What Does It Mean To Be Spiritual

Since beginning to post, here and elsewhere, I’ve received feedback that focuses on the same issue: How can it be spiritual to engage in rough-and-tumble topics like politics, world affairs, international disputes, and so on? There’s a range of emotions behind this implied criticism, sometimes bewildered, sometimes stingily harsh. Usually I hold my tongue, because there are enough spiritual posts, in the conventional sense, to counterbalance the others. Yet that doesn’t seem to be enough.

The issue isn’t me or my personal flaws; I’m happy to acknowledge them. The issue is the role of spirituality in everyday life. It touches everyone, not just the handful of people who are spotlighted for writing about God. A complaint that has existed for years concerns people who are religious on Sunday but not the rest of the week. In every faith the same inconsistency arises. Time is set aside for worship, meditation, a sermon, or prayers, after which, feeling that they have done their duty, people lapse into everyday behavior.

Since everyday behavior gives limitless room for indulging our selfishness, anger, jealousy, greed, and violence – the whole spectrum of human flaws and suffering – it would seem that God gets the crumbs while the other side gets the loaf.
This inconsistency (a harsher term is hypocrisy) actually feels necessary. God requires us to be too good, too restrained, too reflective about our deeper nature. Life needs to be lived on a coarser, more realistic basis. Or so we assume. The result is that our divided nature becomes more divided. It might be better if we were completely realistic and stopped paying lip service to our so-called higher selves. Nonbelievers and secularists certainly think so. But they have no solution for human suffering, which is rooted in that divided self, the self that is separate from God, the soul, spirit, higher reality, call it what you will.

If everyday behavior could join in the project of healing the divided self, there would be no need to set aside a special time for God. Every hour would be for God, since unity consciousness, which signals the end of the divided self, is God consciousness. The world’s wisdom traditions recognize this fact, and if we go into the real meaning of higher reality, we see that rituals, prayer, observances, and church are quite secondary to the transformation that needs to take place. The real transformation must occur in consciousness, and since we are conscious the entire day, there is no such thing as being apart from one’s own self-awareness.

In everyday situations self-awareness takes a back seat, however, to outward awareness; the subject is overshadowed by the object, which may be business, family affairs, and the bustling activity that absorbs everyone. The solution for this is not complex: return to the self. Anyone who has meditated or even experienced a simple state of relaxed, easy being knows what it’s like to be with the self. This state is quieter than the everyday mind, more centered, open, and loose. Its opposite is the rushed, worried, preoccupied mind. To cultivate the state of self-awareness, you first must want to. You must desire a shift of allegiance away from the outer to the inner.

Candidly, why should anyone want such a thing? The world demands participation, and its rewards are external. With that practicality in mind, the most religious societies, such as India, are notorious for saving the inward gaze for later in life, when the outer world is almost finished with. This is another form of self-division, however. Your allegiance to the inner self must be here and now in order to be effective. The attraction of the inner self is twofold, actually. It is meant to bring peace and silence to the restless mind; that aspect is well known.

The second aspect is much less well known. The inner world can fulfill the desires that we run after in the material world. If there is truth behind God, higher reality, or the soul, this truth contains the fulfillment of desires. There is intelligence, power, and creativity built into higher consciousness. How could it be different, since we attribute the entire creation to God and the force of life to the soul? The divided self has so infiltrated conventional spirituality that the power of spirit has been ignored, as if “spiritual” must mean without desire, fulfillment, or participation in the real world.
That is a gross distortion of true spirituality, in which the world is overcome as an illusion by seeing that it can be managed as effortlessly as a dream. Being stuck in the old misinterpretation, people actually fear the spiritual life, quite understandably, because they want more from the world, not less. The secret is that we are wanting more from a dream, and so two paths open up. Renounce the dream or master it. Either way is legitimate, because your allegiance has shifted away from outward show to the source of real power and creativity. With this in mind, the everyday side of spirituality can be rich and rewarding in every sense.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle