No matter what the form of human endeavor, there is always a way in which we grow in our understanding of what something is the more we pursue it. If we want to play an instrument we will know more about what it means to do that the more we actually practice and play. The experience of playing an instrument brings out a deeper lived understanding of what it means to use an instrument to make music, as well as to play with others, what music means to us and to others, and so on. Our understanding of what we have set out to do changes and, hopefully, deepens as we actualize our goal.
This is not only also true of spirituality, but perhaps much more so than most other activities. Because the very endeavor of spiritual awakening includes an opening to a fundamental transformation of our perception and direct intuitive understanding of reality, which means that even our understanding of what the spiritual path is really all about inevitably deepens as well. This can happen in such radical ways that at later stages we will have awakened to realizations that are often quite different than what we thought it was all about when we started out. Certainly our understanding is at least much more clear, essential and embodied than before.
We might even go a step farther and say that it is inherent in the process of spiritual development to constantly explore the very question of what spirituality is: what is enlightenment; what is spiritual awakening; what is my true nature; what is the nature of Spirit? Mystics have constantly pointed to the reality that a key element of spiritual awakening is the cultivation of ‘beginner’s mind’, or the state of fresh intuitive awareness and openness in each moment to new experience and understanding.
So I won’t try here to establish a rigid and final definition of spirituality and the nature of the spiritual path. Instead I wish to offer a starting point as well as a place to return to, a perspective gleaned from centuries of experience by mystics and sages of many cultures that can be seen as a common thread to give us direction and inspiration. What is spirituality and what does the spiritual path have to offer?
Although there are as many answers to this question as there are traditions, teachers and even individual practitioners, I wish to emphasize one point of view that seems to me to be present in one form or another in most of the spiritual traditions and teachings of the world. Especially the more experiential, personal approaches to spirituality. It may be more veiled or less explicit in some than in others, but in some way this idea is present in most spiritual teachings.
This is the point of view that is rooted in a more human, practical foundation – the reality that each of us, indeed, perhaps all sentient beings, experience both happiness and suffering. Questions about the nature and causes of suffering and the possibilities for happiness concern us all, and, whether we are aware of it or not, seeking some form of happiness motivates everything that we do. We can even go as far, then, as to say that all of our lives are a quest for happiness, and seeking to manage, cope with, and even avoid suffering to whatever extent may be possible.
Many of the activities that we engage in may not on the surface seem directly linked to seeking happiness. Some may even be quite contrary to this goal, as they actually lead to pain, conflict and disease. But these are simply examples of times, common to all of us, when we engage, often for long periods of time, in strategies that lead to either the very opposite of what we really want – more suffering – or at least to some very imperfect version of happiness.
The vast array of human behavior, not to mention that of other forms of life, is an expression of the tremendous diversity of what people are inclined to believe will lead them to happiness. Some of these goals are programmed into our bodies and minds. Others are adopted from family and society, while others we may even come up with ourselves. In the end, it is all a great experiment in the quest for happiness, each experiment having varying degrees of success or failure. Our collective experiments we call society or civilization, and we constantly debate about what strategies will be best for us all.
In this context, spirituality can be defined very simply as one type of solution to this question of what will lead us to happiness. For those who have attained deep fulfillment in the spiritual life, the testimony is that not only is spirituality a viable option in the quest for happiness, it is actually a unique option, and unique in such an important way that it stands out and, in many ways, against all other options. The fundamental difference between the ‘spiritual solution’ and all others is that spirituality offers an approach to happiness and overcoming suffering that actually addresses the core cause of both happiness and suffering, and so offers a solution that goes to the heart of the issue, showing the way to a type of happiness that is complete and permanent.
This, when we think about it, is a radical statement. In a sense, we might term spirituality “the radical solution”. Because the testimony of spiritual practitioners around the world over many millennia is that it is not only possible to find some kind of peace, happiness and fulfillment through spiritual awakening or development, but that this form of happiness is the ‘truest’, most complete and only eternal form of happiness. All other approaches, by contrast, must be recognized for what they are – imperfect, temporary, and incomplete.
Why is this so? Well, responses to this question vary from one source to another. But they do have, to a large extent, some central themes in common. I will offer a version here that, though not the only way to address this question, does, I think, get at the core of the issue and is found in one form or another in many spiritual teachings.
We can simplify all forms of seeking happiness, as well as strategies to avoid suffering, into two main categories. One we will call ‘spiritual’ and all the others we will lump into the other category and call them ‘non-spiritual’ (for lack of a better term). Many terms have been used for the latter in different traditions – adharmic (‘not-Dharmic’), ignorant, samsaric, dualistic, worldly and so on. However we might choose to refer to it, this latter approach is characterized by a form of seeking happiness that simply doesn’t ever fully address the real cause of suffering or true happiness, and so has no real hope of offering a lasting and complete form of happiness and freedom from suffering.
The source of suffering can be understood in a number of key ways, but one of the most essential and important is that suffering is caused by a misunderstanding of our true nature and the true nature of the world. This is why it is often said that suffering is caused by ignorance. But we are not referring to merely intellectual misunderstanding. This is a kind of ignorance that is deep in our bodies and minds, even in some sense in our souls. It is a question of the essence of how we directly experience the world and ourselves. Ordinary human experience is based in a sense of being separate beings that experience a world ‘out there’ that is apart from us, a sense of existential alienation. The experience of this sense of separation, of ‘dualism’, cannot be overcome simply by adapting a new intellectual model of reality. It requires a more profound and thorough illumination of our experience.
The root cause of suffering arises from this sense of being a separate self. Our true nature is beyond separation. It is beyond words and concepts as well, so it is challenging to try to say exactly what our true nature is. But the realization of our true nature, an intuitive and experiential realization, brings a deep transcendence of our ordinary human experience of being separate beings.
From the sense of separation at the core of our human experience arises a sense of lack. Since we experience ourselves as separate – separate from others, from Nature, from Spirit – we are left with a sense of incompleteness, as if there is a ‘hole’ in our nature. In truth we are whole, so the misperception of ourselves as separate is not only not true, it denies our wholeness, and in so doing, gives rise to a sense that something is missing. This is the essence of our suffering. It is the misperception of ourselves as being incomplete and therefore lacking something.
Once this sense of lack arises, which is inherent in the sense of being separate, we go on a journey trying to figure out what will fill that lack – trying to figure out what will make us happy and banish, even if temporarily, our alienation, emptiness and suffering. As human beings, we have countless ideas about what will fill this lack and bring satisfaction, pleasure and happiness. We adapt such diverse views as believing that food will make us happy, sex, love and intimacy, friendship, fame, worldly success, wealth, material objects, vacations, adventures, sports, power, creative expression, feeling superior to others, feeling needed by others, having knowledge, physical safety, belonging to a group, patriotism, entertainment and on and on.
Other strategies focus more on avoiding pain than seeking happiness directly, though the two are obviously interrelated. Some strategies such as the use of a painkiller like aspirin is more about the avoidance of pain than directly seeking happiness. Others, such as many forms of addiction to things like sex, drugs or work, can be a combination of being driven by a strong avoidance of pain and seeking some kind of pleasure or happiness.
All of these strategies have some very important limitations. One is that if they do produce happiness, they are all temporary forms of happiness. All of these experiences of happiness (and forms of avoiding suffering) will, sooner or later, pass away and need to be recaptured, if that is even possible. Secondly, many of these strategies are not reliable. They require conditions that may not always be attainable at all at any given time. A third limitation that is sometimes less apparent is that all of these forms of happiness are incomplete. That is, if one were able to see clearly enough into the nature of the experience (which one often can), it would be apparent that the experience of happiness is not as completely fulfilling or satisfying as is possible. This is easily recognized when examining a more obvious version of this limitation of ordinary happiness such as eating food or watching a film. In instances such as these we are often faced with the experience of feeling that the actual experience was less fulfilling than we had hoped for or expected.
