Mindfulness is all the rage now days. It’s simply the art of being consciously aware of something, particularly when we are participating in it. It might be as simple as being aware of our breathing as the air passes in and out of our nostrils. Or being mindfully aware of that apple pie we are eating when we are consuming it. It can also helpfully extend to an awareness of our own emotional state in the moment, that sadness in the pit of our stomach. Mindfulness elicits a particular state of consciousness which is more often being sought, a kind of calmness which descends on us as we observe and notice what is before us. That bird’s eye perspective can also bring a sense of detachment as we look down on our experiences. It is also an important first step in acknowledging what is going on for us. We usually have to first be aware of our breath, what we are eating or feeling in order to be thankful for these experiences of just being alive; if we are not aware of something it is hard to appreciate it. With so much to offer it is not hard to see why a practice of mindfulness is gaining popularity in the West.
Mindfulness is closely associated with the concept of enlightenment which implies seeing the things in our awareness as they really are – in the light of day, so to speak. Mindfulness opens the door to understanding, being aware of our inner state is the first step in understanding why we are feeling as we are. Enlightenment is really mindfulness with insight. Within the Buddhist tradition, for example, enlightenment includes awareness of suffering together with an observation of its nature. That is one of the major goals of a number of Eastern traditions – to understand the nature of reality and to stay in a mindful state towards it.
The Enlightenment is also the name given to the European seventeenth century movement which celebrated the power of reason to inform us of what the universe was like. Part of the momentum of this movement was the desire to sweep away superstition and limit the role of religious ideology. We all like the idea of seeing through any illusions we may have inherited and seeing life as it really is. It taps into our search for the truth as well as focusing our attention on what is present to us at the time.
There is a deep pleasure for us human beings in knowing. The “ah-ha” moment, when we have insight into a problem that we have been chewing on, is sometimes an ecstatic experience. We have evolved to take joy in comprehension. Awareness, mindfulness and enlightenment are all gifts made possible for us by the evolution of consciousness and our emotional reward system has evolved to reward our correct judgements. The emergence of awareness came with the evolution of life and is something we share with all higher members of the animal kingdom. Like us they have the ability to scan their environment for dangers or for food and their survival depends on their awareness of their environment and their own bodies. The added emergence of consciousness, being “aware of our awareness” is another step up the evolutionary ladder. It allows us to plan, imagine, analyse, hypothesise and theorise. It has opened up the possibility of interacting with the world with understanding and has ultimately led us to science and philosophy, history and psychology.
The evolution of consciousness offered early humans a huge number of advantages. It allowed us to learn from our mistakes and imagine how we could improve our tools. We learnt to make better arrows and spears to hunt with. It allowed us to anticipate the future – to imagine that a cave may indeed house a bear and consequently to be wary. It allowed us to co-operate on a deeper level as we could imagine what others were thinking. And through language it allowed us to pass on our knowledge and experience. It also allowed us to make maps of what the world is like. The Australian Aboriginals developed a number of songlines that when recited could help them on their migratory journey through the landscape and know where to find water holes and how be guided by significant landmarks.
One of the maps is that we humans became interesting in building was a map of ultimate reality and a plan for how we should relate to it. This is a significant part of what we now call spirituality. As we shall see later, it appears that early spirituality was born of an experience of awe in the face of the power and beauty of the elements. And alongside this sense of awe, we also developed ways to interact with these powers. We wanted ways to appease the storms, to bring rain to the earth we farmed and fertility of our own reproductive bodies. We used the gift of consciousness to not only form a map of the world around us but also a map of the unseen forces which seemed to rule it, a map of the spiritual realm, of the heavens. This exploration of the sacred, of meaning and of our own place in the cosmos is a wonderful human endeavour. However, it needs, like any map of reality, to be tried, tested and made to fit more closely with reality. It has had to grow and change as we evolve and grow in knowledge and understanding. The GPS in my car does not unfortunately update itself and while this mostly gets me where I want to go, relying on a three year old e-map occasionally it leads me astray – and when it does, I’m effectively lost. Because spirituality is a response to humanity’s current needs using our contemporary understanding of the world – it also needs to evolve. But it usually doesn’t! For spirituality often institutionalises and becomes religion. The word religion comes from the Latin root “religio” meaning “ruler” and we look for a constant guide that we can measure our lives by. Religion seeks to systematise spirituality with set beliefs, rituals and priestly authorities so it can add a layer of certainty to the map of the cosmos when have drafted. A set of easily accessed things to do, say and believe and the hard work is done for us. Write it all down in holy scriptures, dictated by a God-given prophet, complex enough that you need clergy to interpret it and you have the whole thing apparently sown up. But human progress can only be made if there is flexibility to our consciousness. We have had to be able to plan, anticipate, analyse, correct and plan again. When our current thought maps no longer serve we have to change them. This process was later solidified into the development of the scientific process but it was practiced many times beforehand.
