eastern or Western, inspired you to be a better person? Please take a moment to share your recommendation with others in the comments section below.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.