Inner Life

Almost everyone has heard of the expression, the “Inner Life”, when discussing spiritual or religious themes. Yet, what exactly does this term mean and how is an Inner Life cultivated?
What It Is
First of all, every religious tradition has two bodies of teachings, the outer or exoteric – sometimes referred to as dogma, doctrine, or ritual, and the inner or esoteric – again, oft referred to as the mystical or spiritual. Both can exist simultaneously, a fact that stymies some individuals. To eliminate such confusion I find analogies helpful and in this instance the earthy walnut makes for a good one.
Exoteric teachings are like the outer husk of this metaphorical walnut. Looked at it from the outside one sees a durable shell. The surface is protective. Tossed about in all kinds of circumstances, it has the hardiness to endure. It will withstand the rigors of time and proves worthy to pass on its valuable contents. For some, interacting with this outer shell provides a sufficiently satisfying relationship with the Divine. Accepting rituals at surface value, they don’t find probing for deeper meaning relevant or intriguing. Others flounder under external doctrines finding them vague or obscure, insufficient to meet their spiritual inquiries. Using my nut analogy again, the latter group seeks to crack the exoteric outer shell to access its inner or esoteric contents, the mystical teachings that foster Divine Illumination.
How is esoteric different from exoteric? Put simply, direct experience. Just looking at a photograph of fire isn’t the same as feeling actual flame. Likewise, knowing Spirit through personal experience is a far cry from reading about it in a book. The famous Christian scholar, St. Augustine, understood this point after having a profound mystical experience. Realizing that intellectual knowledge doesn’t compare to mystical knowing, he decried his scholarly work was as chaff in the wind. Another example of inner vs. outer awareness is evident in this tale of the Indian saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. When invited to participate in a scriptural debate, Ramakrishna quietly took the stage after the lecture of a well-known vedic scholar. Standing mute for a moment, he then began to utter “Ma”, an Indian term for the Divine Mother, until he went into spiritual ecstasy.
When all is said and done, an Inner Life ultimately refers to accessing spiritual experiences directly and building on them. The emphasis is on deepening individual communion with Spirit and uniting with the Divine. Those advanced in the inner life find their attunement with Spirit extremely sweet and satisfying, a divine romance that fulfills all desires beyond imagination or expectancy. Such a life brings forth divine fruit, qualities of self-sustaining love, peace, joy, wisdom etc. Examples of this spiritual relationship are reflected in the mystical poetry of Kabir, Rumi, and Omar Khyam.
How to Cultivate It
Perhaps Buddhists say it best when they refer to their “Three Jewels”: the Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma. Translated into western parlance, this means an Enlightened Teacher, a fellowship of truth-seekers, and Truth itself. Each is important for cultivating an inner life. Let’s briefly look at all three.
The Teacher
I’ve specified enlightened teachers because they’re not tainted by ego nor desire. Having attained spiritual liberation, they exist solely to help others gain enlightenment too. Aspirants should find such a teacher and follow them, but not through blind obedience. This relationship should be a healthy one that accepts scrutiny and fulfills every aspect of intellectual as well as spiritual inquiry. True spiritual teachers and teachings can always face the cold light of day.
A true aid to inner growth, spiritual fellowship is like a fence that protects delicate sprouts of divine effort from the ravages of worldliness. Like-minded souls joined in spiritual endeavor produce an energetic synergy beneficial to all participants. Individual spiritual practice is necessary yet group activities are also invaluable.
The Truth
It is the goal. Without it there would be no basis for practice, for philosophic inquiry, nor even for scientific study. The inner journey is based on realizing the nature of being and reality. Knowing Absolute Truth frees the spiritual seeker from all bondage and delusion. It conveys the Pearl of Great Price, Salvation.
In addition to these three jewels, I emphasize the need for technique. To know Truth one must know where to look and how to discover it. Fortunately this is simple; look within by prayer and meditation. Looking inside opens doors of awareness typically shut by worldly fixation. Just as one can’t sleep while running, so is it impossible to discover inner spiritual realities through externalized consciousness. Meditation reveals such hidden knowledge because it awakens the all-knowing faculty of the soul, intuition. It’s only through intuitive realization that Absolute Truth is finally gained.
Why Bother?
Examination of life shows that most pursuits reflect a search for fulfillment. Unfortunately many people believe outer acquisitions can satisfy inner longings. Much time is wasted in restless striving until repeated disappointment drives the search within. At this juncture we begin to realize that our nature is spiritual, not material. Cultivating an inner life then becomes a pragmatic way to gain what everyone has been chasing, fulfillment. Having this we may yet possess material riches but our truth wealth will be lasting, unconditional inner joy.

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