The usual, problem-solving mind says that the solution is always Out There, with resources to be gathered and people to be swayed, and this has often extended to spiritual practice in my own life: a sense that the unconditional and the good is somewhere away from here and I have to journey towards it.
I’m not going to blather on as if I’m telling you anything clever or subtle about how actually it’s the opposite way around, and you contain everything you need right here, the spark of divinity and so on. In fact, the more honest answer is that is a paradox, that there is work to be done to work out that insight is waiting to be uncovered. But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point is more to muse on a very idiosyncratic effect of this ‘out there/in here’ division that I think has been a barrier to my own practice and is worth digging into.
For some people, the spiritual path seems to be very about ‘them’. (If this seems condemnatory, then bear with me, beecause it isn’t meant to be; everything comes down to a ‘me me me’ attitude in the end anyway without liberation.) They feel a lack and they fill it in spiritual ways that, quoting people I’ve known, ‘reclaim the power that is their birthright’, ‘find their authentic self’, or ‘help them find their spirit protector’. Other people do the opposite: their practice is very much about self-denial, helping others, being mindful of desire.
I’m more aware these days of the flit-flitting between these two poles that I can do as a wish to win the game; there seems to have been guilt in ‘having anything’ but then a burnout as a result of trying to ‘possess nothing’. However, more recently, I have been thinking about blamelessness and about unity, and it’s come out of one of those wordless insights that crops up every now and then more loudly than others. If, all things being unified, non-dual, or in any case not truly separate in that ultimate fashion, then the game of trying to claim spiritual ‘powers, abilities, levels, states, stages’ is just as delusive as trying to give everything you have away. The latter in particular smells a little bit like putting oneself on a pedestal: I am so spiritual that I need nothing, and you need my gifts. I have come across a lot of popular spiritual messages recently that joyfully say ‘helping people will feel far more important than being rich when you’re awakened’, which may well be true (how would I know?), but in fact, the fact that those were written by people with at the very least access to a computer implies a level of comfort that belies this very pious message. Is it not better to admit we have wants and fears?
Now, I’m not saying that more advanced contemplative practitioners than me don’t have less of an attachment to Stuff than me, can’t deal with calamities more equanimously, can’t accept loss and grief and so on with grace and dignity, due to their insights- that they are somehow lying. I am merely saying that ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is a perfectly worthy wish. That the hierarchy of needs remains the hierarchy of needs, even if you’re sitting on the top of that pyramid busy self-actualising. Maybe your needs have become more obviously wants, and so your true needs have diminished, which sounds elegant and simple. But for me, actually, there is the realisation that I have been giving away what the universe has been giving me for a reason – to do something with it – out of foolish pride, and that conversely I have then been stealthily trying to grab things back when they haven’t been offered. (Yes, I do have a strong sense of a cosmic order at the moment, of ‘meant to be’.)
The sense of things being given to you as a sacred and loving gift by God can be most uplifting. The sense that you’re not allowed to have anything is clearly unhealthy. The prudent sense of transience, that you take careful custody of things for a time until they go, dissolve or change hands is far more healthy. I don’t just mean physical things: I can mean well-being, time, happiness, recreation, favour, success, relationships. It is very much up to me, I think, to use my intuition and a bit of common sense to allow the sense of what I am meant to have at this moment to arise, rather than quickly grab at everything I can or push everything away, these being particularly perverse forms of craving and aversion. If, to use a work example, a client cancels, maybe that’s your time to relax for just half an hour, rather than find something else to do. If another appears while your resources are stretched, maybe that’s your time to say ‘I can’t help at the moment, can you go to someone else?’ If you feel the need to meditate for hours and hours every day, but in fact you have to look after your sick mother, can that be the practice instead, accepting you can’t just drop your responsibilities saying ‘I have to do me now’?
This middle way is hard for me as should be evident. But it comes with a felt sense of connection and wholeness that I am finding quite hard to explain- usually the sign that an insight is not quite mature yet. I’m finding that I can resist temptation far more easily, have energy for practice, when I am not trying to be saintly, endlessly carefully mindful, never saying ‘no’ to anyone. There is less backlash as I give what I need to keep, or take what isn’t for me. This feels very preliminary in terms of practice, as if there are huge areas of the spiritual foundation missing. There is a very egotistical embarrassment that ‘I’ should still have very, very basic work to do, work that doesn’t feel ‘advanced’, but largely about being a sensible and rounded person. But there is also an appreciation that it has come to light, a stronger recognition of the needs I have that have been stifled – needs for intimacy, beauty, expression, amongst others – and a recognition of what has been stuffed into that hole instead – attachments and avoidances that don’t satisfy, old patterns of grasping and apathy, overwork and exhaustion, overindulging and frantic regret, self-hatred and burnout. It does feel like the work that needs to be done and it’s not upsetting to face these issues. They’re simply habits based most fundamentally in elaborate weavings of the craving and aversion that cause suffering. In a more conventional way they’re just a bit silly and I can do something different.
In a mechanistic way, I’m aware that these attachments and avoidances play on my mind and drain my body too much for the kind of dedication to practice that I would like to bring. Simply put, if I’m too tired for meditation, I will fall asleep. If I am feeling guilty because I am not keeping the Five Precepts, I will not concentrate. If I feel I have something to make up for, I will bear down on my practice. My cure for this at the moment is fellowship, as there is strength in numbers- being with people who I can look up to as spiritual friends and examples, who are able to share the good and the bad, give and receive, in a way that models the unity and connection in the world as a whole.