Something is wrong. You can see it manifesting in a million different ways, in your immediate life as well as in the state of the world. No one is unaffected by the current wrongness; it hangs over our lives like a miasmic cloud of toxins. Even the people who have things good feel uneasy and off, and for the people who have things bad this has been a catastrophic addition to their problems.
We can see the symptoms of the wrongness all around us. We see it in the big stuff, like the bizarre way we just ignore climate change as someone afraid of the doctor ignores a lump. We see it in the cruel policies of the US government and in the ways supporters of that government seem unfazed by the suffering of others – no, more than unfazed, they seem encouraged by the suffering of others. We see it in the rise of angry, hate-filled racist politics. We see it on Twitter, where the righteous destroy other human beings in order to get the thrill of dominance from purity, turning the platform into a kind of democratized Spanish Inquisition in which anyone can take on the role of Inquisitor and prove their moral high ground by crushing others. We see it in our friends and ourselves as sadness and isolation become the norm, as everybody we know is in a funk of some sort and so many seem to be struggling just to get through the day.
That something is wrong is not merely the conjecture of the essay writer looking to make a point; the CDC recently released a report that reveals the US has seen a 25% increase in suicide rates since 1999. And those are just the obvious suicides – the opioid crisis points to another version of suicide in which many participate in this country, a slow and painful form of suicide that includes drug abuse, excessive drinking and dietary habits guaranteed to kill. People are killing themselves either immediately or through long term neglect of their own health.
That there are many extenuating factors cannot be denied; healthcare in this country is a disaster, which gives people space in which to enact their slo-mo suicide, while the ubiquity of firearms makes it easy for someone overcome by momentary despair to make a quick and irreversible choice. The rise in suicides comes during a lengthy period of economic uncertainty, a period in which even the good times seem to not trickle down beyond the upper classes. The divide between the wealthy and the poor is enormous, and seemingly cannot be bridged. Our culture is fractured in ways we have never before seen, and old systems of connection have been abandoned in favor of new, virtual ones.
All of these are themselves symptoms, virulent and deadly ones to be sure. But they’re still symptoms of a larger problem that vexes us, and it’s the problem of an ongoing spiritual crisis.
It’s not a religious crisis. If anything we might have too much religion at the moment. Between the fundamentalist Christians and the fundamentalist Muslims we’re drowning in religions that are untethered from any spiritual meaning. Hell, these fakers and charlatans and murderers are part of the larger problem, giving a bad name to spiritual concepts in general.
No, the spiritual crisis is not about God or gods, not about ritual or dogma. It’s about a loss of faith and hope that comes from an increase in materialism and an abandonment of love. It comes from losing sight of anything bigger than ourselves and from a mindset that centers us, individually, as the fulcrum of the universe. We live in a world of self-will run riot, a world where individual desires trump communal needs, and where every person is an island, connected only by LTE signals.
Spirituality isn’t superstitious or supernatural in nature. You don’t need to believe in anything science can’t prove to be spiritual. All you have to understand is one basic concept:
Stuff isn’t enough.
Life isn’t about resource collection. It isn’t about hoarding things, or having things, or gaining status or being famous. Being spiritual is simply understanding that there’s something larger than the individual, that there’s something more meaningful than having things. Being spiritual is understanding that love is the actual meaning of life.
That means the larger answer isn’t economic. All the socialist policies in the world won’t make a difference when our hearts are dead. I see so many people online fighting for the oppressed and the downtrodden, but doing it from deeply dark, angry and non-spiritual places. I’ve been one of those people. That doesn’t lead to improvement, it just spreads hate and anger. If the solution to happiness isn’t in having stuff than we have to understand that no economic system will ever bring happiness. But when we are happy and spiritual we may find that we gravitate towards an economic system that is fair and decent.
We do not have a fair and decent economic system, and there’s a chicken and the egg argument to be had about this and the lack of spirituality in our lives, but however it started one thing is clear: our culture has turned its back on spirituality in a very big way. We have become consumers and materialists unparalleled in the history of the world, buying things we don’t need because we believe they will, on some level, bring us happiness… even as we know, deep down, they won’t. We have placed all of our happiness bets on material things, on the idea that if we just accumulate enough stuff, or maybe the right stuff, we will be actually happy. But we’re climbing an endless mountain range; once we get to the top of one mountain of desire we look out and see another, taller mountain that we want to climb. The peaks never stop. No one gets to the highest peak and says “I did it, this is enough!” They always see another mountain in the distance, and then they’re dissatisfied with the current achievement.
We have turned our back on human connection. In a time when we are more connected with one another on a global scale than we ever thought possible we are also more isolated than ever. The connections we forge digitally are cold and false, full of pretense and posturing. We’re not ourselves online, and we don’t live our own values online. There’s a remove that comes in digital communication that allows us to dehumanize the person on the other end of the conversation; you’re not saying mean things to a real human, you’re just saying them into a box on Twitter with a blinking cursor.
I know this from immediate first hand experience. I spent years going online and having righteous arguments with people I didn’t like, and I spoke to them in ways that I would never speak to a person in front of me, because I was able to distance myself from their existence as an actual human being who had dimensionality beyond our disagreement on some political matter. As long as they were an avatar and a string of words I could ignore the fact that they have dreams and loves and pains and regrets and hopes and that they would still exist when I walked away from the computer. I am not a sociopath (my therapist assures me of this) but there’s no question that the internet allowed me to behave in ways that were sociopathic.
Not everyone gets as extreme as I did, but many do, or get close. Is it a coincidence that the rise in suicide rates seem to mirror the growing importance of the internet in our lives? I suspect not.
