We moderns have difficult lives. With our science and technology, we are now aware of suffering on a global scale as well as struggling with suffering on a personal level. We may have been able to alleviate some pain thanks to these advances, but in other ways we have created even more of it.
The materialistic philosophy of our times, with its nihilism and consumerism, often undermines our higher aspirations. Yet as spiritual beings, we continue to seek a way to live that gives us deeper meaning. Many of us have turned to ancient traditions such as Buddhism. As moderns, however, steeped in a scientific worldview, these ancient teachings may seem too simple to apply to the complexity of our 21st-century lives. Wouldn’t it be helpful to receive guidance from someone who is both a scientist and a spiritual practitioner, someone who has managed to integrate the spiritual and scientific view of reality?
Noted psychiatrist and long-time meditator Roger Walsh provides such help in his latest book, Essential Spirituality. Knowing the quality and depth of Walsh’s professional work and his serious spiritual practice, I cannot imagine a better person to write this book.
Simply taking the time to read Essential Spirituality has provided me a lesson about the hurry in my life and what it costs me. Allowing oneself to be carried away by the rush of life is very costly indeed, as Walsh points out in his clear and practical way:
You need to have a routine of some kind with sacred time carefully set aside. Otherwise the world’s distractions and demands will consume every open moment and leave you astounded to find that yet another day, month, year, or even decade has disappeared into oblivion with only a few scattered moments devoted to spiritual practice.
Essential Spirituality is a complete introduction to the spiritual path (and an essential refresher for those of us who think we already know enough about it). At the heart of the book are seven core practices:
1) Transform your motivation: reduce craving and find your soul’s desire.
2) Cultivate emotional wisdom: heal your heart and learn to love.
3) Live ethically: feel good by doing good.
4) Concentrate and calm your mind.
5) Awaken your spiritual vision: see clearly and recognize the sacred in all things.
6) Cultivate spiritual intelligence: develop wisdom and understand life.
7) Express spirit in action: embrace generosity and the joy of service.
Walsh thoroughly explains each of these and suggests many practical exercises to help us integrate them into our lives.
Throughout the book Walsh also emphasizes a spirit of exploration. He advises us to recognize our own natural rhythms, find what works best for us, and practice kindness to ourselves in the process. I found the sections on working with negative emotions particularly valuable since many of us often tend to undermine our efforts with harsh self-judgments.
It takes courage to examine yourself and your life carefully. It takes effort to do the exercises regularly and commitment to keep doing them during difficult times. Fortunately, the more you practice, the more these essential qualities grow. Above all, be patient. Transforming yourself and your life is a gradual process.
When I was younger, I thought that spirituality was mainly about experiencing states of mystical revelation. Now, while not devaluing those special states, I believe that practicing compassion and kindness toward oneself and others is really what it’s all about, and Walsh gives ample attention to these qualities.
To practice for the benefit of all people, even all creatures, is to expand our circle of care and to cultivate emotions such as love and kindness. Over time it becomes increasingly obvious that the happiness of others is our own and that to practice for the benefit of all is not a sacrifice but rather a delight. Our spiritual work not only helps us but is, according to Ramana Maharshi, the best help you can possibly render to others. Our task is simply to do our practice as fully as we can. In this way we gradually learn to awaken ourselves, to love and serve life in all its infinite forms, to see the sacred in all things, and to care for our troubled world.
Roger Walsh’s Essential Spirituality is brimming with such wise reminders.