A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein
As someone who holds strongly to the belief that there is no great cosmic force or god working behind the scenes, I have found myself inquiring into the nature of the sacred and what it means to be spiritual. I have never believed that faith in God or karma is required in order that a person be moral, nor am I stirred by the beauty and majesty of nature to discover a creator in explanation of this world. Without any religious path I find myself often moved by the unexpected sight of a wild animal, the stirring of the wind around the tops of trees, the words of a great sage or the unselfish actions of people around me. Which I suppose are all what comprise a moving of the spirit, that inner force, which constitutes my secular spirituality.
In class our instructor attempted to engage each of us to answer the question of whether we believed in the sacred, which most people did not answer, and to which I said that I did not know. I realized later that my indignation at what is commercially sold as spirituality in the new-age movement, indicated that I must believe in a real sacred, if I am to rail against what I perceive as the false prophets becoming wealthy off the fears of social and environmental crisis. And if I investigate that further, I would have to be honest and admit that I do harbour an idealism about the human condition which is rooted in our capacity for goodness, compassion and wisdom. It’s this belief that makes me a socialist as well as an optimist, despite all signs to the contrary.
It is possible to hold that there are sacred things – teachings that should not be sold, landscapes which should not be destroyed, sanctuaries and the idols of faith which should be left untouched – and still not believe in God. It is also likely that we can agree to a definition of holiness which is rooted in the wholeness of our human potential and the earth we inhabit without calling on an outside force in witness of our deeds. All of human society is simply agreement on what the rules of engagement are, and if we come to terms with the fact that we’re all in this together, all suffering, all connected, all living the best way we know how – then spiritual approaches from all corners, including the secular, are permissible and should be understood as having the same aim. For we are all seeking a life of unity, an Eden which we are certain we have arisen from and will return to, whether that urge is drowned out and obscured by the noise of the world we are in.
As much as I believe in this potential, for each of us to accept ourselves exactly as we are and still work towards unity and equanimity, I don’t believe this happens by accident. It is a rare person who is “naturally” tranquil and balanced in all ways of living, and more often the case that those people have worked at becoming over the whole course of their lives. Which isn’t to say there is a single route we all must take. As the famous opening stanza of the Tao Te-Ching intones: “The tao that can be told, is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” Which can be interpreted to mean – the way (the path) cannot be defined nor taught. It’s up to each of us to figure out how we get from here to there.
Though our path is solitary, we are fortunately not alone on it, and because we live in a world where teachings are prolific and available we are not without teachers either. Universities, temples, churches, study groups, community organizations, are all vehicles that exist to assist in the development of our potential for compassion and wisdom. Practices such as meditation are no longer the domain of a few monks on far off hill tops, nor is access to reading confined to a single ruling class group. In Canada, even those with limited means may avail themselves of community centre programs, discussion circles university lectures and cultural events, often for little cost. And the ability to practice our compassion and tolerance is available to us in all circumstances (more often than we would like).
But first, I think, we must get over our embarrassment at not being able to answer the question, “do you believe in the sacred?” and instead find the space in which to open this line of inquiry in a non-dogmatic, non-programmatic way. I have been lucky in these last few months to have a taste of what that might look like, through both my university course and in my workplace meditation classes. Both places providing support and instruction as I began to learn a slightly modified way of living. More time for inquiry, more time for quiet and learning to filter out the distractions so I can spend more time in connection with my family or just gazing at trees moving with the wind.
These things which move the spirit, they are sacred.