“Man is the most insane species.
He worships an invisible God and
Slaughters a visible Nature
Without realizing this Nature he slaughters
Is this God he worships.”
So true. We are the most insane species – for many reasons… And this one above all.
I’ve been travelling in India. I don’t think there is anything like a trip to India to confront you with some hard truths. India is hard. Many of the people are beautiful – loving, compassionate, and yes, ‘spiritual’. But at some point along the way, I had to ask myself ‘what is this being spiritual about?’ What does it mean to go to temples, several times a day and pray to man-made idols – figures representing the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses – when outside, life continues in its confusing, chaotic, harsh and often cruel daily grind? Nature appears to be the sacrificial lamb in the drive to acquire a level of security, or necessity, in this material world – and no-one seems to care. The dichotomy between ‘things spiritual’ and ‘things material’ is like a gaping wound. I know; who am I to judge? How do I know how peaceful, how content these people are? It may well be their devotion to their gods gives them something an outsider cannot hope to glimpse. For all that, I cannot be blamed for observing what I happened to observe – and being me, for trying to make sense of it.
India and the East has always dominated the world’s spirituality. The ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita stand at the pinnacle of spiritual teachings. It goes without saying that we in the west have been on a path more devoted to the material than the spiritual. And thus spiritual seekers have long made the pilgrimage to the sub-continent in search of spiritual enlightenment. India’s holy men, sages and gurus of course are legendary. So much knowledge of the spiritual realms have come out of this parched land and to this day there are those who continue to teach the ancient higher philosophy and inspire seekers of the truth. And there are many more who subscribe to the religion of the masses with its prescribed ritual observances. I appreciate the rituals are a way to bring an awareness of God into everyday (almost every hour) affairs – and this must be a good thing surely. But then what happens? What happens when they turn away from the idols and back to the reality of the street? Do they see God out there – in the natural world? And if so, where is the reverence? Where is the evidence of the reverence?
What, pray tell, is being ‘Spiritual’ really?
Here is what I think. I think – if I had to answer that question in four words, I would say, being spiritual is being aware of our Oneness. Simple. We are One on this planet – and by we, I do not mean just our species – I mean all of life. Everything that has life, is part of the One and to be conscious of this Oneness, this interconnection between all of us, between all of life, is to be spiritual. My implication is that within this awareness, this consciousness, compassion naturally arises. To truly feel the connection is to feel compassion, empathy, love, for all of life. It is to be spiritual. We cannot pay lip service to the concept of Oneness, or spirituality, when we have not kindled within us, the feeling in the heart we know as compassion – or love by another name.
The India connection. I have seared onto my brain images from recent travels there and so I cannot help but question what the heck is going on. Starving a working horse (its work – to pull a heavy cart) to the point where every bone in its body is sharply protruding and seeing it collapse in the street, unable to move – to my mind is the epitome of animal cruelty. Only last night I watched with tears and heavy heart, the story of an elephant – that most intelligent and sensitive of animals, Raja, kept by its Indian owners in chains and shackles, beaten and tortured for 50 years! – Finally saved from its heinous life. Thank God. Everywhere I looked in India, I saw emaciated animals. Cows, that sacred animal, living in piles of rubbish – trying to extract some morsel of food from endless plastic bags. As I write this I am struck with the thought that here in the west our animal cruelty is every bit as cruel, in its own way. The difference is, it goes under cover.Factory farming doesn’t generally advertise its practices. In India, everything is in your face. I have visited a commercial pig farm, here in clean, green New Zealand, in my journalist days, and I can tell you – there is nothing more cruel than the practice of sow stalls – hearing the agonized, human-like cries of a pregnant sow incarcerated in a cage barely bigger than her body. ‘She’ll shut up after 24 hours’ – the farm manager told me.
My heart broke over and over in India for the animals. And for the people. The broken and the poor. What can you say? There are no words. And it broke again every time I saw the land covered with insurmountable piles of rubbish. Insurmountable because it feels no one will ever attempt to surmount them. They are too occupied with praying to their gods. Forgive the cynicism. And stretches of stagnant, black, trash-filled water – that once might have been a clean river or pond. And air, so thick with pollution you could have stirred it.
This earth, our planet, we know is a living being. It is part of us; it is our life. To see it being so desperately trashed; to see intelligent, conscious animals treated so unconsciously – is to see how ignorant our species is. Today on facebook an image screams at me. I can scarcely believe it: a dog, fully alive and awake, one leg severed – in the process of being slaughtered for food in China – or Thailand. It was a petition to stop this barbaric practice. What the f..?!? How the hell can people do this? This is not about food. There are countless sources of protein. How utterly unspiritual can we be. There are times I am deeply ashamed to be human… How can I find peace when I share the planet with people capable of such acts?
When I was in India, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Swami Nikhilananda, of the Chinmaya mission in Delhi. Here, I hoped, I would find some resolution to my confusion and bewilderment – seeing such obvious spirituality and reverence on one level, and at the same time, such apparent absence of it.
I asked the Swami about God, Mind and consciousness – and he told me about Oneness.
“Brahma (the creator) is the basis of everything. Our mind is part of the Mind of Brahma.
