I was clearing out the drain again the other day. It’s not the most pleasant of tasks but it’s necessary and only gets blocked from time to time.
As I was scooping out the rotting leaves, vegetable matter and other smelly detritus, it struck me how very similar this task is to the task of developing our spiritual (or psychological, if you prefer a word with fewer religious connotations) potential as fully awake human beings.
|Unclog the mind|
One feature of the evolving human brain which seems to set it apart from other animals is that it has developed self-awareness: animals can think but humans can think about themselves thinking. In short, we can consciously examine our lives.
The Greek philosopher Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
It is perhaps when life goes unexamined that all the detritus of our day-to-day annoyances, disappointments, frustrations, past hurts, resentments, etc get backed up and block the natural flow of our minds. Left to build up, our anger and unhappiness can spill over into the lives of those around us, causing a stink.
The mind is, in essence, clear and perfect as it is; we are, at heart, loving and lovable; we are “spiritual beings having a human experience,” as Gary Zukav, author of Seat of the Soul, puts it. The problem comes when we forget our essential selves; when we fall prey to the delusion of a permanent, unchanging self; when we identify with who we think we are, or who we want the world to think we are, then cling to that image and behave, perhaps unskilfully, to reinforce the illusion. Each time, another layer of misperception smudges the lens of our lives.
While cleaning the drain, I recalled that author Deepak Chopra once said the “spiritual path” involves constant work “to clear away the obstacles that prevent love from coming through us. The work is much more like working on clogged plumbing than it is like imitating a saint”.
Years ago, a work colleague, who was feeling the weight of other people’s expectations of what a Christian should be like, explained that he was a “practising Christian”, in the sense of “learning how to be one”. By seeing his spiritual path in this way, he was giving himself a bit of slack. He was aware that it was a long road ahead and, a bit like Norfolk’s roads after a harsh winter, there would be plenty of pot holes to trip him up along the way.
Even the Dalai Lama – a beacon of love, laughter and calmness – has admitted feeling angry at times (particularly on hearing about the atrocities suffered by Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese government in the early days of the occupation). However, he has learned how not to allow small inconveniences to upset, and therefore take control of, his mind. He has also learned how to transform feelings such as anger – through years of developing antidotes such as patience, compassion and understanding – so that, if anger arises, it soon passes. None of this, as his autobiography attests, was learned overnight: it took practice... and patience.
That’s good news for the rest of us, because we are all capable of acquiring new skills through practice. After all, when we were born we couldn’t walk, talk, feed ourselves, ride a bike, etc. Now, for most of us, these skills, among many others, have become second nature – but only after years of trial and error, as well as bruised knees, messy bibs and grazed elbows.
It is no different with psychological (or spiritual) skills. We just have to keep working on the clogged plumbing, cleaning out the drain... and polishing the lens of our life until the clarity of our minds shines through.