Spirituality often directs us towards mindfulness but less often does it turn its gaze upon itself and encourage us to be mindful of the nature of spirituality. And when it does it tends to give answers that fit within its world view. For instance, the Abrahamic faiths usually view spirituality as a product of humankind’s inbuilt hunger for God who dwells outside of time and space. Hindus typically see spirituality as the urge to seek and realise the divinity within us. But what if we could find an awareness of the nature of spirituality that works across all different traditions, that builds a picture of spirituality from our common humanity?
It is a well-known observation that you don’t need to be able to understand the complex mechanics of a modern car in order to drive one. Likewise, most people will practice a religious faith without seeking to understand the nature of spirituality itself. However, there may come a time when you do need to understand how something works or find someone who does. When our cars break down, we rely on the expertise and knowledge of a mechanic to repair them. Many of us find ourselves in that position with our religious faith. It no longer works like it used to – it no longer provides meaning or a sense of the sacred, let alone give us a traditional moral code to live by. Of course, we do not have to repair our cars – we can always get a new one and there is no shortage of salesmen willing to sell us one. So too in the realm of spirituality there is no shortage of new churches and gurus willing to offer us a new path to salvation and enlightenment. But we may find ourselves like the man who in mid-life finds a new wife only to bring his old attitudes and problems with him. Others simply give up – they put spirituality into the too hard basket or outrightly reject it and embrace atheism. Yet if in the broadest sense spirituality encompasses our meaning and value system, the name for that which we hold most sacred, there may be no escape from it. We will either be dependent on the value of the spirituality we inherit or become conscious enough to put together our own.
Being religious is like going to a restaurant where an expert chef has prepared the meal. You get to choose what sort of restaurant to attend but not what is on the menu. Being spiritual is more like learning to cook at home we get to construct the meal. During the time of Covid 19 many of us rediscovered the joys of home cooking, I know I started baking. There is a deep satisfaction of pulling out of the oven something which I made myself and which I choose the healthy ingredients to go into. But in order for it to work we have to learn how to cook and how all the ingredients work together. I have met many who have set out on their own spiritual path only to pick up similar bad habits they tried to flee from. Fanciful ideas, inflated egos and a spiritual life divorced from their day to day life. This is the challenge of those of us who have chosen the path of being spiritual but not religious. This is the purpose of this website to examine the ingredients and methods of spirituality in order that we may construct something that is healthy, that feeds our souls and that of our friends and family.
If we are going to design our own spirituality then we will need to develop a certain mastery of it. Mastering a skill is a combination of consciousness understanding and unconsciousness skill. Over the last 10 months I have been trying to master the sport of golf. Starting with some very helpful YouTube videos, I learnt some theory of how to swing my newly acquired golf clubs. Then off to the driving range to try to put the theory into practice, to try to make this conscious knowledge part of my body memory – in other words to make it unconscious. After weeks the swing becomes more automatic and I connected to the golf ball regularly. Then off to the golf course where frustratingly, I discovered some bad habits as the ball sliced off to the left. Back to YouTube to find out what I did wrong. If I was too conscious of the what I should be doing then I would tense up and it would be worse then ever. This is the path of mastery that humans have trod in craft, trade and hobby. Making changes consciously and then learning to put them into muscle and unconscious memory. In seems as though there is a journey in life from unconsciousness to consciousness and then to the holding of the two together.
To accompany us in this journey we can do we will need a holy curiosity. Hopefully we come at this question of the nature of spirituality with curiosity, that indispensable human characteristic, especially strong in our youth. In the words of Einstein, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” —”Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64