A Question of Spirituality

An Article by David Cornfield

In the last two years I have written and published about a dozen articles. This one, on spirituality, has caused me more grief than all of the others put together.

Usually, my articles practically write themselves. The editor gives me a topic, I sit down at the computer, my fingers fly over the keyboard, the words flow on to the screen, and voilà, an article.

Okay. I’m exaggerating. There’s always a birthing process and I always sweat it a bit. But this time it’s been painful, like pulling teeth. After three attempts, over 6000 words, and more hours than I care to think about, here I am starting again from scratch.

I think of my perspective on life as spiritual. My assumption was that, coming from a spiritual perspective, writing about spirituality would be easy. Well, I was wrong, dead wrong. It has been anything but easy. I realize now that what has been easy has been talking about my personal perspective. Writing an article on spirituality in general however means moving beyond my personal perspective, standing back and looking for the common thread linking a variety of diverse activities and attitudes that other people consider to be spiritual. I have been finding that very difficult. Each time I write, I begin to see through to another level of the topic that makes what I have written seem trite or inadequate or a gross simplification.

What I am coming to see is that my difficulty in pinning spirituality down long enough to write about it tell us something about spirituality. By its nature, spirituality is always a work in progress, a journey that never ends. The essence of spirituality is a quest for meaning. The trick of it is, there are no final answers in this quest, just infinite layers of meaning nested within each other like the layers of an onion. Pulling back one layer of the onion only serves to reveal the existence of another layer underneath, and you know full well that beneath that one, there is another and another. So the best I can hope to achieve in an article on spirituality is to talk about the layer I am aware of in my personal journey, knowing that by tomorrow my understanding is likely to have shifted. As a matter of fact, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that whatever I write, t’were well it were done quickly, before I get another insight that makes me want to rewrite it one more time. So hang on to your hats. Here I go.

How I see it right now is that spirituality is about having the courage to keep delving down through the aforementioned infinite layers of meaning. It is not about any particular set of beliefs or practices. It is not about a church or a religion or a vision of God. It is not about determining the meaning of life in general. What it is about is each individual taking on the question of the meaning and purpose of his or her own life, even if the search is never ending, even if there are no final answers. And we are not talking about finding one answer that will make sense of your whole life. We are talking about tuning in to your purpose in the here and now. The question of meaning and purpose is one that must be asked and answered at each moment of your life.

To embark on a quest for meaning requires an openness to the possibility that life is in fact meaningful, that each life is a story with a plot that makes sense rather than a random series of unrelated events. This is not to say that you have to start with a firm belief in the meaningfulness of life in order to be spiritual. Faith is not a prerequisite. You merely have to be able to suspend your disbelief long enough to allow an exploration of meaningfulness to take place.

So let’s do that. Let’s suspend whatever disbelief we may have and assume that we live in a universe that is meaningful. What are the implications of a meaningful universe? A meaningful universe is a universe where everything has a reason, everything has a purpose, everything has a role to play within a larger context. And if I am right about the pervasive nature of meaning, then no one gets a free lunch. Which means that you too, dear reader, have a role to play, that there is some particular work you are meant to accomplish. You aren’t here just to please yourself. You are here to respond to what life is asking of you. We know, of course, that the universe doesn’t come to a crashing halt if you, through choice or neglect, do not do what you are asked to do. However in the meaningful universe, you have tasks and whether or not you do those tasks affects the larger whole. In other words, your action (or your inaction) makes a difference.

Let’s take this a bit further. You have a role. To perform your role, you have to know what you are being asked to do. You can’t perform your role if, when you show up for work, there is no job description. It follows that there must be some simple way to know, from moment to moment, what you are meant to be doing, some ongoing process by which the universe communicates to you what to do next. In other words there must be a way that the universe calls to you, and there must also be a capacity within you to hear the universe calling, and to know that the call is for you.

