Ok it’s about time somebody said it. There is way too much stupid, weird and wishy-washy language banded about in spiritual circles. So much in fact that I don’t like to use the term ‘spirituality’ at all. Its useless to me. Wasted. Irrelevant.
It’s so easily associated with so much stuff that is lacking in critical thinking, removed from reality and alienating to people not participating in the ‘spiritual’ arena, what ever the hell that is.
Yet, at the same time, we also understand the term ‘spiritual’ to indicate the highest of human qualities. It implies wisdom, depth, and compassion. A commitment to something larger than oneself. The great men and women of our time are often said to have these qualities.
I lament the fact that the word ‘spiritual’ has so many uses and meanings. I’m sure many people who would benefit from engaging with practical teachings about the mind and how to live a meaningful life are put off by a weird world of tarot, angels, mediums and astral realms.
Walk in to a bookshop and go to the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s not to say that some of these things might have some value, and could be really interesting to explore but can’t we just use another name for them please? ‘Spiritual’ language, while perhaps sometimes inspiring, often just isn’t applicable to the reality of our daily lives, and frankly it’s often embarrassing to use the ‘S’ word.
Frequently its vocabulary serves to reinforce a framework and perspective of the world that is akin to religion: long on preaching, short on relevance, and all too often requiring belief in something that may or may not exist.
Of course spirituality in its broadest sense is about many things, and many interpretations of these many things. For me though, what I wish the core of spirituality came down to is this: developing compassion for ourselves and others through gaining insight into the nature of our minds.
I think it is important to define spirituality in these terms because in doing so we get down to what is most universally applicable and important. We make it secular in nature and more relevant to those who might benefit from its insights but have no time or interest in fluff. We strip away all the indulgent and seductive aspects of spirit and make it human again. Apposite and of use, right now.
What greater ideal could there be than to be at peace with our experience of the world? And what is it that filters our experience of the world and determines the quality of our mood and perception of ourselves and the world? Mind. So it strikes me that if what we truly want is to be content and live well, we have to start with our mind.
This definition of spirituality is essentially an enquiry in to the nature of who we are and how we work at the most practical level. It’s a secular definition that should alienate less people and could apply to everyone.
It brings us together, ‘spiritual’ and ‘not spiritual’ folk alike, demonstrating that these definitions do not really exist: we all want to make the best of our minds and our experience of reality.
It’s all spirit and no fluff. It requires no belief in anything you can’t see or can’t prove and it’s concerned with our real lives, right now.
When falling in love, we long for each other when we are apart and gain immeasurable pleasure from being together. Ecstatic energy flows between two bodies rapt in love. We blithely bathe in oceans of lust. When falling in love we cannot get enough.
For many people what they wish for most is to fall in love. And yet, the consequences of a love gone wrong are potentially so devastatingly and crushingly brutal that the aftermath of a relationship turned sour can literally be a life destroyed.
People kill others for love. People kill themselves out of love. Depression and heartbreak are symptoms of falling in love with the wrong person. All of which makes me wonder – is it too risky to fall in love?
Falling in love has to be one of the most intoxicating mental states available to us in the great pantheon of mundane and crazy experiences that comprise the human condition. In fact, looking back at the experience from a decidedly sober and not ‘falling in love’ state of mind, it strikes me how ridiculous and almost delusional the whole process seems.
It’s not just the subjective experience of being completely besotted with someone else, it’s the way we become so willing to give up so much to be with that other. Love is strong. Love strips us of our volition. Love derails plans, estranges us from friends and empties our pockets.
Falling in love is inherently risky. Most relationships fail and even those that ‘work’ are fraught with difficulties along the way. Falling in love exposes our deepest insecurities, triggers powerful feelings, and bestows great power in the hands of another. Falling in love opens us up to to the possibility of rejection, of not being good enough.
Falling in love makes us vulnerable and creates a gamble that wasn’t there before: that while we may win the love of another, we could just so easily lose it. The price of losing this gamble is rejection, and the triggering of any related past traumas. Love is a land inhabited by the demons and devils of our early-life conditioning. Only the brave would dare to tread here.
At least you’d think so… But in reality we do not choose to fall in love, love chooses us. Or rather, mysterious and powerful unconscious forces propel us irreversibly to collide with the universe of another.
Only if we have already been hurt sufficiently do we start to question whether we want to fall in love. Or maybe we proceed with more caution, chastened by experience, battle weary and wary of exposing ourselves to more pain.
Ultimately though, love can be a powerful tool. It is one of life’s great teachers, if we are receptive to it’s lessons and pay attention to the wisdom it can inspire. The burning light of love exposes the darkest recesses of our hearts.
It shows us the ways in which we hurt, the ways we react when our insecurities are triggered, and offers us the opportunity to bring these ghouls out of the dark and in to conscious awareness. Slowly we are given a method by which to integrate our pain, and with the other, or without the other, we grow.
It is sometimes said that before you can love someone else you have to love yourself. I think this is a stupid saying – not least because it gets banded about without anyone really knowing what it means, and in any case you can’t just simply decide to start loving yourself all of a sudden.
However I do think these words allude to an important truth. Before we can have a truly healthy relationship in love, one in which we are not using the other in order to fill something missing within ourselves, we need to be whole. This means we need to have developed to the point where our sense of self worth is not dependent on the validation of another.
Until life is ‘okay’ without the sweetness of our beloved’s touch, we run the risk of being broken by any subsequent withdrawal of love. And this is the challenge. Often, without consciously realising it, many people will use love because it will provide them with a sense of what they most need – to know that they are worthy of someone’s affection, to know that they are not alone.
