Do you know what our problem is – I mean, what our problem really is as a species?
We fall into this delusion of believing that our real problems are outside ourselves, along with the corollary belief that the secret to our happiness and wellbeing is out there, too. And that’s a problem because what’s going on out there and all around us is really a manifestation of what’s inside us.
A lot of us are convinced that our unhappiness and suffering originate out in the world.
Other people, our job situation, our life circumstances – whatever it happens to be, bears the blame for how we feel. It’s almost reflexive, the way we look outside ourselves for the cause of our misery. Which of course also implies that the solution or fix to our problem will necessarily come by way of external changes.
Some pastors and therapists get into their professions by an unrecognized and ultimately damaging motivation of looking for their own happiness in saving or fixing other people whom they see as lost or broken.
To help us see our problem more clearly, the spiritual wisdom tradition makes a useful distinction between “soul” and “spirit.” Avoiding the mistake of many historical religions in defining these in terms of supernatural or metaphysical things (i.e., ghostlike entities), the Sophia Perennis uses them as metaphorical references to the grounding mystery within each of us (soul) and to the relational energy moving like breath or wind among us (spirit).
The depths of soul are accessed by the inward path of quiet reflection, centering contemplation, and mystical communion; while the dynamics of spirit move us into active engagement, transpersonal outreach, and ethical community.
The wisdom teachings further encourage and guide each of us on that inward path, in the cultivation of inner peace. A peaceful soul is a “non-anxious presence” (Edwin Friedman), resting in solitude and full surrender to the provident ground of being. The soul is not nervous and chatty, but silent and calm, since there is nothing (no thing) to talk about. Its grounding mystery eludes all our efforts to pin it down or box it up in words; it is ineffable.
Religion’s favorite nickname for this mystery, “God,” is acknowledged in the most insightful traditions as unutterably beyond name and form.
When we have peace within ourselves, we are intuitively aware that nothing in the world around us is making us feel this way. Being centered and inwardly grounded, we draw from a deep inner wellspring of eternal life – not everlasting but timeless: always Now. Our serenity of soul provides a clear view of the world around us and of the reality beyond, and we fully understand that our wellbeing (along with the happiness it supports) is totally an “inside job.”
When this soul-centered spirituality is translated into our way of being and living in the world, we know that nothing and no one out there needs to be saved or fixed before we can be happy.
A restless soul, on the other hand, is what drives many unhappy people from one relationship to another, from one job to the next, falsely believing that by changing or moving things around they will finally be happy – or at least less miserable. Happy at last, if not a happiness that lasts. In projecting their inner disquiet and spiritual dis-ease upon the world and others around them, they “send out” a spirit of blame, agitation, and violence. They are creating hell on Earth.
I’m not suggesting that the “spirit” they are sending out is some kind of demonic entity or evil ghost, even though popular culture and religions have misread the ancient myths by taking such metaphors literally. Today it is as relevant as ever to speak of our personal influence in the world – our thoughts, words, choices, commitments, actions and reactions – as an out-breath (spiritus) of creative and helpful, or destructive and hurtful, energy, moving outward from us like a rippling wave.
This energy-wave will be beneficial or malevolent, fostering community or causing division, making our world a heaven or hell, as the case may be.
It’s interesting that in most conceptions of heaven, the picture is one of many people gathered in joyous company, whereas in hell everyone is suffering, but each soul is suffering in isolated agony. As mythical visions, these contrasting pictures are not really about the postmortem conditions awaiting us when we die. Instead, they are lenses for helping us understand that what comes out of us is a power for good or evil, one that can draw us together or drive us apart.
They are, in other words, visions of what our life on Earth can be, depending on whether we are cultivating inner peace or projecting our misery into the world.
These days, many of us are looking out on a wasteland of abandoned dreams, broken promises, and rising conflict. Who’s going to save us? How can we change the world and make it better? Are we Waiting for Godot, or just hanging on till the End? It’s easy to pin the blame on some person, some party, some “principality and power” that must be responsible for our suffering.
The truth is that no one is to blame, but each of us is responsible for our own suffering – as also for our own happiness. If the world out there is hell, it’s because we are making it so. The way to heaven on Earth begins as we call back our spirit (thoughts, words, actions) of judgment, descend by that inward path to the wellspring of inner peace and drink deeply of its healing waters, and then send out a new spirit of kindness, empathy, generosity, and goodwill.
It’s been this way for a long time. Yes, it has always been this way.