Which isn’t to say that the internet is an inherently bad thing (although it might be!). Rather it’s that the internet arose at a time when our culture had already become increasingly materialistic and consumerist; by the end of the 90s the idea of selling out was passe and we were in a world where making money by any means necessary was lionized again, as it had been in the 80s. In that setting we needed human connection more than ever, and we thought the internet could give it to us… but we didn’t understand that the connection we got there wasn’t real, and was perhaps actually cancerous.
Five years ago these sentiments would have sounded Luddite, but I think in 2018 we have all begun to see the truth in them. We weren’t ready for the internet, and while it has done very good things for us, it has also hurt us in ways that will not be fully clear for a generation or more. We simply weren’t ready for it.
I could get into the evolutionary psychology of it all, but the basics are simply that as social animals we have evolved to understand our world in groups that generally don’t exceed 150 members. When we get above that our brains have a hard time classifying people as people; the urbanization of humanity was full of poverty and cruelty because of this, and the internetization is like the urbanization on a grand scale. When we lived in small groups we would never walk past a sick, destitute member of our group, but when we got to urban levels of density it became not only easy to do so, it became a survival mechanism. And now that we’ve gotten to the internet level of density – we all live in one big city, basically – it’s not only easy to walk past that person, there are perceived social upsides in spitting on that person or kicking them.
As we chase material gains we break our hearts a little bit.
As we substitute cold digital connection for warm human connection we break our hearts a little bit.
As we make ourselves the center of our own worlds, and as we focus only on what we want, we break our hearts a little bit.
In the words of David Lynch in Twin Peaks: The Return: we have to fix our hearts or die.
This is not a finger pointing. I have been spiritually bankrupt, I have behaved in ways that were cruel and selfish and that glorified me while denying my connection to other human beings. I have hurt people badly, both knowingly and unknowingly. What I am telling you is based on what I have come to understand about myself, and what I will recommend will be based on what I have been doing for myself. I believe that to save the world we need to save ourselves; you know how you’re told to put on your oxygen mask in an airplane before assisting your child? Yeah, it’s that, except in terms of spiritual healing.
Fixing your heart will fix the world.
But how do we fix our hearts? There is no one way. “The truth is a pathless land,” said the great spiritual thinker Krishnamurti. What works for me may not work for you, and what works for you may seem ludicrous to me*. I can only tell you what I have come to understand, and perhaps this will help you understand things for yourself.
*have you noticed how our culture has coded all kindness and spirituality as corny and lame at best, wacky at worst? Who does it benefit to convince you that loving others and being kind is pointless, but that consuming goods will make you happy?
We must reconnect. Our current state of disconnection is actually a delusion. We are all incredibly connected on a human level. Just as each leaf is both its own entity and part of a tree, so are we all individuals yet part of something larger. Look for this, look for the ways we’re all the same. Recognize there is no distance between you and others, that we’re all leaves on the same tree, all sharing the sunlight and the nutrients.
When we can see our connected place in the world, the next step becomes clear: we move away from the self. Once we see how we are connected and how our actions, big and small, reverberate throughout the world, we can become outwardly directed. Instead of wondering what this will do for me, how this will impact me, how I will gain or lose, we can start asking what this will do for others, how our actions will impact them, and how they will gain or lose. Because now we see that there is no difference between the happiness of others and our own, and we see that chasing the self only leads to misery for others, and thus ourselves.
Service is the next outgrowth of this. Doing for others is the actual secret key to happiness; when you discover how easy it is to be happy just by helping someone else you’re going to wonder why you spent so damn long seeking happiness anywhere else. Service keeps me sober, and service keeps me sane. I am of use to the world, one person at a time.
From there comes love. And not in some hippy dippy dumb way, but in a real way. A way that doesn’t ignore the problems of the world or the shortcomings of others, a way that doesn’t excuse people for their mistakes or their transgressions, but a way is how you might love your brother who happens to be a criminal – you will go with him to jail when he begins to serve his sentence and you will pick him up when he’s done his time. You don’t break him out or smuggle him drugs so he can become the kingpin of the cellblock, but you visit him and offer love and support so that he might be rehabilitated. That’s love.
And that love might start being outwardly directed, but it eventually gets directed inwards. You learn how to forgive yourself without letting yourself off the hook. You learn to be easy on yourself without letting yourself getting away with shit. You still hold yourself responsible, but don’t hold yourself to impossible standards. And the more you love yourself the more love you have to give away, and the more love you give away the more you love yourself.
And your heart begins to mend.
It all reads like simplistic bullshit, but none of this is easy. I’m also pretty convinced it’s not bullshit. I am early in my journey, but I have seen the benefits already in my own heart. To be sure, it takes tons of work and commitment. Some days we feel very far away from any ideals of reconnection, selflessness, service or love. That’s okay. Some days we have a hard time relating to our fellow humans, or some days we don’t have the juice to be of service. Some days we can’t love anyone, including ourselves. That’s okay too. Understanding that we are not just machines is part of our spiritual growth as well.
Spirituality isn’t about God or heaven, it’s about the world and people. It’s almost the antithesis of our culture, because our culture is so much about getting yours, about taking care of your desires, about chasing your dreams using your will. Spirituality is about getting outside of yourself, about taking care of all of us, and about abandoning our will and having faith that things will work out as they should.
Spirituality isn’t about wanting more, it’s about being grateful for what you have. It isn’t about perfection, it’s about accepting the duality that we are great just as we are and that we could also use a little work.
The hard truth is that we live in a toxic culture of the self, of greed and delusion. But we can’t change that culture by changing others. We can only change that culture by changing ourselves. You can’t fix my heart, and I can’t fix your heart. But we have to fix our hearts, or else we will die.
I believe we can fix our hearts.