Many would argue that the notion of ‘spirituality’ (which, for the sake of this article I will define as ‘finding enlightenment,’ but which less religiously-minded people might just as viably argue to be ‘finding peace’) came into its own in the ‘flower power’ era of the 1960s, where it found purchase amongst the hippy community as a delightful by-product of smoking opium and ingesting copious amounts of LSD. But whilst it’s probably fair to say that there are numerous pockets of society where it still thrives today in its original incarnation as part of an alternative living movement – sitting comfortably alongside complementary therapies and traditionally ‘hippy’ enterprises such as divination, fortune telling and the like – what I personally find more interesting is the way spirituality has evolved to suit the arguably greater needs of the majority; trudging grey armies of office workers in every town and city across the world.
You only have to walk ten steps down any busy high street in the UK these days to see at least one sign for a yoga class, or flick through a few pages of a women’s magazine before it yields advertisements for ‘mindfulness classes’ and ‘meditation retreats.’ I speak not as someone who looks condescendingly upon such things, but rather as someone who has tried a number of them. I am, you see, myself quite keen to ‘find enlightenment,’ and seeing as there’s no easy road map to reach it (I fear my career would suffer if I were to hole up with a bag of acid tabs), have for the past few years been taking somewhat of a hit and miss approach to tracking it down. And believe you me it’s an elusive little bugger.
Indulge me, if you will, as I provide a brief synopsis of my own spiritual journey to date. The first foray, unsurprisingly, came a year after splitting from my ex of nine years, when I was at my lowest ebb and desperate for some form of peace. Never one to take the easy path I decided to go on a meditation retreat. To deepest Scotland. In darkest Winter. The weather, in fact, was so bad that I nearly didn’t make it, but even the Big Freeze could not deter me from my goal and, soon enough, I was installed in a quaint little guest house beside a frozen lake. Over the course of the next two days I learnt a good deal about Buddhism and the practice of meditation, and even had one session where I felt I had got somewhere close to a higher level of consciousness. When I re-entered civilisation I found it temporarily hard to adjust to the hustle and bustle of normal life, but it soon had me back in its grasp and did all it could to squeeze what little spirituality I had found out of me.
Fast forward three years and I tried again; this time taking the rather more serious step of enrolling on a two week ‘yoga vacation’ in a Hindu ashram in southern India. I re-learned the basics of both yoga and meditation and, despite initially struggling to calm my ‘monkey mind’ soon found myself capable of far longer periods of stillness than I had previously thought possible. It wasn’t all plain sailing though; far from it. At times I struggled not only with the rigorous routine but with my own incessant desire to find the ‘light.’ Looking back now I think I found it in ways I couldn’t conceive at the time; in the people I met there, and in the quietness of the neighbouring lake and surrounding mountains. At the end of one yoga session during the second week I had a very odd experience in which I felt as if I was being physically lifted up and out of my body; but alas, the moment I focused on it, the sensation slipped out of my grasp.
Determined not to let my taste of spirituality dissipate, after returning from my travels I tried two very different experiences that had presented themselves (I say presented themselves – in actual fact they were the result of hours of internet research using various spiritual search terms). First I went to a local meditation group, which was going swimmingly until one of the monks went out for a fag break halfway through the meditation and the other suggested going to the pub for beers afterwards (I’m not saying monks shouldn’t have fun, but this just didn’t tally with my understanding of spiritual enlightenment). Next I went for a ‘Qi energy treatment’ at a clinic on Harley Street, which “considers that the body, mind and spirit are all connected and to truly heal one you we need to heal all three” – but which charges through the nose before you can heal any one of them (the treatment itself, billed as an ‘acupressure sound massage’ was also one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, comprising a woman holding her hands over my body and belching loudly ‘to remove the toxins’ from my body – as someone with an acute aversion to belching of any kind, it was clear this would never be my route to enlightenment, so I left, never to return).
Since then I have kept up a fairly regular yoga practice and an intermittent meditation practice. I have also toyed with the idea of visiting the UK branch of the ashram I stayed at in India. But all the while something has been niggling away at my subconscious, and that something is this: Could the problem be that spirituality is too big, too important to shoehorn into those infrequent moments of spare time us city folk allocate to it? Are we, in our busy modern lives, somehow missing the point that to truly appreciate spirituality you have to live it, fully, and give it the time it so rightly deserves to flourish, much like a flower in the sunshine? Furthermore, given that spirituality is getting such a raw deal in our society, does it even have a place here anymore? Should we be looking not to some higher being or consciousness for the answers and instead turn our attention to what is tangible and real in order to find the peace and enlightenment we so desperately crave?
Can we, for example, find our spiritual peace in people, in pets, in hobbies? Does it have to be about silence and quiet contemplation? Is the whole notion of such things now out dated? Sometimes I think I find a version of enlightenment in my writing, in those rare moments when the words just flow and time itself seems to stop; those moments where everything else ceases to matter. Maybe that in itself is proof that enlightenment isn’t so far out of our reach; perhaps we just have to look within ourselves, rather than to a higher power, to find it.