Ordinary Life as a Spiritual Path by Peter Morrell
Ordinary Life as a Spiritual Path
by Peter Morrell
Ordinary life is the spiritual path and it becomes a delight to consider this viewpoint as a genuine prospect and truly as a way of living one’s life. The reasoning behind it is quite complex. Most certainly it rests upon the Buddhist perspective of impermanence and the transitory nature of phenomena, but also upon our distant loss of the power and beauty of childhood and the rather boring and unstimulating nature of adulthood we seem to have acquired by comparison. It also ties in with the fact that we all want happiness and bliss, which we mostly felt, in some measure, as children and also with the idea that drugs of all kinds can never safely or permanently recreate those vivid feelings and perceptions we had as a child. Yet that is in essence what we crave. Even our unhappinesses taken together, all in a sweep, also reflect the transitory and unsatisfying nature of existence; fundamentally so, and thus if we cannot change the world then we can at least begin to change our response to it, our perception of it and the way we view it and feel it inside, as compared to the mundane view of sensory perception, material substance and the dictates of physical science. We can project upon the world the same blissful vision that we had as a child and then it becomes again a delight to be alive. We must also sweep into this picture the fact of our own personal death and the grievous sense of loss we feel for those we love who will die, and those who have already passed away.
Part of this story must be personal as it regards my own discovery of these ideas for myself earlier in my life. I feel I hardly knew my father, when he died and I was only 15. My respect for him is mainly genetic I suppose, but I feel that he was more important to me [and that we were much closer] than he was in reality. I suppose what I mean is that my childhood was intensely beautiful and a hard act to follow as it means I find adult life pretty dull and uninspiring, in general, compared with those times. As long as I focus on here and now I feel fine but at times I yearn for the glory which has passed away. I always have. And all that has slipped away forsure. That is why I find comfort in Buddhism with its emphasis on loss and decay and our trying to accept change and the transitory. But deep down I do honestly feel the loss of all those wonderful characters from my early life. I wish I could meet them all again. I suppose it is that which inspires my artistic efforts more than anything. So I try to keep my awareness of such matters superficial. I have done much work on my attitude towards my father as I feel he was much more important to me than I used to think. Father-son relationships are probably fraught with difficulties because men are so emotionally inept and so ungiving [hard and ungenerous with affection] in many ways compared with women.
But later, when I also lost my mother and several aunts and uncles, and other people who were dear to me, I began to see the staggering universality of my situation. I began to see that this is precisely what Buddhism is talking about: the transience of the world and all its contents. The loss of those we love and hold dear, the ceaseless racing forwards of life; it can never be held or stopped in one place; it just keeps racing along against our will. For example, we seem powerless to change the flow of events or to bring back our departed loved ones. In this sense, most certainly, 'samsara' (embodied existence) seems like a nightmare into which we are plunged against our will, as Buddhists contend. The realisation of the universality of my predicament made me conceive the possibility that life could again become engaging and artistic and beautiful as well as meaningful, rather than being the random chaos of molecules and the extinction at death [the view of science) or the nihilism of emptiness.
Ordinary life is the path. The task is to transform ordinary life into a meaningful and engaging precious spiritual path and so to render it extraordinary, which was always the search of the alchemists of old [their Grail-like 'philosophers stone']. The method seems to be to convert through projected imagination each person one meets into a secret joy and each object, view and experience and appearance as a secret joy and containing a mysterious and delightful bliss. To give love unconditionally, generously and freely to all things, as a child does. This serves to utterly negate the view of ordinariness, which is the adult’s predominant perception of the world, as opposed to the child’s vision or that of the magician. This process negates the mundane ordinariness which we conceive to underpin 'adult reality', but projects onto our perceived reality a sheen of beauty and preciousness which it has come to lack, and which cannot be normally considered real due to one’s own accumulated knowledge of how the world works, and how people operate. We know that people die and get old and that things break and are destroyed and we know that we shall never see our loved ones ever again. But if we can place all that knowledge to one side and ignore it then it is perfectly possible to construct an alternative reality, founded entirely upon magical principles, for example.
