The Spiritual Path and Perspective
I’m in a reflective mood often late in the evening. The missus sleeps more than I do and goes to bed earlier. In my late night hours, as with many people, I believe, I reflect at times (or, actually, listen to really loud music and try to convince the cat to leave me alone while I read).
I’m at the point in my life, full adulthood (I hope), where I am in some kind of weird steady state. I’m old enough not to really be “young” per se but I’m not even close to middle aged yet. The one thing it does give me is some perspective on my life in my teens and twenties, perspective that probably would have been valuable back then. Of course, I would never have paid attention to my own advice then anyway.
One of the key things that I think I finally have some perspective on is spirituality, both in general but also in the particular of my own circumstances. For many of the people that I deal with on a day to day basis in the tech industry, spirituality is a complete non-issue (or at least many of them pretend it is). This doesn’t lend itself to a lot of conversation about it but does give ample room to ponder.
I was raised a practicing Roman Catholic, as at least some readers will know. I was confirmed but pretty much a non-believer from, oh, age 11 or so onwards. The scientific materialist paradigm was definitely well and truly established. I must have a romantic streak somewhere because even though that was the case, I wanted there to be more to life then. Through some exposure and circumstances, I wound up involved in Neopaganism of various sorts during college and beyond. That only entirely ended in the last year or two but it had probably been on the wane for six or seven years in a variety of ways. After spending enough time (a decade or more will do) around esoteric groups and neopagans and then having some exposure to other groups, a person may begin to realize that, horror or horrors, there is not anything new under the Sun and that the neopagans, occultists, magicians, etc. are really not much better or worse than any other small scale spiritual group. At the end of the day, people are people and the behaviors that we engage in are far more culturally driven than they are unique, no matter how much we may cast circles and wish. That isn’t to challenge the values of spiritual experiences or the validity of esotericism or neopagan faiths. In many, if not most, ways, they are as entirely valid as any other spiritual path. In fact, the other side of this is that mainstream faiths are just as made up, overly intellectualized, or dreams and desires cloaked in spiritual trappings, as anything that you will see in the fringes. The only real differences that I see are how long these faiths have existed (which leads to some positives and negatives) and mainstream acceptance of them as being normative.
This leads me, as always, to Buddhism. Part of the draw of Buddhism for me was that it presented some truths that were both experientially based but also struck a universal chord. The additional features of being part of a more than 2,000 year old spiritual tradition and this larger tradition being one that survives intact to this day made it more enticing. Leaving aside the views of certain Buddhists (now and in the past), Buddhism often takes a rather agnostic approach to larger issues. Where does the Universe come from? Where do we come from, most specifically? While teachers and traditions sometimes address these, Buddhism as a whole largely sidesteps the issue. There is a teaching that uses the metaphor of an arrow piercing someone’s body, causing pain and potentially death. At that point, it doesn’t matter where the arrow comes from, who shot it, what it is made out of, or what time of day it was fired. At the end, you still have an arrow through you which will kill you. Buddhism is really concerned with the arrow and the pain and suffering it causes.
The experiential basis of Buddhism is, for me, the focus on the eightfold path as something to be actively engaged in and then the specific portion which includes meditation and, in some traditions, yogic or ritual actions. While these can and are explained in detail, beyond a certain level, it is more important to simply practice and experience the results for yourself. We have hundreds or thousands of years of back and forth in various schools about methods, which provides a rich tradition of practice that is unbroken, but we also have the specific practices and teachings of the various living lineages.
For me, I found so much of my spirituality of my youth to be either given to me in an unquestioning or unreflective manner, to be taken as given on faith, or, really, to be a form of wish fulfillment or play acting. Even to this day, I have to be careful not to bring these sorts of viewpoints or habits into my current Buddhist practice and spiritual focus. At times, I know that I fail, but I am, at least to some extent, aware these inclinations or tendencies. This is something that I lacked when I was younger.
In the end, I think that my goals are multifold. The romantic desire for their to be something more is still there. This isn’t always a good tendency as projecting your wishes or desires for how the world should be is, in many ways, the antithesis of the Buddhist path. There is the Mahayana desire to help others as well as yourself; to, in fact, eventually practice for the good of everyone. The other goals are to seek and realize truth, in all of its forms, especially the truth of my existence, which is a human existence. The methods of doing this also, I hope, make me into a better person if practiced diligently and with awareness. At the end of my life, whether it is soon or a long time in coming, being a better person and having the impact of that affecting the world is more important than my own selfish desires.