We saw that true fearlessness is synonymous with realization of Brahman, the non-dual Reality. Until we reach that state of oneness with Brahman, we are in the domain of duality and are subject to fear. While it is true that unreasonable fears are a drain on our mental resources and we need to avoid them, there are other fears that can help us progress in spiritual life. Obstacles in the form of worldly lures can deflect seekers from their spiritual quest. Cultivating aware- ness and fear of such pitfalls in spiritual life will help us avoid them. Broadly speaking, there are two things that a spiritual seeker needs to be wary of.
All-powerful maya: Maya, the deluding power of Brahman, veils God from us and distorts our perception, making the unreal appear real and the real appear unreal. Oblivious of the Atman, our true Self, we take body and mind to be real, and oblivious of God, we consider the world to be real. Swami Vivekananda describes maya as a statement of fact; it denotes the life of contradictions as we live it. Sri Ramakrishna sums up maya in two words: lust and greed. He cautioned his disciples to stay away from these two impediments to spiritual life. We can never afford to be overconfident about our capacity to remain free from them. Rather we need to strengthen the weak links in our character as a bulwark against them.
Sri Ramakrishna cautioned a young devotee: "Beware, holy man!" He further said, "A man must be extremely careful during the early stages of spiritual discipline. Then he must live far away from any woman. He must not go too close to one even if she is a great devotee of God. You see, a man must not sway his body while climbing to the roof; he may fall."
The power of samskaras: Every thought and action leaves an impression in the mind. According to Swami Vivekananda, the sum total of these impressions (samskaras) determines our character; they account for what we are at any moment, and how we react to people and circumstances.
Samskaras have the tendency to make us repeat the action or thought that gave rise to them. With every repetition, they become deeper and more powerful. Past actions inevitably come back to haunt us or defend us. Having to experience the effects of all our accumulated actions is certainly a frightening thought. Yet devotees are not intimidated, but strive to strengthen their character by good actions and good thoughts. They are careful not to gather new bad impressions. Placing implicit trust in God's redeeming power, they forge ahead on the path of devotion. By prayer, meditation and work done as worship, they free themselves from the hold of both good and bad impressions, and grow in God-consciousness. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi assures us that repetition of God's name is a great help in minimizing the intensity of samskaras. When a disciple asked her if the effect of karma performed in previous lives could be cancelled by the repetition of God's name, she said, "One must experience the effect of past action. None can escape it. But japa minimizes its intensity. For example, a man who, as a result of his past karma, is destined to lose his leg, may instead suffer from the prick of a thorn in his foot."
How long does the spiritual journey last? How long does it take for all our past impressions to be burnt in the fire of Self-knowledge? Someone remarked to Sri Ramakrishna, "Our union with God is only momentary. It doesn't last any longer than a pipeful of tobacco." Sri Ramakrishna replied: "What if that is so? Union with God even for one moment surely gives a man liberation." On another occasion, Sri Ramakrishna spoke reassuringly to his devotees: "Is there anything, however hard, that cannot be achieved through God's grace? His grace makes even the impossible possible. If a lamp is brought into a room that has been dark a thousand years, does it illumine the room little by little? The room is lighted all at once."