If you don’t hear a call, if you are confused about what you are supposed to be doing, then something has gone wrong. Now, I suppose there is some possibility that what went wrong is that the universe forgot to call, but somehow I doubt it. It seems to me more reasonable to assume that the problem lies with you and not with the universe, that the universe calls and there is some way you manage to put those calls on hold.

Why might you want to put your calls on hold? Well, I can think of a number of different scenarios, but let me speak first about the one that I know about from personal experience: the predicament of the good little boy. A good boy’s strategy for getting through life is always to obey the rules. But what’s a good boy to do when caught in a contradiction between obeying the rules and responding to life’s call - when he is practicing piano, for example, and yearns to be outside playing with his friends? Well, one solution is to resolutely exercise his will power on each occasion, resisting the call no matter how much it beckons. But he can make his task easier if he also finds a way to muffle the call, like Ulysses’ sailors in the Odyssey who plugged their ears rather than be swayed by the call of the Sirens. So the good boy finds ways to impair his own ability to hear the call of the universe. And since obeying the rules is an ongoing life strategy, after a while blocking calls becomes second nature. He does it without thinking. Eventually, he closes himself off to the point where he loses touch with his innate capacity to know what he wants, or what life wants of him.

There are many reasons to close down to life’s call. The good boy or girl closes down  because of a fear of breaking rules. The child with no confidence closes down because of a fear of being called to a task and not being able to do the job. The child who has been neglected or abused closes down because he or she does not want to feel the sadness, the anger and the pain. The tragedy is that to close yourself off to the call of the universe is to lose your direction and go dead. The call of the universe is a postcard from heaven, letting you know what you need to do to find paradise on earth. It is when you surrender and respond to the call of life that you feel most satisfied, most fulfilled, most alive.

It is instructive to look at the origins of the word ‘enthusiasm’. Enthusiasm is the state (ism) of having divinity (theos) within (en). One way that we know we are heading towards what we are meant to be doing is to feel our enthusiasm, our excitement, our passion. If we are bent on ignoring life’s call, we have to shut our enthusiasm down. When we deliberately ignore the one thing that will excite us, we end up feeling depressed and bored. Conversely, feeling depressed and bored is a sure sign that we are ignoring what we are meant to be doing.

Any activity that helps you reconnect with your ability to listen for and hear life’s call in the moment amounts to a spiritual practice. Anything that helps your body feel more alive (like deep breathing or massage or yoga), anything that reduces distractions (like meditating, or going into the country), any attempt to identify and satisfy the real needs that underlie addictive behaviours, any cognitive theory that teaches you how to listen or helps you feel okay about surrendering, any healing of the wounds that lead you to close yourself down so as not to feel - all of these can take you on a spiritual journey.

Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have spent countless hours writing and debating over proofs of the existence of the divine. I went for a walk today and my eye went to a flower poking its head over a neighbour’s fence. As flowers go, it was very plain - a single row of white petals, with an orange centre. But looking at that flower, I felt I had all the proof I could ever need of the existence of the divine. It is beyond me how anyone could think of something as fragile and exquisite as a flower arising from the interplay of random forces, or as the product of an evolutionary process where what survives is the fittest. When I see a flower, or hold a baby or look out at the vastness of the starry heavens, I know that the age of miracles is by no means over. When I hear about the interconnectedness of the ecology and the role played by each and every living thing, I know that as human beings, we have a role to play within a larger context where our lives make sense.

The spiritual quest is the quest for the meaning of our lives, a meaning that shifts and changes as we grow and develop through the stages of life. It calls us to look into the abyss of what we do not know or understand. If you have ever experienced a moment when you knew in every fiber of your being that you were doing exactly what you were supposed to be doing, you will know why so many people head directly towards that abyss. And if you can’t remember a moment like that, ask someone who follows a spiritual path and see what motivates them. It could be worth your while.

David Cornfield

A Question of Spirituality was first published in Eye for the Future Magazine in October 1998

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