Man: A Question Unto Himself

Updated: May 10, 2019

By Justin O'Brien, Ph.D.

(Swami Jaidev) in July 1978

Aristotle once remarked that man by nature desires to know. That human history can well attest to this observation is in need of no proof. From the moment of birth the early stirrings in the child affirm the desire to taste life. For a growing child the questioning never ends, although the parents at times wish their darling's inquisitiveness would not be so intense. The questioning never stops for anyone, although few take it seriously enough to follow its full implications. Some pursue the questioning into fields of art, science, or commerce, organizing their life energies around a career within which the questioning goes on.

Life, however, is richer than the questions asked about it. Contact with reality can stimulate questions that do not touch a particular portion of daily living such as questions about the latest fashion in evening wear or household goods. But it can also pressure one to stand back occasionally and view the whole terrain, questioning life in its totality One can even question at all. People do not just want to experience life, but they want to understand what they are experiencing. What does it all mean? Unfortunately this type of questioning can be smothered, brushed aside amidst the busy cares of the day, postponed with the excuse that no one really knows the answers.

The refusal to answer is an answer. Not to consider the question, to put it down without a fair examination, declining to wrestle with its implications, only points up a certain fear that has overtaken personal growth. The childlike desire to know, the inherent thrust towards exploring life of the soul goes unattended. A certain calcification sets in. People plateau too early in life. An unexplainable restlessness persists, an inner loneliness is felt in spite of the satisfactions of the tangible world. Now and then a book, a lecture, something someone says, resonates within the gives a momentary flash of insight that briefly throws light on the problem. For a moment there really is more to life than its immediate demands. A mild shock has taken place, life has become more vivid. Not everything is solved but things have been seen with more sharpness. And that clarity gives a sureness that often brings in its wake the suggestion of the solution to the confusion. A slight awakening has stirred within.


The awakening, however slight, puts the person in the fame of mind that can listen to what the Christian mystic and the yogi have been saying for centuries. Man as a questioning being is not merely finding information about himself but is attempting to find meaning in life. His restlessness will not let up until he finds ultimate meaning for himself. "Our hearts are restless," Augustine reminds us, "until they find rest in Thee." Man is searching to complete himself absolutely.

The quest of ultimate meaning takes different forms throughout history. To survey the whole terrain with all its pathways is beyond the scope of this essay. Yet there are certain broad markings that may be found in the development of those embarking on this quest. In the classical Christian tradition one finds three broad levels of integration that comprise the spiritual evolution of the individual. Thee levels are not meant to stereotype the person, diminishing the personal idiosyncrasies and potentials to a rigid pattern of conformity. A healthy spiritual regime, on the contrary, does not devitalize the person but demonstrates new energies and a sense of controlled freedom. People have a clearer sense of what they ought to do with their lives.


In examining the steps in the Christian tradition towards achieving ultimate meaning, one finds that the first part of the journey is engaged with self-discovery at the tangible levels of daily existence. The body, the passions, the social relations, the various appetites for life itself, need adjustment and modifying. Often called asceticism, the aspirant struggles with building new habits and remolding old ones. Caution is urged because passions are the strongest forces what the body employs for its contact with life. Conquering the passions as such is not the hallmark of development. Instead, one slowly modifies them by first understanding their nature in the concrete operations of daily living. One brings them more and more under the directing action of reasonable living, letting the notion of the good guide the feeling of pain and pleasure, in no way underestimating the continuing fact that human nature involves bodily aspects. The purpose of asceticism then is not to restrain the passions but to bring them under a creative control so that their expressions are productive on reason's terms. This coordination of body and spirit is called "virtue." Virtue is the Latin word for power. By bringing one's powers under reasonable guidance, one develops the life force into maturity, and lives a life of increased freedom, a life that remains open to further questions about the ultimate significance of things.

By establishing a functional balance among the various powers or appetites, one can pursue the challenges of living with less self-imposed obstacles. In the schema of yoga the purgative phase holds first place in similar fashion. The first two rungs treat the same areas in the personal and social dimensions that are found in Christian asceticism. The common ground is the basic human nature that both traditions are concerned with for development. Yoga, like Christian asceticism, is a training ground which starts at the most obvious starting point: the body and its needs. From there one begins to examine the more refined areas of the human personality. The yamasand niyamasoffer the gradual integration of character, the "virtue" that is striven for in the Christian tradition.


The practice of virtue, the practice of the early rungs of yoga, are not meant as ends in themselves. These activities are means for preparing one to apprehend life more deeply. The refurbishing of body and mind rids the person of the discouraging tediousness of life. Self-training enhances sensitivity to life, the purgative phase enters now into levels of self-knowledge. The combination of inner exploration and outer order provide the kind of environment for achieving greater self-knowledge. We see ourselves and life around us with less pretense. Our vision is clearing. Our judgements are sounder. We waste less time and energy. Richard of St. Victor, a twelfth century aspirant wrote that the "whole essence of purgation is simplification." As our life simplifies, we are prepared to enter more into the journey of acquiring natural fulfillment.

