2014 was indeed a vibrant and violent year, as one supposes many years are and are yet to be which is quite a sad thought. It was the year that saw a great mining accident in Turkey, the greater outbreak of Ebola in parts of Africa, the Crimea and Ukraine crisis to name but a few. The human race has its share of negativity.
I want to give you an alternative Christmas message.
Our race, the human race, is drowning in a myre of the Religion of Stuff. This religion has no churches, no chapels, nor temples or mosques but instead its adherents will be found amongst the clothes racks and shoe displays. This religion is materialism. The High Priests of said religion dwell in the highest echelons of society and indeed it is your compliance that provides them with their comfort.
I do not ask you for a revolution or a violent change because it is an eternal truth that violence begets yet more violence. Violence is a fire and the retardant we must use to quell this fire is love. Now I’m not talking about some sort of soppy, hippy feeling that we’re all going to live in a commune and eat grass all day to quell this violence – but if that’s what you fancy then I won’t stop you. Love is an umbrella term and it encompasses compassion, self control and self awareness – again nothing too deeply spiritual on the go here so don’t get caught beating yourself up saying “Well I’m no yogi or bodhisattva so I’m afraid I won’t be much help”.
In fact, spirituality was summed up by the current Dalai Lama as the practice of all good human characteristics. It has nothing to do with religions even though they do and should have this at their core, so anyone can practise it, or more correctly I think it paramount that everyone do so.
I will not ask you to start in the New Year because it is true that there is no better time than the present. Also don’t think I’m asking you to live like an ascetic Sufi or Irish monk, I like the finer points of life myself, but instead this change I’m asking you to make is an all pervading one which relates more to how you think.
I’ll break it down piece by piece.
Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless bbehaviour often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion. (Many thanks to greatergood.berkeley.edu for that definition).
Now when compassion says suffer together it’s not suggesting that you run out and get a cold when your friend has one or break your leg when a family member does so. Instead when you see suffering, whether it be physical pain or homelessness or unemployment etc., then firstly feel empathy for the situation and then become altruistic in your approach. This is compassion.
Self control is exactly as it seems: when you do anything think “is this necessary?” We wouldn’t have a food crisis if people had self control regarding the amount they ate or the amount they wasted or how much food they bought. We wouldn’t be so materialistic if we controlled the amount of stuff we bought and the amount we threw away. Equally this is maintained by a sense of self-awareness.
Self-awareness can lead to total mindfulness if done correctly but the first step is being aware of everything you do. Whenever you do anything take a second before your action to think “is this correct?” Don’t go on autopilot when you do things because then we cease to have self-awareness and as such cannot decide on whether or not that action is correct.
By now you’re probably thinking a couple of things: he’s touching on the obvious and indeed all three things are effectively the same thing. You’d be right to think that and if you have thought exactly that, then I’m glad.
Spirituality as I said can be summed up by these three practices because they largely encompass all good human behaviour. But realise that you cannot have any one without the other two. To have self-control you must have self-awareness and be compassionate. If you want to have compassion you must be self-aware and have self-control. For self-awareness you must be compassionate and have self-control. We must first apply all three to ourselves and then to all of the rest of existence.
I haven’t decided to tell you to focus on acheiving democracy or human rights or anything else because, although these things are extremely important and should be fought for, they are too great as ideas to achieve alone, but indeed they must have a solid foundation and that foundation is this practice. That foundation is spirituality.
There’s no need for people to identify as spiritual or not spiritual because it is a non-argument like whether or not someone is human or not, although I know a few people who might not be. Everyone is spiritual because if they were not then they would not be human beings.
This is how any revolution or political change or general drive for happiness will be won: the realisation that we are spiritual beings and the great connection we have with one another.
This is the doctrine of Love.
Image: Christmas pudding © Jody McIntyre (scjody, flickr).