As adults, we know that every person will get old and die. In this sense therefore, they will ‘let us down’ forsure and any love we invest in them looks, from this viewpoint, like 'wasted' energy. I recall feeling precisely that after my father died. I thought what is the point in loving anyone if they are going to die anyway? It seems utterly stupid. Although they give us joy and delight for a time we know they will die and be separated from us permanently. Thus on a deep level we conceive that they have 'let us down'. No matter how much you love them, they are doomed to die. Knowing this can certainly make us feel very miserable and depressed about life. Thus, people can never really give us the delight and joy we crave, and which, Eden-like, we enjoyed daily as children. Well, not for very long. We crave pleasure and sensation and happiness. But how can the pleasure from such transient things ever satisfy us? Once this unpalatable fact is realised, and truly sinks in, then we might feel tempted to enter into a state of deep misery. As adults, we can pretty fundamentally see that existence is flawed and is profoundly unsatisfying due to its inherently transient and impermanent nature. But children seem to be blissfully unaware of death and impermanence and thus their vision of the world tends to be fresh, pure and vivid. Maybe by projecting onto this world the same bliss, love and joy which the child projects, and by simultaneously suppressing our knowledge of the adult view, we can regain a joyful lifestyle. That is the trick.
The sad fact of one’s own death is a certainty. Just about as certain as anything that will ever happen. It is both certain and inevitable, yet we tend to shy away from this fact and hide away from it. The older we get, the more keenly we seem to become aware of this fact. We reject the idea as nonsensical and no way to live our lives, and so proceed just as if we are immortal and base our everyday life on a dream which contains no element of death at all, no element of personal extinction. Thus Buddhists, and other ascetics, through daily contemplating the transient nature of the world, and of themselves, duly reach the pretty miserable conclusion that no pleasure is worth having, if it is to be so transient. No pleasure of that type can be entirely satisfying and is thus flawed and unwanted. They reject it as pleasure tainted with suffering, like licking honey from the razor's sharp edge. What certain Buddhists then do (Tantrikas) is to transform this mundane world into something nice and dress it up in very smart clothes. The fact of death is for all practical purposes denied and suppressed and the transient nature of the world is also disguised and hidden from view. One regards each being as one’s own precious mother and worthy of enormous affection and delight. One views every view and place as part of a pure land of great bliss, and buildings as mandala palaces. Life again becomes a sweet joy and every sensation is transformed into a source of bliss. When the grim fact of death and the transient nature of the world are rejected, then the world becomes once again quite an attractive place to be.
I know that the world has not really changed at all since my childhood, and yet my perception of it is very different today than it was then. It was joyous, delightful and elevating then, but it tends to be bland, dull and predictable today. Thus one feels, in the adult world, a sense of loss and that that vision of loveliness was itself an illusion, and the true, dull adult picture has replaced it as the only real version of reality decent folk should entertain or carry around with them. How can we change this? How can life again become delightful and joyous for an adult just as if they had become a child again in their perception of the world? In my own case it was the sudden realisation that I was not alone in my plight, the universality of my plight hit me and then I began to see that it is not just my problem but the problem of everybody. So my mission became to find a way to return to that mystical and joyous view of the world which was the heart and soul of my childhood, and which sits at the very heart of all the arts, of music, romance and religion.
If we examine the nature of childhood and adulthood more closely we might find some clues to help us in this search. The child’s view of the world is essentially based upon a profound ignorance about how the world works and how people operate, and a general innocence about everything. The adult’s view of the world, by contrast, is based upon an excessively over-detailed knowledge about the world and how it works and how people operate. Thus, to regain the child’s perception of the world, which is in essence an artistic and spiritual vision of the world as a joyous and engaging place to be, one must lose, or suppress, the boring adult view and then cultivate anew the mystery and innocence of the child’s vision of the world. That seems to be the bottom line. Thus adult life attains a high degree of predictability and regularity, which is lacking from the child’s view. Our knowledge about it actually destroys our innocent and exciting vision of the world. In this sense our knowledge might be seen as burdensome.
One must regain a sense of mystery, magic and stimulation from the world which we have lost, and lose or suppress, to a large extent our knowledge of the ways of people and the world, and its boring predictability. This, in essence, is the position we all find ourselves in. To become free and liberated from the shackles of a sad, depressed boredom and lack of stimulation by the world, we must surrender the tight grip our knowledge of it and its ways has upon us, and become re-attuned and re-awakened to the world around us as a joyous spiritual vision and a magical play.
Adults have, in any case, mostly stopped looking at the world around them and do not tend to be very 'switched on' to its changes every day. Apart from the weather, they fail to see, or to delight in, the myriad subtle changes which are taking place all the time around us. Adults fail to see because they do not look beyond the barest mundane facts they need to assimilate in order to function, such as driving to work and listening to what others say etc. Beyond that, they seem to train down their perception into a minimal state and so fail to see much that is happening. They have switched off. By contrast, children seem to have all their sensory apparatus switched to 'full volume' and so see and hear much that is magical and engaging about the world, and which excites and uplifts their spirits. They have a keen sense of the mystery, excitement and unpredictability of the world which the adult has very largely lost.
