Spiritual progress is not all-or-nothing; material progress is all-for-nothing
All-or-nothing refers to situations where the winner gets everything and the loser, nothing. In a war, specifically the take-no-prisoners kind of confrontation that ends with extermination of the defeated, the winner gets everything and the loser, nothing.
Spiritual life is often compared to a war against temptation. This metaphor is meant to stress the gravity of the consequences of indulgence and the necessity of a determined, vigilant fighting spirit to resist temptation. Just as complacent soldiers are knocked down by the enemy, complacent spiritualists are knocked down into unworthy indulgence.
If, however, this metaphor disheartens us, making us think that the spiritual path is too risky, we can remind ourselves that spiritual growth is not an all-or-nothing affair. The Bhagavad-gita (02.40) assures that even if we fall down, the attraction to transcendence we have cultivated by our spiritual practices is never lost, nor even diminished. It may just be temporarily covered, but when we are exposed to the appropriate spiritual stimuli, that covering gets removed, and we progress onwards from our pre-developed spiritual level.
In contrast, it is material life that is far riskier – it is defined by not just the possibility of loss, but its certainty. In competitive situations such as an exam for getting a job, if we don’t crack the exam, we get nothing. But even if we crack it, we eventually end up with nothing because all material attainments are temporary. The Gita (10.34) cautions that death steals away everything material. Thus, material progress is not just an all-or-nothing affair; it is an all-for-nothing affair.
When we unsentimentally understand the natures of material and spiritual progress, we get empowered with twin convictions. First, we realize the futility of striving for material progress disproportionately at the expense of spiritual progress; and second, we realize the enduring value of the spiritual pursuit.
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