I’ve recently finished a book on spirituality, mainly centred around Buddhism and Buddhist experiences, but including many other Jewish, Christian, Sufi, and Hindu accounts. The book is supposed to be an insight into what happens after you have worked hard to achieve enlightenment: more hard work. And then more hard work. A mystic’s striving is never done. The essence of this is doubtless slightly disappointing (you mean it’s not just an eternal hazy goldy glow of contentment? what?) and yet hugely reassuring (everybody has to work to get there, and if it’s difficult you’re probably doing it right). The underlying message is wonderfully simple and idyllic: you cannot achieve worthwhile things without good effort and a good heart. Doesn’t that make everyone feel a little bit fuzzier inside?
The truth is, sometimes this book grated, and not for the fuzzy reasons. I would be following along, in tune with ideals like “be kind to the world” and “connect to people on a human level” and “do not judge, you do not know other people’s struggles.” And then BOOM, there was God. Now, this book was written by a religious man, about various different types of religion. If God was not mentioned, readers, including myself, would probably be highly confused. But my main recurring thought, other than “wow, I should try harder to be a better person,” was “why does everything have to be rooted in love for God?” Can we not live by these ideals just because they seem like the right thing to do? Being told to love humanity for humanity’s sake seemed to ring a bit false when you are then pointed towards doing it for God’s sake. Needless to say, the phrase “for God’s sake” did mentally crop up every so often. Now, I feel I should make clear that this is neither an attack on the author (hugely interesting, dare I say enlightening? book) nor on kindly religious people. But for once (and maybe I am just blindly ignorant here, tell me if so) I would like to read something about being good for good’s sake.
The book included hundreds of personal tales from a large spectrum of religions and involved a large spectrum of experiences about faith but the tales read more as about what it is to be human. “To live a complete spiritual life we need to learn how to be with one another.” I was reminded how many people in the world want only to make it a better place, which was a refreshing change from burying my nose in war-ridden historical books or vaguely disheartening newspapers. And yes, I was inspired to try to bring a little more light around me. The shame, or the difficulty, with resolutions like this is that they tend to fade as soon as the book is closed. Maybe people should resolve to be more resolute, but for the moment it is babystep after babystep for me. No, I won’t be meditating daily, no, I won’t be going on a silence retreat in a cave, no, I won’t be trying to single-handedly preserve rainforests and endangered animals. But I can try to start re-wiring the more impatient and unkind parts of my brain, just for good’s sake. And I think that was another underlying message of the book: goodness starts with ourselves and fans outwards, so babysteps are for the best.