The Paradox of Effort and Grace

Arthur OsborneThe essence of a man is pure Spirit, Being or Universal Consciousness.
This Spirit prowls in the lion, spreads its limbs in the trees, endures in the stone;
in man alone it not only lives but knows it lives.

It is said in various scriptures and by teachers that a spiritual seeker should make effort on the path but that grace is also necessary. It is also said that in the end Realization is bestowed by grace and not achieved by effort. In the Hindu scripture, the Upanishads, there is a statement that the inner self chooses whom It will.

This is a paradoxical saying. Those in whom the spiritual urge is powerful spend time worrying about this but strive because they must, because they are irresistibly drawn to it without any thought of reward. Those, however, in whom the mind is too active and the Spirit too weak are apt to be puzzled and ask why they should make any effort if the final achievement is bestowed by Grace. They also ask why the inner self should choose one rather than another.

Who is the “you” that has to make effort, and who is the “God” or “Atma” that chooses and that bestows grace on one rather than another? The essence of a man is pure Spirit, Being or Universal Consciousness. This Spirit prowls in the lion, spreads its limbs in the trees, endures in the stone; in man alone it not only lives but knows it lives. The difference between man and other animals is not that man has greater ability but that he knows that he is a man; he is self-consciously man. This understanding is through the mind which, looking outward, knows and dominates the world. Looking inward, it knows and reflects Being as the essence and source of the world. However, the ability to do this also implies the ability not to do so, to regard oneself as a complete autonomous individual and forget the inner reality.

Various religions express this simple truth through myth, allegory and doctrine, and are apt to be puzzling. In the Koran, it is said that Allah offered trust to the heavens earth, and the mountains but all declined it; only man accepted and was untrue to it. Religions assert that God gave man free will, which implies the freedom to rebel. In Christianity, it is said that man is fallen on account of original sin. In the Book of Genesis, there is a story of how man fell into the domain of opposites, the differentiation of good and evil. All these are allegories for the simple truths stated above.

The mind creates an ego, a seemingly complete, autonomous, individual self which, although illusory, seems to be the reality of One. This is the state known in Hinduism as ajnana or ignorance, in Christianity as “original sin,” in Islam in its more extreme form as “kufr” or “denial.” In its milder form, it is recognizing the Spirit as real but believing the ego also to be real, as “shirk” or “association” (of other than God).

The ego is the obstruction to Self-Realization and it has to be removed or its non-existence discovered. That is why great Masters have stated that Self-Realization is not something new to be achieved, but an eternally existent state to be revealed. Therefore, they compare it to an overcast sky—the clear sky does not have be created, only the clouds covering it need to be blown away. In another analogy it is compared to an overgrown pond of water-lilies—although the water is always present it is revealed by clearing the plants away.

To experience this eternal state constitutes the effort of which teachers and scriptures speak. The mind has created the obstruction; the mind has to remove it. Merely recognizing that the ego (as in Advaitic thought) is an illusory self or (in dualistic thought) that the ego is a creation of the Spirit, to which it should submit and be totally passive, is far from constituting the full effort required. Effort involves the will and emotions, as well as understanding, and therefore has to be persistent, determined and skillful. The ego has put out tentacles which cling to the world and either these have to be lopped off or the ego itself killed. It craves the admiration or submission of other egos, and therefore humility is enjoined. It also craves enjoyment of creation in its own right instead of being a mere channel through which the Spirit is perceived and through which the Spirit enjoys; therefore asceticism is sometimes prescribed and self-indulgence is always, in all paths, discouraged.

The attempt to lop off the tentacles of the ego has been compared in mythology to a battle with a many-headed giant who grew two new heads for each one lopped off. The only way to dispose of him was to strike at the heart and kill the entire being, not deal with the heads individually. The campaign must be skillful and intelligently planned, as well as ruthless. What a wonder it is that different Masters, on different paths, have prescribed different ways of conducting it. The goal is the same: the taming or destruction of the ego or the discovery that it never really existed.

