Imagine walking a toddler down the candy aisle of a supermarket. Except, this aisle isn’t only candy. It starts with candy, but as you get farther down, there are more mature delights, such as eggs benedict, the trumpet, and philosophy books.
Naturally, the child is immediately going to become engrossed in the candy. Her attention will be consumed by opening the wrapper, discovering what’s inside, and eating.
This is the non-spiritual life- our attention is consumed with the stuff that is presented to our awareness, with minimal reflection and understanding of where it came from, why it’s worth pursuing, and what to do when things go wrong (the inevitable absence, or simple tummy ache, or plain old boredom).
In the aisle of life, some explore further (deeper) than others. Some spend most of their time on simple pleasures like food, toys and games. Others get wrapped up in social standing and prestige. Some lose themselves in their passions; music, cabinetry, fishing. Some contemplate the aisle itself; what is it, where did it come from, why am I here? Many choose one form of inquiry into such questions (this choice being driven largely by happenstance), with the dominant and well-financed form being science. Other forms of inquiry still live and thrive in philosophy departments.
What about spirituality?
There are those who have walked very far down the aisle, or so they say. We have no way of truly knowing how far they walked because we can’t see down that far. But they tell us that there are unbelievable things down there. They tell us that the truth is down there. Unfortunately, they can’t tell us what the truth is, we have to come down and see it for ourselves. But, even though this truth is non-verbal, a not-completely-worthless description would be that you, your essential nature, is incomprehensibly amazing.
The difficulty is, you can’t see your essential nature when you’re looking at all these candies and toys. When your attention is drawn to them, it is drawn away from your essential nature, in the same way that when you look up at the sky on a bright sunny day, you can’t see the stars because of your attention to the sun.*
Spirituality is the process of dropping your attention from the candies and toys, including their concomitant thoughts and desires and fears, and even dropping attention from the more mature pursuits like art and love, and simply noticing what’s left for your attention to perceive.
It is a stillness that is not describable, not because it’s so wonderful, but simply because there is no object of focus, there is nothing to discriminate from anything else, and therefore nothing to categorize, nothing to assign words to or attach thoughts to.
But here we are essentially sitting at the beginning of the candy aisle with our toddler, gleefully tearing into one delight after another. Just as there is no convincing the toddler to leave these objects of attention alone, there is no convincing most of us. Many are thoroughly enjoying the aisle, wherever they are in its depths. Others may not be enjoying it, but are nonetheless consumed and tortured by its caprices, its impermanence.
Spirituality is the process of recognizing a pull toward discovering one’s essential nature and doing something about it. It is often a simple recognition that things just don’t add up. What should I do with myself? How can I be here out of nothingness, magically, and yet find myself watching a lot of TV? Why is there evil in the world?
What to do about it? How to see one’s essential nature? One method is to look at what it is not. You put down the candy and the football and the trumpet and the philosophy book, and you see what’s there in the absence. You sit comfortably so that your body doesn’t start to ache and distract you. You sit in a reasonably quiet spot so that the activity of the candy aisle doesn’t distract you. In moments, you notice that your thoughts are omnipresent, copious, continuous, and always about something in the aisle, even if it’s yourself (who is in the aisle as well). So, you pick something to focus your thoughts on as an intermediary between the objects of the world and stillness, and a nice intermediary is your breathes. You count your breaths, from one to ten, and then repeat. Each time you notice your attention wandering off to an object, you drop that thought and come back to your breaths. Eventually, you don’t need to count- you can follow your breath in total mental silence.
If you get to this point, you’ve really gotten somewhere. Farther than all the philosophy texts and lectures by even the greatest minds. And you’ve just begun.
*Like stars, your essential nature is always here. You don’t need to walk down the aisle to find it, and in fact the act of walking down the aisle can be distraction as well.