The other day I received an email from someone who, having read something I had written, assumed that I was a committed spiritual seeker. Something in that assumption jarred. The description didn’t sound right to me. Over the years I’ve known a few people who called themselves spiritual seekers and never felt that I belonged among their number.
What is it about the word spiritual that makes me so uneasy? The ways some of those people led their lives, stuck in dead or barren marriages, stumbling from one failed relationship to the next or living a troubled and angry existence while proclaiming their spirituality has made me think that the word either has no real meaning or is deeply misunderstood.
What on earth is spirituality?
For some of us it seems to mean doing one’s best to be kind to others and look on the bright side however miserable one may feel on the inside. This well-meaning approach is fine but if it doesn’t come from the heart it can so easily lead to all kinds of unnecessary soldiering on, self-sacrifice, suppressed rage and dishonesty. I don’t find it sits well with the term spiritual.
Indeed I sometimes find well-meaning people presumptuous and annoying. They have a tendency to know what’s best for others and occupy a superior position that brings out in me a strong urge to shock them with gratuitous vulgarity. Underlying this is, I’m sure, a longing to thump them. Not a very spiritual approach I agree but an honest one.
Is it a matter of seeking God, whatever that may mean given one’s upbringing? It is quite possible to try to do this in the most dysfunctional and fruitless ways that act as a substitute for or avoidance of addressing the personal issues that daily stare us all in the face. I’m thinking here of the many gurus and pundits on the new age circuit who get up to all kinds of mischief while spreading the good word. I’m sure you know plenty of examples yourself. Child molesting, sexual predation, cupidity, wife beating are the most obvious signs of a lack of integrity. Lesser signs are an inability to make loving parents or genuinely kind friendships.
Once again, my sense of outrage at all this may not be deemed very spiritual but it gets the poison out of my system.
Spirituality is usually very uncomfortable around or totally obsessed with sexuality. One outcome is that unresolved issues to do with childhood abuse, guilt and shame are avoided by seeking to equate spirituality with purity of thought and deed. This purity represents a total denial of the fundamental animal part of our nature and as such is doomed to failure. It has to end up in hypocrisy and condemnation of others who don’t have the same issues.
Alternatively, some kind of spiritual sex is practised with many partners with a view to reaching enlightenment while having an ostensibly guilt-free good time. How often does this end in disappointment, disillusionment and tears?
My response to all of this is to reserve the right to enjoy a woman’s body as a thing of great beauty. Breasts and bums appeal to my man’s eye. This doesn’t mean that I need to do anything about them other than admire and show appreciation where it won’t be felt as unsettling. Is that unspiritual? I don’t know and care very little what others may think about it.
The list of things that might be considered spiritual but aren’t could go on and on. In some ways it might be possible to reach a definition of spirituality by stripping away all that’s misguided and bogus. I’d rather cut to the chase and suggest another way.
This morning I went to the post office to see if there were any forms for Sarah to fill in so as to change the address details in her car registration document. I did it in the spare hour I had before catching the train back to London.
When I got there I found no forms on display except for those selling products like holiday insurance. I was disgruntled and only marginally courteous to the lady on the sales desk. She told me they were kept behind the counters and the queue for them was long. She pointed me to a chap whose job was to help the confused. Regarding myself as one such, I stood next to an old lady who was also in that category.
While we waited for the man to finish dealing with another lady wanting information about setting up some savings account, we somehow got chatting. I wasn’t in the best of tempers after the fruitless search for a form and let the old lady know this. Disgruntled of Mortlake. I was only there to pick up a form. She immediately offered to let me go in front of her because she was there to ask for help getting some passport photos for her new bus pass. It might take him some time to deal with her.
What a kind gesture. That warmed my heart and as a result I immediately lost my disgruntlement and offered to help her with the photo machine as soon as I’d got the form.
She was clearly relieved to hear that and, as we chatted, I discovered that she was almost blind in one eye and that the sight in the other was poor. It had been made worse by the worry she’d had in recent days when there’d been a couple of break-ins at the flats where she lived. Very worrying I’m sure for someone who was getting on and living on her own.
