In the kind of work I do in Spiritual Naturalism, I encounter a great number of people who are looking for wisdom and peace in their lives. They are interested in what our approach has to offer. We have humorous discussions about how aggravated they get in traffic or when they lose their keys. I see progress made, as they begin to understand the insights of the philosophies we discuss. As they engage in meditation. As they begin to put other exercises into practice.
Then a real tragedy arises.
This could be a personal tragedy, or some large scale world event that is too much to bear. One of the first impulses I see is a recoil from all this ‘spirituality stuff’. It was all fun and games but now, so they say, it is time to ‘get real’. Some say, these ideas are no competition for a turn of events of this magnitude. The world, they feel, is calling them to stop worrying about their equanimity and peace, and do something. And off they go, charging with their flag in a rage. There are many misconceptions embedded in this kind of response…
1) It is not going to be ‘ok’
One of the hallmarks of the Spiritual Naturalist approach is a union of spiritual practice with reason. That is, a rational approach to our worldview – to our ways of knowing or ways of deriving fact. We are not faith-based. And so, our path is not one where we look for ways to convince ourselves that “everything will be ok”, that “it will all turn out for the best”, or that it “is all part of some plan for the good”. Indeed, we know factually that it does not always turn out for the best. It is not going to be ‘ok’ if by that phrase one means that desired external circumstances will necessarily come into being.
Yet, our philosophy is also not one of nihilism or despair. That middle path that runs between delusion and desolation is narrow and shrouded, but it can be traversed. The beginning of this path is the awareness of from what vantage point we assign values of ‘for the best’ and ‘ok’. It is knowing the distinction between the goal-seeking of our ego, and Nature/Reality.
Further down the path is a coming to terms with Nature and its ways (the Logos, the Tao, or ‘the way of the Force’ if you prefer). Next comes a new value system less attached to our ego and its transitory concerns. Through exercises that maintain constant awareness on the transitory nature of all things but which develop an aesthetic appreciation for this dynamic tapestry, and a skillful means of dancing with it, we can begin to become One with Nature. Such a being is not shocked by tragic events, nor has their mindfulness of the inevitability of tragedy caused them to resign themselves to them, defeated. They are more like someone who has already moved through Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief before the events have even happened.
2) This stuff is for big deals
I have heard people say such philosophies and practices ‘can’t handle this‘ – as if these troubles are so large that they overcome any training. Human beings have their limits after all, right? The kinds of wisdom practices that we promote are for the big things. If they were only for fender benders or dealing with rude co-workers or mere annoyances they would be of much less value. There would be no reason for an organization like the Society. Though we may use them as introductions, we are not here for euphemistic postcard quotes. The life-changing experiences that have driven we true believers to dedicate our lives to this would be irrelevant. No, your spiritual practice is for the really serious, really big, challenges and the most horrible of times. Such times are why we are here.
The reason people misunderstand or don’t see just how powerful these practices are, is because they have not yet experienced how transformative they can be. And that is because they do not practice. So much of our society (or sub-groups, religions, clubs, etc) are about pledging allegiance to various sets of opinions, claims, principles, doctrines, or conclusions. Yet these various flags and statements we rally around are nothing; merely vanity.
What matters is doing it – engaging in a productive practice on a day to day basis. We learn regularly and select those practices needed for conscious transformation toward the kind of being we are to become. Meditation, reading, introspection, contemplation, journaling, and opening one’s self to penetrating, experiential ritual. These are the things that help us to alter our thinking habits, our reactions, our perceptions over time. We alter them toward being more in tune with the nature of our reality. Such a person is prepared for tragedy, for uncertainty, and for dark times – not as bound by attachments and delusions about the world, but instead focused firmly on what is in our control with clear, compassionate, resolve.
But having not engaged in regular spiritual practices, we run to them in despair after the darkness has already come, only to find them shallow or of little comfort. This is like rushing to the gym for the first time after realizing you will need to be strong tomorrow. The wisdom that practice works to instill cannot be absorbed on simple reading or intellectual grasping.
