The so-called spiritual search is circular in nature. It begins with a self winding its way through the world and it ends there, too. Whatever the way, it always delivers us to where we began: this. This this right here.
When most of us begin the search, we are unhappy. Life is confusing and unfair. Bad things happen with disturbing regularity. What was supposed to work does not, and we can’t find a consistently useful alternative.
We are unhappy and we want to be happy. It’s an old story, but a good one. It matters.
We turn to Jesus, say. Perhaps we do so formally – indulging liturgy and sacrament performed by men in medieval garb. Maybe we follow Thomas Merton’s idealized lead and graft on a half-assed Zen practice. Maybe we dart to the fringe and study A Course in Miracles which in turn dropkicks us into Sri Ramana and his confused and confusing lineage who unwittingly shove us into science and rational thought . . .
On and on it goes in apparently endless permutations until one day – for reasons that often aren’t realized until later, and don’t have to be realized at all – it clarifies that we are simply human observers having a human experience. That was all that was happening all along.
At this juncture, religious and spiritual explanations tend to confuse things, so we set them aside. Just give attention. What is really going on here?
When we do that, sooner or later, we learn that it is possible to be happy. Here and now. This body, this world. We learn that the means of happiness were always right at hand. They are inherent in us.
We eat simple healthy meals. We do as much of our growing, harvesting and cooking of our food as possible. We get a reasonable amount of exercise – walking, yoga, weight-lifting. We avail ourselves of consensual intimacy – hugs, hand-holding, making love. We partake of beauty – sitting by rivers or lakes, reading poetry, listening to music. If we have a headache we take an aspirin. If we’re sad, we say we’re sad. We trust what passes will pass.
And slowly but surely – though not perfectly, for perfection is the enemy – we become happier.
When we are happy in this way, we see clearly how simple and elegant the human experience can be: nurturing, gentle, generous. We realize that what makes us happy – healthy food, clean water, safety in which to walk and sleep and play, free time in which to make love, visit a museum, or go to a library, unsullied nature in which to hike and canoe – are privileges. And privilege is not just. Everyone without condition or exception should have access to these things.
For happiness is not ours alone, and who hoards the means to be happy – by design or ignorance – denies happiness to their sister, which injures (by postponing) the happiness of both.
Thus, the end of our spiritual search is not only our own peace and happiness, but our insistence that our calling is to be servants of the collective. We necessarily work to reform society that it might uniformly ensure fairness and justice. We advocate for policies and practices that make it easier for human beings to be happy. We advocate against practices that restrain, restrict or otherwise inhibit our natural inclination to love.
This advocacy is nonviolent. It is conducted by reason and example. It is okay to try and persuade people there’s a better way so long as you are not secretly (or not so secretly) planning to burn them at the stake if they disagree.
If we are not working hard to ensure the happiness of others, then our own happiness is not yet whole and full. It remains conditional and fragmented. And we will remain unsatisfied, frightened and confused. For it is well and truly written of joy: It ain’t real until it’s shared.
It is possible to be deeply and naturally happy, and this happiness by definition entails a profound desire to extend the means of that happiness to all living beings.
This is the law and the prophets.