Spirit is a powerful realization that despite our fragile and finite lives it is possible to live deeply through each moment, always carving a path toward loving forgiveness and hope. The path of spirit is never easy, and takes courage and patience. Once tapped, its power can reveal strength, purpose, creativity and love.
What does it mean to be fully present? Many religions and spiritual practices refer to the idea. But it is not necessary to follow any particular practice to acquire the awareness and skill to be present. Yet that skill is useful in becoming more fully human.
However, the task is not so easy as it may seem. As a young man reading about Zen Buddhism for the first time, I thought it was just a switch which, once flipped, stayed “on” and that was it. Yet, that little skill, stumbled upon by early spiritual practices such as Buddhism, can lead to a blossoming of confidence and compassion. It balances many issues of selfishness which arise from too much focus on “self-development”.
Perhaps it’s the way my psyche is built, but I tend to think of myself as very separate from the world, limited by my ability to “perform” on the world stage. My self-expectations precede and deflate any possibility of spontaneous happiness. I get lost in this artificial separateness and forget to just “be” and “breathe” into whatever happens.
Rather than approach these issues from a psychological perspective, I have found that practicing the following “exercise” can break the paranoid illusion of separateness from the outside world. When I am at the “surface” of my self, I can make eye contact with others without feeling invasive of their space or invaded by their probing eyes. (Yes, I feel uncomfortable with eye contact) It’s a simple way to clarify our interactions on the “world stage”, so that our character is more innocent and open, rather than being preoccupied by judgment, fear or hesitation.
When we let go of the need to analyze and carve out meaning, we let in a different kind of awareness. A primary sense of being arises. If you think of letting go a big “muscle” behind the eyes and nose, let it soften and sink open, you begin to feel something else happening. You come out into the world and let the world in simultaneously, as if a big fish tank has broken and you realize the water and air can mix just fine.
You meet the world with your primary self, or what might be called simple self or original self. When the two become well acquainted, you notice how much more present you can be during times of stress and frustration. This primary self is almost always superseded by our crazy, mental, stressful culture. We either focus intently on something, usually an idea or activity, or we space out and disappear altogether.
This practice can help with ego and selfishness. If we see ourself as something continuous between inside and outside, it becomes easier to let go of hurt, anger and frustration. Forgiveness is only possible when you let in compassion and pity. Anger is easier to release when you see that caring and understanding can be received from others. It’s not a cure all, but it helps soften the pain of separateness. We can then begin the long process of embracing connections within our large world with less inhibition and fear.
I see an incomprehensibly vast universe, perhaps “breathing” by expansion and contraction to a single point over trillions of years; a universe in which I barely exist, but which I am unbelievably lucky and blessed to be able to experience and be aware of. Outside that universe, I cannot even imagine what could be. I am humbled by the thought.
The problem, of course, is how you define spiritual. I know, it sounds like Clinton saying “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” So why dwell on this confusing word â€œspiritâ€ when we believe there is no god? Because it’s a useful term with resonances in great and wise traditions. The problem with atheism is that it tends to throw the baby out with the bath water. My intention is to freshen and balance spirit’s meaning between the wisdom of ancient intuitive thinking and current knowledge. I also like the idea of reclaiming it for modern secular use.
We often use the word spirit in secular vernacular to mean a general quality of a person’s demeanor: “He’s in poor spirits.” We all know exactly what it means. There is no need for an atheist to refute its validity. We know that something is causing that “poor spirit”. You could argue it’s the same as saying “He’s an unhappy person right now.” But what is unhappy about him? Is it his mind, his body? The word spirit fits because it describes something else, neither mind nor body alone. I propose that spirit is a relationship or connection between parts, between mind and body, between self and other. This idea can be expanded further.
Fear seems to be a primary reason people turn to religion. I have many fears. I fear failure. I fear rejection. I fear being judged wrongly by others. I fear hate from others. I fear loneliness. Believing in a god gives solace that you are never alone, that you are always loved. We all suffer from the misconception that we are separate from others and that we have to “fit in” to be accepted. So how do we deal with the issue of fear of loneliness?
Individuality is the hallmark of free society. We are encouraged to be unique, new, daring, different. But something gets lost in all that separateness: our connection to each other. Think for a moment of the worst pain you have ever suffered. With a little imagination, you can picture someone else on earth suffering as much or much worse. Imagine the love you wish for, then know that someone else suffers the same need. Keeping these little awarenesses close to the heart through a day sooths the emptiness of separateness. With individualism as the pinnacle of freedom, we tend to forget these simple connections. Boundaries of thought between people create loneliness, not being alone.
Expanding connections further. I once listened to all 9 symphonies of Beethoven on day, beginning in the afternoon and continuing until late evening. As my fatigue encroached from so much listening, my mind opened up to another level. I stopped thinking about the music and started just experiencing it. Thatâ€™s when Beethoven came rushing deep into my being. The last three symphonies, Nos. 7, 8 and 9, were truly spiritual experiences, poetic inspirations, moments of connection between history, culture, music, myself and my muse. Beyond a connection to something there was also a liberation from something. Boundaries became less distinct between me and the world. I felt as if I were in Beethovenâ€™s head, hearing and writing them with all their meaning and depth and quality.
