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.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.