Methods such as I have been alluding to consist largely in curtailing the ego’s outer manifestations to induce the mind to turn inwards to the Self or Spirit. It is also possible to proceed in the opposite direction by turning inward to the Spirit and “gathering” strength to renounce the outer manifestations. This is the path of love and devotion, worshipping God, submitting to Him, calling His name, striving to serve and remember Him throughout one’s whole life. Either path can be followed, or both can be followed together. Another way is that of questioning the very existence of the ego by Self-enquiry.

What does grace have to do with these paths? Grace is the natural flow of the Spirit into and through the mind and faculties. There is nothing capricious or erratic about it. Ramana Maharshi said: “Grace is always there; it is up to you to make yourself receptive to it.” It is likened traditionally to the sunlight falling on a flower-garden; if one bud opens and not another, it is not due to any partiality on the side of the sun but only to the maturity or immaturity of the buds. Or if the sunlight penetrates one room but not an other, it is simply because the doors and windows are open in one and not in the other.

Why, then, is it said that the inner self chooses whom it will and that final realization comes by grace, not by effort? It is in order to remove the insidious idea that the ego-self can continue to exist and attain something called “Realization,” when all it can do is immolate itself and be replaced by the realized state of the Spirit, which is ever-present grace. The mind makes efforts to remove obstructions; it is hard for it to understand that it is itself the final obstacle. The very desire for realization has to be carefully watched and can become an impediment, for it implies someone to achieve something. In the end, all that the mind is called on to do is keep still and allow the grace to flow unimpededly—but that is the hardest thing for the mind to do.

On the devotional path, the danger is supposing that it is the ego that strives and attains. This warning against desires, even the desire to get realization, is expressed in the attitude that true service of God must be for love alone with no thought of reward. He who asks for reward is a merchant, not a lover.

The impossibility of achieving when there is no one to achieve explains why a teacher will never answer the question, “When will I attain realization?” It implies the false presumption: “There is an individual me; when will it cease to exist?” whereas the teacher realizes the ultimate truth: “There is no being of the unreal and no not-being of the Real. (Bhagavad Gita II.16).” Not that the unreal ego will cease to be at such and such a time, but that it is not now, never has been and never could be. Therefore, the attitude of mind which questions when one can attain realization or whether it is one’s destiny to be realized in this lifetime is an obstruction sufficient to prevent realization; it is an assertion of the temporary existence of the unreal. Similarly, if you assert that you cannot attain realization in this lifetime, you are thereby preventing yourself from doing so by postulating the existence of a “you” who cannot attain.

And yet, paradoxically, it is also an impediment to assert that no effort need be made, on the pretext that, as “there is no being of the unreal nor not-being of the Real,” one is That now and has therefore no need to strive to become That. This sounds plausible, but is an impediment because it is the pseudo-self, the illusory unreal, that is saying it. The Master can say that there is nothing to achieve because he is That already; the aspirant cannot. Ramana Maharshi would sometimes say that asking the best way to realization is like being in a particular place and asking how to get there. He expected the seeker to make effort, even while appreciating the paradox that there is no effort to be made. In the same way, he would say for the realized man there is no teacher-disciple relationship but also added that for the disciple the relationship is a reality and of importance.

For the seeker effort is necessary, but it is also necessary to remember that effort can never attain the final goal, since he who makes the effort must dissolve, leaving only the Spirit. The Spirit, which is the true Self, replaces the illusory ego-self when the latter has removed the obstructions and that is Grace. Spirit flows into the vacuum which remains when the ego-self dissolves. It is for the aspirant to create the vacuum by removing the obstructions.

After a five year internment as a prisoner-of-war, Arthur Osborne arrived at the ashram of Ramana Maharshi in 1945. Osborne never left, ultimately building a house in the South Indian town of Tiruvannamalai. Osborne founded The Mountain Path Magazine in 1964 and wrote extensively until his death in 1971. This article appeared in the April 1967 Mountain Path under the title, Grace, Effort and Destiny. He is the author of numerous books including Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self Knowledge, The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, and The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi. His selected writings are published by Inner Directions under the title For Those with Little Dust.

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