Living with the questions that really matter: part 2

I’m returning to the interview with Jacob Needleman made in 2014 where he says that feeling real love is what we are and that that love offers us a great spiritual vision of being a human being. All the great spiritual traditions understand that we are born essentially loving and compassionate though of course terrible and destructive things will inevitably happen to shake or damage and possibly hide and even partially destroy that capacity.

We are not born for superficial happiness and pleasure though some will inevitably come our way from time to time, the current obsession with surface happiness is illusory and can only ever by definition be temporary, rather, the fundamental human motive is to have a meaningful life. Interestingly Needleman understands that a life full of suffering can paradoxically bring a deeper happiness because a suffering life can be a meaningful life. Pleasure is no substitute for meaning.

We tend to live in such a small part of our psyche and this has been the attraction of ‘new age’ (a term he dislikes) movements that have tended to come from Asia. These ideas brought spirituality (a term barely used 40-50 years ago) back to the West – with a form of religion we’d forgotten about in the West.

Every great religion has an outer/external part of them that includes ideas about reality and the universe, ritual and doctrine and social policy- that’s the doctrine and knowledge part. But the other part is to do with the inner world and about quality of experience that transcends every day experience. This inner part offers spirituality, the practice about something inside oneself and this is the deeper part that gives life real meaning.

The outer manifestation of religion can offer a sense of continuity and external support but the practice of spirituality is qualitatively different. In the West to get to the inner you had to go through the outer whilst in the East it was always more mixed. As Needleman explains ‘new age’ teachings have tended to emphasise the second inner part without necessarily referring to or going through the first – outer- part. Whilst this is appealing in this so called scientific age it can mean that ‘spirituality’ becomes superficial in some cases… it can be deep or superficial.

I particularly liked Needleman’s response when he was asked about the difference between soul and spirit. He looked at the words from early Christian writing where spirit comes from God and is the highest consciousness, while soul is consciousness in a human being that can be opened to the spirit of God. The soul is the part of ourselves that yearns and can begin to incarnate whilst the spirit is the mysterious force throughout the universe.

Closer and clearer

Than any wordy master,

Thou Inward Stranger

Whom I have never seen,

Deeper and cleaner

Than the clamorous ocean,

Seize up my silence

Hold me in Thy Hand!

From Thomas Merton’s poem Stranger