A few nights ago in balmy evening air, a friend and I sipped icy cocktails with a mild percentage of rum and talked a bit about the spiritual instinct in human beings. What exactly is it that makes humans (at least some of us) seek spiritual growth and truth? we wondered.
Rum isn't the best elixir for coming to the truth, however, and we came to no pithy conclusion on this important question. But the conversation did prompt several days of musing and thought.
Reflecting on my own life, as well as on pretty serious study of many different spiritual traditions, it occurs to me that there are three facets to a spiritual life, no matter what form that the instinct choses to take—from fundamental Chistianity to new age Wicca.
The first stage seems to come when we realize that our habitual way of living is less than satisfying. In the histrionic fashion of the Christian tradition in which I was raised, this stage is represented by an awareness of guilt and original sin. In the Buddhist tradition I now follow, it's called the recognition of dukka, a word sometimes translated as "suffering," but more accurately as "unsatisfactoriness."
In practical terms, this stage can appear as very dramatic dark night of the soul, or more gently as a pervading sense of ennui, in which we begin to understand that all the goals and aspirations we've been living with don't amount to much in the end. Either way, it is the moment when we choose to go a different direction.
One teacher I've read describes this first condition, the "ground," as being a place where we acknowledge our own weariness and see the need to renounce old habits that don't work for us. It is a stage to be celebrated, for it is the prerequisite to taking up a different way of living, and for this reason the truth of suffering is called one of the noble truths of Buddhism.
The second stage is sometimes summarized as "path," or "practice" in my Buddhist tradition, and it is marked by developing a sense of the causes of our inherent confusion (or sin), and a movement toward surrendering them or cleansing ourselves of bad habits. In the Christian tradition, predictably, this is a stage marked by ferocious dedication to rules and commandments and dogma. Practice in many Christian traditions looks a little bit like scrubbing your skin with steel wool to remove imperfections. We are inherently loathsome, the belief goes, and only through incredibly hard and painful work will we be cleansed.
In the Buddhist tradition, I find, the practice is much more akin to standing under a gentle shower and simply allowing warm water to wash away the grit and slime and algae. We look carefully at the nature of what's being washed away, but it is for the most part a relatively gentle process of simply surrendering bad habits and taking delight in the natural clean truth that lies beneath. This second stage in an unrelentingly practical one in Buddhism, marked by dozens of different ideas and practical exercises such as meditation, all aimed at helping to shed the grime and seeing the underlying reality.
The third stage, for Buddhists, is known as "fruition," at it involves learning how to comfortably dwell in the clarity and genuine nature we now have come to recognize through the path. Trust and devotion are its hallmarks. For many Christians, it's believed that fruition comes in another existence after we die to this world, but especially in the Dzogchen-flavored Buddhism I favor, it is believed that it's perfectly possible to be enlightened here and now. The third stage, fruition, is about choosing to remain in clarity, to learn how to use this energy, rather than slip back down into the mud and slime of unconscious living.
I've come to believe that spiritual cycle isn't necessarily a perfectly linear process. You may, in fact, go through the entire cycle in the space of a day. ON some level, in fact, all three stages of a spiritual life are present simultaneously. The very act of renunciation, for example, instantly creates both path and fruition.
There is no reason to think that getting to deep spiritual peace requires a lifetime of exertion and sacrifice. The condition is, I think, inherent in every moment and simply waits for us to see it.
I wonder if Christianity might have evolved differently if the ancient scholars putting together the Bible had thought to include some interesting words of Jesus found in the gospel of St. Thomas.
"The heaven of God is right here, right in front of them," Jesus mused, speaking of some local religious leaders. "But they know it not."