Often people attracted to spirituality want to skip the whole human being thing and jump directly into some supposed metaphysical realm.
Christians base their lives on being saved and getting a pass to enter heaven after death; Buddhists, Hindus, and other "Eastern" practitioners envision enlightenment, nirvana, god realization, or whatever as being an escape from the illusions of the material universe.
Well, there might be a transcendental reality, despite the lack of evidence. But for sure there is a physical world, which we all are living in now, doing our best to deal with the difficulties of being human.
Sickness and health. Sorrows and joys. Pains and pleasures. Sadness and happiness. Hatred and love. Anger and compassion. Depression and vitality. Death and life.
Every day, every hour, every minute, every second we're faced with wild wonderful ever-changing circumstances, choices, conditions -- both inside and outside of us. One moment we feel centered, harmonious, and peaceful; the next moment, off-kilter, jangled, and unsettled.
In my life experience, which includes thirty-five years of active involvement with a group pursuing spiritual development, I've found that people can devote themselves whole-heartedly to becoming a perfect divine being while making essentially zero progress toward becoming a better human person.
Often religious believers are so imbued with the goal (or fantasy) of detaching from their fallen, sinful, imperfect, maya-saturated bodily existence, they don't notice (or care) that they're acting like jerks.
Fairly frequently I get emails from someone who wants to tell me about how a follower of some faith, or a guru of some sort, acted inhumanely. I shouldn't be surprised by these stories, but I am.
It just seems strange that a person who is striving for spiritual elevation wouldn't begin by making sure that his or her bodily humanity is on firm ground -- that he or she has become as good a human being as possible before attempting some sort of metaphysical transformation.
Egotism. Authoritarianism. Lack of compassion. Ignoring common courtesies. Excessive pride. Prejudice against unbelievers. I've seen this, and much more, during the many years I spent with devotees of a supposedly advanced spiritual practice.
I remember hearing a leader of this organization advise, "Never thank someone who gives an inspirational talk at a meeting. It will inflate their ego."
I thought, "That's ridiculous. I thank my wife all the time. Along with clerks in stores. The coffee house barista. Our UPS delivery guy. What good is a spiritual path if I'm supposed to go down a road that is dehumanizing?"
I've been on a get humanly/mentally real reading kick recently. In my morning meditation area sit "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," "Good Without God," "Buddha's Brain," "The Plastic Mind," "The Hidden Brain."
Their common theme is that spirituality begins (and likely ends, in my view) with altering our human ways of acting, reacting, thinking, perceiving, and such. The brain causes the mind which causes the brain which causes the mind in a continuous looping interchange.
Each of us can change. We can alter ways of living and being that we don't like. Meditation, mindfulness, and other approaches meld the best of ancient wisdom and modern neuroscience.
Little things are important. Rather than feeling that soaring to the heavens is necessary to find truth, peace, and satisfaction, we might want to become more aware of what is right in front of us.
Drinking a cup of coffee. Patting our dog or cat. Watching tree branches blow in the wind. Observing the mind flow in well-worn channels.
This morning my wife said, "Should I go to the hardware store for the longer door bell screws you said we needed, but haven't gotten yet?" The question jarred my pre-coffee consciousness.
I thought in a flash: I got the screws yesterday. They're lying in an Ace Hardware plastic bag on top of the kitchen counter. I was planning to put them in today. I don't need reminding! I don't need nagging! Damn it, I...
Thankfully, at this point I became aware of the ridiculous over-reactive irritation that was starting to course through my brain. I stopped the inner talk. I simply said, "I got the screws. There they are."
Of such moments is spirituality (or self-development) made, in my current churchless understanding.
If I can't get along with other people, if I can't act like a decent human being most of the time, if I can't become aware of my failings, weaknesses, blind spots, and other habits that prevent me from harmoniously interacting with others, then I've got no business believing that I'm on a religious path that leads to perfection.
First things first, second things second -- if we ever get past the first.