As we look at the various interconnected crises facing humanity, from poverty war and displacement to the environmental emergency, it becomes clear that they all stem from the same source, from a particular approach to life and way of living. An extremely narrow, largely false view that has led to wholesale environmental vandalism, acutely divided societies with people living under enormous stress; competition and material success relentlessly promoted, desire for things and stimulation continuously agitated. Everything is regarded as a commodity to be profited from – including health care, education and the natural world – and everyone seen as consumers.
All wonder and mystery has been consigned to the margins, unjust, corrupt systems and practices developed, a set of destructive values adopted, and, consistent with the Doctrine of Division, selfish defensive attitudes and behavior have become commonplace, cynicism endemic.
If, as a global community, we are to face the challenges of the time, which are immense, a fundamental change in approach is needed. A major shift in attitudes and values and a movement away from conditioned, reductive patterns of thinking that focus purely on the self, to inclusive ways of living that promote cooperation and unity. A change leading to systemic re-designs, that inculcates what we might describe as ‘the spiritual’, in the individual and by extension in the wider group that we call humanity.
Simplicity and sufficiency
Throughout the world, well, the western world specifically, this time of year, Christmas, is the peak time to consume, to shop and overindulge. Despite the associations with the birth of Jesus, very little reflection and even less worship occurs. This is reflective of a broader decline in people identifying with ‘the church’ and organised religions more broadly; the numbers of people who profess to have some form of spiritual framework to their lives however is stronger than ever. ‘Spiritual’ is even included in data lists or online dating sites as an option under ‘religions’, and it’s become commonplace to describe something, some experience or event, a color, a piece of music, a building or person, as ‘spiritual’.
Together with that much maligned word ‘meditation’, misunderstood and nebulous, ‘spiritual’ has drifted into everyday vocabulary, and is routinely applied, or rather mis-applied to everything from Hatha Yoga classes (particularly when taught by misty-eyed Westerners), self-proclaimed sages (there are lots of them around – also often Westerners), dance retreats and healing festivals to clothing, children (she’s soo spiritual) and shampoo – I kid you not!
As a result of this widespread and largely inappropriate use, the term has become almost meaningless, and, like every aspect of life, all things ‘spiritual’ have been assimilated into the socio-economic system. A suffocating paradigm in which monetary value, status and influence/power are the goals of all activity – the ambitious yoga teacher e.g, not satisfied with just giving exercise classes to stressed-out mothers, begins to aspire to guide those stretching and breathing along a ‘spiritual’ path, to collect ‘followers’. ‘Spiritual’ events, which are more closely connected to the leisure/entertainment industry, (mediation retreats, yoga classes, healing festivals, all manner of courses, talks, etc) proliferate; they charge a fee and look to generate profit – financial and status, for the ‘speaker’, coordinator, facilitator; and those attending look for a reward of some kind in return for time and money spent.
So, in a materialistically orientated cynical world, where consumerism, selfishness and status have for many become the hallmarks of daily life, is this interest in all things spiritual positive; what does it mean to live a spiritual life, and in a time of global tumult, of what practical use is it to do so?
The source of all good
The ‘spiritual’ we could say, relates to the source of all that is good in us, that seed of purity and unconditional love that sits within each and every human being, but is for much of the time hidden. Despite the colossal pressures felt by most people virtually all the time, expressions of ‘the good’ take place day in, day out; expressions of goodwill and brotherhood, humility, tolerance and understanding, creativity, service and unity. Where these qualities are absent, and where, in their place, the negative tendencies of selfishness, fear and desire, ambition in all areas including the ‘spiritual’ (where desire for ‘success’ is as strong as within any other area) are evident, ‘the good’ is not.
Within the current order, shaped as it is by materialistically orientated values, self-centred behavior dominates and we suffer as a result. Take the greatest issue facing humanity, the environmental catastrophe. Caused by the rabid consumerism within developed nations, as part of an ideology rooted in injustice exploitation and greed. If the devastation is to stop and healing is to begin, a wholesale shift in attitudes, government/corporate policy and behavior is urgently required. But, despite the fact that the house is burning around us, politicians, business leaders and many individuals, driven by short-termism, complacency and selfishness, refuse to act responsibly; as one environmentalist put it, “Everybody wants to save the whales but nobody wants to change their behaviour.”
Simplicity of living and sufficiency is needed in place of abundance; de-growth replacing perpetual development, and instead of self-centred activity and personal ambition, the cultivation of social and environmental responsibility. Such steps follow naturally when the focus is decentralized, towards the group – the community, society or nation, as opposed to the desires and demands of the individual. These are choices between, what we might term ‘spiritual’ values and materialistic values.
Currently, whilst there are many examples of ‘the good’ and many people everywhere trying to live decent lives, the constant demand to consume, to succeed, to be something, are great and hard to resist or even be aware of. Societies, and the individuals within them are overwhelmingly materialistically orientated – this includes the images we have of ourselves, ambitions and attachment to ideologies of all kinds. The focus (broadly) is not on the well-being of the group, the health of society and/or the environment, but the fulfilment of the individual, the exploitation of the weak and the industrialization of nature. This dominant way of life, which is strengthened through education systems, governments and media of all kinds, is not spiritual, no matter how its defined.
A spiritual life, lived daily and consistently, runs contrary to the prevailing conditioning of material achievement, the pursuit of pleasure and the accumulation of stuff, of wealth/power. It refers to a de-centralized life of self-sacrifice, not of self-aggrandizement; a life of sustained effort and dispassion, in which selfish desires are seen for what they are, and given up or ignored; a life where honesty of mind and clarity of motive is cultivated, and service to others, to the community, the country or world is the driving force. As the great teacher Maitreya has said, “Take your brothers need as the measure for your actions and solve the problems of the world.”
Given the prevailing divisions and gross irresponsibility at all levels, personal, corporate and political, shifting focus may appear unattainable, idealistic even. But as the global crises grow and deepen, there are signs, tentative but strong, that such a collective shift is underway; a growing awareness that something fundamental needs to change. A reorientation in attitudes and values that enables a re-imagining of the socio-economic-political systems; a move away from injustice, selfishness and greed, towards the ‘spiritual’ or ‘the good’, call it what you will; that center of goodness, innate but buried, which sits within each and every human being.