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The expression spiritual life can have several meanings according to what we understand by spiritual: we can associate it with beliefs, practices, good feelings, artistic inclinations or elevated states of mind.
Here we will talk about spiritual life in terms of states of consciousness. By state of consciousness we mean the idea we have of ourselves, of our surroundings and our situation in life and in the world.
From this point of view we could say that we’ve always had a spiritual life because we have developed our state of consciousness ever since we were born. And although this is true, this development, this unfolding of our consciousness, takes on different characteristics according to our needs at different stages of life.
In childhood and adolescence, we develop our state of consciousness motivated by the need to understand our place in the world and to learn how to take charge of our lives. Rather than wondering who we really are, we pay attention to what others say about us and what they want from us.
The idea we have of who we are and our relationship with life and the world doesn’t come from ourselves. We learn it from others and from the influences of the environment around us. We come to feel that we agree with a certain group, place or time in which we live. Our way of thinking, our opinions, our beliefs are all a result of our surroundings. Whatever differences we may have in thinking from those around us are simply variations of the same general way of thinking, characteristic of our times and culture.
Once we consolidate this notion of being, this idea of who we are, this way of thinking and feeling, we usually stay in this state of consciousness. Our identity, our way of thinking and feeling that is a product of our times and place, and the habits we have picked up, all these make up what we will call here our acquired personality. This personality makes us feel sure of who we are, of what we think and what we believe. And from this vantage point we judge everything around us. And so do all those who have acquired their personalities in other places, different from ours. Thus we identify with those who think and act as we do, and we separate ourselves from those who think and act differently.
The acquired personality enables us to take good advantage of the culture to which we belong and thus to advance in our unfolding. If we are consistent with the principles we say we have, we try to live up to the spiritual aspirations of our beliefs or our inclinations, acquired by our assimilation to our culture. We try to live the ethical standards of our belief system, we practice virtues and spiritual exercises, and we train our mind, refine our artistic sense and do good works.
However, although most of us adhere to ethical principles and noble beliefs, we have not yet been able to create a world without violence, destruction and tragedy—all of which we ourselves produce.
On the one hand, in most cases what really matters to us is limited and personal: I care about myself, my welfare and the small number of people I love. What may happen around us or what we could do about it might matter to us, but it is secondary to the importance we give to ourselves. This makes it unlikely that we will ever create harmony in the society in which we live.
On the other hand, although we have excellent principles and ideals, we don’t always get good results with them. We hold onto our truth as the only truth, not realizing that there are as many supposed truths in the world as groups that say they have it. We still do not accept that for a truth to really be true, it has to be something so obvious that there is no way of not recognizing it.
Those are the truths we can rely on; life gives them to us.
It is obvious that we cannot keep forever what we have today; we cannot avoid the vicissitudes of life, illness, decline and death.
It is obvious that, as much as we might refine our ability to anticipate and predict the future, we live in fear due to constant uncertainty.
It is obvious that, in the realm of personal relationships, what makes us happy is to be treated with respect, love and courtesy. It is also obvious that in many cases we do not treat one another this way.
It is obvious that much of our suffering comes from conflict: personal arguments where we try to impose ourselves on others, or so-called “spiritual” debates, when we impose our beliefs on others.
It is obvious that, although each belief proclaims a different truth, all belief systems agree on faith in a higher principle that governs life. It is also obvious that, although some believe in this higher principle and others do not, no one really knows for sure.
It is therefore obvious that reality may be different from what we believe or think about it.
The obvious question would then be: does it make sense to create divisions among ourselves because we do not think in the same way about things we do not know? Or better still, isn’t it wiser to be united in what we have in common—the essence of what we do believe and what we obviously don’t know—rather than to assert something we don’t know for sure is true?
What happens to us with our beliefs also happens to us with our ideologies. Each of us can expound on a theory about how to make a better world. But such thinking doesn’t unite us; on the contrary, it leads us to fight those who also want to make a better world but have a different theory than ours on how to do it.
The obvious question is: wouldn’t it make more sense to collaborate with each other to make that better world possible?
What could we do to break the vicious circle of good intentions and terrible results?
We can continue the development of our state of consciousness.
But achieving this continuity is not easy. In our current state of consciousness, it is not enough to simply admit what is obvious in order to live with what we do know. We continuously confront one another, trying to impose our ideas not only on those who don’t agree with us but on those closest to us, our personal relationships. We even go so far as to have confrontations with the group with which we identify and from which we get our self-identity.
Furthermore, we live as if death did not exist; in practice, we refuse to admit the temporary and precarious nature of everything we do. We think we give meaning to our lives by accelerating our activities and wasting our time on efforts that do not expand our state of consciousness.
In order to really develop, to unfold, we need to work deliberately, methodically and persistently on unfolding our state of consciousness. In the language of spiritual life, this work is called asceticism. In this book we call it the Asceticism of Renouncement.
The Asceticism of Renouncement begins when we work on the personality we have acquired, because that personality defines our state of consciousness. We have no other starting point: from there we work to expand the boundaries of that state of consciousness.