Spiritual life begins by itself when you experience atmabhava. Vedanta speaks of atmabhava, the experience of oneself in all. It means that you have the same attitude towards others interests as you do towards your own.
There is a place called Shirdi in Maharashtra in India, where lived a renowned saint, Sai Baba. There is a famous story about him. When the house of one of his devotees was on fire, he felt the burning in his own body. People had to spray water on him to ease the pain. How did other peoples pain become a part of his experience?
I will tell you about an incident that took place over fifty years ago. The Kumbha Mela was on in Haridwar, and the pilgrims spilled over to Rishikesh. One evening I was walking towards Lakshman Jhoola situated to the north of the ashram. On the way, I noticed a gunny bag which seemed full of something. I didnt pay much attention and continued on my way. When I returned to the ashram, I learnt that Swami Chidananda had picked up that gunny bag and brought it to the ashram it contained an old man suffering from leprosy. Swami Sivananda organized a hut for him and arranged for his treatment. Some sannyasins were assigned to his service; they would bathe, shave and look after him. I was also one of them. However, I performed the tasks not as seva, but as a duty which my guru had given to me. That was not seva because I did not have the bhava, disposition, for seva inside me. His pain was not my pain. I was assigned that job, therefore I was doing it. Do you understand what I am saying? I am telling you the difference between karma and seva. It is not enough to just do something, the bhava is essential. If you have the right bhava, you may not even do anything. You may not have the money to help someone with food, but that is not important. Bhava is not an external thing, but an internal experience. After the above incident, Swami Sivananda decided that the lepers who sit by the road and beg should have a place to stay. The government offered some land and I was given the responsibility of building the colony. After I completed the task, about one hundred leper families came to live in that colony. Every evening I would chant the Ramayana to them, but I did not have any feeling inside me, I had no bhava. I was just performing an action. This is an example so you may understand the subject.
If someone you love falls sick, you cannot sleep at night. You go to visit your family because they are your family. This is not atmabahva. If you feel pain in your foot when a thorn pricks it but you do not feel anything when it pricks my foot, then it is not atmabhava. Atmabhava is where you make an effort towards someone who has no use for you, who does not belong to your family or clan, yet you express love towards him.
If you want to live a spiritual life, find a guru and then begin to perform seva, selfless service. Yoga is all right for the body. A little bit of pranayama, japa and dhyana are also necessary. A little bit of swadhyaya, satsang, kirtan and bhajan are also fine. But nothing is going to happen through them. They will not take the car of your spiritual life forward even one inch. For fifty years, I walked that path and my spiritual car did not stir. Even though I practised many hard and intense sadhanas, my car stayed stuck at one place; it did not move forward even one inch. It was only when a trace of atmabhava awakened in me that my car started moving.
The first lesson of spiritual life is seva. If you want to experience the presence of God, then get involved in seva. Seva means service of the human race, whether you serve one, two, or more, whether you serve a leper, an orphan, a blind person, or a homeless widow. This is the kindergarten of spiritual life. This is what Jesus Christ and Sri Krishna talked about. In the Bhagavad Gita, jnana yoga, raja yoga and sannyasa yoga come in the later chapters; karma yoga comes first. Karma yoga is actually seva yoga, selfless service. When you serve your spouse or children, it is not selfless service; it is selfish service. Your self-interest is involved in that. When you serve others, it is selfless service. This is called paramartha, for the sake of a higher cause, while swartha means for the sake of ones own cause. What you do for others is karma yoga, what is done for oneself is karma. This is the first lesson.
The second lesson is love. Love everyone. To love a man or a woman has become very cheap these days. Many songs are written praising love. That is not love; it is lust. Love means holding someone as your own even if he is of no use to you, even if he is a horrible person. There is no room for hatred in love.
The third lesson is purify. This refers to purification of the mind. To purify the mind you dont need to practise dhyana yoga. Practise dhyana when the mind has become pure. Dhyana is the BA course. Atmanubhuti, experience of the soul, is the MA course while seva is kindergarten. If you put a child in the MA course and teach him higher mathematics, he wont understand anything. So at first, the small things must be learnt.
Spiritual life is very difficult because you do not even know where it begins. It is like a knotted string, you cannot fathom where the beginning is. Therefore, on this path you have to trust your heart and not your intellect. The intellect does not help here; this is the life of bhavana, feeling. When you are able to have the feeling that you have for your children, spouse or lover towards others, your spiritual life will begin. You need to have the same intensity of desire for spiritual life as you do for wealth and material enjoyment. The Ramacharitamanas says:
Kaamihi naaree piyaaree jimi lobhihi priya jimi daama
Timi Raghunaatha nirantara priya laagahoo mohi Raama.
May you ever be so dear to me, Rama, as a woman is dear to a lustful man, and as lucre is dear to the greedy, O lord of the Raghus.
What this means is that the desire for worldly life has to be converted into love for Rama.