Living a Spiritual Life in a Modern World

We can live a spiritual life just in the environment where we find ourselves and not think that we have to escape to India on a retreat or whatever.

Robert: Hello, and welcome to Inner Sight. Today’s topic is spiritual life in the modern world. People might think it’s very difficult to be spiritual in the modern world, but actually there’s a possibility that we might really achieve greater heights of spirituality by being in the modern world. We’d like to share a thought from Alice Bailey, found in her book called Glamour: A World Problem: “Today the spiritual seeker lives the dual life of worldly activity and of intense and simultaneous spiritual reflection. This will be the outstanding characteristic of the Western disciple in contradistinction to the Eastern disciple who escapes from life into the silent places and away from the pressures of daily living and constant contact with others. The task of the Western disciple is much harder, but that which he will prove to himself and to the world as a whole will be still higher.” I guess a lot of times when we think of the Eastern spiritual person, we think of a monk who’s studying and meditating. Perhaps the most extreme example of that was an article in the paper not too long ago about a monk who was so cloistered, living in the mountains and the monastery, that he had never even seen a woman! What makes spiritual development different today than in the past? 

Sarah: I think one essential difference is found in this opening quotation you just gave us. It’s the idea that came so clearly to me through a study of the writings of Alice Bailey, that in her words, “there is no circumstance that does not offer some gain to the life of the soul.” This is the realization that comes through loud and clear through a study of the writings of Alice Bailey, and it’s so appropriate for our Western, fast-paced, very active way of life that most of us are caught up in today; that we can live a spiritual life just in the environment where we find ourselves and not think that we have to escape to India on a retreat or whatever. It would be nice if we could, but most of us can’t afford to do that or can’t spare the time or can’t leave our occupations or our families. So, what I think is important for our listeners to realize is that whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, our soul has placed us in those circumstances. I believe this very deeply. Maybe someone else would disagree, but I believe we are in the circumstances that our soul has put us in and therefore we are in just the right place to grow and to develop spiritually instead of wishing, if only things could be different than I could focus on my spiritual life. If only I didn’t have my children, if only I had a different husband or a different job. No. We have to say whatever is my present circumstance, that’s what my soul thinks is just appropriate for me right now. 

Dale: Yes, a spiritual life is essentially living as a soul in the world, and it’s expressing the best that one has within oneself, as best as one can, the soul qualities and the soul values, which is essentially our love. It’s working out these soul qualities in whatever facet of life you are involved in. 

Sarah: Maybe related to that is the thought that spiritual development isn’t always pretty. I remember reading years ago a story—it was probably just an apocryphal story but it really registered with me. Some great spiritual teacher was trying to point out to someone the value of their life. This was a person who had been a single mother raising three or four children, very poor. She spent all her time yelling and screaming at her children because she was always so upset with the chaos of her life and the desperation of her situation. She believed that she was not at all a spiritual person because she was continually in the state of agitation and at wits end with her children and her life, and she envied the example of a nun who could retreat from the world and live an ordered, quiet life of contemplation. But this spiritual teacher said to her that, of the two lives, hers was especially valuable because in her circumstances she loved and she showed responsibility to her children, when a lesser being might have given up. This was a person who really had very little resources to draw on, no family, no money, no education, but she was absolutely committed to the welfare of her children. Her soul had put her in circumstances where she summoned up a capacity to love and to persist on behalf of others, her children. That really was a tremendous achievement. 

Dale: Yes, I think that the key there is the factor of relationship, because this is what draws out the soul. It opens the heart, and it’s establishing right relationships. That really is the key, because this stimulates the soul to action and it opens the heart centre and love pours out. That’s the whole advantage of going through these rather testing periods. 

Sarah: Coming back to this question that you’ve raised, Robert, of what makes spiritual development different today. Another thing that comes to mind that’s kind of controversial is the increasing tendency of people to practice a kind of a cafeteria style religion. You hear organized religion complaining about this, and I don’t really know what the correct response to that is. It’s true that people pick and choose among their religious practices. If they consider themselves a Catholic, they may feel that they are still able to suspend their acceptance of the Church’s teaching on abortion or divorce. If you’re a Buddhist, you might feel that you are still entitled to forgo some of the Buddhist strictures, such as vegetarianism. If you’re an Orthodox Jew, that you can be a good Jew but not keep kosher. I don’t know. People are picking and choosing more and more how they want to practice their spiritual faith, and this is a phenomenon that is kind of controversial, but maybe it’s a sign that people want to think for themselves. To think wrongly, if necessary, but to think for ourselves, to make the decisions according to our own sense of our inner guidance, even if it’s wrong. Maybe it’s a step forward for us to be able to make that decision without pressure from some authority. 

Dale: Yes, I agree with that and if it’s wrong, then we suffer the consequences and we learn from that. I was just thinking of how living in a city like New York, you’re constantly tested every day. We go through this. We try to live this so-called spiritual life and we do our little sacrificing and it’s not easy going through the daily routines of travel, riding the subway every day and we’re constantly tested. As the quote said, the task of the Western disciple is much harder because we’re constantly confronted with these little injustices and how we handle ourselves in these situations is very telling and very indicative of how much love we can muster, how much soul energy can pour through us at times like this. But it’s a learning experience and I think in the long run, the people who have to put up with so much trial and testing do become more – I don’t want to say advanced because that’s kind of arrogant to say that – but they’re better tested in the real relationships of life. That’s what it really comes down to: establishing relationship, because that’s the whole key to the working out of God’s plan in the world. 