“It is understanding that transforms your vision and attitude. For example, I feel that the world is a strange place to me, I don’t know where it has come from or what it is about. But, when I come to know, through understanding, how we are all connected, how we are all One, I can respond to the world differently. True understanding can find Oneness and your understanding of Oneness itself will bring about transformation – in your attitude to life and to the world.”
So that was it, it was all about my understanding – or lack of it.
“In the Vedanta, it says first understand the whole thing. Understand that everything is One. Then, practice meditation to experience that Oneness.”
Swami explained how the most important thing is to focus on this understanding: “My body is part of the total body. Brahma. The space in me is the space in the world. The matter in me is the matter in the world. My body is part of the total body.
He went onto say: “See everything as divine. Everything you see and feel is divine. Try to see that divinity in everything: the rivers, the animals, the plants, the mountains.”
A ha. There it was. Everything is divine. Everything we see in the world around us is divine, it is part of Brahma. The endless rituals are a mechanism, he explained, to bring awareness of the divine into every day life. They bring awareness of the spiritual dimension into the most mundane aspects of life.
Perhaps I had been seeing through a too narrow perspective. I needed to broaden my vision to be able to appreciate the complete and benign acceptance that this understanding brings to these people. The starved horse? He will soon enough merge back into Brahma. He is part of the all, the oneness. It is of no consequence – his suffering while he is here.
I don’t know. That doesn’t feel right, but I honestly do not know. The world is a strange place.
How many of us consider ourselves spiritual because we do yoga, or meditate occasionally, or simply, because we believe we are awake – that is, we know what’s going on. We know about the global conspiracy, we take responsibility for our health, eat the right foods and take supplements, we don’t trust the government, we read the latest spiritual books and listen to people like Eckhart Tolle… And I am not saying all of this isn’t a good thing – it is. But, if we are truly spiritual then our sphere of concern must extend far beyond the perimeters of our own wellbeing. It must transcend thoughts and feelings which are frankly egoistic and it must embrace the realization that we are all part of the one whole. Our thoughts have constellated around ourselves for too long. It is not enough to read spiritual books or contribute to spiritual discussions or to deliver spiritual talks, sharing our stories on how our ‘awakening’ happened (as a growing number of so-called spiritual leaders in our global community are doing) and offering advice on how to achieve same, while the rest of us hang on every word these people have to say. We are enthralled by their accounts of their ‘near death experience’ (fascinating as they are) or their ‘kundalini awakening’.
I’m over it. We are no different from the ‘spiritual’ people of India who bow and pray before idols of Krishna, Vishnu, Brahma… We are all worshipping an invisible God – while nature, God’s handiwork, is being devastated. Our need for yet more proof of life after death knows no bounds. Really, isn’t it time we moved beyond philosophical kindergarten and grew up. Life is infinite, we are life, we are infinite.
Being awake is not enough. It is one step on the way. Whilst it is true we must attend to our own evolution first, there comes a time when we need to turn our focus from ourselves to the world beyond our skin-encapsulated egos. I for one, have read more ‘spiritual’ books – decades of them – than I can remember. They have probably not contributed to my ‘spirituality’ one ounce. Intellectually, yes, I understand more than I did at 14 when my quest began, and as the Swami said, understanding needs to come first. But my spirituality is my heart, not my head. It is my empathy. It is my connection with the caged dogs in Vietnam, the shackled elephants in India, the legless beggars of Delhi, the animals the world over in factory farms. It is my pain when I see the suffering of the earthquake victims in Nepal – as it is the violation of Mother Earth and the ongoing cruelty of man to his fellow man.
At some point our understanding, our knowledge, needs to be transformed to feeling. If we believe we ‘cannot do anything about it’ – all this pain and therefore subscribe to the ‘ignorance is bliss’ philosophy – then let’s not kid ourselves that we are spiritual. It’s a hell of a lot easier to turn away – and read yet another book on giving up the ego. But to be spiritual is to bear witness and to feel, in our own hearts, something of the pain of others. My deepest feeling is that our heartfelt connection to all of life is a portal to the spirituality the world needs now. This is the reason why, when our hearts break, they actually expand. When we truly feel the depths of pain, our own as well as others, our capacity to love grows. Our world is a mental creation. It is the outworkings of the Mind of God. It is at heart, thought. When we bring emotion to our thoughts and direct them in empathetic connection with others we are shifting the energetic flow. If enough of us open to this flow of connectivity, it may be a turning point. The emotion we need to bring to our thoughts is love. Compassion is love.
Awakening is part of it, understanding is vital – but it is an awakening and understanding without borders. It is not personal. It is not about you, or me and our limited little egos. It is not about your beliefs and my beliefs, your religion and my spirituality. It is about all of us. We need to get beyond our local mind-set and expand our hearts, our compassion, our connection with all of life. Then, and only then, can we say we are spiritual beings.
“Extend your awareness
Into the bodies of other living beings,
Feel what those others are feeling.
Leave aside your body and its needs.
Abandon being so local.
Day by day, constrictions will loosen,
As you become attuned
To the current of life
Flowing through us all”
84 – “The Radiance Sutras”