In terms of church attendance, America is far ahead of England and Western Europe, but I wonder if this has had any practical effect. Everyone prays at some point in their lives, if not regularly, but most people don’t expect their prayers to work --not with the predictability of turning on a light switch or picking up the phone. We find ourselves in the position of saying “Is anybody there?” as if into a dead phone line. Yet, a great opportunity has been missed. Maybe prayers aren’t dependable for a reason, and if they’re not, then reason must be in ourselves.
Spirituality is the most practical way to meet life’s challenges. There has to be a reason why Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount tells us to leave everything to Providence: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” I wanted to take this as a serious question; clearly Jesus didn’t mean it merely as a rhetorical one. He implied a way of dealing with the material world through a means other than working, saving, and storing up for a rainy day. If God loves us, all our needs are taken care of, through grace alone.
Where’s the catch?
Religion took a wrong turn when it held that the catch was sin, lack of faith, an angry God or fallen mankind.
I believe that the spiritual solution to life’s challenges lies in your own consciousness. We get distracted by all the things that fill our minds. In our modern world, an unending stream of demands are made upon the brain --and we have carved little time for the mind to look into itself. Once you make the time, it’s natural to discover that awareness, when emptied of thoughts and sensations, is open to itself. Any possibility that is going to come true will first manifest in the mind. This means, according to the world’s wisdom traditions, that the silent mind is far from empty. It is the source of reality, putting you and me in the position of being creators of reality.
We are meant to be the authors of our own lives. Most people accept this as a kind of truism. They believe in working for what you get, for example. The Buddhists don’t mean that, however, when they say that the question questions itself and the answer answers itself. They mean that problems contain solutions, by design and without fail. What breaks them apart, making it very hard for questions to find answers? Our state of awareness, which is filled with conflict, confusion, doubt, and lack of insight. Higher consciousness, then, isn’t a path to God so much as a path to clarity first. We deal with life from one level of attention - raising a family, going to work, getting and spending - while a deeper attention is ignored. This second attention detaches from everyday events, taking the soul’s perspective, as it were.
Or if the soul is a dubious term, second attention sees how to connect problems with solutions, questions with answers. We employ it when we follow our gut feelings or have an “aha” moment. It exists in the domain of intuition, insight, and our innate sense of truth. First attention can lead to great success in the world; second attention opens the door to grace. When William Blake advised us to “cleanse the doors of perception,” I think he meant the subtle perception that our senses don’t deliver. First see with the eyes of the body, then the eyes of the mind, and finally the eyes of the soul.
When it comes to spiritual solutions, the most basic premise is for me is still the most profound one. The level of the solution is never found at the level of the problem. Countless people struggle because they keep doing more of what didn’t work in the first place. They are stuck at the level of the problem. Hence the spectacle of bad marriages that repeat the same arguments over and over, countries afflicted with the same social discord, foreign wars that never end --all because people try to deal with conflict by adding more conflict. Warfare, whether inner or outer, never truly ends until you rise above the level of conflict.
One can substitute other words in place of conflict: worry, struggle, helplessness, victimization. The more these things continue, the worse they ensnare you. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was specially addressing the struggle for survival, which must have been urgent for most of his listeners. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” It was a message of poetic beauty that defied common sense, and still does.
The secret of a life that works by grace rather than toil remains hidden. Yet there is no mystery more worth pursuing. Something here rings with truth; a silent voice speaks inside us. It would be high irony if it took a skeptical age to finally unriddle how higher consciousness can be made practical, but the time may have come. We live in a society that has little use for God, but it is also filled with faith. We might wind up putting God to work anyway.
Deepak Chopra is author, most recently, of “Spiritual Solutions: Answers to Life’s Greatest Challenges.”