“What we really want is a natural life…(and) once we begin to see that life can be more open and joyful than we had ever thought possible…we enter a discipline like Zen practice so that we can learn to live in a sane way.” – Charlotte Joko Beck – Zen Master
Long ago, while practicing clinical psychology, I came to two conclusions. The first was that true psychological health and spiritual health are the same thing – to have one we must also have the other, and the second conclusion was that a principle characteristic of every form of mental illness is some inappropriate state of self-absorption. Further, I realized that these two insights are basically the same. Both psychological health and spiritual health are based in becoming free of the dualistic mind-state of self-absorption, of placing yourself as the center of a world experienced as “out there” and separate from “me.” True spirituality requires experiencing a self-transcending connection with Life and with others, but when we live trapped within this disease of self-absorption, the truly spiritual experience is impossible.
As for mental illness being connected to inappropriate self-absorption, consider just what is going on in the mind of anxiety or depression, of mania or paranoia, of psychopathy, hysteria or narcissism. In each of these neurotic, psychotic, or character disordered states, the idea of this self as put upon by the world, or inadequate and undeserving, or the recipient of “special” knowledge, or threatened, or entitled, is completely out of proportion to reality, and it has taken over as the centerpiece of experience. A person is drowning in their self-absorption. These are what we consider pathological states of mind.
Also consider, however, that it is only a matter of degree that separates these disorders of mind from what is considered “normal” in our society. We are all, to some degree, lost in self-absorption because it is what our society teaches us is normal! Increasingly, the basic motto of contemporary society is that “it’s all about me.” We are trained from the time we are small children to enter each situation sizing it up as to what is in it for us. We are trained that it is normal to get for ourselves as much as is legally possible, always looking for our advantage, and to be fending off as much as possible anything that detracts from us. We have at the center of our experience, ourselves. And as everyone is doing this, we compete, subtly or not so subtly, like playing a vast game of “king of the hill,” scrambling up and pushing others down (even if only in our fantasies) to get to the top (or perversely for the “victim identity” – the
lowest-bottom) of whatever circumstance we enter into.
The result is that anxiety, depression, anger, low self-esteem, narcissism, selfishness and sociopathy are epidemic on levels that are considered “normal.” Consider that we have constructed a materialistic society that places status and well-being through acquisition of money, possessions and power as the object of life. We have mistaken competition for “human nature.” Addictive behaviors are ubiquitous. On the collective level, we have no long-term vision for creating a human society that is in harmony with itself or with the planet that is its source and sustenance. This self-absorption cuts us off from sanity, wisdom, compassion, interconnectedness and sustainability as the underpinning of our society and our lives. This has to be seen as just plain crazy. But sadly, it’s just normal.
“The sacred is in the ordinary. It is to be found in one’s daily life… in one’s own back yard… To be looking elsewhere for miracles is a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.”
– Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) – Founder of Humanist School of Psychology
Most of all, this way of living completely cuts us off from the miracle it is to be alive. As we are psychologically lost, so too, we are spiritually lost. To quote psychologist Abraham Maslow, we fail to see the “sacred in the ordinary.” Many consider themselves religious, but one very big mistake we make, with far-reaching consequences, is in confusing religious faith for spirituality. We use having a “personal relationship” with Jesus or God, and loyal obedience to one of the various exclusive religious sects, as another way of being special and blessed or “saved.” Astoundingly, human ego even manages to co-opt that which is inherently about transcending human ego. We fail to understand and experience that true spirituality is in the ecstasy and compassion of losing our “self” in the daily life of Creation, whether you believe Creation is God’s work or just the Universe happening in its own divine way.
The Gospel of Thomas tells us that Jesus said, “The kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land, but people do not have eyes to see it.” We ignore the instructions to “judge not,” or that a materialistic life is an impediment to a spiritual life. We neglect to practice forgiveness and tolerance. We are unable to be “like the lilies of the field” in our naturalness, or like the “little children,” who are not lost, for they see miracles everywhere. We have lost, as Joko Beck says, “The natural life.” We go crazy looking for meaning in our social status, our possessions and our religious uprightness, rather than in living altruistic, wondrous and natural lives.
“ Meditation helps us wake up from this dream of automaticity and unconsciousness, thereby making it possible for us to live our lives with access to the full spectrum of our conscious and unconscious possibilities” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The very radical premise of Buddhism is that (apart from severe brain chemistry disorders) mental and spiritual health are the same thing and that we are capable as human beings of accomplishing the absolute in both. Buddhism just happens to call this enlightenment. The key, however, is that you have to get yourself out of the center of your experience to allow the experience of Life – Creation, the Universe unfolding – to be the center of you. This is the puzzling Buddhist concept of being nobody or no-self or empty of self.
The paradoxical miracle of this teaching and practice (accomplished through meditation, guidance by a teacher and contemplation of teachings) is that this little, anxious, unhappy, grasping self then gradually gives way into a full human-being, healthy in mind and spirit – and uniquely for religious teachings, no allegiance to the religion of Buddhism is necessary. This is not a perspective exclusively “revealed” by a jealous divine source. This is simple human truth arrived at by a human being looking deeply into their own “conscious and unconscious possibilities.”
The little self, the personality of “me,” is then experienced in a much lighter, impersonalized way. We begin to have eyes that can see that the “Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land,” that “everything is miraculous.” Gradually a process of healing psychologically and spiritually into full and natural, compassionate, effective and wise “awakened” living occurs. Buddhism teaches that an enlightened being resides slumbering within every person, and it teaches us that if we only “wake up,” we will find who we truly are – fully sane and spiritual.