Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash
Spirituality is a brave search for the truth about existence, fearlessly peering into the mysterious nature of life.
In quiet moments, when there is nothing but you and your thoughts, have you ever felt like something is missing in your life? Like something is wrong?
Except, you can?t imagine how to solve it. Not your relationships, partner, family, job, money, travel ? nothing, it seems in these moments, can fill that particular void.
You are at a loss to explain what exactly you need.
Then, as quickly as they appear, these moments are gone. You are sucked back into your life, pursuing all the things you know deep down won?t solve the problem. But, at least for the time being, you can convince yourself that what you are pursuing is good enough.
Moments like these aren?t rare for humans. If you have enough of them, you might be drawn to a religion or something else you might call spiritual.
We?re drawn to these things because they can offer something that no other aspect of our lives can ? a regular reminder that there is something bigger and more important than us.
But, why does this matter? What is it about how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world that makes such a difference to the satisfaction we feel toward life itself?
And, do we need religion to fill this void, at all?
The start of my spiritual path
I laid down on my bed and closed my eyes. Then, I started counting my breaths.
As I recall, the next thing I knew my alarm was sounding. I turned it off, confused. Wasn?t I supposed to be doing something?
This was my introduction to meditation.
It was a long time before I stopped falling asleep each time I closed my eyes, and longer still until I adopted a regular practice.
At the time, I didn?t know how meditation could help me, or whether it could help me at all. I just knew that some people were saying it was a key component to living a good life.
And this mattered to me because I had always felt like something was wrong with the world, or at least, with me. I had an itch I couldn?t scratch. Sure, I could make myself forget about it with going to university, getting married, doing the 9?5, then traveling around Asia for 8 months ? but it was always just sitting there, patiently waiting for me to stumble upon it again.
A couple years ago, I began looking into the philosophy behind meditation. Why do people do it? Where did it come from? It seemed to me like such a strange thing to do.
How could sitting with my eyes closed while I count my breaths change anything about my life?
What I?ve discovered is that meditation is the start of a journey that I can only describe as spiritual. And that journey has changed everything.
I would not describe myself as a religious person.
I would describe myself as a person of science. I care about evidence that has been generated in a dispassionate, repeatable manner using the scientific method.
So, as you can imagine, even the concept of spirituality once made my eyes roll. What possible use could spirituality have in a world of science, I would sneer.
I have since eaten those words. Hungrily.
When I could no longer ignore the itch, I acknowledged there might be something more to life than I understood. Perhaps not beyond science period, but perhaps beyond or near the boundary of what we know today.
I began looking for people who could help me understand how and why meditation could change my life. Podcasts like 10% Happier and Waking Up sometimes offered some understanding.
It was from these that I learned of a man called Joseph Goldstein. He has perhaps the most simultaneously boring and fascinating podcast in the history of podcasts. And he?s cemented this fact with its title, Insight Hour with Joseph Goldstein.
Though, as unlikely as it would be, I hope he never reads the previous paragraph because I am in utter awe of him. Wisdom flows as easily out of his mouth as profanity does out of mine.
It?s through these podcasts that I?ve come to understand more about the context in which meditation has traditionally been taught. This context, this philosophy, this set of ideas, give purpose to meditation.
It?s been through these podcasts that I?ve started to comprehend what it might mean to be spiritual in a non-religious sense.
Although meditation and the ideas I talk about later are associated with Buddhism, the religious and supernatural aspects are easily removed. The resulting doctrine is sometimes called secular Buddhism because you need not take any of it on faith.
Meditation forms the foundation of secular Buddhism. Without meditation, the philosophy that accompanies it at best fall flat and at worst make life a little less good.
Today, people practice meditation for all kinds of reasons, including stress reduction, boosting creativity and memory, and forming better relationships. Whether any of these benefits arise, however, is not the point of this article.
I?m no expert, but what I do hear from the experts is that the true value of meditation lies in mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? It?s the ability to observe the mind.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, if you?ve ever sat down to meditate, you will have noticed how powerful the urge can be to, quite literally, do anything else. If this is your situation right now, have hope ? this is everyone?s situation when they first start out.
Although meditating is simple, in principle, it?s easy for no one to learn. And this is because it?s an unusual way of using our minds.
It?s also an extremely useful way of using our minds.
Seeing through delusion
So, how does mindfulness help us?
A central aspect of Buddhism is that we are deluded into thinking that the world and ourselves are something they are not. Mindfulness helps us see through this delusion.
The more we practice observing our minds through meditation, the more we begin to see patterns emerging in our thoughts and emotions. Eventually, we start to comprehend experientially (as opposed to intellectually) some fundamental ?truths? about the nature of our existence.
The first thing we notice is dukkha, which is a pali word often translated as ?suffering?, but is perhaps better understood as ?unsatisfactoriness?. We start to see with great clarity all the moments during our day where we experience dukkha, but don?t have to.
These are moments of anger during rush hour, fear of speaking in front of a room full of colleagues, frustration at our partner for making plans without consulting us, or annoyance that our favourite football team is not playing their best. Whatever the cause, you begin to see how these moments of unsatisfactoriness add up over the course of a day.
The second thing we notice is that all things are impermanent. Moments, thoughts, emotions, and sensations all come and go. They never linger beyond their time. This concept applies to happiness and joy just as much as to dukkha.