In the same way, a teacher coming to one with advice to lift weights in the midst of a test of strength is as ludicrous. This article may be an example of that, depending on who is reading and when, so let me also say this… For current times of despair, let us offer caring, fellowship, a shoulder, and an ear. Our best advice here is patience. Time to absorb can remove the sting of shocking events, and help us to center. While having not practiced in the past is not within our control, the promise of a better path in the future can be comforting too.
3) Practice does not preclude action
Perhaps one of the most insidious notions that leads many to lapse is the idea that all of this ‘spiritual stuff’ is escapist; that it is about locking one’s self into a nice quiet room with a candle in meditation. They think, “Meditation and compassion, patience, loving-kindness – that’s all fine and good, but there is evil out there and we need to do something! The nicer we are, the more they take advantage.” This is 180 degrees opposite of proper understanding.
Not only are these practices something that can ‘co-exist’ with action, they demand action, and they are essential to action.
The Sage not only understands what is not within his or her control, the Sage also knows what is within control – that being the will, or choice. Specifically, choices consistent with a moral-rational being and which, by their nature of human compatibility, naturally result in flourishing.
Challenging times can galvanize the needed response. Such times cry out for bravery, for strength, for compassion, for true greatness.
But the Sage understands that while virtuous and compassionate action are a requisite of equanimity and flourishing, the outcomes of those actions are not. This is how an inexhaustible fountain of compassion, persistence, and forbearance are maintained in the face of supreme darkness. The strength and flourishing comes from the purity of motivation and action – not from the requirement for particular ends. This is mindful action, and can often identify more fruitful, elegant, or skillful ways to address issues without the shadow of the ego.
Meanwhile, despair and inner turmoil lead to hopelessness and inaction. Even anger may seem to be a fire that feeds action for a time, but it burns out quickly. And, as it burns, the action it produces if off kilter, unbalanced, short-sighted, and often more destructive than constructive. The actions of the disturbed tend more toward selfish indulgence than efficacy.
As we close, let us consider these affirmations. The following are the kinds of insights that the well practiced and flourishing have incorporated into their way of being, the kinds of insights that the student strives to instill, and the kinds of notions that only reveal their most shallow layer to the newcomer…
Forms include objects, people, relationships, nations, worlds, health, wealth, and more.
All events happen because of prior conditions.
All forms are impermanent and ever-changing.
Birth is the coming into being of forms.
Death is the disassociation of forms.
Birth and Death are two ends of a cycle, which together constitute the process of Life.
All forms, including the ego, are illusory and subjective. They say more about our own self-serving classifications, demarcations, and labels than about objective Nature/Reality.
Birth and Death are therefore illusory and subjective events regarding an illusory and subjective thing.
What is real is conscious experience, suffering, and the interconnection of all things. Compassion is both the result of, and essential to, comprehension of this interconnectedness.
In all of these events, there is only one procession – only one Reality we will experience. Therefore, talk or thought of ‘could have’, ‘should have’, ‘what if’, ‘if only’ is meaningless. There is only what ‘is’ – one Nature – one Reality.
Our spiritual maturity depends on becoming One with Nature – that is, forming the way we see, think, feel, react, and act to be consistent with the truth of Reality. In such an ideal state, we would not need to remind ourselves of words of wisdom – we would be wise.
May you find wisdom, grow in practice, live compassionately, and find peace.
Now let us get to work.
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8 thoughts on “Equanimity in Troubled Times”
This is fantastic. And well-timed.
One nitpick: If forms are “illusory”, then I think you mean to say forms are *perceptions* of objects, people, etc. Otherwise, you are saying the world is literally illusory, and I don’t think that’s your intended meaning.
Thanks! What ‘forms are illusory’ means is something like the question, “Is the Big Dipper real?” Does it exist, or does it subsist? Could we have drawn our mental line around other stars and named it something else? This is what our mind does with the objects in our world. Are chairs real? Are they even connected in any way to other chairs? Or, are they only connected to one another by associations in our mind, based on correlated traits we chose to categorize by? Do we draw a mental line around groups of particles in a certain formation and call them all chairs when, in reality, these distinctions are more about serving our needs and interests than any objective truth? What if we instead primarily named all curvy things by a name, be they curvy chairs or tables? What if we thought only about the ‘race of left handed people’ or the ‘race of tall people’ instead of dividing by skin color? The comedian Stephen Wright said that he always wore matching socks but he matched by texture instead of color. Is he wrong?