In general, adults have also become excessively focused on 'mundane crap' such as money, career and status, and dismiss as 'hocus-pocus' the joyous spirituality of any magical perception of life. It must be significant that children are not especially interested in such mundane matters, until as teenagers, they are forced to do so by irate parents, wary of their possibly imminent and hapless fate as scroungers and drop-outs. Interest in true or natural religion has massively declined in the world, while obsession with mundane trivia and unbridled materialism surrounds us on every quarter.
Most adults do not hear the birdsong or see the golden sunsets, except when 'on holiday', when it is deemed acceptable to indulge such temporary pleasures. Such things are only seen by children and those artists and romantics who are ‘in love’ with someone or the world itself. Being ‘in love’ with someone is also of interest as it is the exact state we want to be in. It constitutes 'the drug' or 'spectacles' we need to help us to view the world afresh. To help us to re-engage with the world, and to lose our knowledge of it, and help us regain the sense of mystery, magic and newness every day. While some people use narcotics or sex or food or spending money or TV to distract themselves from the sad state of their lives [or indeed, as we said before, of life in general at a very fundamental level], and to create alternative realities, these all carry hefty price-tags in terms of sanity, health and longevity. None therefore are entirely satisfactory options for serious consideration. All these ‘devices’ act by temporarily suspending our boring, mundane, predictable perception of the world and reintroduce, reinforce and reinvigorate an exciting and mysterious view. They also negate or displace our awareness of death and transience and refocus our attention upon beauty, art and spirituality. For example, the pantheons of all religious gods, saints, fairies, pixies, nature spirits, icons and deities all conspire to reinforce mystery, unpredictability and excitement and to reintegrate these qualities into our lives. That is undoubtedly a very important psychological function of all religions, and also of love, sex and drugs.
Fundamentally, children are joyous and happy while adults are bored. And deep down I think adults wish to regain that joyful child’s view, in exchange, were it possible, for their boredom. And that neatly summarizes the predicament we are all in. But adults sceptically dismiss the child's vision as fake, doubt its reality, think it was an illusion, and, instead, tend to genuinely believe that their dull boring existence is the only sane way to live on this earth. And in any case they do not know how to proceed or how to even begin to recreate the child's joyous vision of the world. That is the very secret. That touches the heart of all secrets. How do we want to live? Bored to death in a safe and cosy prison of predictability? Or alive and awake, in love with the world and all its contents, in a dancing vision of spirit and innocence? It looks like a straight choice and they seem to be mutually exclusive paths which we might choose to take.
- '…the movement of the higher thought, as far as we can trace it, has on the whole been from magic through religion to science. In magic man depends upon his own strength to meet the difficulties and dangers that beset him on every side. He believes in a certain established order of nature...in the acuter minds magic is [then] superseded by religion, which explains the succession of natural phenomena as regulated by the will, the passion, or the caprice of spiritual beings like man in kind, though vastly superior to him in power…religion is then later displaced by science...here at last man has hit upon a clue to the labyrinth, a golden key that opens many locks in the treasury of nature…' [Frazer, 1922, The Golden Bough A Study in Magic and Religion, pp.711-12]
In his monumental tome, Frazer clearly depicts the transition in human beliefs from the magical to the religious and then to the scientific, but he signally ignores the fact that children delight in magic and then he fails to even consider what serious, great and vital function the magical might actually have in our lives, as compared to the bland and unpalatable diet dished up by scientists! If folks want to believe in elves and fairies, magic and deities, then so be it. If it enables them to make more sense of their sad little lives, if it helps them to be happier, to walk so much taller, and to smile and laugh more often, then what possible damage can it cause? And in the last analysis, on some deep, elemental plane, it might even be found to be truer than Newton's laws of motion or Schroedinger's equations.
The fact remains that no matter what solid and predictable laws can be shown to apply to matter, energy, space and time, we as spirits, enter and leave this world completely alone. What is important to us, truly and deeply important, is not really what happens here per se, or the ‘rules’ which regulate its contents, but it is those impulses we bring with us, and those we take away with us. For ultimately it is those impulses that cause our happiness and joy and not any diktat from materialist philosophers, or truly and deeply what befalls us here. Thus, ultimately, we always retain our subjective viewpoint, which always seems to take precedence over any mundane and predictable knowledge we might gain about reality and mind. It is thus my contention that religions of all kinds [as belief systems] play an important role in our lives. That role essentially enables us, if we choose to engage with it, to understand ourselves and the world more intimately, and to add the important extra ingredient of meaning to a life that might otherwise be utterly devoid of it. And a life with such meaning is, quite probably, a happy life, while one without any is most assuredly an unhappy one.