A commonly heard response of many religious and spiritual people during times of disaster is, “I’ll pray for you”. Spiritual Naturalists are a varied bunch and some may engage in some kinds of contemplative prayer. But in our case, we view ritual as a means to help focus our own thoughts and cultivate inner qualities. This means, absent of any confirmed evidence, we don’t hold a belief that our prayers will affect the circumstances of others in a supernatural sense, either directly or through the favor of any other entities that listen to and answer prayer.
This begs the question, then, of what Spiritual Naturalists can and should do in response to the suffering of others, particularly in disasters and other tragedies such as the recent Hurricane Sandy which recently struck the Eastern portion of the U.S.
The most significant thing we can do, of course, is to act. This can include anything from traveling to the area to volunteer, to giving financially, to helping to spread the word, to simple words of support and encouragement to victims. All of these things really do affect the external circumstances for the better.
However, important though these actions are, action is the symptom of spiritual development. Our focus at the Society has been on spiritual practice, and that means ways of developing ourselves to be better people enjoying happier lives, regardless of external circumstance.
Fortunately, we do not have to be fully enlightened beings before we can act to help others! In fact, by jumping ahead and performing acts of compassion, this can have an inverse affect to help develop those inner qualities – which makes perfect sense in a universe where mind and body are all part of one, interconnected natural and causally-linked whole.
But, realistically, we also know that there are many cases tragedy strikes others and our ability to do much to help them is severely limited. There is far too much suffering in a world of billions of people to keep up with it all. For those who are on a spiritual path of practice, how then can we respond inwardly – in our practice – in the face of these realities? Certainly ignoring suffering cannot be a path to enlightenment, even when we cannot stop it externally.
The first step is not to let the great suffering in the world defeat our spirit. If we are in the process of cultivating our compassion and extending our concern for all beings, this will result in great suffering unless we also balance that development with the cultivation of wisdom. By ‘wisdom’ I mean, in this case, the deep awareness and acceptance of the nature of impermanence. In this, we not only recognize the impermanent nature of the universe, but we actually come to see beauty in that whole tapestry of complex activity. Even if we don’t like some instances of it which result in suffering and loss, we realize that none of the beautiful things we love would be possible without that ever-changing flow. Here, what is needed is the cultivation of a very subtle and challenging kind of love without attachment – a kind of love for others that is like enjoying the soothing waters flowing around us in a running river, but which does not try to stop the flow or desperately grab up all of the water.
All of us are unique and beautiful as we are. We all have our own height, our own looks, our own hair color, and yes, our own lifespan. We live in a certain place, and in a certain time. The time we exist in this pattern is our ‘home’ on the great timeline of the universe. Everything that happens, happens according to the Logos – that is, the same underlying rational order that brings about all things, and in which both death and birth are essential.
These are not the kind of thoughts that will relieve suffering for those undergoing it, who at that time simply need our love and support rather than our philosophy. But it is the kind of wisdom of living in accord with Nature, which we can cultivate in ourselves and – when tragedy strikes us or those with whom we empathize – will greatly fortify us.
Cultivating Inner Motivation
A friend of my wife is a Catholic, and every time an ambulance passes, he makes the sign of the cross. My wife, also a naturalist, was telling me how there was something about this she found appealing. Especially since coming to an understanding of the practical inner effects of ritual, I too have come to admire this kind of practice. I am not sure what supernatural beliefs our friend may have about this activity, but I do believe that the practice of stopping for a moment and performing some kind of physical action when passing a car accident or some other kind of suffering, is a healthy activity.
Outward physical actions connect to our minds. They call upon us to momentarily direct our attention, and this builds mental habits – habits of concern and empathy. For this reason I often try to stop what I’m doing and take a few meditative breaths whenever an ambulance passes or I drive past an accident or learn of some other misfortune. I have even found a more immediate effect: whenever a traffic jam happens, I immediately try to be cognizant that a wreck may have occurred in which people may have been harmed. I try to think about the possible victims as their family might. This concern not only helps to cultivate empathy in the long term, but it also removes any kind of anger or frustration coming from my selfish ego about the inconvenience!
Of course, neither meditative breathing nor familial concern for victims affects them directly. But what it does do is affect me. It is a practice whereby, if more people were to engage, would create a more compassionate people and society, and that will affect others tremendously. This is the kind of root activity that is, perhaps, the most important kind of endeavor – even more than donating time of funds to any one tragedy – because it affects our world at the deepest level. Human minds are the gateways through which all good and evil enter the world. And, since we can only control our own choices, it is up to each person to engage in their own practice. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world”.
When it comes to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, we naturalists, focused on the practical though we are, should not dismiss the importance of taking moments to reflect, focus, and use our imaginations to put ourselves in their place and the place of their families. Let yourself experience on their behalf, if only for a moment and if only to the degree we can. Use the moment to exercise your empathic muscles. This is how the ‘duty’ of helping others outwardly, becomes a deep impulse to do so over time.
Share Your Empathy
Again, not to dismiss the importance of action, but with the importance of inner motivation also established, it becomes more obvious why we might consider sharing those sentiments with others. Not only can this encourage them to undertake their own practice of cultivating empathy, but it can be encouraging to victims.
Often I will tell people, “best wishes” when prayers and thoughts are sought or seem helpful. This doesn’t mean I believe my ‘wishes’ affect their outcomes. But it is a way of letting them know that I am thinking about them and care what happens. This shouldn’t take the place of action to help, but it can provide emotional support; much needed since positive attitude can greatly affect our behaviors, our determination, and our recovery. And, if you are the person in need, don’t be so offended if someone tells you they are praying for you – whether you believe in prayer or not, the point is that someone cares about you, and that is a beautiful thing!
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Written by DT Strain.