There are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings prevalent about spirituality that I thought it necessary to explore what it actually is.
As I understand, and I am no guru, just a seeker on the path, spirituality is a way of seeing things radically differently from what we have been used to, from birth until now.
It is an uncovering of layers, a peeling away of blindfold upon blindfold, in order to begin seeing things as they actually are. To get as real as possible, which is why viewing spirituality as some sort of an exotic, other-worldly pursuit, is to completely miss the point.
Since the goal is an unconditioned knowing, of the big truth that underlies everything, if you wish, the process of getting there is not only seminal to the endeavour, it is its very heart. This is the reason why spirituality is often described as a path, a search, a seeking or a journey. Many who have walked this path have come to the conclusion that the path is the goal, the destination is implicit in the journeying, that we have reached when we realise that there is no reaching. Only walking.
The reason for this is, spirituality is about constant, unrelenting practice. Not the popular clich� of passive navel-gazing, but a deep commitment to and a persistent engagement in the task of clarifying one’s perception and purifying one’s being. Anyone who has ever tried to not retort with anger when provoked, or find compassion for anybody other than oneself or one’s loved ones, can imagine how mammoth a task it might be to completely root out all afflictive emotions and replace them entirely with positive and wholesome mental states.
Why is it so difficult, though? Most of us have heard often enough that we must be good, we mustn’t be mean, we mustn’t lie, we must help others. And yet, how many of us can truly say that all the choices we make are governed by selflessness, humility, compassion and love, especially if it involves people who are not our loved ones, and who might have even harmed us or harboured ill-feelings towards us?
Even if we think we are all of the above, good and kind that is, how many of us can truly say we are completely and absolutely happy, that we don’t need another thing or person or circumstance to make us feel complete and fulfilled? My hand will certainly not rise in response to this question!
So, one could say that spirituality and its practice is not just about “doing good”, it is also about being good, in the sense of being happy, balanced, peaceful and fulfilled. And to get there, we need to realise the reality of ourselves and of life. We’re back to the blindfolds. They need to come off.
What are these blindfolds I keep referring to? They are limited ways of seeing and relating that one might attribute to individual conditioning, the habit patterns we have developed over time, the memories, emotions, desires and revulsions that drive us for most of our lives. As a result, what is known as “original mind”, our basic nature, becomes clouded, and we live in ignorance of our own potential for clarity, goodness, joyousness.
Over the centuries, different wisdom traditions have shown different ways of taking off the blindfolds, perhaps to cater to the diverse needs and abilities of humankind. Some paths have made use of the energy of our emotionality, like the bhakti and Sufi traditions, some of the physical to refine mind and being, like the branches of yoga and tantra. Still others, like Buddhism, have focused on the mind and its cognitive and imaginative capabilities. And there are many more, all of which have acted as rafts to ferry us to new shores of knowing since times immemorial.
Whatever be their prime path of practice, most wisdom traditions emphasise recognising and eliminating the “ego”, for this might just be the tightest blindfold of all. It does not quite mean the dictionary meaning of ego as in “pride”. Rather, it refers to an erroneous perspective that identifies too tightly with our body-mind-personality, and blinkers us to the larger truth of who we are, like a frozen wave that believes it is independent of the ocean. It only needs the warmth of the sun for it to realise the truth that it is one with the ocean.
In the same way, we are all waves in an ocean of “interbeing”, to borrow an exquisite term from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Even as we create our worlds around ourselves, we remain inextricably interlinked to everyone and everything. The way we live, what we consume, how we behave, what we buy — every action affects the ocean of consciousness we inhabit with everybody else. This is why spiritual practice can never be about “I” alone.
As the wave merges back into the ocean, or at least realises it is not separate from it, it has found a way of being that is vast, open, free. All blindfolds are, finally, off.
The author has written Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India, Buddhism: On the Path to Nirvana and Dharamsala Diaries. She can be contacted at www.swatichopra.com.