Keeping “spiritual” simple

A new acquaintance I was chatting with here in Bali recently threw a philosophical question my way. “What is your relationship to spirituality?” she asked me, out of the blue.

“Well, I live in Ubud,” I joked, “need I say more?”[1]

The theme was apparently in the air however – a day earlier, a therapist friend had commented that when she enquires about the spiritual life of her clients, she is often met with resistance.

“Some are very suspicious of the word,” she explained. “It’s not their cup of tea.”

“Would it help if they saw it as something more ordinary?” I wondered aloud. “I mean, why not consider that on a fundamental level, spirituality is very down-to-earth and experiential, and that simply being open to the possibility there is more to us than just our thoughts and feelings is a good place to start?”

Anybody in therapy, I reasoned, would most likely have had a few run-ins with an unruly mind and troublesome emotions – they might at least have the curiosity to look within, and see if they could access a more expansive feeling of self, a spacious dimension of, we could say, simply Being. The limitations of Descartes’ logic, “I think, therefore I am,” were pointed out to me many years ago, and I found that it did not, indeed, stand up to close scrutiny when measured against my own experience. Do I need thought to confirm that I exist, and would thought be possible if I did not? Is thinking not simply one of many activities that arise out of being?

Another concept, also quite simple to explore, and often seen as pertaining to spirituality, is that of a higher intelligence, or power, of sorts. We can reflect on this without recourse to an esoteric perspective – for example, we can observe that there are an infinite number of vastly complex functions that the human body carries out without the need for our conscious cooperation, and which are in no way the result of any human effort or intelligence. We can also open our eyes to the natural world around us, one so beautiful, complex and mysterious that it should inspire awe and wonder in any observer. Furthermore, a sense of connection to this world of nature often breeds a feeling of being part of a greater life, of belonging to a vaster Universe, as one of its component parts. The sense of separation we may carry around with us, of existing independently of the outside world as a discreet entity, is felt less solidly, and a deep feeling of peace and well-being often ensues.

In contrast, sometimes a nudge in the ribs, or worse, from life, can contribute, for some of us, to the erosion of that sense of a small, constricted, petty self, encased in a finite shell that wanders around in an “every-man-for-himself” world, ever in pursuit of elusive personal happiness. Indeed, recent events around the world and the challenging global situation are a case in point. As altruistic qualities such as compassion, solidarity, and empathy find fertile ground in which to express themselves, we are reminded of our common humanity, of our inter-connection and, to borrow a phrase from the great Satish Kumar, of the beauty of the reality that “you are, therefore I am”.[2]

And does not the word spirit refer, perhaps, to this greater, unrestricted Self?  Is it not pointing to the flame within us, the fire of life, beyond the temporary form with which it dances? It makes sense that to go about one’s life while dwelling in spirit, in the space of our Being, is more conducive to happiness than being stuck in a constricting, self-centred space where we cohabit with moody, attention-seeking companions such as excessive self-concern and self-interest. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that any actions we take on behalf of the Greater Self, anything we do that expresses the spacious dimension within us, is very much a reflection of Spirit, the embodiment of spiritual living.

But perhaps I am straying too far from the pragmatism I advocated earlier. For surely, spirituality also means engaging fully with life, and not wishing away bits of it while aspiring to exalted states or the absence of challenges – eating not just the sweet jam in the middle of the jam tart, or the chocolate centre in a bun, but the whole thing, dry crusts and bread and all. Followers of the Zen path are encouraged to “chop wood and carry water”, to focus fully on the ordinary components of everyday life. The Japanese monk Taizen Deshimaru, who helped spread Zen Buddhism in Western Europe, used to encourage his students to “persist in your ordinary practice.” Dissatisfaction with the ordinariness of much of our existence, and craving for more thrills and frills, fireworks or peak experiences, is one cause of dissonance with a life of content.

Having expressed (tentatively and partially) spirituality in these terms, perhaps I would not have sounded pretentious had I answered my friend as follows: spirituality naturally feels like an integral part of me, and not some separate, outside thing or object I could relate to dualistically. But this is in no way criticism, her turn of phrase was simply thought-provoking because it suggests that spirituality is separate from us, something we can be either drawn to or not, either choose to explore, or not.

Ultimately, perhaps this is not a question that requires an answer – at least not on the level of thought. It is hard to conceive of spirituality as separate in any way from life – and is not the fullness of life already present, wholly and complete, in this breath, in this heartbeat?

[1] Ubud is often referred to as the “spiritual hub” of Bali, and while it would be unfair not to acknowledge the legitimacy of some of what is available here, there is an equal, if not greater, abundance of ‘offerings’ of a more dubious value, each more colourful (and frequently expensive) than the last…

[2] The idea being that I exist in relation to others. If there was only me on the surface of the planet, there would be no “other” to reflect my “me-ness” back to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *