I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about what spiritual development and spiritual attainment actually mean these days. What is the purpose of being on a spiritual path for the most progressive people on the planet today—those of us who have grown up in an environment of unprecedented wealth, education, and personal freedom?
As a spiritual teacher, I travel every year across the United States and Europe, giving talks and leading retreats. It continually amazes me that the majority of spiritual seekers from the most affluent countries on our small planet seem to be looking for one thing above anything else: Peace. Peace? Why on earth would the luckiest people to have ever been born express their spiritual aspirations through questing for relief and release—for peace? Why are we looking for a way out of the challenge of human existence? I mean, has our lot in life really been that bad?
I can see why in premodernity, in the era when the great religious traditions were born, peace would be an understandable goal. Life was so much harder than it is for us now, in just about every conceivable way. At that time, most people literally worked like slaves for their daily sustenance. The level of brutality human beings had to endure was something that is difficult for us to imagine in our postmodern civilized society. The very notion of human rights had not yet emerged in our collective mind. So it makes complete sense that peace would be seen as the spiritual or religious goal, the ultimate relief and release from the unrelenting grind of day-to-day existence. But while, unfortunately, similar life conditions still exist today in many parts of the developing world, for most of us at the leading edge, life is very, very different indeed.
So why, then, are we still looking for a way out when we look to spirit? I understand that just because many of us have been graced with a high standard of living, it doesn’t mean we don’t suffer at an existential level. But I wonder if we haven’t fallen into the habit of giving undue significance to our existential angst. Maybe suffering, at some level anyway, is an inherent part of life and has been an integral part of the developmental process from the very beginning. The big bang, the cosmic burst of energy and light and matter that created the universe, was anything but peaceful! And the law of the jungle is not “may all beings live in peace.” At the physical level of our own being, we experience the stress, and at times discomfort, of our own mortal, embodied nature. At the emotional and psychological levels, we experience the stress and complexity of personal subjective consciousness. Even at the spiritual level, there is the mysterious stress that the evolutionary impulse exerts upon the self.
Sometimes when I hear spiritually minded individuals speak, it appears that they are clinging to premodern ideas about the goal of the spiritual path—whether it be a Christian heaven or a Buddhist nirvana or even some New Age promise of universal love and harmony. They seem to still be convinced that the raison d’être of human incarnation is the end of suffering and the experience of unending peace. Given all we’ve come to know, not only about history but also about the evolutionary process, I wonder how that could possibly be the case? Life at its core is inherently surging forth, at times wild and erratic, at times focused and directed, but always moving. Eros, the energy and intelligence that initiated the creative process, which is also driving that very process right now as you read these words, is vibrating with its own effulgence and unrelenting intensity.
Prior to the big bang there was Nothing, and from that primordial empty ground the entire cosmos burst into existence. When we enter into deep states of meditation, transcending the personal ego and any notion of a separate self, we sink into that same primordial ground. In those moments, of course, we will experience peace, because that is the very nature of that infinite depth beyond time and form. And such experiences are indeed very liberating for the self. But it just doesn’t make sense that the experience of relief and release from the very process that produced us should be the goal of the luckiest people who have ever been born. Why not? Because the very energy and intelligence that gave us life, that produced us, needs us lucky ones to take responsibility, to wholeheartedly participate in the life process in a deeper and more authentic way than most of us ever imagined possible.
I believe that as long as the focus of our spiritual aspirations is relief and release rather than a much more profound relationship with life at the deepest level, we will never be of much use to the energy and intelligence that created us. To put it in theological terms, we will be letting God down, because we will always be seeking for a way out rather than wholeheartedly engaging with the life process, with other human beings, with our own highest potentials. As long as we are seeking peace above all else, we will never know what it means to live at the very edge of the possible. In order to be truly available to the energy and intelligence that created the universe, we do have to transcend our angst-ridden separate selves. But the motive for doing so is not so we can abide in a state of peace and freedom beyond the process. Our motive is to become passionate and egoless vehicles for its own ongoing evolution.