One of the most difficult aspects of spiritual thinking, (thinking which reaches beyond the small, petty self) is grasping how that self is an illusion.
The real Self, with a capital “S”, is the whole world, for our skin is only a thin membrane connecting our inner “self” with our outer “Self”. Yet most of us live our lives basing decisions on that small, illusory sense of lonely, separate, finite existence. No spiritual practice is worth anything without this important premise in its teaching.
For now, I would like to explore how this idea affects our thinking about world problems. We, myself included, tend to be satisfied with accomplishing the tasks set before us to achieve our daily goals, ideally to obtain and maintain health, security, community, career, relaxation and some kind of spiritual practice.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself worn out after doing what’s necessary to maintain my life. I don’t like to face too many new tasks, or at least not ones which seem altruistic, reaching for some “unobtainable” or far distant goal. Yet we have no choice but to commit any extra time and resources to alleviating issues such as hunger, disease, genocide, or extreme poverty.
Of course, there are really no specific consequences to ignoring this truth. We can live our lives, as many do, striving only to better ourselves, regardless of how it affects others. Nothing really bad will happen to us, except we will be ignoring our most precious gift, our compassion, our conscience. After long enough, we forget what it feels like to feel for others. We can rationalize that it was just meant to be that way. Tough cookies. Perhaps this is why religion is still useful in a way. It keeps people guessing as to what their punishment will be if they don’t at least try to act toward some altruistic ideas.
We cannot claim to live fully conscious and ignore those issues on a daily basis. That would mean living in denial, a kind of zombie trance, an illusion of happiness. There’s a hollowness to this kind of living. Often, we try to fill this “hollow leg” with more things, more food, more business, new improved living, even a kind of endless searching for a spiritual practice which “fits” us.
Ultimately, the answer is simple. Take daily time to feel and nourish the deep pain of admitting how others suffer. This could be in the form of prayer or contemplation. There are specific practices in Buddhism which offer a structured building of compassion, starting with sending compassionate, loving thoughts to those you love, then to those you don’t love, then to strangers you know, and on to all sentient beings. It’s very healing.
Then, give what you can financially. Be really honest with yourself. Do you need that new CD? Can you spare that money for someone more needy?
When reading Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, I was amazed to find out that secular societies, particularly those from Northern Europe, give by far the most generous support toward relieving the suffering known to exist in so much of the world. Food for thought.