Although this may be intellectually obvious to you, there is great wisdom to be gained by seeing how we behave despite having this knowledge. You will eventually notice how hard you cling to what you like and how hard you push away what you dislike, and how much dukkha these futile actions cause you.
The third thing we notice is how wholly out of control our minds and bodies are to us. When you sit down to meditate for the first time, you will be amazed by how quickly you?re overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions, neither of which you can control. They impinge upon your consciousness with alarming frequency and tenacity.
You will also begin to notice that your body is equally out of your control. If your foot loses feeling while you?re sitting, you cannot will the feeling to come back. Similarly, if you?re sick you can?t will your body to not be sick. So, too, are you helpless in the face of aging ? you cannot will yourself to have less wrinkles or to be less stiff in the mornings.
Mindfulness allows us to see the nature of our existence more clearly. And it is in seeing this nature for ourselves, through our experience and not just our understanding, that we are able to let go of much of the dukkha that we carry around with us every day. And when we are able to do that, we are able to experience life in a more relaxed and joyous state.
If you?re curious about whether this way of life aligns with neuroscience and evolutionary and cognitive psychology, I?d suggest you pick up the excellent book Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.
Why life feels good when it?s more than about me
Natural selection hasn?t made us care about the boundaries of our bodies, and the bodies of the people we love, for nothing. This simple rule is a good one as far as self-preservation is concerned. And since natural selection only ?cares? about individuals passing their genes onto the next generation, it makes sense that this features is deeply inbedded in our psyches.
However, as our mindfulness grows, and we begin to experientially grasp the nature of dukkha, impermanence, and our lack of control over ourselves, the boundaries between us and ?other? begin to fade.
Wright reports, during a meditation retreat, that the song of a bird felt no different than a tingling in his foot. This is a common experience for meditators.
Although this might seem strange, remember that everything we think and feel is happening in the brain. His brain was interpreting the sound of the bird as well as the tingling in his foot, and they were both being felt in the same place ? consciousness.
It is this kind of reframing of our experiences that can have a huge impact on the quality of our lives. And this ?reframing? seems to happen when we meditate and begin to observe the experience of our lives a little more closely.
For most of my life, I?ve been a terribly insecure person, constantly worried about making mistakes and whether people like me. However, since I started a daily meditation practice, my experience of events that would have previously caused me a great deal of stress has slowly changed.
Today, if I make a mistake in front of colleagues, friends, or family, it now feels like that mistake is less mine. I feel far less embarrassment, shame, or regret than I would have previously, though that doesn?t stop me from taking responsibility for it, if necessary.
Another example is how I react when someone cuts me off in traffic. I used to scream and curse and vow vengeance. Now, I tend to view these occurrences simply as events rather than as insults.
In other words, life feels less like it?s happening to me, and more like it?s just happening.
What?s interesting, and a little paradoxical, is that although this perspective has gifted me with a healthy distance from my thoughts and emotions, it?s also made me feel more connected with people and my life than I ever have before.
When I relate strongly to my thoughts and feelings, when I call them ?my? and ?mine?, I get caught up in them. They become more than what they are. When things seem like they?re happening to me, rather than just happening, this can be a cause of great, and perhaps needless, suffering.
Meditation and the concepts of dukkha, impermanence, and lack of control, can help us relate less strongly to our thoughts and emotions. But, not in the sense of not caring. We just see more clearly that trying to push them away or hold onto them tightly only results in our own suffering.
Because I (partially and sometimes!) remove ?my? and ?mine? from the equation, there is less to be self-conscious about, and so I am more able to be authentically me.
Being more authentically me has allowed me to have better relationships, perform better at work, start persistent writing and meditating practices, and, in general, feel more at peace with the world than I ever have. And this is why I think the spiritual path is the precursor to all other paths ? because it lays the foundation for performing optimally.
Not that everything is perfect. Far from it. There are many aspects of my life that I want to improve. But I?m also confident now that I will improve them.
And, this fleeting feeling I have sometimes ? of oneness with the world, with people, with all things ? offers me a better view of life. I am more inclined to see my own suffering in others, and thereby feel compassion for their dukkha.
Isn?t this what we?re all looking for? The sense that we?re all in this together? A connectedness that binds us all to a single goal? A single cause? Something bigger than ourselves?
I think this particular spiritual path could bring humanity together in the most beautiful of ways. Because, for whatever reason, when the human mind relaxes and becomes less concerned with ?itself?, it naturally expresses an awe, love, and compassion I believe all of us are seeking, but very few of us every find.
What are you waiting for?
The thoughts presented here have been informed by, among others, Robert Wright, Sam Harris, and Joseph Goldstein.
This is the perspective that secular Buddhism offers. A compassionate love for all things. A feeling of interconnectedness among all things.
By helping to pull us out of our own heads, this way of life shows us the beauty that lies beyond. It softens our hearts and expands our minds.
The distance we create from our thoughts and emotions doesn?t mean we stop caring ? indeed, we care even more. Because we understand. We understand the predicament of being conscious. We understanding the suffering, the dukkha, that is involved, and the great and important journey of ridding ourselves of it.
Ultimately, secular Buddhism is a path to removing ?self? from the centre of our universe and replacing it will ?all?.
This is the journey I?m on. Will you join me?