So it is with the spirit of living. It is neither yours nor something separate from you, but an interaction, a relationship between you and the world around you. It is a coaxial cable connection to the universe, a direct link to all that is and is possible.
The problem is, our natural spirit is often damaged, or at least obscured. The various trappings of life’s maintenance, cultural oppressions, poor upbringing, physical distractions, ego, desire and self-deception cause myriad malfunctions and disconnections. Itâ€™s as if the â€œsoftwareâ€ to life is damaged by various â€œvirusesâ€. The usual suspects are judgment, self-deception, hubris, attachment, fear and ignorance. Add to that habits of unclear thinking and living, or the misfortune of traumatic experience, and one faced a veritable minefield of obstacles to experiencing a clear spirit. Luckily, science, psychology and modern meditative self-examination are valuable tools for clarifying spirit. So are the connections experienced through art, poetry, music and the beauty of nature.
But how do we find time to do all this growing in a short life? The atheist’s sense of the finality of death is a problem. I don’t really know if I fear the end of my life. But I want to accomplish so much before then. How can we be happy if we’re always in a hurry to live a full life before we “disappear”?
Here again that illusion of separateness comes into play. Thich Nhat Hahn brilliantly used the metaphor of a cloud. The fact is, a cloud does not disappear when it evaporates into humidity or falls as rain. True, the cloud as it was is gone. Its beauty or inspiration or perhaps the shade it offered from the sun is no longer. But the raw matter of the cloud still exists in a different form. So it is with us. We cease to be a living human. But our energy still exists. These observations are small comfort to those whose egos cling to a singular, separate identity. But personally, I feel good knowing that I will continue in some other form.
Most spiritual traditions refer to something which encompasses All. With growing awareness, we begin to know that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. We can sense and fathom a connection and unity between all things. I timidly dare to call this great spirit as an extension of the individual one. Here again, a hybrid relationship of scientific humanism with intuitive spirituality can lead us forward. We know that we came from and will return to some common pool, since our matter only changes forms. So, we are from it and of it and will return to it. Scientifically, the atoms are barely differentiated between earth, life and sky. Boundaries blur further.
The wisdom of Buddhism teaches that our suffering is caused by attachment to things, time and ego. Ironically, Buddhism’s ultimate goal is to break the illusion of separateness by dissolving the illusion of ego. Things, time and ego are necessary to life, but damaging to spiritual health.
Taoist thinking highlights the unity of opposites: good cannot exist without bad, self without other. Again, relationships. These empirical truths are often elusive to our clinging, categorizing natures. My intention in calling these elusive goals spiritual is to get beyond the clunkiness of analytical thinking and begin to gain a deeper sense of intuition and feelings. Our lives are empty without them.
Spirit is a poetic relationship between awareness and experience, between knowledge and intuition, identity and mystery, connection and separateness. When we embrace our spiritual gifts, our humanist natures can blossom. Who needs god for that?
Like the beautiful quilts photos dotting this article, the connections and relationships between various parts gives rise beauty and meaning.
From the teachings of the Alexander Technique, I’ve learned how to be in my body and mind and yet not let them run my life. In other words, I direct from the inside without being subject to mind/body habits. When emotions arise, I feel them without letting them turn into a soap opera. When confusion occurs, I allow its drama without getting lost in it. I am the conductor in tune with the instruments which are me! I believe this balance of control and freedom is the thin line Buddhism implies when suggesting detachment as a tool for awareness.
The “primary control” in Alexander’s teachings points to the same thing. Primary control allows the body’s natural awareness to help us stay in the present. Thus, when the hind brain (cerebellum*) which controls body awareness, is allowed a more leading position, the body is not befuddled by the activity of the thinking mind. This helps dissolve the mind/body illusion. Then, consciousness holds a central place within this physical/mental system, not counter to it or abusing of it.
This sense of detachment allows for the discovery of the higher self. Again, it is not a separate being or other self, but a description of where the true self seems to come from when it is balanced within the body.
Poise in the body and mind allows for better awareness of this seemingly “higher” self. In this sense, spirit is not a separate entity from mind and body, but a result of balance between them, a sympathetic vibration, if you will. When mind and body are present and poised, certain truths can then become self evident, such as the wisdom of being unattached to results and the finite nature of the body and mind. As these levels of understanding deepen, a feeling of spirit may arise, a sense of infinite freedom within a closed system.
* (from Brain Basics)The hind-brain includes the upper part of the spinal cord, the brain stem, and a wrinkled ball of tissue called the cerebellum (1). The hind-brain controls the bodyâ€™s vital functions such as respiration and heart rate. The cerebellum coordinates movement and is involved in learned rote movements. When you play the piano or hit a tennis ball you are activating the cerebellum. The uppermost part of the brainstorm is the mid-brain, which controls some reflex actions and is part of the circuit involved in the control of eye movements and other voluntary movements.