By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, FRCP
The modern world is secular, which means that people live without God, even though there are pockets of intense religious fundamentalism. Organized religion has been steadily declining in the West for more than two generations, which makes these pockets of intense belief seem alien. But they tell us what God used to mean in the past. What did God actually do?
God provided an absolute system of morality.
God stood as an unquestioned authority.
God was the bedrock of reality.
God made laws that everyone abided by.
Each of these functions is two-edged. If you have a mindset of absolute morality, good and evil are clear-cut. On the other hand, there was no room for the gray areas in life where good and bad are very difficult to separate (the continuous conflicts over abortion are a good example). Having God as an absolute authority and lawmaker provides a stable system of justice, but at the same time, a cruel desire to punish people simply for being different always creeps into the system, making for widespread injustice.
What the modern world settled for is humanism. This is a loaded word in religious societies, but humanism simply means doing without absolutes, in the divine sense, and falling back on the best in human nature. A God who is loving, compassionate, and just, will still be very far away, while a family where the parents are loving, compassionate, and just is very near. Humanism aims to create a spiritual person, not an obedient follower of a religion.
The outcome has been decisive. Whole populations have chosen to follow a kind of spirituality that is left to each individual. If you are optimistic and progressive, this choice is the right one. If you are conservative or a pessimist, it has been a disaster. Every crisis we now face, from climate change to war, refugeeism to racism, domestic abuse to religious fanaticism, is not God’s fault. We have lost the connection between human nature and spirituality.
The only kind of spirituality that fits the modern secular world, without falling back on religious dogma, has to be living, breathing, and renewable every day — call it sustainable spirituality. What sustains it are the following ingredients:
· A vision of some higher goal.
· Glimpses of spiritual experience.
· Access to deeper wisdom.
· Loving kindness, mercy, and tolerance toward yourself and other people.
· Renunciation of violence.
· Knowing the difference between right and wrong, and acting on it.
· The desire to evolve personally “in here.”
If you measure yourself by these standards, you are likely to be surprised. A great many people already accept and follow a path defined by these values. The constant stream of alarming stories delivered by 24/7 news has the effect of making the worst side of human nature appear to be in control. For example, the inability of governments to stop waging war, spending grotesque amounts on military spending, stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, and so on, cannot be denied. But to turn this around isn’t a decision that rests on governments. It rests on a shift in consciousness.
Ask yourself, which is safer, being able to walk down the street without fear or to walk down the street armed to the teeth? The difference is clear, yet societies constantly seek external, material solutions that are futile to begin with. The United States is armed to the teeth, allows almost unlimited possession of handguns, leads the world in arms dealing, and has been on a war footing since World War II, yet for all that, this country has more violence, murder, and fear of “the other” than anywhere else in the world.
Sustainable spirituality isn’t simply humanism or the belief that good will win in the end. In the absence of God, there must be a vision of some higher goal that transcends human nature. I can see only one alternative: the evolution of consciousness. Instead of an absolute deity, there is transcendence here and now. This isn’t a mystical notion. In daily life, you transcend whenever you have any of the following experiences:
· You feel at peace inside.
· You have a moment of unexplained joy.
· You experience the lightness of your being.
· You are inspired by beauty.
· You are touched by the innocent goodness of others.
· You reach out to be of service.
· You show generosity of spirit.
· You have second thoughts about an impulse of anger, hostility, envy, or blame.
· These second thoughts keep you from acting on the impulse.
· You have a sudden insight or “Aha” moment.
· You feel that you fit into a cosmic plan.
No one’s life is devoid of such experiences, which is why a sustainable spirituality is always accessible. The key is to know where to look for it. Religion is a safe, secure place for the devout because they look to a God that can be neither proved nor disproved. It is harder to look inside yourself. In everyone, there is a screen of mental activity that is confusing and conflicted. In everyone’s past, there are difficult memories, traumatic experiences, setbacks, obstacles, and failures. They have the net effect of making any inner journey seem threatening, uncertain, and lonely.
The drawbacks of carving out your spiritual path can’t be swept under the carpet. Even if they don’t seem daunting, modern secular life is filled with enough distractions, not to mention stress and the drive for money, to keep spirituality on the back burner for a lifetime. Yet somehow, one person at a time, the impulse to transcend creates a spark. The highest values in human existence — love, compassion, empathy, beauty, truth, creativity, wisdom, altruism, peace, and joy — have endured through every catastrophe and horror.
All that’s needed to sustain spirituality is a shift in allegiance. If you promote these transcendent values in your attitude toward life, they grow. Consider the list again, and set a simple goal for yourself: “Today, I will do one thing that makes X grow.” X is anything on the list. Do one thing that is altruistic, one thing that shows compassion, one thing that feels joyful. A little faith also helps, not faith in an absolute deity but in the existence of experiences that transcend everyday inertia and habit. Another thing that helps is to return several times a day to a simple state of restful awareness, which brings you back to yourself and detaches you from the daily grind and the noise of a busy mind.
Sustainable spirituality is the simplest, most natural path for modern people. The fact that anyone and everyone can follow this path inspires me more than any other vision I’ve ever encountered.
DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, FRCP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 91st book, Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life explores and reinterprets the physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual benefits that the practice of meditation can bring. For the last thirty years, Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution. His latest book, Living in the Light co-authored with Sarah Platt-Finger. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.” www.deepakchopra.com