Recently I wrote about *spiritual materialism. The common danger is allowing our spiritual practice to become just another way of pumping up the ego. I certainly fell into this trap. I look back on those years with a sort of cringe-y compassion. I was profoundly ignorant (and arrogant). The problem was that I was too ignorant to realise just how ignorant I was. Inside I felt insecure and unworthy so like a magpie I collected “spiritual trinkets” to make my ego feel better.
Many studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation, for someone who is prepared to do the work, can bring benefits such as stress relief, better concentration, better relationships, better health, and help us become more resistant to depression. This is a good start but there is much more.
Suffering has its roots in the sense of separation. Thanks to our ego this is just how we experience ourselves, − separate from everything else:
- me and not me
- me and the rest
- I and others.
At one level, this perception is vital in terms of our biological and evolutionary mission, which is simply to survive and procreate. Evolution is not concerned with our happiness, suffering; or whether or not we have a good life; it’s just concerned with its mission.
Meditation and other resilience practices, which focus on aspects such as compassion, gratitude, impermanence and interconnection, allow us first to understand the intellectual reality of non-separation. We discover, contrary to our ego experience (of being separate), that you, me, everyone and everything are in fact connected. This is a physical fact. Nothing exists in and of itself; everything depends upon the existence of all other things, and it exists temporarily because circumstances favour its arising.
You/me/everything are made of the same stuff, each one manifesting itself differently. We are deeply and intimately connected to, and are a part of the universe. Even stars are not permanent. Like all things, when circumstances are favourable, a star is born. It exists, then it dies. In doing so it seeds life. For example, the iron and oxygen in your blood, the calcium in your bones were fabricated in stars as they died. So, as you stand looking at the stars, you are, in a very real sense, part of the stars, connected to the stars.
The belief that we are separate is as absurd as a wave in the ocean believing that it is separate from the sea. We can see that the wave is simply a temporary manifestation of the sea; it never stops being the sea. Circumstances favour the arising of the wave (tides, currents, wind, etc) and so it arises. It has temporary qualities that exist, then it disappears. This is the cycle of all things. Nothing is permanent; everything changes. Such is the physical world.
When we see and experience our lives as not separate but deeply connected in this way, then we live in the awareness of the miracle of life. We realise how fortunate we are to be endowed with consciousness − to be able to see and appreciate the wonder, the mind-boggling, bitter-sweet, almost unbearable beauty of it all. We become the Universe appreciating itself. Think about that for a moment. You are the way the universe appreciates itself, whoever you are. Pretty cool!
When we see life in this way, it helps us not to grasp, not to reject but to accept and experience the inevitable ups and downs as aspects of the miracle/gift of life with gratitude. It enables us to observe and participate in our lives with an attitude of open curiosity, kindness to ourselves and a sense of humour.
*Definition of the words spiritual and spirituality
“Spiritual” and “spirituality” are words which have different meanings for different people. For the religious person spirituality will probably include their understanding of god. When I speak of spirituality, I speak of a secular spirituality which requires no theistic belief.
I have known many spiritual people who are also religious. But to be religious does not necessarily mean to be spiritual.
Secular spirituality emphasizes qualities such as: mindful awareness, continuous growth, love, compassion, patience, forgiveness, responsibility, harmony and a concern for others. Aspects of life and human experience which go beyond a purely materialistic view of the world are spiritual. Spirituality does not require belief in a supernatural reality or a divine being. It is beneficial, even necessary to have some sort of relationship with the wonder of the universe, the interconnectedness of everything, and to understand the distortions and suffering caused by the ego and the sense of separation it creates. This can be experienced without any supernatural interpretation or explanation. Spirituality in this context is a matter of nurturing thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are in harmony with a belief that everything in the universe is connected and mutually dependent. Spirituality is to be connected to a sense of awe, joy, a sense of peace and wonder. In this definition spirituality has nothing to do with either religious doctrines or the supernatural.