What is the True Aim of Spirituality?

Could it be to discover that the “self” is an illusion?

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Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

There is no doubt that the spiritual aspect of life is as real and important as the physical, emotional, intellectual, and social parts.

It’s not by chance that organized religion has survived for thousands of years, not to mention the other forms of spirituality practiced since time immemorial. People are drawn to the words, the imagery, the hope, and the beauty of spiritual life.

But, what is it about living a spiritual life that creates such a powerful draw for us? What exactly are we looking for?

For much of my life, I ignored these kinds of questions. I sought all my answers in a kind of rational and scientific approach to life. It’s only recently that I’ve started to notice that something is missing from this out-dated perspective.

Do you ever feel like something is missing? Like there is a truth out there that you don’t know, but you know that if you knew it life would be better? Like the wool has been pulled over your eyes and much of the beauty of life has been hidden from you?

I think it is our blind obsession with the concept of “self” that keeps us from attaining the promises of the spiritual life. It keeps us focused on ourselves and our perceived social status, which distracts us from seeing what really matters.

What is the Point of Spirituality?

Do you feel it? Beneath all the hustle and bustle, the shiny toys, the incredible technology, the excitement of sports, and passion of politics, do you feel an inherent dissatisfaction with it all?

Don’t they feel empty, like no matter how much you get of them, it’s never enough?

We ask big questions but have no answers. We feel like we need more but nothing is ever enough. We are convinced we understand yet our arrogance betrays us — we’re dissatisfied.

Most religions try to change our perspective — to get us to see life differently. Whether it’s from the perspective of god, or the universe, or love, or compassion, from this vantage point, they claim, things look different.

Perhaps you’ve had some kind of religious or spiritual experience and felt both small and large? Both important and unimportant? Both everything and nothing? Perhaps the experience left you feeling like your actions are both of the utmost significance and yet also inconsequential?

These are some of the strange contradictions that spirituality demands we confront.

In Buddhist philosophy, an idea called anatta, which translates to “non-self”, is one such contradiction. Non-self stems from the impermanent nature of reality — it is the conclusion that, if we look for it, we will find nothing enduring, permanent, or fixed about our “selfs”. We will only see that we are in constant flux, always changing.

According to Buddhism, one of our greatest delusions is that each of us has a fixed and unchanging essence, and it is this delusion that is a great part of our suffering.

Although this is a strange perspective for a Western thinker, it’s becoming increasingly supported by science (see Robert Wright’s book on the science of Buddhism, Why Buddhism Is True).

Think about how you relate to your “self”. You judge yourself better or worse than others. You judge yourself to have more or less than others. You feel you have “lost face” when offended by others. You feel embarrassed or ashamed when you make a mistake in front of others. You feel like you need to constantly impress others.

So much of what we do is to raise the perceived value of our “self” compared to other people.

What if this is the cause of our feeling of emptiness? What if it’s this game that we’re playing with our sense of self that is making us unfulfilled, dissatisfied, and unhappy?

Isn’t it when we feel connected to everything and everyone that we feel our greatest sense of peace and happiness? Isn’t it when we lose the sense that we’re individual, separate, unique that we gain something far greater?

Could it be our attachment to our sense of self that is causing our dissatisfaction with life?

Could it be that minimizing this sense of self is a key to unlocking the promise of the spiritual life — fulfillment, peace, and happiness?

Losing Our Sense of Self

Science has suggested that there is a particular part of the brain that creates the sense of self. In advanced meditators, this part of the brain is significantly less active compared to people who do not meditate.

Isn’t that interesting? Buddhism suggests that meditation can free people from the delusion of the sense of self, and now, thousands of years after this thought was put forward, science is suggesting there is at least some truth to it.

What do advanced meditators say about their perception of reality? A sense of connectedness to all things. Love for all things. Compassion for all things. An intense presence in, and focus on, the present moment. An appreciation for and acceptance of the changing nature of reality (see Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind).

Could it be that this thing we call the self — a concept created in our minds — prevents us from achieving the spiritual enlightenment we’re all seeking?

I have been practicing mindfulness meditation daily for almost two years, and I can say in that small amount of time I have noticed a significant change in how I relate the events I experience to my “self”.

Whereas I once felt shame and embarrassment when making a mistake, I much less strongly attach that mistake to “me”. Rather, I think of mistakes as events arising out of conditions that I cannot change but I can learn from to prevent in the future.

Whereas I once felt paralyzing fear when I needed to present in front of colleagues, I am now less attached to those feelings of fear. I can often observe the fear arise and pass without needing to dwell on it, knowing that this is the nature of things.

How does meditation do this? Meditation changes your mind by allowing you to notice how the mind works. It gives you clarity on what’s really going on. After all, if you cannot see a problem, you cannot fix it.

And, if you don’t notice that there is no unchanging, fixed, and eternal “self”, then you will continue to relate to events through the lens of the “self”.

Wouldn’t it be a relief to give up that lens? To stop all the comparisons you make about yourself to others. I am a better cook? Am I more intelligent? I am funnier? Am I a better leader? Am I a more skilled?

When these questions fall away, there is nothing to do but your best. When you have nothing to prove, when you have nothing to lose or gain, life is simplified.

When you lose your attachment to your sense of self, you lose your narrow focus on your own life. Your perspective expands to fill the world. And you cannot help but to feel love and have compassion for everyone and everything.

You finally feel in harmony with the world. You finally feel at peace. Instead of focusing on how things are going right or wrong for you, you can simply enjoy what’s happening.

When you understand that everything changes, you understand that no moment will ever happen again. If you can live with this truth in your mind and your heart, you will see that there is nothing to do but relax and fall into the midst of everything.

This reminds me of one of my favorite passages (from Women of the Way by Sallie Tisdale), which I will leave you to ponder…

She saw that all phenomena arose, abided, and fell away. She saw that even knowing this arose, abided, and fell away. Then she knew there was nothing more than this, no ground, nothing to lean on stronger than the cane she held. Nothing to lean upon at all, and no one leaning… And she opened the clenched fist in her mind and let go, and fell into the midst of everything.

Thanks for reading!

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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