Here's what I've come to realize after over fifty years of searching for spiritual truth.
For most of that time, I had things completely backward, because I didn't understand how simple genuine spirituality really is.
I've got lots of company in that regard.
At first, almost everyone approaches spirituality, or religion, like everything else in life. It's viewed as something to be desired, then worked for, then hopefully attained.
This is how we get a college degree. This is how we get our first real job. This is how we get married. This is how we have children. This is how we become proficient at a sport like golf, surfing, or tennis.
We seek instruction from people who have the sort of knowledge we want. We put in effort aimed at achieving our goal. We get support from friends and family who inspire us to keep pursuing our dream rather than get discouraged.
Then... we repeat the process. Because desires and attainments never end.
When spiritual advancement or a religious quest is viewed in this way -- and almost everyone does just that -- disappointment is inevitable.
After all, how many people do you know who are completely satisfied with their life? I'm willing to bet, zero. And naturally that includes you, along with me.
This is the problem with making spirituality into a commodity, something to be purchased with the proper amount of time, energy, knowledge, enthusiasm.
We expect that just as we're able to achieve a good education, get a worthwhile job, or find a loving partner, we should be able to become a spiritual person if we channel our desire in that direction.
Most people pursue this approach for their entire life.
A few stick with the same religion or spiritual path until they die. Most, though, try several forms of spirituality, moving from one to another in the same way people change jobs, romantic relationships, athletic activities, cars, homes, and such.
New spiritual goals replace old ones. Or the same spiritual path/religion undergoes a sort of remodeling project. Fresh ideas take the place of stale ones. But the same basic approach mentioned above holds:
Something is desired, then worked for, then hopefully attained.
There's a better way, though. It's so simple, most people fail to grasp it. I certainly did, even though I've been an admirer of Zen Buddhism and Taoism ever since my college days in the late 1960s.
Zen and Taoism, in their non-religious forms, come the closest of any organized philosophy to that simple better way. Mindfulness, also -- which really is Buddhism expressed in a different modern fashion.
This way actually is better described as a non-way, since it doesn't involve any steps, any path, any destination, any goal.
It's just attending to life as it appears to us at every moment.
Now, I realize that statement sounds ridiculously trite to most people. All I can say is that I agree. It is ridiculously trite. Which is why I love it so much.
I'm not saying I've become a Zen master or a Taoist sage. Far from it.
I'm just a regular old guy doing his best to keep my head above water as I cope with the everyday problems I've had to deal with my entire life. However, I'm gradually starting to see life in a different fashion.
Which is difficult for me to put into words. So I'll let Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen teacher whose words make up the book I've been rereading, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," describe what I'm struggling to say.
In our practice we have no particular purpose or goal, nor any special object of worship.
...You may think that if there no purpose or no goal in our practice, we will not know what to do. But there is a way.
The way to practice without having any goal is to limit your activity, or to be concentrated on what you are doing in the moment. Instead of having some particular object in mind, you should limit your activity.
When your mind is wandering about elsewhere you have no chance to express yourself. But if you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can express fully your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature. This is our way.
When we practice zazen [meditation] we limit our activity to the smallest extent. Just keeping the right posture and being concentrated on sitting is how we express the universal nature. Then we become Buddha, and we express Buddha nature.
So instead of having some object of worship, we just concentrate on the activity which we do in each moment.
When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat. If you do this, the universal nature is there.