It’s not that reality isn’t real – it’s just that its true nature is quite different than we often assume. This becomes especially important when we conceive of various conditions, entities, and objects as though they are something they are not (unchangeable or permanent or predestined to a certain fate). Forgetting is the beginning of attachment. Being aware of how much of ourselves we bring to reality can help us to stay mindful of this.
A form is “the shape and structure of something as distinguished from its material” (Merriam-Webster.com). Forms are illusionary in the sense that we tend to interpret the world as permanent, unchangeable, and reliable. It is not. Neither are people.
The great truth of Buddhism is that reality is not a thing, it is a process. We are a process. We are not permanent, unchangeable, and reliable. Friends, family, and politicians are all processes. They are not permanent, unchangeable, and reliable.
But, as the saying goes, “Relax. Nothing is under control.” We don’t like reality, we don’t like the fact that things are not under control. Bad things happen to good people. That is just the way the world is. Embrace the reality that the world is filled with suffering, that attachment to the illusion of permanence and reliability is causing our unhappiness, and that acceptance is the way out.
Yes, our view of the world is literally an illusion. It is not that there are no protons, neutrons and electrons, but our view of the world is limited, biased, and self-centered. Our sciences have grained genuine insight into the world, but our mental maps have not caught up. To use Wilfrid Sellars’ terminology, our “manifest image” does not match our “scientific image.”
The Buddha warned about attachment to views. We cling to interpretative frameworks that make us unhappy. The view that things are permanent, unchangeable, and reliable is false, and it inevitably results in us being unhappy. Seeing reality as it truly is, is seeing the flux of reality, the flux of human history and culture. Seeing this allows us to surf the waves of uncertainty, without being pulled under.
Beautifully stated… this is quite helpful in my processing the current events that I am experiencing. I can’t thank you enough. With tremendous gratitude.
Thank you for reading Mys’teaq. Happy to know it is helpful. Best wishes 🙂
Well said Jay! 🙂
Great discussion. Very helpful descriptions of these ideas. What I wonder more about is why our minds perceive things as rigidly and inaccurately as the last two comments assert. What are the “needs” involved, why do we have such a hard time with lack of control? The descriptions make our minds sound quite dysfunctional and I’m wondering what a more neutral language might look like. It seems to me our minds work hard at sorting things out, keeping people and things identified and classified, so we can function reasonably safely and successfully day to day. We do have needs to meet and predictability helps us do that. Clearly, though, our mental habits also get in our way, our preconceptions backfire constantly, we are disappointed. I think the complex modern social, political, and economic life we are in the middle of aggravates the downsides of a mental capacity that also, under less strained conditions, enables us to connect happily to others and adjust to our environment.
Interesting thoughts and questions, Brock. Thanks. I think the way our brains categorize and prioritize, identify, label, etc. all work pretty good for fulfilling the basic biological drives (move around, avoid harm, find food and mates, etc).
One of the issues, I think, is that “we” – the rational, aware, being – is not really the same entity as this biological organism on which it runs. It is more of an informational network operating at a more abstract level than the merely functional parts of the brain – maybe even an incidental side effect.
As such, this ‘person’ that emerges out of that interconnectivity need not choose to take on the same goals and purposes of simple biology. We are not content to merely assess facts relevant to survival and prospering in our current environment. We need and want to know what is ‘supremely true’ for higher reasons. Our brains weren’t really honed by natural selection to that purpose, so we have to take on some ‘hacks’ or workarounds to account for our own limitations.
Conceiving of reality in its true form actually gets in the way of the direct kind of practical operations organisms must carry out in order to function in their environment. But pursuit of such insight may be integral to human happiness or flourishing.