In reality, though in ordinary life this seems to happen only some of the time, the experience of incompleteness or imperfection in the happiness that comes with the fulfilling of ordinary desires is actually always present. We are just not always aware enough of the truth of the situation to appreciate that fact. If we could compare these experience with the bliss and fulfillment of deep spiritual realization, love and wholeness, we would then realize that all previous experiences of temporary happiness, pleasure and satisfaction based on normal human desires are always less satisfying than they could be. Deep down, we long for spiritual fulfillment, and by contrast all our ordinary ‘worldly’ desires are misguided attempts to find that happiness and fulfillment. As such, they are poor substitutes. And by contract, if we could directly compare them, they are always found to be less fulfilling. Not only because they are less reliable and impermanent, but also because when they are attained, they can never fill the hole in us caused by the illusion of our separation. They are band-aid solutions to the real cause of our suffering and its healing.
All desires that arise out of ignorance and therefore do not seek to remedy that sense of lack and suffering by healing the essential experience of separation are doomed to provide a temporary and incomplete happiness because they do not address the problem on the level of its ultimate cause. They actually reinforce the problem by seeking forms of fulfillment that solidify our sense of separation. When we seek happiness by trying to acquire an object like a new car or cell phone, we reinforce the understanding that we are separate beings that need to acquire things that we perceive as separate from us in order to be happy. To a large extent, the pursuit of happiness in this way is self-perpetuating. The long-term outcome from this quest is that it eventually leads to disillusionment with this approach, which paves the way for spiritual awakening.
Along the way we experience forms of happiness that, though temporary and imperfect, are positive enough that we are temporarily satisfied with them. We can spend many lifetimes having enough passably positive experiences that, though mixed with many negative experiences as well, do not cause us to immediately become deeply disillusioned with ordinary life based in the experience of separation. We can find temporary and partial experiences of connection, beauty, joy, fulfillment, pleasure and meaning in our lives. Not having found deeply fulfilling spiritual happiness does not mean that we are unable to find some degree of happiness.
But as we evolve over lifetimes, we gradually become disillusioned with these normal human forms of happiness. Firstly, the do not protect us from regular experiences of suffering as well. Also, when we lose what has brought us happiness we will inevitably suffer. This gradually becomes disillusioning as well. Finally, experiences that used to bring us happiness begin to become familiar and old, and we also begin to sense that we are still not ultimately fulfilled. Something inside us increasingly yearns for a deeper, more profound fulfillment. We find ourselves asking, “Is this all there is? Is there no deeper meaning or happiness?”.
The first stage of spiritual awakening is the beginning of a reorientation in which we begin to consider that maybe our whole approach has been misguided, oriented in a way that limits our depth of fulfillment. Perhaps true happiness, or at least the most fulfilling kind of happiness, is not to be found in the world around us through the acquisition of objects, relationships, status and so on. In some way we are introduced to the vision that a deeper fulfillment can be found in the realization of a condition that already exists, a truth of our own nature and the nature of the reality, but of which we are ignorant.
This reorientation is a kind of 180-degree reversal of our values and focus. We begin to look within ourselves, or deeper into the world around us, to discover this truth of a spiritual reality, the realization of which liberates us from the false experience of a separate self, the underlying source of our sense lack, suffering and desires. Without this awakening to our true condition beyond separation, there will always be searching, longing, alienation, and the ups and downs of temporary experiences of imperfect happiness followed by loss and suffering. And even during periods of temporary happiness, there is always a sense that, since the root cause of separation and suffering have not actually been healed, we are haunted by a the feeling, often in our subconscious, that even then we have not had an experience of true happiness. It is tainted.
The testimony and promise of radical awakening, of true spirituality, is that nirvana is real. Profound transcendence of suffering is not only a possibility, but it is our true nature, and the state of our exile, the condition of being unable to realize our true nature is only a temporary condition, and our return to realization of the Tao, God or our Original Nature is an inevitability.
We come to this awakening through many paths such as the cultivation of spiritual qualities such as love, acceptance, contentment, peace, awareness, surrender and wisdom. We may emphasize prayer, worship and attunement to a Deity. For others the path of becoming one with the Spirit within Nature is the key, and yet others it is the path of service. All of these, and many others, are methods that can lead us to experience the same fundamental truth of our non-separation, our radical interrelatedness with all life. In this remembrance we are liberated from suffering, and our deepest desire, a yearning that has given rise to all other desires, comes to an end in perfect fulfillment.