By Mary Jaksch
Let me ask you, are you a spiritual person? Or not?
I think that everyone is a spiritual person. Because spirituality is a natural human attribute. It’s a gift that comes with being human.
Spiritual traditions fail to acknowledge that we all have natural spirituality.
As most of you know, I’m a Zen Master. Most spiritual traditions – Zen included – work from the premise that their way is the ‘right’ way. So when people join a particular tradition they are promised: “Do exactly what tradition says, and you will experience something special.” In other words, if you don’t follow the rules, you will never have that special experience!
This attitude loses sight of something very important:
Every human being has natural spirituality
In fact, nobody can give you spirituality. No teacher and no tradition can do that. Why? Because we already have it! If we honour this human capacity, we can learn to live in a way that supports and strengthens our natural spirituality. The richness of spiritual traditions is then in service of the natural spirituality of human beings, and not the other way around!
What is natural spirituality?
There are three core experiences of natural spirituality. Here is the first one:
1 The present moment is a mysterious doorway.
When we are completely present, without the mind dwelling in the past or the future, our experience changes in a significant way. You’re skeptical? Too much spiritual mumbo-jumbo?
Ok, then let’s look outside the sphere of spirituality to discover how people experience this mysterious change. The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that athletes who are absorbed in present moment experience being ‘in the flow’. This is a state in which you feel relaxed, confident, ecstatic, focused, and have no sense of time passing. All actions seem effortless, with mind and body working in perfect unison. You can read more about this in my article Turbo Charge Your Performance: 7 Steps to Being in the Flow
In martial arts being in the moment is sometimes described as having a ‘don’t know’ mind. ‘Don’t know’ means keeping an open mind and responding according to circumstances, not according to how we assume things will be. A ‘don’t know’ mind sets us free from the constraints of expectations.
The experience of being ‘in the flow’, as well as the ‘don’t know’ mind, are both expressions of the fact that our natural spirituality regards the present moment as a doorway to wisdom.
Some of us stumble upon the miracle of ‘now’ as children:
When I was ten years old, my father took us on a trip to the Swiss Alps. On our way up my first major mountain, we stopped for a rest. It was a sweltering day and I sank down into the dappled shade of a stunted conifer. Beside me a little brook flowed through the meadow. I was mesmerized by the gurgles and splashes, and by the way leaves would come proudly riding down. Suddenly I felt peaceful and somehow large. I couldn’t feel where I stopped, and where the brook began. I had discovered the miracle of ‘now’.
Learning to be present is the basis of all spirituality and personal growth.
For example, you can’t learn to be kind without learning to be present. Why? Because when you’re distracted or preoccupied, you miss opportunities for helping others in need.
Here is a simple way to find the present moment right now: take one slow breath and notice how the soles of your feet are in contact with the ground. Stay with the experience for a few more breaths and notice what happens.
When you open your awareness to the present moment, your preoccupation with plans, dreams, and memories dies away – and spaciousness arises.
The second core experience of natural spirituality flows from being in the moment. It’s an experience of being without limits.
#2 The self is vast
You may want to say, “What do you mean by ‘the self is vast’ Isn’t that just spiritual claptrap?” You’re right in a way, because our ordinary life doesn’t support this experience. A ‘vast self’ means that it is without boundaries; without inside or outside. But in our everyday life, the boundary between ‘self’ and ‘other’ seems quite distinct. And in many instances, that’s important for survival. After all, when you cross the road, you want to know exactly where you are located in space, and where the car is that’s speeding towards you!
We experience ourselves as individual, separate beings: “I’m in here; and you are out there”. We struggle and strive to make a better life. And we suffer: loved ones leave us; we have health problems; we struggle to find meaningful work; we strive to fulfill our dreams; we age; we worry about family and friends; we feel incomplete and unworthy. That’s suffering.
Natural spirituality shows a different way of living life. We can relax into a larger realization of who we are. That’s when we are not limited and inhibited by our ordinary notions of self. Actually, all of us have glimpses of this way. But we may not always recognize them.
In these moments we suddenly become present to what is happening right now. Instead of sleepwalking through life, we suddenly wake up. Then we can get a glimpse of the vastness that we are.
Rummage in your store of memories, and you may find moments that offered spaciousness and ease. Maybe they were moments in nature, or moments of intense focused activity, or moments of stillness. Whatever the moments were, you may have noticed that the struggle of life suddenly ceased for a while.
When we become present, there is spaciousness and ease instead of suffering. Not only is there ease and spaciousness, but there is also a sense of mystery. We become unknowing and unknowable.
When we get a deeper recognition of who we are, we find a new sense of capacity, a lasting sense of ease, and an awakening of love and kindness.
Just imagine how your life would be, if you could let go of the struggle, and embraced ease and kindness instead!
Each of us has the capacity to transform our life in that way. All we need to do is to nourish our natural spirituality. The nourishment can come from simple changes to our everyday life, as well as from traditional practices, such as meditation.
Beside the experience that the self is vast, there is a second core experience of natural spirituality:
#3 We are interconnected
All of us experience moments when we feel deeply connected. It’s as if the barrier between self and other suddenly melts away.
I’m thinking of simple moments. For example, today I was driving along a congested road, bumper to bumper. I could see cars banked up in a side road, waiting to join the flow. Suddenly I caught sight of a woman peering out anxiously over her steering wheel. I waved her into the queue. Her face lit up and we smiled at each other. It was a fleeting moment, but I could feel the warmth of kinship throughout the day.
Can you remember moments when you experienced a sense of kinship? Maybe kinship with other human beings, or kinship with other beings, or with the whole wide world?
Maybe there were moments when you embrace your loved one and the idea being separate melted away. Maybe there were moments of kindness when you felt an intense connection to another being, even though you might not have known them well. Maybe there were moments in nature when you forgot to observe, and instead you became the valleys and mountains, or the raindrops on a rosebud, or a blade of grass.
When I was a child I used to sneak into the farmer’s wheat field when the crop was ripening. I would lie down on the ground, spread-eagled on my back. The wheat ears nodded in the wind and the clouds scudded across the sky. Sometimes I would lose myself and know that I was part of a larger, mysterious reality. It didn’t last long, though. Suddenly I would hear the farmer bellow, “Get out of my field, you little monkey!” and I would scamper away to escape his threatening stick.
We can enhance our natural capacity for connection through learning to be present, through learning to listen deeply, through having a conscious relationship with ourselves and others, and through practicing love and kindness.
Our sense of interconnection is part of natural spirituality.
What is your experience of natural spirituality?