A few days ago, I came across a newspaper article discussing how, in recent years, sales of self-help/spirituality/mindfulness books have burgeoned in the UK. Given the present state of this country – and a few others around the world – it’s hardly surprising. People are looking for something – something they sense should be part of their lives and isn’t; something which – who knows? – they may once have had but have now lost. And whatever it is, there is a belief that, in a world where things seem to be unraveling and falling apart, it would knit things back together again. Life, after all, should have a point. So often, there hardly seems to be one. Even making money and buying ‘things’ which – if you watch the TV commercials and read the ads in newspapers and on outdoor hoardings, you’d think is the point of most people’s lives – hardly nourishes the soul. And what’s needed is something that does just that.
There was a time when organized religion was the answer – albeit often by dealing in fear. But for increasing numbers now, that just doesn’t work. And science is turning out a soulless substitute. So the emptiness deepens. And the urgency to find that ‘point’ increases. But where do you turn when you don’t really know what it is you’re looking for?
Some years ago, I was invited to a party in rural Sussex – a party given by a university student, mostly for his fellow students but with a few older people such as myself invited along. It was held in his garden on a beautiful summer’s day, with the lovely soft hills of the South Downs as a backdrop. The wine flowed and at some point in the afternoon, one student, a man I’d guess in his very early twenties, collared me and started to bemoan what he saw as the lack of point in the life he was living – a life which, in society’s eyes, was one of some privilege – halfway through his course at one of the ancient universities, with the hope after that of a well-paid career of his choice.
He’d had a few glasses. But what he was saying he clearly felt deeply. “Where,” he asked, “are the elders?” Where are they, those people – older people, experienced in life and with gravitas, whom you’d expect to be around somewhere – to whom, as a young man or woman, you can look for guidance as you step out into the world? In his voice, there was an edge almost of betrayal.
I believe that what he was saying mirrored what the people turning for guidance to the mindfulness/spiritual books are feeling. That something quite fundamental is missing from their lives. And that money, status, possessions, Facebook, and iPhones are not part of whatever that something is.
A few weeks back, I was watching a nature programme on TV. The presenter kept referring to ‘the natural world’ and ‘nature’ as though it were something that starts only when you step outside your door – something that just sort of – ‘goes on’ out there on its own, needing no help from us. And which is therefore, by implication, separate from us as human beings.
But stop. Take a look at your own self – who or what, at this moment, is controlling your breathing? The beating of your heart? Something is – but it’s not you. Who or what is managing your digestion, the replenishment of the cells of your body, your immune system, the ageing process of your body? All those, and a great many more mind-bogglingly complex things are going on within you, right at this moment, in an exquisitely organized manner and without any contribution whatever from you. And when that final day, whose moment will not be in your gift, comes along, those things will stop – and you won’t have had any input to that either.
We are cyclical. Just like ‘nature’ and ‘the natural world’. The sun rises then sets; and we – broadly speaking – go to bed and rise with it. As the seasons come and go, so do we; we’re born, we live, we fade and die. In fact everything you can possibly think of, is cyclical. Nothing is for ever. The mayfly, the elephant, the mountains, the continents, our very civilizations. The stars, even. All things have their moment, then leave the stage.
We are all participants in a single process. The atoms that comprise us, comprise the stars. What drives the natural world, drives us. Any distinction is one of outward form only. Out to, and beyond the furthest receding galaxies, everything – our own selves included – is one indivisible entity.
OK – intellectually, that is incomprehensible. But that’s part of the problem – humankind’s intellect. It has dominated our society for thousands of years and has little response in the face of the present situation, beyond that of staring at its own reflection. In this matter at least, it has led us down a dusty path to nowhere very much. That is not however, the fault of the intellect; the fault is ours for having paid so little heed to its limits, thus granting it almost total exclusivity.
And now we’re starting to yearn. We want back the heart, the soul, the inner reality of life – that elusive ‘point’. Where to find it? Where to look? That’s the question.
The words of Lao Tsu, writing two thousand years ago – “Stop thinking and end your problems.”
I need to add something to the above. Where I speak of organized religion not doing it now for so many people, I do not include in that, the words, as reported, of Jesus Christ. I believe that if more Christians generally spent their time doing their best to live his message – a message identical in import to that of the Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tsu and many other sages down the centuries – rather than spending so much time worshiping his person, they would be powerful contributors to a better world.