WHATEVER our reasons for engaging in a spiritual practice, the implication is that we need to change something about ourselves or our experience of life. To put it another way, spirituality is about having compassion — that is, waking up to the reality of suffering in ourselves and others — and making a commitment to doing something about it.
Presumably we would not think we needed to practise a spiritual discipline if we did not think there was something wrong, or a question in need of an answer. We will be ready to undertake the spiritual journey only when we have had our fill of this all-pervasive unsatisfactoriness; when we are heartily fed up with it, and willing to banish our idols for ever, in favour of that which is ultimately real and true.
This fundamental unsatisfactoriness, epitomised by the inescapable fact of our mortality, is the unconscious motivation underlying all that we do. Becoming aware of it presents us with the primary impulse to wake up. But this does not signal the end of our problems. In fact, it may well be just the beginning of them.
The Israelites had to reach a point of crisis to force them to undertake their journey. Things had to get really bad. Becoming aware of the suffering and frustration of human existence — Original Sin, or in Buddhist terms, Duhkha — is the principal catalyst for entry into the spiritual life.
The first followers of Jesus understood that we become "partakers of the divine nature" when we "escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust" and answer the call to "life and godliness" (2 Peter 1.3-7).
Interestingly, both Christianity and Buddhism proffer the same diagnosis of the cause of our existential suffering: "your cravings that are at war within you" (James 4.1). It is only when we wake up to the fact of our bondage and become aware of the emptiness of our craving for all the things we think we want — the "fleshpots of Egypt", as it were — that our journey can properly begin.
We need to desire liberation above all else, in order to make that effort to break free from our past and change our lives for good. The Psalms speak of the soul’s thirsting after God "as a deer longs for flowing streams" (Psalm 42.1). If we are really serious about it, we will crave the life of the spirit more than someone who is drowning wants air.
So the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what do I really, really want, finally? What is that treasure so valuable that a man would sell everything he has in order to buy the field in which it is buried (Matthew 13.44)?
The problem is that, generally speaking, we do not know what we really want; so a conflict arises within us, which inevitably overflows into our lives (James 4.1-3). Paul knew this only too well. In his letter to the Romans, he reflects on the "war" between the flesh and the spirit, lamenting the fact that he does not do the thing he wants, but the very thing he hates (Romans 7.15, 19).
If we wish to resolve this dilemma, we will need to understand the difference between what we really want and what we think we want, which in turn is a question of working out why we are doing what we are doing, and what we hope to achieve by it.
We have to be able to see what it is that is being fed when we act out of our stories and conditioning, and how the ego is reinforced by the things we do and the games we play — albeit sometimes unwittingly.
We need to discover what will instead bring us true peace and contentment, completely and finally. What is the satisfaction we seek in order to relieve ourselves of the restless agitation of our never satisfied desires, once and for all?
Try to explore this question, and see where that exploration takes you. There may be many things you desire, many states you wish for, but will any of them bring you lasting fulfilment? Will whatever it is you think you want really bring permanent happiness, peace, and satisfaction — completely, absolutely, finally?
If we explore this question, we eventually end up with . . . with what? We cannot say. In the end, we may simply reach a wordless ultimate, beyond all the things we can enjoy and the satisfactions we can imagine. It is just "what really matters". And this is one of the things people are talking about when they talk about God. We end up with God, because nothing less will do.
This is the first of three edited extracts from The Wilderness Within by Nicholas Buxton (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84825-657-6).