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18A: Notes on the Spiritual Life


strategies for happiness


In most colleges, the Departments of Religion, Philosophy and Psychology seem to be separate worlds. But there is one question asked by all three: how do humans find happiness? This short piece notes that the world’s religions, at bottom, recommend a strikingly similar approach to living. This approach is variously called “the perennial philosophy” (Aldous Huxley) or “the spiritual life” (my favorite term).
1. Some scientists have speculated that religion is popular, not because it’s true, but because it makes us happy. Note that these cynical views don’t say religion doesn’t work. Yes, by all accounts, it works quite well. But how does it work? Let’s for the moment set aside the metaphysical and theological dimensions, and analyze religion as a strategy for happiness and try to explain the psychological dynamics.
2. Consider the religions of the world. So many differences! So what is at the heart of these religions that can serve to keep us happy? Let’s start by stripping away the ceremonies, rituals, costumes, holy days--they can’t be the common denominator. Let us further strip away all doctrine, creed and dogma, all the things that divide one religion from another. Again, they cannot be the essence of religion itself.
3. What is finally left, it seems to me, is a set of attitudes or perspectives that determine how we look at life. Most people sense the importance of attitudes, but wonder which attitudes are the best ones. What then are those residual attitudes we find when we have stripped away all the differences between religions? For it must be these attitudes that make religion a strategy for happiness, and that will take us to the core of the spiritual life.
4. Now it gets a little breathtaking. The more I studied religions, the more it seemed that everything they were saying could be reduced to three attitudes, just three, because there are only three directions in which we can look: inward at ourselves; outward at others; and upward, so to speak, at life generally or the universe or God. And these felicitous attitudes can be simply stated:
toward ourselves: humility
toward others: compassion or sympathy
toward the universe or God: gratitude

5. Religions, if distilled to their essence, usually promote these three attitudes, especially the more elite or mystical versions of each religion. In other words, the really smart, wise and sensitive people point in the same direction. Most of us, if we can incorporate these attitudes into our daily life, will find ourselves feeling better about life. Conversely, the opposite attitudes of pride, contempt and ingratitude are wonderful strategies for unhappiness!

6. The dynamics of humility (it’s often said that pride leads to a fall) and gratitude (which feels so much better than ingratitude) are fairly clear. Compassion (from Latin) and sympathy (from Greek) may turn on a subtlety--both mean “feel with” and require, in effect, that we experience someone else’s pain. How could that make us happy? There must be a protective or inoculative effect that occurs here. If you have felt a particular pain via another, perhaps when it strikes you personally, you are not hurt as badly. A bonding or social need is also fulfilled--refusing to feel compassion isolates us from others.

7. Knowing these attitudes is not the same thing as living or feeling them. Readers can explore humility, compassion and gratitude for themselves. My guess is that these three words do clarify the sine qua non of the spiritual life. People who go a long way along this road probably become what we call gurus, saints and angels. Myself, I hope I’m about midway. I write this as a student, nothing else.

Summary: humililty, compassion and gratitude are often considered impractical or goody-goody feelings. The investigation suggests they might be more practical than that--perhaps like endorphins but from a metaphysical realm.

Routes into the spiritual life: As AA has shown, a Higher Power or God helps many people in their quest for self-improvement. But let’s suppose you don’t want any talk about God, divinity, higher powers, etc; but you do want something more formal than, for example, meditation. There are still three good routes: Buddhism, Taoism and, sort of between them, Zen Buddhism. Popular Buddhism must have its saints and quasi-divine aspects; Taoism sometimes talks about a Way or Path that some might say is like God. But strictly speaking, neither Buddhism nor Taoism is theistic. Some regard the Tao Te Ching as strictly a philosophical document, sort of like Sartre or Heidegger talking about "being."


Perhaps it's worth mentioning... Another motif that seems to run through all of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and the other mystical systems is an emphasis on living in the present.
When you first encounter this injunction, your first thought might be, What's the big deal? I can do that.
Most people apparently respond this way.

Zen literature is full of stories that, roughly told, come down to this...

A novice approaches the Master and demands, "What is the meaning of life?"

The Master snaps: "When you eat, eat. When you sleep, sleep."

The novice whines, "Hey, when I eat, I eat. When I sleep, I sleep. What's the big deal?"

The Master laughs as if at a child. "No! When you eat, your mind is doing ten other things. When you sleep, your mind is wrestling with ten other things. Stop it!"

Whereupon the Master swats the novice on the head with a large fan. The novice suddenly sees the Big Picture and finds enlightenment. And the story ends happily.


In fact, it's extremely difficult to live in the present. Especially perhaps in Western culture because the matter is not much discussed. We go along like the novice, believing we are doing it. But not doing it at all.

It's worth looking at what might be called one's inner sense of time. Imagine a very large space divided into Past, Present and Future. Work out the details. How large is each sector in your own interior landscape?

I can well remember, when I first did this, I had a very clear picture of this vast area which was the Past, and another vast area which was the Future, and this thin border where they touched. A razor's edge--this was the Present. And it was clear that I saw life as a process of continually stepping from the Past, over this thin boundary, into the Future.

Obviously, if the Present is about a quarter-inch wide, it can't be accurate to say one is living there. Not living large, at any rate.

Well, a thousand people will have a thousand different interior landscapes. What the Zen masters stress is that if your landscape has an abundance of Past and Future, and not much Present, it's time to remodel.

As a point of fact, if you travel from one end of the universe to the other, you won't find this thing called the Past. It's gone. And you won't find that thing called the Future. It's not here yet. From horizon to horizon, there is nothing but Present.

The trick (or the technique) is to push back the psychological boundaries of Past and Future, while simultaneously widening and expanding that zone called the Present. And to keep doing this until the Present seems to stretch off into the distance.

Tractatus Logico Philosophicus; Living in the Present

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2006-2011