Natural Spirituality


Dr. Stephen Fulder

The Zen poet Ikkyu wrote that there is no point in looking for spirituality in texts and in concepts. It is to be found in ‘reading the love letters sent by the wind and the rain, the snow and the moon.’ Natural spirituality is our built-in capacity to connect with and to know the big picture, to actually merge with the big picture. It is natural because it has never left us. We have emerged from the ocean and we go back to it, and it is still in us. The journey is thus one of return or revealing what is already inside us.

Another way of looking at it is to define spirituality in the words of the Dalai Lama as: “to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which brings happiness to both self and others.” Though we may be used to describing spirituality as a state, or a thing, which, like all other things, has to come from somewhere outside of ourselves, these qualities are already inside us, already part of our nature, otherwise we would not be able to access them.

If it is part of our nature, then clearly we have nowhere else to look other than inside.
All the great spiritual traditions are very clear on this. Christianity may preach Salvation, Judaism - the Messiah, Buddhism – the Pure Land somewhere else, but spirituality always talks in terms of liberation existing inside, and our journey being one of peeling off layers of mud or dross, to reveal the diamond within. As Rumi says: “I kept knocking on the door into heaven. Eventually it opened. I found I was knocking from the inside!”

Yet, if it is part of our nature, why does it seem such  hard work to seek for heaven? Yogis through the ages inflict on themselves austerities, the Buddha went off for 7 years of intense practice and ascetism, monks sit in the desert alone, and we today busily consume piles of books, go on endless courses, chase after teachers and still find that we haven’t ‘got there’.  

One clue comes from neurology. Our brain makes maps of the world and of memory, and these consist of neural networks in the brain. In other words, the normal, automatic and functional mode of awareness is built in to our minds by a very strong conditioning process, from an early age, that is more or less engraved in our minds. We do need quite an effort to restore the flexibility to be able to see things differently, and in a more open, expansive and liberated way.

The wide open inner space has been contracted and contracted by our intense need to understand, remember, survive and defend ourselves. We build a strong sense of self as a barrier, a wall, and the gates get smaller as we busily select what is threatening and what is pleasing.  Spirituality is covered over by a self-system built to cope with the world. The language of Jewish mysticism describes the spirit as veiled or covered by peels, which need to be peeled off. Buddhist teachings state that our awareness is limited by ‘kilesas’ or thieves, which have stolen our spiritual insight, or like  stains,  that prevent the cloth from taking up the dye of spirituality.

If our spiritual search is for something that is already within us, though buried, then our practice can be a process of unpeeling or uncovering, a kind of ‘dropping into’ our innate awareness, rather than an intensive search for something outside of ourselves. We may, on the way, derive benefit or support from the outside, such as a book, a guru or a deity. But this has to be a stepping-stone into the inner world. Spiritual practice, whether meditation or any other, needs to open windows in the walls of our conditioning, creating the inner space and emptiness which allows the truth to bubble up like the laughing waters of a spring. We need to dissolve into the world. There is an Indian image that describes the spiritual journey. It is said that it is like ants eating sugar until all the sugar has disappeared. Our first thought is that the sugar is the sweetness of spiritual fruit, and we are the ants that gradually consume it. Wrong. The ants are the spiritual practice and we are the sugar which is consumed.

And actually, our realization that spirituality is natural, a birthright, and already part of our make-up, does make it all much easier. If it is outside of us, we have to go through a long period of preparation, waiting and purification until it happens to us. An example of this is the Christian desert fathers who fasted and prayed for ‘grace’ which came from very long periods of ‘expectatus’, waiting expectantly. However, if we know it as part of ourselves and the nature of things, then our training becomes much more like learning to listen. It is a bit like learning to play the piano – we have a musical capacity, and it needs some practice to open it. The great thing about the spiritual journey within is that like learning to play the piano, we can enjoy the music we make right from the beginning, in the middle and at the end. And there is some more good news. Neuroscience has recently come to understand that there is more plasticity, flexibility, in the neuronal networks than they previously thought. We can make a real difference to our inner landscape without heroic effort, and it can often feel like listening to the music of our soul.