Many people today who are deeply concerned about the world’s suffering inhabit a secularized worldview in which it is assumed that religious understandings of salvation or spiritual liberation are irrelevant to the material needs and ways of thinking prevalent in our time. Such people, of course, do not see religious disciplines as a resource to help them respond to the suffering. And although moral teachings of mainstream Western religious traditions today continue to inspire their faithful to serve others in need, such traditions have largely lost touch with contemplative disciplines that were earlier maintained in monastic institutions.
As many members of mainstream religions themselves report, the modern emphasis on service to others in their churches and synagogues can mask a lack of spiritual grounding necessary for such service to realize its fuller potential to empower, heal and liberate both those who serve others and those served by them.
Yet, even as the world has become increasingly secularized in its rejection or forgetting of religious resources, people also increasingly long for what religions (at their best) have provided: access to a primal power of goodness that transcends the world’s limiting attitudes and structures of greed, apathy, and prejudice, that liberates people to discover a greater potential in themselves and others, and that empowers wise, compassionate and creative responsiveness to the world’s needs.
This yearning to rediscover our connection to the primal or unconditioned ground of our being, so as to live, act and serve others in a more deeply grounded way, takes expression in a host of modern desires that the materialism of the modern world does not address: the search for deep rest from the freneticism of modern life; the desire for a much deeper healing of body, mind and spirit than health-spas can provide; the wish to find a sustaining power of love for self and others in a hyper-competitive world; the desire for a renewed spirituality within or beyond mainstream religions; the urge to protect nature from the predations of our own consumerism; the desire to relieve suffering and establish lasting peace and justice in a world of increasing possessiveness, apathy and violence.
Although many people today believe they have transcended religious ways of thinking, and indeed many blame religion as a major cause of the world’s current problems, the same people often long for a deeper grounding for their lives and actions, the kind of grounding that was accessed in the past through the spiritual disciplines of religious traditions.
The longing for a more grounded source for living and serving also manifests in the pressing needs that are commonly voiced by people who work to address the sufferings of the world in all areas of social service: the need to find a place of deep inner rest and replenishment so as to heal from dynamics of burnout; the need for a more unconditional attitude to self and others that would sustain our service beyond “empathy fatigue” and empower others to see their potential for change; the need to become more fully present to those we serve to better discern and evoke their hidden strengths; the need for the wisdom, compassion and courage to challenge oppressive structures without losing touch with the essential humanity of everyone involved.
As Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Thich Nhat Hanh taught, to bring more goodness into the world, we need to be in touch with the deepest goodness of our selves and others. To help people find much more peace and wellbeing in their lives, we need to come from a place of deepest peace and wellbeing in ourselves.
But such a grounded way of being and serving is not accomplished just by longing for it.
Gandhi, King, Nhat Hanh immersed themselves in disciplines of spiritual traditions that put them in touch with the depth of their being, from which they could respond to others in the depth of their being—helping many others to see themselves as deeply worthy and capable of great good.
[We can commune with] the unconditioned (empty) ground of our being that makes unconditional love and compassion for self and others possible. From this ground can emerge a purer vision of people that senses their intrinsic worthiness, great potential, and fundamental mystery, beyond all the reductive labels and ideologies of our societies. It is from this place that we can sense our underlying unity with others, commune with them in the original goodness of their being, listen deeply to them, respond creatively and wisely with reverence. But to find access to such depth requires immersion in disciplines that repeatedly turn our attention to the unconditioned ground of the depth of our being, to help us become increasingly transparent to its qualities.
By John Makransky, phd
Originally for publication in Dharma World on-line journal, March 2012