She was a dear soul, a tiny lady with a pale worn face and watery eyes but kind and generous of spirit. She told me the free bus passes would soon be valid all over the country and that pleased me. I said I had one too and how great they were for getting around London. She had family in Bristol and Plymouth and often went there to see her grandchildren. I dared to ask her age. Eighty next birthday, she told me with a proud smile.
Our turn came to talk to the man and I quickly found out Sarah didn’t need a form at all but just had to fill in her new details on the form she already had and send it off. I then said I’d offered to help the lady with her photos and he responded warmly to my offer but told us the machine was out of order. It kept rejecting money and people kept coming upstairs for a refund. It wasn’t the post offices machine so they felt put out by having to help run what should have been an automatic operation.
But my kind offer had given me some power in the matter so I explained that she’d already been to another shop but there’d been a long queue there and in view of her age and disability it would be nice if he could let me have a go to get the machine working.
This awakened his kind heart too and we set off down the stairs to the machine. I complimented the lady on her strong legs as she trotted nimbly downstairs. Once there the man switched the machine on and as we waited for the computer to warm up I told him it was okay to leave me there to help her. He asked me to switch the machine off again after we’d finished.
So we got it sorted out, adjusted the seat height to the sound of her frequent expressions of gratitude. These did my heart no harm at all. What a nice lady! I found the slot and put the money in. All the instructions came up on a screen and a voice told us what to do too but it was very high tech and obviously intimidating for many older people.
I began to understand why they’d had so many requests for refunds. Old people simply got confused by it and needed help from friends. Also a new pass was coming out soon and there must have been a stream of old people turning up for a photo the previous Saturday causing all kinds of confusion. So they’d simply turned the machine off and put an out of order sign on it. Indeed while we were pottering away several people came up and told us it said out of order. I briefly explained the problem and they went off except for another very wrinkled old lady in the same situation as the first one.
She stood by and watched while we got the job done and my first old lady retrieved her photos from the slot and went on her way expressing even more gratitude.
It seemed only fair to help the second lady as she’d been so patient and was obviously baffled by all the various steps involved. It only took a few more minutes to sort her out and she was so grateful she wanted to give me some money. Laughingly I refused saying that it was kindness that made the world go round and I had plenty of time before my train went. She too went off full of gratitude into the big wide world. Who knows how many people benefited from that gratitude as the day proceeded? That’s how to make the world a better place without any effort at all and I don’t give myself enough opportunity to do my share.
By this time there was a third lady. She was slightly less old and soon got the idea of what to do. When she expressed dissatisfaction with the way she looked on her first try and opted for another go and started fiddling about with her hair I realised this was a rather different customer. We laughed and I said cheekily that she was a vain one and left her to it.
It just remained for me to nip back upstairs and explain to the man in charge that it was the people not the machine that were going wrong and he popped back down and turned it off again.
So what’s the point of this tale and why did it come to mind when I was trying to get to grips with spirituality. Well, as must be obvious, it was all about kindness and gratitude. It was the old lady’s initial offer to let me go in front of her that set me free from my grumpiness and allowed me to enjoy being kind to her. It was a joy to be helpful in this small way. There was nothing grand about it, no religious fervour or conscious decision to go out and help someone. It just happened in the moment as one kindness led to another.
All I did was initiate a conversation, be honest about my needs and respond to the needs of the person I was chatting to. It was no big deal and I was no big hero. Just a fairly relaxed person being aware of what was going on around him and naturally kind when he felt moved to help.
As far as I’m concerned at my stage in life, you can keep all your spiritual seeking and high-sounding intentions. Life is at its most real and enjoyable in the little situations that arise when human beings meet and respond to one another with spontaneity, kindness and care.
After this little episode my heart was singing with pleasure and satisfaction. No need for long retreats and hours of meditation or even self-flagellation, just a little kindness and no sacrifice at all. It does the heart good and when the heart is good all else flows with great ease. If you want to call that leading a spiritual life then I’m happy to agree.
I wrote this on the train home and the three-and-a-half hour journey passed in no time at all.