Last week I got to hang out with a old friend that I haven't seen in more than a year. This friend, dear to me as a sister, has many of the same spiritual interests as do I, and so naturally this constitutes a lot of what we talk about.
Over coffee one morning, at one point she cocked her head and looked at me with a sort of bemused grin.
"What?" I said.
"Of all the people I know with some sort of serious spiritual practice," she said. "You might be the only one I know for whom the practice actually makes their life better, happier."
This statement both pleased me and saddened me. My friend almost certainly sees me as a little more serene and "together" than I actually am. I struggle mightily with insecurities and self doubts, though I have become kinder to myself in recent years. I catch myself behaving stupidly all the tim. But she is right in some ways: it is undeniably true that spirituality has made my life genuinely better, and this was the piece that pleased me--that the fact was obvious to others.
What saddened me was that the other half of the statement was also true. Lots and lot of people aren't really made better or happier by their spiritual practice at all, and this is truly a shame. And it suggests that something is wrong.
Quite a long time ago, I decided that the only legitimate goal of the spiritual instinct should be the pursuit of a genuine happiness and peace of mind, and it was perhaps this that my friend sensed in me. As we talked, though, we realized how many people we both knew for whom spirituality meant different things.
There are quite a lot of people, many of them participants in traditional church communities, whose traditions seem intent on convincing them of their loathsomeness, their shame. This was largely what the Lutherans wanted for me, all those years ago, and it was why I said no to that club. And in all the years since, I have rarely seen a Christian or Jewish worship service that didn't premise itself on the principle that humans are incorrigibly awful to start with. Nothing very happy in any of those places, at least that that I could see.
And we both knew people, many of them belonging to new age spiritual movements, who seemed to use spirituality to hide from their inherent unhappiness, changing directions frequently whenever the discipline of the month was no longer able to mask the truth. This kind of thing has been no more acceptable to me than the religions of damnation.
All this is largely why I tended toward the Buddhist philosophy a while back. Here, there was no deity, no real liturgy, only something that made common sense. For there is really only one prayer in all of Buddhism, and although the precise words vary, the idea expresses precisely what I believe:
"May all beings know happiness, and the causes of happiness."
I thought this expressed with brilliant simplicity what the spiritual instinct wants from our evolution, and thus that's the way I practice.
Spirituality for me, then, is actually rather scientific. The goal is to analyze the constituents of true happiness, to pursue behaviors that move us in that direction, and avoid behaviors that deter us from that goal. I have had moments that might rightly be called "mystical," but arriving there has always been a matter of following common sense and the logic of experience.
As we talked, I realized several things about the way I live (this is what good friends do for you: show you things about yourself).
First: I have gradually come to see that my times of unhappiness have largely been the result of attaching my identity to phenomenon that are inherently fleeting and impermanent. If I am not attached to one particular identity, I have nothing to defend and hence no loss to fear. And what sense is there in saying "That is me"? "That" changes in the very next moment, anyway, leaving "me" entirely in doubt.
Second: I learned that genuine, durable happiness had nothing to do with the pursuit of ecstatic excitement. It was not an easy lesson to learn, for I was something of an adrenaline junkie as a young man. Happiness for me, though, turned out to be equanimity and peace, not a pounding heart.
Third: Unhappiness always melts if I can introduce spaciousness into my experience. Suffering and unhappiness comes with the illusion that things are concrete. Space always brings happiness.