“Spiritual” practice has been a very large part of my life for around the last two or so years. And it is an aspect of life. Too many of us see a magic bullet in the area of spiritual practice, a sort of naive notion that if we only meditate well enough, recite enough mantras, that our lives will magically re-align towards our highest and deepest intentions, that we will be exposed to nothing but grace and beauty forever more. But the hard fact of the matter is that this is nonsense, juvenile misunderstanding of what is in truth a complex and subtle set of phenomena and behaviors that require just as much conscious input as learning to drive or speaking a new language.
It’s been the unfortunate blind spot in far too many conversations with spiritually-minded peers I’ve had over the last twenty-four months: the idea that if we only reach that pinnacle state of enlightenment in the exact right way, our lives will reorient towards the fundamentally good: our pains will dissolve like so much sea-spray in the wind, our relationships will flow as easily as the day we first met, our finances will of their own accord balloon and prosper. We used to think this magic bullet was atheism, or perhaps religion. We might have thought it was getting that house we wanted, the new guitar, the new appliance, the girl or boy we felt that spark of cosmic attraction to.
This is all desire. It should be obvious from the get-go that we are chasing our own tails here. Why do we want what we want? Why do we supposedly need all these things to be different? Simply because we cannot truly face up to our situations as they are in this moment, with all their loose ends, violence, harsh words, sick feelings in the stomach of dread and anxiety, moments spent weeping for better times. This here, these sufferings; these are the contents of our souls. They are arising because we have not spent quality face-to-face time with them, we haven’t given them our full attention. That which we ignore, recurs.
What do we want here? It really is to have everything fixed. To settle the raging waters of the infinite ocean of samsara (Sanskrit word), the wheel of birth, death and suffering. To put everything in its place, and to have a place for everything. To flow, unimpeded, through the maelstrom of human existence, unscathed.
Let me ask you something. Would you bother turning up at all if this was truly the case? Would you take incarnation, be here in a body, exist as a “somebody”, if all of your shit was neatly filed away and required no further action on your behalf? Of course not. You would cease to exist at all. As the Buddha pointed out, and as Schopenhauer echoed, existence is suffering. It is not just that suffering is an ever-present aspect of existence, it is in fact the precondition for it. No-one comes here without unfinished business. This whole world game is a mopping up operation. And we are the cleaners.
Why are we still murdering children? Because there is yet work left to do in our hearts. Why do the forests burn for furniture? Because we have not conquered our desires, our greed, our avarice. This whole big play is in some very real sense a lesson in non-attachment; in not being taken in fully by the drama of Maya, illusion, that captivates so many and is penetrated by so few.
So the question must be, now, how do we stop the great chain of suffering, of wanting and grasping, of sorrow and death? Well, it would seem to me that the only way out of this particular dilemma is to realize that firstly there is no-one that it is happening to. Who is this “I, myself”, to whom you refer when someone asks you who you are? Can you pin him or her down and show me? Of course not. You are not the same person you were when you read the beginning of this sentence. You are an aggregate of processes and phenomena that involves intimately the entire playful patterning of form and energy that we call the cosmos. Take a flower for example. It can only exist as a product of things which are “not-flower”, the dirt, the oxygen, the light of the sun, water, various nutrients and so on. The flower itself is empty of self-nature, it is a combination of “not-flower” aspects that combine to make “flower”. And you, my flowery friend, are in no way any different. There is no central self to the human experience, simply a shifting, changing, fluxing mess of sensation and perception, of the whirlpools of food and waste, of breath and of heat.
Most of our fears and pains come from mistaking the apparently solid-looking fluctuation of energy for separate and definable entities in space-time. If one looks at a cloud, they may pick out defined features in that cloud, and say, “look, there is the shape of a horse!”. But after a short while, the forces of nature will cast this form to the winds, and the “horse” will be no more. We may weep for the disappearance of this form, but in truth we are weeping for nothing more than appearance itself; the hallucination of consistency and identity. It is, however uncomfortable we may at first feel about it, exactly the same with our loved ones and that which we treasure most. We are all fleeting apparitions, without substance or permanency.
Secondly, there is nothing to get out of, you are perfect as you are, right now. There truly is no problem here other than the suggestion you have made that there is a problem. “Problems” do not exist in reality, there are no such things. You cannot pick one up, point to one, or scientifically demonstrate through measurement the existence of a “problem” in and of itself. A “problem” is an operation of mind, much like analysis or counting. It is made by people, for people, and often against “other” people for the purposes of “solving” another “problem” already made. I’m sure you are beginning to see where I’m coming from. There is no natural law or physical necessity for there to be any such thing as a “problem”. One may say, “Well we all die, there is a problem for all men and women, no matter how you look at it!”. But this is, again, simply an attitude towards quanta. It says nothing about reality itself and everything about the nervous system categorizing it. Death, on even the most rudimentary level of reflection, is anything but a problem. It prevents overcrowding, and keeps living fresh.
“Problems” are simply the indicator of a mind which has yet to find constructive solutions to the fact of existing on a small carbon based globe orbiting a nuclear furnace. They reveal an opportunity for a shift in attitude, because after all, what we need are plans, not lamentations.
So, this brings me back to my original point, which I have vaguely spelled out in a roundabout way: we keep expecting our “problems” to be solved by some magic bullet cure. As I have shown, this attitude simply pales in comparison to what I consider to be a sober reading of our situation, which is thus: we have no problems, what we are in need of is plans. Real, genuine, intelligent appraisals of the various aspects of our living, and honest and dedicated efforts to improve our experience in as many ways as possible. Sometimes this is as simple as a change of perspective, from a “problem” mindset to a “plan” mindset. The most forceful realization I had was that I needed to clean up my act; to order my life, to practice genuine compassion and love and not to simply leave it on the back-burner when I feel jilted, annoyed or upset. Now, where before I had seen “problems”, I see opportunities to test my patience, to cultivate loving awareness and action, to respond as an awake and sensible individual.
And this is why I have come to feel this is the important piece to our puzzle: it murders ego-clinging. We are all seeking a quick fix, but the harsh truth is that there’s no such thing. What is required of us is to be awake, to be fully present, and to cultivate the qualities of compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity, and responsibility in each of our lives; and to make these qualities as accessible to others as their sufferings. No-one else is going to save us. We are our own Christ’s, our own Brahma’s, our own Vishnu’s, our own Shiva’s, our own Allah’s, our own Buddha’s, and the sooner we wake up to this and step into who we genuinely are, as opposed to these frightened, cobbled together ideas of ourselves we defend so vigilantly, the sooner we will find all that we have been seeking all along.
We are what we are looking for. May we embrace our responsibilities with grace, and the clarity of loving awareness.