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Spirituality and Your Messy Life

Why is it that some people with no prior interest in spirituality suddenly become interested when their lives are a mess? There are probably about a billion answers to this question, but I suspect that my own experience is not too uncommon...

"True Believers"

Now, I'm not talking here about the fundamentalism of retreating to a structured set of received beliefs and socio-political sanctions at a time of crisis. This isn't about surrendering in despair to some external authority and allowing some group or ideology to run your life and do your thinking for you while you just "accept" and "believe." We've seen enough of zealous fundamentalist movements in the modern world to know that the last thing we need is more True Believers (as Eric Hoffer called them)...

No, spirituality is another matter. Spirituality isn't about "accepting" or "believing." It's not a movement, an organization, an ideology, or a way of building an improved version of yourself. Spirituality, rather, is a practice of peeling away layers of received belief and experience--a process of subtraction and corrosion in which the realm of "I," "you" and "our" is subjected to a profoundly critical gaze in a context of awareness.

Meditation is at the core of this corrosive spiritual process because it allows us to drop out of the mind and emotions and into a state of awareness that is nonetheless profoundly real and dynamic. When we are neither thinking nor feeling but we are nonetheless aware, we realize that our previous understanding of self was little more than a collection of stories and beliefs we had imbibed from the society around us--i.e., the realm of that great drama queen, the ego. When Ramana Maharshi suggested that we ask, "Who am I?" he was suggesting that we ask within the context of this corrosive spiritual process...

"I'm Not a Joiner."

Now, if you're a critical thinker and have been prone to go your own way in life--if you are prone to say "I'm not a joiner" and have always avoided dropping into groups and organizations because they don't appeal to you intellectually or temperamentally--then when things become messy in life you are probably not one to panic and run for the comfort of received wisdom or organizations. I suspect that you like organizations as much as you like those horrific mandatory workshops at work in which someone from Human Resources holds a gun to your head and says, "Alright, now share your feelings with the group!"

No thanks.

No, I, for one, became interested in spirituality at a time of midlife meltdown because I saw in the practice of meditation and the associated spiritual philosophy ways of asking, "How did I get here? Where did all of these strange beliefs about myself and the world come from? How could my beliefs about what would make me happy be so much at odds with reality? Who is asking these questions in this moment, and who was that idiot living my previous life? And isn't it odd that, when I am deep in meditation and outside of my usual obsessive over-thinking, I feel more vibrantly present and free than I have ever felt in my life?"

And that's basically the answer to why some people--or at least this person--with no prior interest in spirituality suddenly become interested when their lives are a mess: spirituality is both healing and utterly ruthless. It allows you to hold your "self" up to the most ruthless and corrosive interrogation even as you recognize in meditation a whole new level of awareness beyond thinking and feeling. You can discard old selves without suppressing or fleeing from them. And you can do this all with just a meditation teacher and some books. No movements or ideologies or beliefs or "faith" required.

You just have to be willing to sit in meditation and ask, "Who am I?" while casting a jaded eye on the ego and all its drama...

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