It is possible to imagine (if we are given to thinking in this way, which of course a lot of people are) that we could – if we wanted – live life in a more ‘spiritual’ way. It is also possible (perfectly possible, in fact) to try to do this, by replacing our old, more crudely ‘ego-orientated’ and materialist way of thinking about the world with a more refined, subtle and spiritual approach. This is like getting rid of your old smelly sofa and getting a brand new suite from British Home Stores or IKEA, or getting rid of the old lifestyle and welcoming in the new. It is possible to imagine that this is how we go about the process of ‘spiritualizing in our lives’ but this isn’t how it happens. This is getting it ‘back to front’! This is ‘putting the cart before the horse’!
What’s happening here is that we have jumped ahead and tried to put into place the type of life that we would have if we were more spiritual, and then by ‘stepping into this life’ assuming or hoping that this will somehow ‘spiritualise’ us. The reason this approach may be said to be ‘back to front’ is of course because ‘a more spiritual life’ (so to speak) is what we live after we become ‘more spiritual’ – leading what we understand to be a more spiritual life most certainly isn’t going to make us so, it’s just going to involve us in the type of ‘unconscious mimicry’, changing our costume rather than changing the one who is wearing the costume, to use Alan Watts’ memorable analogy. The clothes don’t change the person wearing them. We smile when we’re happy – we don’t smile in order to become happy!
The very fact that it is our understanding of what constitutes a spiritually-orientated life ought to be enough to tip us off. If I have not yet developed this spiritually-orientated attitude (which obviously I can’t have done or I wouldn’t be looking into making changes in this direction) then how on earth am I going to know what ‘a spiritually-orientated life’ would look like? I can of course read about it in books and magazines and absorb ideas from the burgeoning spiritual improvement industry but this can only ever provide me with certain notions about what this thing called ‘the spiritual life’ should look when seen from the outside, not what it’s like from the inside (so to speak). And – what’s more – the one who is absorbing all these ideas, the one who is forming an impression of what the spiritual life should look like, is the ‘spiritually-unimproved me’, which is me as I actually am right now.
The thing about this is that anything understood by this current self (by the ‘me’ I actually experience myself to be right now) can only ever serve to reinforce the unconscious assumptions about life that go to make that self, that ‘me’, be what it already is. I can only understand stuff that fits in with my unexamined assumptions about life; or to put this the other way round, everything I understand is necessarily understood on the basis of my current conditioning. This inevitably means that when I try to change – by buying into whatever ideas, whatever theories or model appeal to me – I’m not really going to change at all. Genuine change can’t come about as a result of purposeful or deliberate action because purposeful or deliberate action is only ever going to reaffirm our current way of understanding the world. How could we imagine otherwise? Change cannot be something that I can impose on myself because the ‘I’ which is seeking to impose the change will itself remain unchanged. As Alan Watts says, the self that seeks to do the improving is the very one that needs improving! This is the invisible glitch behind all ‘managed changed’ – the glitch being that the one who does the managing will never change. Deliberately setting out to change ourselves ensures that we stay the same; it actually reinforces our position.
As soon as we see this glitch (in all its glory) then the point we’re making becomes very very clear, it becomes ‘as clear as clear could be’, but then after we have assimilated the point the question arises as to how we can proceed if we do genuinely wish to lead a more spiritual life. If there isn’t – as Krishnamurti says time and time again – a method, a path, then how do we go about getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’? The point that we are missing when we try to deliberately adopt a more spiritually-orientated life (or when we in any way try to ‘improve’ or ‘better’ ourselves in general) is that we are trying to walk away from ourselves as we actually are. We want to be different from the way that we are, but this isn’t ‘being spiritual’ – it’s simply an exercise in escapism! We’re trying to escape into a more spiritual way of life, a more spiritual way of being. If we were genuine about it then we wouldn’t be getting involved in escapism but rather we would be interested in seeing things as they actually are. If we were sincere in ourselves with regard to the wish to ‘walk a more spiritual path’ we wouldn’t be walking away from ourselves the whole time, turning our backs on ourselves as we really are, but rather we would be staying present with ourselves in our actual, ‘unimproved’ lives. This isn’t a matter of willpower (in the usual sense of the word), it is purely a matter of courage.