The inward practice of meditation expands our insight. Intuition dawns. Life is faced more honestly. There is less dependence upon outer things for self-satisfaction. The recognition of one's duties to life takes on a freer reevaluation. The integration of mind and body, along with breathing and diet, sleep and exercise, are understood more and more against the background of meditation. St. Teresa remarked that, however advanced in spiritual progress, one should never give up meditation in the quest of the ultimate.

Christian writers characterize this phase of self-development as the illuminative stage. One is evolving, as it were, through a continuing series of self-discoveries, gradually seeing that the inner life force, the sense of self-awareness, is at the basis of all life experiences. How I view myself is the determining factor in my outlook upon life's adventures. Am I a tense person, a frightened person, a suspicious person? Do I mistrust others, and myself, or am I aware of the limitations of myself and others, coping with these realities without sweeping condemnations of our mutual efforts? These are the questions with which life challenges us as we go about our business. A change of environment can give temporary relief but the haunting quest of the meaning of our lives returns for an answer. The purpose of spiritual practices is to clear the air of the congestion from negativity and depression. The more I understand the nature of things, their temporality as well as their enjoyment, the more I am free to be enriched by involvement with them. I "see" what they are and are not. Calming the bodily energies, the imagination and mental flow, letting the inner force reestablish its equilibrium between body and mind, produces a wholesomeness within that guides my judgement in life.

Classically, the Christian tradition places meditation within the contexts of prayer. Often one cannot tell the difference between the way the writers explain these two practices. Frequently, meditation is described as a two-step process. St. Teresa points out that while this type of inner exploration yields fruits and insight, yet the aspirant needs to go beyond the discursive level. One must enter into the very center of the person, that level of awareness which is non-discursive. Here is where the more profound stages of Christian meditation and yogic meditation converge. A medieval text on meditation, The Book of Privy Counseling, explains it:

I know you want to see God;; I know you have been offering prayers and singing psalms and doing many other things. But now I want you to reject all thoughts whether they be good or evil. I want you to reject all thoughts whether they be good or evil. I want you to see that nothing remains in your mind save a naked intent stretching out. I only want you to keep a simple awareness that you are as you are. Do not fill your mind with content or images ... I want you to leave your thoughts quite naked, your affections and emotions uninvolved, and yourself simply as you are, so that the grace may touch and nourish you with the experiential knowledge of God as he really is.

The author continues:

No doubt when you begin this practice your undisciplined faculties will demand that you take up something more worthwhile, which means of course, something more suited to them. For you are now engaged in work so far beyond the accustomed activity of the mind, imagination, and emotions, that they think you're wasting their time. But their dissatisfaction is actually a good sign, since it proves you've gone to something of greater value. Don't be troubled then, if your faculties rebel a plague you to give it up; they find no meat for themselves in the practice. Now you will gradually master them by refusing to feed them despite their rage. Keep yourself recollected and poised in the deep center of your spirit, and don't wander back to working with your mind under any pretext, no matter how sublime.

The Christian and the yoga traditions both recognize that the outer world only supplies incomplete answers to the meaning of life. If man was only a body and emotions then the external world could provide the resolution to the mystery of life. Man would then be part of the animal kingdom satisfied with the environment. But the inner restlessness and questioning beckons man to search within. How strange that the inner search, which at first seems so empty and intangible, should be the indispensable means to self-discovery. There is no rushing this investigation. One makes progress by calmness. St. Teresa indicates that progress in self-knowledge is signified by tranquility. An inner peace abides throughout the work-a-day world. One unites to peace which in turn generates more energy for tasks. Her busy career was a dynamic example of the union of opposites: unruffled peace amidst the pressures of reforming an entire congregation of nuns throughout Spain.

The final goal, as we said, is the ultimate meaning of our nature. Yoga describes this state of experience as samadhi; Christina writers speak of the mystical union, often choosing marital metaphors whereby the soul is wedded to the divine spouse. Again the terminology reflects the cultural milieu, but the meaning conveys a state of completion, a freedom from suffering and ignorance, no more questions. This third level remains shrouded in mystery. Mystery here means too much intelligibly for the mind to comprehend. The brightness of this wisdom blinds the mind, which is too weak and limited to view it. With meditation one prepares the inner eye to experience the inherent dignity that is our nature. The further one enters into the self, the more awareness opens to unify with others. We cleanse the egotism, increasing our compassion for the needs of others. Every spiritual tradition speaks of this rebirth. The aspirant is born into his inheritance that is shared with all, an inheritance to know and love unlimitedly.

Justin O'Brien teaching

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