We have ideas about what life should feel like and look like and these ideas guide our behavior. These ideas are not our own; we acquire them from the culture in which we find ourselves. We think that spiritual people are peaceful vegans or celibate monks or scholarly ascetics. And we act accordingly, and our acting never manages to meet the ideal, and so we have to keep going.
In this way, dissatisfaction perpetuates itself. We never get beyond spiritual ideals and concepts. Our living remains haunted – sometimes intensely, sometimes dimly – but always there is a sense that something is missing and that when we find it or reach it then at last we will know the peace that surpasses understanding.
Ideals are like rainbows. They are beautiful and alluring. But we can never reach them. We can walk for miles and never reach the rainbow in the distance. We can hone our behavior for years and never reach the spiritual ideal.
But there is a way out, and that way is simply to see that the spiritual ideal is not the problem but rather a symptom of the problem. And the problem is the belief that we are discrete entities responsible for our survival living in a hostile world. That is, our spiritual quest arises as a response to the belief that we are separate and responsible for our own living. So long as we don’t address the underlying belief, the spiritual search will go on without ever being satisfied.
So what is interesting is to give attention to the underlying belief – the sense that we are separated and individual and personally responsible for what happens. Does this belief hold up to questioning? To scrutiny?
Looking into this belief system – giving attention to it – is an exercise of common sense. It is inherent in us. It is innate to our structure as sentient human beings. Giving attention is natural; we can’t not do it. So we just do it intentionally. We noticing noticing, direct it this way or that, and see what happens as we do.
What is missing? What nags at us, implying that we’d be better off if we acquired this or felt that? Followed this diet or that exercise regimen? Slept with somebody new? Prayed a different prayer? Our natural intelligence and wisdom allows us to notice what is missing and then to keep looking into it. Will being a vegetarian really fulfill us? Will A Course in Miracles really bring to pass what all those other spiritual practices have not? Have those sorts of changes helped in the past?
At some point we might see that because these external changes don’t help, and have never helped except temporarily, that the problem isn’t finding the right external shift in behavior but rather asking a new question. That is, rather than ask what will fill the apparent interior gap or hole, we can ask if that gap or hole is actually there. What is we’re wrong altogether about that? What if we’re not separate?
In other words, what if the problem is the way we are looking at our living, rather than something in the actual living itself? And what if the way to correct this “wrong” seeing is already inherent in us in the form of common sense and natural intelligence?
Saint Teresa of Avila said that every bird knows what God’s will for a wing is. Her wisdom and clarity are breath-taking. God’s will is what comes forth naturally, effortlessly. It’s what is. For example, we don’t have to will a flower into existence in order to admire its beauty or succor bees. We don’t have to will beauty into existence. Or bees. The next breath comes of an accord other than our own.
The deeper we go into this, the more we see that peace and joy and love are brought forth naturally, like bees and birds’ wings and beauty. The less the apparently discrete self does, the more peace and joy and love appear. We can trust that because that is God’s will. And soon enough, we see that we, too, are brought forth in this way. We, too, in the simple essence of our being, our living, are God’s will. Life sustains life; we are the sustained, not the sustainer.
Thus, the problem is not to solve the many apparent problems that arise, but to see the fundamental belief system out of which they arise, and then to question the integrity and coherence of that system. The way we look and question will vary; it might appear scholarly or meditative tone or therapeutic according to the peculiarities of our structure but the basic premise is the same: look and question, look and question. Give attention.