Courage means ‘the willingness to see the truth about how we are’. It also means the willingness to live our lives as we are, even though this may not be very pretty to look at. The more willingness we have to see this unvarnished truth, the more we change as a result! So let’s say that I’m not very spiritually-orientated and I’d like to be more so. Suppose I am ‘egoically’ or ‘materialistically’-orientated (and – again – presumably I must be or I wouldn’t be wishing to change) then in this case ‘being the unspiritual person that I really am’ is the spiritual path! All I have to do is live my life as it unfolds, in the plain old ordinary way that it always does unfold. This may sound too easy to be worth anything, it may not seem like any sort of meaningful challenge at all, but the thing here – of course – is that I have to do it consciously, without making excuses for myself! I live my regular old life, as it unfolds for me, but I see myself as I do so as I actually am.
This – needless to say – turns out to be not so easy after all. What normally (almost always) happens is that there is lots of self-deceiving activity going on (both of the conscious and unconscious variety); this is activity that is specifically aimed at preventing us from seeing ourselves as we really are. What this activity essentially comes down to is self-validation – no matter what we do, there is always ample validation (or justification) for it. All of our actions take place within some kind of ‘validating context’, a validating context which serves to make it okay for us to be the way that we are; quite possibly it makes it more than just okay, quite possibly it makes us absolutely right to be that way. This sort of ‘self-excusing’ or self-validating’ is of course a deeply familiar kind of thing. Living consciously isn’t therefore to do with whether we manage to stick to the accepted moral or ethical code or not (moral codes are validating contexts in themselves) but rather it is to do with what would in the past have been called ‘the conscience’. It has to do with a ‘truth sense’ that we all have. Living consciously has nothing to do with what is seen as right or wrong by our thinking mind (which is the ultimate ‘validating context’) but right or wrong (speaking figuratively here) with respect to our innermost nature, our true nature, which is usually kept effectively silenced!
This isn’t a matter of judging ourselves and then feeling either good or bad according to whether we have succeeded or failed – which is of course how it works in the traditional religious context. Living our lives consciously doesn’t mean thinking that we should be different from how we actually are and feeling bad when we can’t change this state of affairs – that’s living unconsciously, not consciously! Consciousness means seeing ourselves as we really are which – as we have said – turns out to be the very thing that we don’t want to do! Our whole motivation in the so-called ‘spiritual quest’ was to get away from seeing this, after all! Why – we might wonder – is it so very difficult to see ourselves as we are, rather than either automatically validating or automatically condemning ourselves (which is really just reverse-validation)? This is – as investigation shows – always the case, but the question is ‘Why should it be the case?’ What’s going on here? What’s the big problem in ‘seeing ourselves as we really are’?
The ‘big problem’ is of course that we want so desperately for there to be a self to lead this ‘spiritual life’ – we want for there to be such a thing as ‘the spiritual self’! That’s the identity we want. Given the fact that there is no such thing as ‘the self’ – spiritual or otherwise – where does this leave us? What direction do we go in, now and (given the fact that there is no self there to develop) who is the one who wants to go there? This is where purposeful behaviour meets its abyss – and this is an abyss that no one can ever get past. It also happens to be an abyss that no one can ever see, which means therefore that we don’t know that we can never get past it. When we are unaware of the abyss then we can happily carry on with our purposeful activity and our rational thinking; we can carry on with our dreams. When on the other hand we see the Abyss, when we see the Great Discontinuity, then all of that is cut off as if with a knife!
Purposeful behaviour is how the self carries on being the self – as long as it can – via its purposes – (or via its fears, which are the same thing) extend itself into the future (or rather extend the idea of itself into the future) then it is happy. When the Discontinuity is spotted however, then that is the end of all that! The Sword of Manjushri (which is the sword of wisdom) cuts all our goal-orientated activity away, all our thinking away. To see the Discontinuity is to have awareness of the essential relativity of all of our thoughts and all of our goals. It is in other words to have awareness of the way in which all of our thinking is utterly nonsensical. Inasmuch as our identity is created entirely out of our thinking then to see the Discontinuity (between our thoughts and reality) is to see that our notion of having an identity (either good or bad, successful or unsuccessful) is also ‘utterly nonsensical’. Is this really what we want to discover, however? Do we really have an appetite for this sort of thing?