By Deepak Chopra, ™ MD
Many people still view difficult times as a spiritual challenge. The numbers are less than in the distant past, when catastrophes, tragedies, setbacks, and failures were seen in religious terms. An Old Testament plague was a sign of God’s wrath, but in modern secular society medical science gives a different explanation, based on research data and the rise of the scientific worldview.
And yet millions of people would find in the COVID-19 pandemic a test of faith and perhaps even a test for whether God is paying attention to human suffering. I’d like to offer a different viewpoint—difficult times can motivate you to place a higher value on your spiritual life. Out of confusion and conflict, there is an inner journey to be made. This has been true for centuries, and modern times don’t erase the possibility.
What modern times do, however, is diminish the solace of traditional religion. The waning of organized faiths has been happening during the entire postwar era, more than two generations. Without the safety net of religion (which often offered no safety at all), the inner journey has become a do-it-yourself project. So where does it begin? How do you know you are actually on the path? What can you expect to happen in your life?
The questions are many, and the answers are slippery. Religions have the advantage that one size fits all. By contrast, an individual slant on spirituality is as unique as a person’s life story, which is filled with beliefs and expectations shared by no one else. But I think there is a universal experience that unites every genuine act of spiritual exploration. It is the experience of meeting yourself for the first time.
Everyone has more than oneself, and several versions are not what I’m referring to. You have a social self that you show to others. You have a self-image based on your ego-personality. You have a private self that harbors your fears, wishes, doubts, and dreams. For countless people, life consists of juggling the interests of these separate selves. A host of experiences springs from this activity, but this must be set aside. The inner journey doesn’t concern these different selves, which are all constructed by the mind.
The self you must meet on the spiritual journey is a kind of silent companion who has been with you all your life. Sometimes I think of it as the true self; it has also been called the witness. Names are not as useful as recognizing the experience itself, because that experience forms the foundation for all other spiritual experiences. To have the experience, simply be yourself, in a state of simple awareness.
It is easy to show that you have been having this experience all your life. It amounts to your basic sense of self. Something has remained constant despite the ups and downs of your life story, and your sense of self is as good a name as any. The reason that this basic experience hasn’t blossomed into a full-blown, satisfying spirituality is twofold. You haven’t noticed it or given it much value. In other words, it has been an unconscious experience.
If you consider the other versions of the self, the mind-made ones, they promise a reward, and so we chase after the promise. The social self promises acceptance, belonging, bonding with others, being on teams at work and play, and so on. Anything that involves a group, from a family to a corporation, nation, or tribe is the arena of the social self.
The next self, based on your ego-personality, is individualized. It promises all the rewards you can enjoy by getting what you want. Personal desires and ambitions drive everyone from the ego level. Everyone has a self-image they need to protect, so the ego provides a very full agenda between getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want.
The private self is more ambiguous. Here you conduct an internal dialogue with yourself that can be very dark or very bright or everything in between. No one eavesdrops on the private self. You relate to it alone. This can be terrifying if you are prone to anxiety and depression. It can be rewarding if you are a creative artist finding inspiration inside yourself.
By contrast, the true self seems to promise nothing. This is a major reason for overlooking it and giving it very little value. The insight that every wisdom tradition offers serves as a guide here. Your sense of self brings you close to the origin of consciousness. It is the only valid starting point for journeying to the source itself. At the source, you discover something the mind cannot make: a flow of creative intelligence. This is consciousness transforming itself from infinite possibilities into everything most valued in human existence: love, compassion, beauty, truth, empathy, wisdom creativity, devotion, the presence of the divine, and personal evolution.
When the flow of creative intelligence enters your awareness, it enters through these values. They are not mind-made. They are innate in human awareness. No matter how primitive the ancient world might look to us in the modern world, having no electricity, smartphones, satellites, and television, every culture had the same sense of human potential as unlimited—such was the vision of all wisdom traditions. Yet no matter how exalted the achievements of the human mind, a single silent source was present.
All you need for a rewarding spiritual life is to meet yourself inside and allow your awareness to settle into its simplest state. This is true meditation. What happens next is the journey itself, because simple awareness is how everything is created out of nothing. Your sense of self has no content in terms of ideas, sensations, feelings, etc. From the mind’s viewpoint, if you have no thoughts running through your head, there is nothing.
But the mind has made a mistake. This nothing is the basic “stuff” of creation; it is the threshold for everything the mind can conceive or create. When the ancient rishis of India declared, “I am that, thou art That, and all this is That,” they meant “that” to be pure awareness. One modern spiritual teacher put it very simply: “Everything the mind makes is like the products of baking, all the things that can be made flour. I am none of those things. I am the flour.”
Yet however you express it in words, the fundamental experience that ignites the spiritual journey comes down to one thing: meeting yourself. It guarantees that spirituality is open to everyone, at all times, under any circumstance.