Spirituality is notoriously difficult to define because ultimately it is attempting to put into language something that cannot adequately be described in words. When we use words to describe the mysterious, the words serve only as pointers. There is an old proverb which says that when the wise man points to the moon, the fool sees only the finger. In other words, when we try to capture spiritual experience in words, the words we use are not the thing we are attempting to describe – they are merely stepping stones towards it.
Because we are busy so much of the time, very often we act out of habit, without being really mindful of what we are doing or with awareness of what is driving us to do it.”
In recent decades, spirituality has gradually disappeared from public discourse in Ireland because the historical model of the predominant Christian religion failed to connect sufficiently with the spiritual needs of people. As a consequence it is very challenging to engage people in conversation about what remains nonetheless an essential part of our being. And the frantic pace of modern life makes it even more difficult; we spend so much of our time doing, there isn’t much left for simply being. One could make a case that nowadays we should be called human doings rather than human beings.
Because we are busy so much of the time, very often we act out of habit, without being really mindful of what we are doing or with awareness of what is driving us to do it. And that can be very problematic. Autopilot is very useful for mundane, repetitive tasks but, for most of life we really need to be more mindful. This is especially true of our thoughts; they too often work on autopilot and we develop, and tend to slavishly but unconsciously follow, ingrained patterns of behaviour, which leave us acting without awareness.
This lack of awareness can give rise to reactive, emotional responses when something mindful would have served us and those around us better. When we act in auto-pilot mode, we fail to notice what is happening within us; we don’t see how we have become caught up in a reactive state of mind. We are not mindful of what we are doing when we are doing it.
When we first begin to meditate we become aware that, in the silence – despite intending otherwise – thoughts arise spontaneously and continually. They arise from our preoccupations, our desires, our needs, our attachments, our worries, our emotions, our fears, our hopes; whatever drives them we can be certain thoughts will arise when we sit in silence. And it seems impossible to not engage with them.
But meditation involves taking attention away from thoughts and emotions by letting them go as soon as they arise or as soon as we come to realise we have engaged with them. Each time we realise we have once again fallen into thought, we let go and return to whatever word we chose to be our anchor in the stormy sea of the mind; we return to the simple practice of pure attention, beyond thought and self-observation.
The more you meditate, the more you notice that incessant stream of thought and you come to understand that thoughts are fleeting, that you are more than your thoughts and that your essential being can witness those thoughts. And you begin to understand how your thoughts and emotions colour your experience of everything; you come to realise that your thoughts can subtly affect how you interpret everything you encounter in life and everything you do – even though it happens at an unconscious level, so you are not aware how they are urging you on. Meditation helps you to understand that very often we don’t see things as they are but as we are.
As Susannah Healy writes in The Seven-Day Soul: Finding Meaning Beneath the Noise, meditation makes us conscious of the mental maps by which we negotiate our way through life and how the culture of modern secular society excludes the rich spiritual landscape from those mental maps. Meditation changes the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of our living. It illuminates all of our conversations and decisions in light of our deepest sense of being. We need to take time out of our busy lives simply to be; to take time for stillness and silence in our lives in order to awaken and nourish our sense of who we are at that essential level of our being.
When, through the regular practice of meditation, we learn to break free from the tyranny of our egoic concerns, to rise above I, me and mine, we begin to uncover and witness our essential nature, the true-self, deep within. When that happens meditation becomes not merely a place within that we can access when we meditate, but a place we live from. Our spirituality then becomes a living spirituality which informs all that we do. We appreciate that all of life is inter-connected and hence no one is a stranger. And we find we are no longer a stranger to our deepest selves.