Vision Article I – Practical Spirituality

One of my teachers, though he will never know, is Huston Smith. I admire him as a great theologian because he spent many years immersing himself in various spiritual traditions, eventually returning to his Christian roots in the Midwest. A few years ago, he gave a commencement address in which he gave the new graduates – all receiving Masters Degrees in Spiritual Psychology – two pieces of advice. Don’t try to save the world, and be a little kinder. This first piece of advice no doubt puzzled his audience, for it is hard to imagine a group of people with more fire in their bellies than this one. The second piece of advice was passed along from someone he greatly admired, Sir Aldous Huxley. When Huxley, in his later years, was speaking at MIT, his chauffer was a young and curious Huston Smith. Smith asked Huxley, “At this point in your life, what advice do you have for us?” Huxley’s reply was simple, “Try to be a little kinder.”

While many of us have great world-changing dreams at some point in our lives, it is rare that such dreams actually manifest as planned. It is certainly wonderful when it does, when the rare combination of talent, faith, fortuity, persistence, luck, and timing yield great magic. But more often the events that change the world are very small ones. Farmer Fleming in northern Scotland had no idea of the extent to which he would change the world when one day he saved a young boy who was stuck in a peat bog. The next day a carriage rolled up in front of the farmer’s house, and out stepped a nobleman insisting on rewarding the farmer, for it was his son the farmer had saved. The farmer would take no money, but he told the nobleman of his own young son who was very bright. The nobleman told the farmer to worry not, his boy would attend the finest schools in England. The farmer’s very bright son, Sir Alexander Fleming, studied medicine and went on to discover penicillin. The nobleman’s son went on to become Prime Minister of England – Sir Winston Churchill. A seemingly small act of kindness in a moment of need yielded these great results. And I wonder if Churchill realized the significance of it all when, later in his life, he contracted a life-threatening infection, and his life was saved…by penicillin.

Practical Spirituality is in the smallest earthly acts. Many people see their spiritual practice as ascension, going up to God, through prayer, meditation, and the like. While this is a path of great loving and wisdom, it can also be unnatural and out-of-balance. There are lots of people who have found great enlightenment and awareness through ascension, but have failed to translate their experience to their earthly lives. Their relationships are difficult, and they seem challenged with the practical aspects of their daily lives. This is “spiritual bypass.” There is nothing un-spiritual about the routine, the mundane. A whole, integrated spiritual practice balances ascension with being literally down to earth; it embraces the masculine and the feminine, yin and yang, in a divine dance.

There has never been a time when Practical Spirituality has been more critical. The problem with the world is that we see each other for our differences, and we make those differences wrong. Most of our cultures have over-emphasized ascension, yielding an over-masculine way of being in which we seek power over others, in which we seek to dominate people and dominate nature herself. But here’s the irony. The path of ascension is what will save us from ourselves. If we knew what was at stake, we would all be meditating as if our hair were on fire. As we ascend in consciousness, at sufficient altitude, we become aware that we are all interconnected; we are all in this together. It’s like a pyramid of consciousness. As we ascend, we converge. Until we reach that level, we see ourselves as American or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim, white or black. We see each other as right or wrong, we find ourselves pitted against our fellow humans. As we awaken to our interrelatedness, it becomes more difficult, even impossible to harm another. It is this awareness that must be brought down to earth, and translated into acceptance and compassion for our planet and all inhabitants.

As Buckminster Fuller said, think globally, act locally. It starts with the smallest acts, and it starts with one person at a time…exploring the limits of our compassion and acceptance. What stops you? What things do you feel you simply cannot accept? What position are you ready to surrender? Be a little kinder. This is what will change the world.

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