One of the hidden challenges of modern life has to do with the exercise of free will. So many of our attitudes to life and how we habitually live it remain hidden in plain sight. Many people remain blissfully unaware of the extent to which their worldview and their choices in life are influenced to an extraordinary extent by their conditioning.
In every family there are accepted ways of seeing, interpreting and understanding the world and as we grow up these become so embedded in how we see ourselves that the familiar way of doing things can be seen as the only right way of doing things. Likewise, we sometimes consciously, but more often than not unconsciously, imbibe the culture of the society in which we live so that the norms of the society in which we grew up become our norms too. Or sometimes, when we reject those norms, we throw out the baby with the bathwater with the result that the rejection of such norms can blind us to what was inherently valuable in them.
I was a child of the 1950s, perhaps the last decade of the dominance of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Over the previous decades the Catholic Church in Ireland had achieved a significant level of power and influence. The first Irish governments (under both Costello and de Valera) were very deferential in relation to the role of the Catholic Church in Irish life. It would have been very difficult in the 1950s to openly operate outside of the social norms dictated by such deference to those in positions of authority in the Church. Yet when we look back at those times today we can see clearly how that culture perpetuated inequality and gave rise to the Industrial Schools, the Magdalen Laundries and huge inequalities in education, employment opportunities and gender discrimination.
Today we are equally blinded by the cultural conditioning of our time. In years to come people will look back and ask how we could have tolerated the conditions of asylum seekers today, our unwillingness to respond with compassion to the needs of refugees across the world and our failure to tackle climate change in any meaningful way.
There is an urgent need in modern society to recognise that one of the blind-spots today is that the turn against religious expression in public discourse suppresses – perhaps even represses – our natural spiritual awareness. Most of us, unconsciously, only give attention to that which society recognises as being worthy of our attention. As a consequence, we have by-in-large become closed to the mysterious in life, to the expression of the sacred.
We are in danger of losing access to our innate spirituality because modern culture denies it a place in public discourse. And that problem is exacerbated because even in the culture of the Church to which so many of my generation saw themselves affiliated, there was little room for discourse about spirituality. Religion, yes, with a dominant focus on communal Church services, mental prayer and personal devotion but little room for or value placed upon personal spiritual experience.
Spirituality can be defined in secular as well as faith contexts as a natural drive in every human person to live life as authentically as possible. Love is at the heart of that innate dynamism; love is our true nature and the true direction of our development. This innate gift which can be experienced by all calls us to be open to that which transcends the ego and, for many but not all, involves a belief in God. This inbuilt impulse is the force of creativity and innovation within us; it is that which calls us to hope and to dream of a better future for humanity. When we pay attention to it, it guides us in the direction of genuine growth. But this innate drive is inevitably constrained by the culture in which it seeks individual expression. And that presents us with the problem, the challenge, of how to reawaken that vital sensitivity to spirit and how to live our lives from that heightened sensitivity, from that growing awareness of who we are called to be.
The good news is that meditation awakens us to our innate spirituality and nurtures our desire to live our lives with greater authenticity. Through meditation we can find that deep centre within ourselves where we become grounded in the present moment, neither clinging to our conditioning or culture nor resisting the possibility of something new.
This heightened sensitivity to spirit unleashes creative possibility within us which is ultimately rooted in the structure of consciousness itself and as we grow in consciousness of the true-self, as we move along the contemplative path, from awareness to attention, to compassion and compassionate action, we discover that being grounded in this awareness impacts on all of our relationships and all aspects of our life. As we begin to live contemplatively, we find ourselves making our own small but unique contribution to co-creating a better world.
After 40 years in the education sector Noel Keating was awarded a PhD for his research into the child’s experience of meditation and its spiritual fruits. Noel now leads, in a voluntary capacity, a project which offers free in-service to primary schools who may wish to consider introducing meditation as a whole-school practice. Noel is author of Meditation with Children: A Resource for Teachers and Parents.