So let's say we've chosen a spiritual path as laid out in one of the world's great religions. We pray and meditate; we fast and study; we try our utmost to live an ethical life. So what are we trying to achieve?
The strict monotheists, Jews and Muslims, have a program of religious law that reveals to us how God wants us to live. The purpose in this is not, as Christians often assert, to make man righteous in God's eyes, but so that we can strive to live according to His will. Such laws are a mercy from God, and are for our sake. One Baha'i prayer states it this way: "Praise be unto Thee, O our God,that Thou hast sent down unto us that which draweth us nigh unto Thee." In other words, God has given us the instructions necessary for us to have a relationship with Him, which is our spiritual goal. We obey these laws out of love and gratitude towards the One who has created us. In fact, the Arabic word for unbelief "kuffir", which is used in Islamic literature, has overtones of not just lack of faith, but outright ingratitude.
In Hinduism and Buddhism the goal is somewhat more complex: One can only escape the endless wheel of desire and rebirth by ridding ourselves of all attachment to this world and quenching the ever-demanding ego. Hinduism lays out four basic paths through which this can be achieved: through devotion, through mental training, through selfless action, and through meditation. The path one chooses depends upon what kind of person one is. An intellectual type would choose jnana yoga, or mental training. Most ordinary people do best with devotion, or bakhti yoga. But whatever path is chosen, the essential goal remains the same: the quenching of the self and the recognition that our own soul is but a part of God Himself. This is often a hard pill for western monotheists to swallow, but it might be well to remember that mystics in all religions say essentially the same thing - the Sufis in Islam, for example.
Buddha's Eightfold Path is a combination of faith, ethics, and mental discipline through which the disciple attempts to quench his cravings and attain Nirvana. The eight steps are: right views, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The concept of "mindfulness" is an especially important one. A person may not always be in harmony with the Universe, but at the very least one should be aware that one is not. Beginning Buddhist exercises ask a person simply to be aware of simple acts like breathing, eating, or walking. We spend so much of our lives doing things in a mindless and automatic way. Buddha simply suggests that we start paying attention to where we are and what we're doing.
Christians, especially Protestants, tend to be deeply suspicious both of religious law and the mystic's quest to detach himself from this world. Salvation comes, first of all, through faith in Jesus, and not through works, "lest" as St. Paul says "any man should boast." Salvation comes only through belief in the sacrifice and resurrection of the Son of God. Period. However, after one has had this conversion experience, the process of "sanctification" begins. To quote Paul again "It is no longer I, but Christ liveth in me." That is, as Christ takes over one's life, one no longer is the slave of sin, but freed from the need to commit it.
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