What does spirituality imply for daily human life? How does a spiritually realized person act?
It is natural to imagine how Christ or Buddha would act in a given situation. When one is cut off in traffic. When someone vents their emotions at us. Or in the midst of daily human drama of family, work, politics, personal anxieties and social upheavels. We imagine the Buddha would be serene, calm, blissful, at peace. That he would overcome all anger, resentment and fear. He would be still, unmoved, unperturbed by the ceaseless flow of life in all its forms.
So far, so good. This is a wonderful ideal to imagine, to strive for. As long as one doesn’t take it too seriously. As long as one looks on the ideal as well with a Buddha smile as a mental projection our mind tends to foster.
Spirituality is fundamentally about being. Just being. To grow into a larger awareness of ourselves and all things as part of the same fabric of Being.
Being implies only being.
It doesn’t imply what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, what food to eat, what books to read, what people to hang out with. And it doesn’t imply what emotions to foster or look down on, what actions to admire or curtail. Being sees itself in all things, as all things have being. All things are an aspect of being. All things participate fully in being.
A reader sent me a blog post on anger by the author Derrick Jensen. In it Jensen is concerned to resist a kind of spiritual forcedness which is pretty common. He is annoyed by Buddhists who tell him that we shouldn’t worry about the extinction of animals since it all part of the flow of nature. Or that we should never be angry, even at oppressors or abusers. Or that we should never be violent, even if we are being physically attacked.
Jensen thinks this is a bunch of crap. I agree. If I am being mugged, I will do what I will do. How I find it appropriate to act in that moment. As long as I am comfortable with myself, I will be comfortable with however I choose to act in that moment, be it with or without violence. With or without anger.
When people talk about how a spiritual person should or would act in this or that circumstance, or what emotions they should or would have, I get a little cautious. Because I know what I am about to hear are some strong mental projections of this other person’s mind. Most of the time my mind is already projecting a lot, with how as a spiritual aspirant I should be acting. How I am failing in this regard, or how I am better than others or worse than others, or how far short of the ideal I am falling in this or that regard. This is the constant mental static of normal consciousness. So when others externalize that static, that too with an assumption of spiritual awakening, I guard myself. Because I know what is about to happen in me as a result of me listening to this person waxing enlightenment. The spiritual competitor in me is about to awaken, and boy, am I going to enjoy dissecting the other person’s delusions and arrogance. And in the process get caught in the rip tide of my own projections.
People usually seem eager to draw, or seek, practical implications of spirituality. What it means for politics. For environmentalism. For human relationships. Marriage. Parenting. For many years I was like this myself. So eager to emulate the great spiritual figures. To really understand spirituality and practice it by focusing on how I should let it guide my beliefs and actions. And how I can spread the right beliefs and actions.
But spirituality doesn’t give answers like that. About what to do. It doesn’t divide the world in that way. At least not in the strait forward way we want.
What Wittgenstein said about philosophy is more apt for spirituality (though for him there was no distinction between the two):
“Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.”(Philosophical Investigations, section 124)
This was the deeply meditative aspect of Wittgenstein’s thinking. I think there is a lot of philosophy of which this isn’t true. A lot of philosophy and even spirituality doesn’t leave everything as it is. But of philosophy as the core of spirituality, it is right on.
The aim isn’t to do spirituality in order to come up with answers which will then guide action. The aim instead is to be without the distorting effects of language and thought. What causes pain and confusion isn’t that we don’t know the right thing. It is the manner in which we are trying to know. It is the projections we are unconsciously making about what being is.
So when someone says, “spirituality means never being angry”, they are really substituting one projection (“he wronged me! I will show him!”) with another projection (“I will be at peace and not angry. And you should too!”)
Wittgenstein’s point – like the Buddha’s and Christ’s – is that trying to figure out if anger as such is justified is a fool’s errand. One might as well wonder if hunger or thirst or an itch as such are justified. And well, many do, assuming overcoming hunger or thirst as such is needed to be spiritual. As if hunger is anger of the stomach, and surely we should resist all anger! And so one starves oneself and tells others to do that as part of the spiritual life.
Here understanding anger or a universal prescription about avoiding anger is treated as a precondition for how to be with one’s own anger. It is like saying, “Before I fulfill my hunger, I need to understand if it’s ok to eat at all.” But in spirituality there is no need for such a precondition. Better to simply be with the anger – be with one’s feeling of it – than to judge it or determine if it is justified.
Wittgenstein’s descriptive methodology is often taken to be a form of conservativism. As the opposite of Marx’s dictum: “Philosophers have only sought to interpret the world. The point, however, is to change it.” As if Wittgenstein didn’t even get to the interpreting part, but got stuck at describing!
But Wittgenstein is not substituting sociology for philosophy. He is bringing out the spiritual and the meditative aspect of philosophy. That what soothes our existential pain is not this as opposed to that projection, but simply being aware of the projecting nature of the mind. Live into that stillness and openess, and on the other side are not answers you can pass on to others (“Don’t worry about the environment” “Never be angry”) but better, the real discovery that “gives philosophy peace so that it is not tormented by questions which bring itself into question.”(Philosophical Investigations, 133)
It is the irony of spirituality that the more one is able to just be, without seeking change as the mind projects it, the more the changes one needs will happen. The projecting mind is like us whipping ourselves, thinking that if I whip myself in just the right way, it will foster growth and heal my pain. What the projecting mind fails to see is that the main obstacle to growth is the whipping itself. If we stop whipping ourselves, the body will naturally heal and grow.
In contrast to the Buddhist who disavows anger altogether, Jensen suggests that there is no point or need to transcend anger. That it is a natural emotion, often suited to its situation, as long as it doesn’t involve abusing people. He says, “Anger is just anger.”
I get what he means. But it strikes me as unhelpful. Of course, anger is natural. And loved ones often swipe at each other in anger only to have it pass soon enough. Still, it is not easy to distinguish the harmless anger that his dogs which love each other and yet exhibit towards each other when hungry from the harmful anger which might make his dogs attack a passing cat.
Anger, even in its low key form, is like gas. You don’t want gas spilled around your house, because irrespective of whether you have a small fire or a big explosion, the gas will catch fire and spread. Likewise, if I keep thinking that this small anger and that small anger are justified, it will be that much harder to control when a bigger anger starts to boil up. Instead, putting out the small angers, the seemingly helpful ones because they don’t seem that dangerous, goes a long way to being able able to manage and not get carried away when the bigger angers come.
Anger is like a hot blooded friend who is eager to fight to protect you. It is too extreme to unfriend him because he is overzealous in his desire to protect you. Nor is it wise to let him continue venting at others and causing you headaches in the name of protecting you. You don’t have to banish the friend or justify him. Instead be a kind and firm friend to him. Tell him you appreciate his desire to protect you, but that you don’t need protection. That you value his friendship but don’t need a guard. That he doesn’t need to protect you for him to have your affection and friendship. Then the anger will slowly dissipate on its own, leaving you with a good friend (the mind without the anger) who will walk with you in peace and serenity.