I happened to recently watch a discussion between two of the best known contemporary “spiritual” gurus. I’m not going to mention names because I don’t want it to get personal, and these people seemed pleasant enough. However, after about ten minutes I did start to question whether these people lived on the same planet as me. Much of the talk was around topics such as mindfulness, being in the now, grace, compassion, being of service, and so on. Not a single sentence was uttered that reflected the reality of life on this planet for billions of human beings and tens of billions of other creatures.
This disconnect between the reality of life for most sentient creatures, and the spiritual imagination in full flight, explains very well the reason why most people have no time for matters spiritual. They are too immersed in the struggle for survival and the raw reality of life on this planet, to give much time to claims of “grace”, divine benevolence, and the benefits of “being in the now”.
So why do the purveyors of “spiritual dreams” continue to persist, and not only persist, but thrive. Well, as this article already implies, the products of the spiritual imagination tend to be for the well-to-do and healthy who have the time and money to buy reassurances from men in gowns, and from those who peer silently into their audiences as if they are communicating from another dimension. The reassurances these people want, and that their gurus will happily sell to them, generally address insecurities around mortality, significance, and morality. The purveyors of dreams tell us that we are significant, that in some form or other we are immortal, and that despite our unbridled ambitions and greed we can acquire spiritual worth by being mindful while preparing vegetables. In the main the new age gurus serve the purpose of dulling middle-class angst and providing reassuring words for those with the time to consider matters such as the meaning of it all. This is a useful and necessary service, and particularly as traditional religions seem to become less relevant.
So what about those who have been knocked around by life – poor health, financial distress, cheating partners, abusive parents. Well, misfortune is actually an opportunity to get in touch with reality. I was prompted to write this article by a letter I received from a man (a medical doctor) recently diagnosed with leukemia. He related that all his usual sources of reassurance meant nothing when reality came knocking on the door. And he expressed appreciation for some of the podcasts I have produced, and the fact he found comfort in them despite their quite brutal nature.
This is the strange nature of our philosophical musings. If we indulge our desire for significance and worth, then when reality comes calling we will find all the products of the “spiritual imagination” to be worthless. If we can stare reality in the face and resist the temptation to pander to our ego’s need for permanence and significance, then when life does ravage us we are more prepared and have something to hang on to.
The mild-mannered gurus who tell us of our significance and worth do provide a useful service for those who cannot stare reality in the eyes – and this is most people. But for those who have the inner honesty and courage, adverse circumstances can sometimes be the greatest gift they might ever receive.