But to rely on someone else for these comforts is to deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering them within oursleves. We take when we should give, and despite feeling strengthened by relationship, we give our power away.
Yes, it is risky to fall in love, too risky perhaps. It is also seldom a choice we make. But for those consumed by love’s mysterious waters, who are able to listen and learn, love is a teacher and love will help us grow. Love can hurt, but slowly love can heal.
An earlier version of this article was published in July 2013.
When I was 16 I had an embarrassing experience that at once humiliated me and taught me an invaluable lesson. I was in my first ever sociology class at college and the lecturer had asked a simple question: ‘How long can a man survive without food and water?’ Without thinking, I instinctively and proudly blurted out the answer: ’40 days and nights!’ I declared.
Before the words had even finished leaving my mouth, I had an awful feeling that something strange and terrible had just happened. Years of religious indoctrination that I thought I had battled my whole life to successfully repel had indeed penetrated my thoughts and being at a fundamental level after all.
Stories about Jesus on an epic desert mind-bender had somehow got muddled up with what I thought I knew about survival. Humiliated by my completely factless answer, I realised with a crunching and disheartening feeling of dread that I couldn’t trust my own mind.
To his credit my lecturer’s ploy had worked, his point had been made, and in a subtle way my life and how I consider myself would never be the same. I felt a lot of shame that day in class as I so nakedly revealed to my cohort the extent of my religious conditioning. These days I’m grateful for the lesson I received though, for it highlighted how easily we humans have a capacity for absorbing and communicating bullshit.
‘Question everything’, my lecturer later said—and these words have never left me, as pertinent now as they were then.
For those of us interested in discovering what life is really about, there is much to question. Government propaganda, mainstream and alternative news providers, inescapable, omnipresent and manipulative advertising, PR campaigns, supermarket shelves, laws and rules, religious and new age thinking, science, popular cultural values, social norms, education, childhood upbringings and more, all convey messages that influence our thoughts and behaviour, and all implicitly or explicitly provide instructions for how to live.
The cultural and institutional structures that shape our world tell a narrative we could take as the truth if we chose not to question everything.
As a result of this conditioning, our minds are a quagmire of deeply held assumptions about the way things are, that may or may not correspond with ‘reality’, whatever that is. There’s a lot out there to question, and even more to distract us from doing so. But if we want to live lives that are a product, at least to a degree, of freethinking and autonomous decisions, we have to take this journey.
If we’re trying to work out how life might look if we could discard the myriad ways we’ve been conditioned, if we want to live lives that are real and meaningful we must be prepared to consider the possibility that everything we know is wrong. In fact, I would suggest, this is a pretty good place to start.
You know when the mask begins to crack. The mask you’ve worn for so long no longer feels comfortable. Not that it ever truly did, but now for some reason you cannot pretend it’s okay. Once the mask has cracked things cannot and will not remain the same. Though for a while you may resist, inevitably, change is coming.
The cracking of the mask occurs when it is no longer possible or desirable to conceal the true nature of who and what you are. It happens when you realise your old ways of being, thinking and doing belong in the past. It comes when you acknowledge that who you’ve been so far is a relic of your old, limited and conditioned self, and that it is time for change. To paraphrase those oft quoted words of Anaïs Nin, the day comes when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.
And when that time for change comes, you will not be able to rest easy until you’ve taken action. Though there may be those around you who do not understand the path you’ve chosen, or who are threatened by your new disregard for convention, do not be perturbed. Remember that fortune favours the brave, that on your deathbed you want to look back and know you had the conviction to follow what was right and true.
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of passively accepting a lack of fulfilment in our lives. It’s the path that rarely brought anyone a deep sense of meaning, but it is what is expected of us, and it’s reinforced by the cultural narratives we are surrounded by. No one warns of it’s pitfalls. For those of us not clear enough in our minds about how we want to live, or not strong or confident enough to do anything about it, the path of mediocrity sucks us in like a black hole consumes whatever has the misfortune of straying too close.
Do not fear the cracking of the mask. Though change is afoot, what you lose you won’t miss, and what you gain will be immeasurable. Have courage, believe in your values, and remember you will not only be doing yourself a favour by embracing a new mode of being. By choosing this path of authenticity you will inspire others to do the same. You will be a more positive presence in the lives of those you know. Though challenges await, know that nothing of worth was ever gained easily.
Do not fear the cracking of the mask.
The author and philosopher Alain de Botton once said ‘Whatever one does, the inner shmuck never quite goes away’. I’m afraid I have to agree. While we all have moments or perhaps even extended periods where we feel good and life flows, we can be sure it is only time that separates us from a reunion with the dragon inside.
It is hard to overestimate the strength of the conditioning of our early lives, and the capacity of our monkey minds to make miserable what should be merry. Indeed, many of us spend years, or perhaps even lives, working on ways to cleanse that inner shmuck.
That’s not to say that type of work is not necessary, admirable or indeed a worthy cause, but that there is a valuable lesson in acknowledging it may never be complete.
Realising the inner shmuck ‘never quite goes away’ need not depress us, though it may. Rather, it is an opportunity, a prompt to come up with strategies to mitigate the damage when the shmuck returns and to accept a fundamental tenet of life in this earthly realm.
Mindfulness practice and particularly meditation are such strategies, and regular practice of each, in time, develops our ability to observe the shmuck rather than react to and fall victim to it. Observing but not reacting denies negative thoughts the fuel they need to burn and consequently their fire recedes more quickly.
Knowing the inner shmuck never quite goes away teaches us to live with our foibles, and to have tolerance for the foibles of others. At times it may depress the shit out of us, but realising this universal truth of human nature is a key step on the path to accepting who we are and what we have become.