Life as an Initiatic Test

“The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong,” said Swami Vivekananda.

In contrast to our image of the aesthetic, holy man of India, Vivekananda placed great emphasis on strength. To be truly religious, an individual (perhaps especially a man) had to be strong. Why?

In the modern era, spirituality, like television, is often a kind of escapism. We can imagine a world of peace and plenty, where there are no disagreements about anything worth fighting over. In such a world, all of our relationships would work out. And everyone would be our friend. Even the animals would love us. 

Like the politicized, the spiritual person often thinks in slogans. Because slogans are just vacuous enough to allow everyone to fill them with their own particular fantasy. The complexity and inherent contradictions of a world that does not conform to his ideology, or, probably, to anyone’s ideology, can be ignored.

Everyone believes in hope, change (for the better), love, belief, etc., just as we all enjoy sugary treats. The problem, of course, is that abstracted from the reality of life, they are empty.

Love. Everyone loves love.

But do we love death, sickness, and pain? Can we love someone who has a gun at our head — literally or metaphorically? What about sexual love? Can we love several people, especially if they all want the same person to themselves? If I love everyone, is everyone special? Or is no one special? Or am I alone actually special?

Perhaps more than any other religion, Christianity preaches love (Agape): “love thy neighbor.” Yet, plenty of early Christians were fed to the lions for their faith. And, later, the Christians battled, killed, and defeated many pagan tribes, making them convert to the Christian faith.

Love has unexpected, real-world consequences, just as pacifism has been the prelude to war, and the call for the abolition of class distinctions the prelude to the gulags. Beautiful, sentimental ideas often lead to unanticipated and unimaginable cruelty and tragedy.

Life can be kind and sweet. But it is also raw and harsh. And it will test us in all sorts of ways — financially, intellectually, in terms of our self-image, health, in regard to those we love, and so on.

Yet, sentimentality seems an ingredient of unique importance to the modern Western mind, perhaps because we can no longer face the competitiveness of nature or the competitiveness of the modern world. Or because we have come to think of so many adults as children who need our love and protection (via state intervention, at least).

In Buddhism, in Japan, the protector deity of the faithful (Fudō Myō-ō) has a fierce expression on his face. He carries a sword, and is surrounded by fire. He is demonic looking. The prophet is a warrior; the holy man meditates in the graveyard amidst the scattered remains of corpses.

Without recourse to an ideology that promises to keep us “safe,” strength and an ability to face the harsh reality of the world are the prerequisites for awakening.

Swami Vivekananda knew this. He preached that religious devotion had to follow strength. Strength had — and has — to come first. For, at the end of the day, religion and spirituality are not — or should not be — escapes from life. Instead, they are guides that help us navigate the brutality of Samsara as we move towards the supreme Bliss of Nirvana.

Angel Millar is the editor of The Spiritual Survival and the author of several books including The Three Stages of Initiatic Spirituality: Craftsman, Warrior, Magician (release date: February 2020).

2 thoughts on “Life as an Initiatic Test

  1. I find this interesting in that, this blog would more be reaching out on the actual difference of love, and our warped conceptions of love, compared with compassion, which is to say that we strengthen in by loving ourselves, slaying our personal demons, but no one wants to have compassion for themselves.
    I was not familiar with the Deity/Monk Fudō Myō-ō, and seeing that Buddhism is something I am combining with my personal “spiritual” practice, I went to research him. The definition I received was one of him slaying demons to make way for the dutiful to have compassion. I have easily fallen in love with this monk and his ideals, as compassion is the lesson no one really wants to learn. they want to blindly love, but this cannot be done when one cannot love oneself, and especially when you cannot have compassion for yourself. Then love is in vain, and it is not truly love, but lust, or fake. Jealousy, a bitter emotion, the fear of losing someone’s love because you do not have it within yourself, is being misinterpreted as love.
    Jesus taught “Love thy neighbor” what is said is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself” *Matthew 22 37:38
    This is important especially at this time of year, it is “Gay Pride” for those of us who struggle with being accepted. (I identify as Pan Sexual). How can you possibly love your neighbor when you judge another so harshly.
    This particular scripture was actually a way to shorten the 10 commandments, the first 4 being your relationship with God, the last 6 your relationship with others. Shortened in one little sweet verse.
    I love the teachings of Neville Goddard here because if God is your own imagination or the common teaching in the “spiritual” movement which is God is within, then are you loving yourself within, in order to have compassion for yourself, slay your inner demons, leaving nothing but compassion, then you are able to truly love your neighbor. Then you would not judge someone based on sexual orientation or race, or gender because you understand your failings, and your neighbor cannot be worse.
    Humankind is riddled with a curse of perversions and skewed views on what we see around us. Infants come into this world with only their needs in mind, taking care that its survival is most important. To be truly devoted to oneself or another, we cannot be here to simply survive.
    The term “love” is overused perhaps, or perhaps not. You are not the first to question its use like this, and maybe thats why it is not overused. Compassion on the other hand, everyone cringes at. It is much easier to point a finger at what you deem immoral, and then say you love people, than to truly “walk a mile in his moccasins”.

  2. Christ also said “I come not to bring peace but the sword”. I think you misinterpret completely the essence of what Swami Vivekananda was saying in a most profane way. Who is it that makes us stronger? Who is the real source of strength? I’m reminded of Morrisseys lyrics “it takes strength to be gentle and kind”. I’d recommend everyone reading this article should temper it with a rereading of the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke from verse 27 onwards.
    True strength, in my opinion, is to surrender to a higher power- to accept one’s place in the metaphysical hierarchy. This is the ultimate empowerment. I think, ironically, you’ve done exactly what you criticised: made a slogan of Vivekananda’s insight and despiritualised it. Real strength comes from acceptance of the yoke of the divine- hence why Christians or any of those who have true communion with The Divine are capable of martyrdom- the most sacred expression of strength- in my opinion.

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