There are many important and noble endeavors which are, quite simply, not spiritual practice. Many of these activities may be very important and even help in our spiritual walk, cultivating various faculties. Yet, they can also become a distraction to our spiritual practice if we confuse them with it.
This is the final part of a 4-part series which explains, in each part, one of four deceptive distractions to a core purpose of spiritual practice: cultivating, with applied practices, wisdom and a character that is more capable of flourishing. That is, addressing fear, anger, and greed; compassion for all beings and an inner happiness not dependent on external circumstance. Last time we covered the distraction of academics (link to part 3 here). This time we cover the fourth distraction: Fixing the world.
Fixing the World
People who consciously pursue spirituality tend to be caring, loving people and this means there is a high correlation with those who are concerned with the ills of the world and the suffering and plights of others (a wonderful thing!). Yet, this can result in a myopic or obsessive focus on large-scale social issues.
With social ills, we often tend to consider the entire matter from a third-person sociological perspective, as though we were aliens floating above the planet, looking down on humanity. Then we imagine that we can come up with ‘solutions’ which we can – through writing, debating, protesting, or conflicting – convince our fellow human beings to employ (who will certainly follow our undeniable fact-based conclusions), thus correcting the current state of affairs.
While progress is definitely possible, this approach can be a bit naïve even if admirably optimistic. Spirituality is not sociology. This common approach tends to assume we have more ability to assess the current situation, more ability to foresee the best course of action for everyone, and more ability to control the actions of others than we really do. In actuality, it is more likely that the course of human civilization on the scale of society is a huge cultural tide against which even the most ‘powerful’ of us have little ability to direct within a predictable margin.
Even if we imagine we could know everything that needs to be done, how then would we make everyone do it? Where spirituality is concerned, this question is misplaced because molding the world to our liking (for good or ill) is not the aim of spiritual practice. Rather than fixing the world, spiritual practice calls on us to fix ourselves. Let me put that more precisely: spiritual practice calls on me to fix myself.
As such, it recognizes that the only thing I really control is my choice, my actions, and my character. It also recognizes that, even the most noble of causes – feeding starving children, helping the sick, securing justice and human rights – are but externals. They are things not ultimately in our control, and therefore circumstance cannot be a prerequisite for spiritual progress, True Happiness, or flourishing. Attachment to ‘good causes’ is still attachment and will, just as assuredly, be a road block to spiritual progress.
Now to address the predictable and eternal response to this point: please know that this is not a call for indifference or to do less good work in the world. We, in fact, need more of it. This is about our internal disposition as we do that work. Doing good is an essential part of the spiritual life, but it is not about the outcome of that work. Rather, it is about our motivation within. If we do good because we want to be the kind of person who does good, because we want to have a compassionate character, then we are, as the Taoists put it, impervious. We are not attached to outcomes, which are ultimately arbitrated by the universe. It is this cultivation of virtuous character (that necessitates positive action) which is the spiritual endeavor – not achieving certain conditions in the world. When we forget that, we are distracted from spiritual progress and, ironically, end up harming even those external causes because we can become burnt out, demoralized, or hateful whenever our machinations prove for naught and external conditions do not match our aims.
What is Not a Distraction to Spiritual Practice?In this series, I have listed cosmological speculation, the ego, academics, and fixing the world as distractions to spiritual practice. One of the things that is not a distraction to spiritual practice is the one thing most often given as an excuse for not pursuing a spiritual practice; that is, the demands of our schedules and everyday life!
Gandhi suggested that we meditate one hour every day, unless we are busy, in which case two. While the length of meditation is open to many views, the implication is that the busier we are, the more centered and spiritually balanced we need to be. But an important thing to understand is that spiritual practice isn’t just about those official techniques we give names to and set aside time to do those activities. There is absolutely no benefit, in itself, of sitting cross-legged silently with eyes closed for any period of time. The real purpose of a spiritual practice, be it meditation or any other, is that we become more capable of applying and using what these practices do to us and for us in everyday life; confronting the challenges of the day, each day.
Everything we do, from caring for children, to running errands, to cleaning, to interacting with one another, is an opportunity to put spiritual wisdom into practice and further hone our habits, character, and state of being. If spiritual teachings are not applicable to the real life of ordinary human beings, then they are useless. This should help illustrate how off-base are thoughts of real life being an obstruction to spiritual practice. Real life is what spiritual practice is all about.
(Those who choose to become members of the Society have access to our member archives, which includes a more in-depth version of this complete series.)
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Thanks to B.T. Newberg and Rick Heller for their thoughts and input on both this article and the more in-depth piece in our member archives.