Sarah: It also cultivates the attribute of humility to be tested in this way, and you realize that you’re just like everyone else, and it gives you more patience and more tolerance for other people’s weaknesses because you see them brought forth in yourself too. 

Dale: Yes. The mystical approach—which is the traditional approach of the monk in the monastery—they have never really encountered life in this way. They’ve spent their energies devoted to God and finding God, and that’s been the way for centuries. But now in the Western disciple, the way is more outward. It’s being involved in the world and being a part of the world. 

Robert: The Alice Bailey writings say: “The tide of life moves from East to West, as moves the sun.” I found this difficult to understand. What does that mean? 

Sarah: Well, Dale just touched on it in a comment he made. I think it means the phenomenon that we’ve seen since about the 1960s or 70s, with this tremendous influx into the West of spiritual teachers from the East, particularly from India. The Yogis and Swamis who came to the States and to Europe and have brought their understanding of yoga practices and meditation and so on, and the diaspora of the Tibetan people after China took over Tibet and the Dalai Lama had to flee to India. That also brought this wealth of spirituality from the East, which had been in a sense hidden away, sequestered in the Himalayas. It brought it out into the Western world, where all of us could learn from it. That’s one interpretation of that quote. I don’t know if Dale has another thought on it. 

Dale: No, I think that’s exactly right what you said. Life tends to move from the East to the West. 

Sarah: Even Jesus in the gospels apparently retreated to the East for a period of meditation and development and then came back to what, for him, was the modern, busy, active world, where he did his teaching for three years. So, if I understand that thought, the contemplative way of life of the East is now being transformed into the active spirituality that we have to be able to perfect here in the West. It’s a kind of a dual life that we’re asked to create, where we fulfill our worldly responsibilities but at the same time keep this unwavering link with our soul, with our inner spiritual life. It’s not easy to merge the two, but that’s our project. 

Dale: We still have many retreats here in the West, carrying on with tradition. I think that’s very valuable because people can take off for a few weeks and go into a mountain retreat or go to an isolated place somewhere, and they can re-centre themselves and then come back into society, much refreshed and ready to face those tests in life that everybody has now. 

Robert: Can you describe some practical applications of spiritual living in today’s world? 

Sarah: Well, I think one of the interesting aspects of Western spirituality is the clear understanding that the material or outer world and the inner spiritual realm are linked—indivisible in a sense. We are beginning to wake up to this, in the recognition of the environment as a reflection of our values. Our mishandling of the environment in so many ways is shocking us into a realization that we have not always treated the physical realm as a place of spiritual expression. We’ve plundered it, and now we’re in the process of changing our behavior, and I think this is a sign of increasing spiritual living. Another has to do with the growth of philanthropies and charities. People are much more likely to share—not only of their money, but of their time, energy, and resources—than was true in the past. Just the fact that the world’s so much smaller today through communication and travel, and the tremendous phenomenon of the Internet that puts us in touch with each other from all parts of the world, makes us want to share and to help. The response that you see when there are natural disasters comes from all parts of the world. These are expressions of spirituality, of spiritual living, just as much as prayer and meditation are. 

Dale: I think we have to keep reminding ourselves that spirituality really refers to a growth in consciousness. It’s an expansion of consciousness, and it doesn’t really have to do necessarily with whether someone is a very religious person, or they go to church every Sunday. It’s much, much more than that because being spiritual has to do with, as I said, the growth in consciousness, and it has to do with moving beyond the point of one’s present place of achievement. In other words, it’s that which embodies the vision and that which urges the person on towards a goal higher than the one he has attained at the present time. For example, someone in business, having the responsibility of a large corporation and a large group of workers under their care, having to be concerned with their welfare and their well-being. I think this can be a very spiritual experience, an expanding experience, because it opens the heart and it consequently expands their own consciousness. It’s moving one’s consciousness toward the direction of the whole, and I think that’s what constitutes one’s sense of spirituality. 

Robert: You said before that every circumstance can be a spiritual experience. I’m thinking of the guy in the audience who might be a street sweeper and he’s thinking, well, I’m a street sweeper and it’s something I do and I’m certainly happy to make a living, but how can that be a spiritual experience? How would you answer? 

Sarah: Well, it doesn’t matter what your occupation is, whether you’re a Wall Street broker or a street sweeper, a teacher or a school cafeteria worker. What makes the difference is the attitude you bring toward your work, the attitude with which you view your daily tasks. Do you see it as a place where you can express your highest and best self or is it just a matter of going through the motions unconsciously? I would imagine there are plenty of people in what we might consider very high-level professions that walk through their days unconscious in the sense of being totally unaware of any spiritual potential available to them in their job. They’re miserable, they think it’s boring and they want to be doing something else, anything else but what is asked from them each day. When you can turn this attitude around and say, well, whatever I have to do today—if it’s sweeping a street, teaching a child or whatever—it can be an expression of the best I know how to do with that particular task. I have a great belief that all honest work has dignity, and whatever our job is needs our best effort. 

Dale: Yes, even the street sweeper can spread love wherever they go and it’s a job that is kind of dirty, but people really appreciate it. They really should appreciate it because this person is cleansing the air, the atmosphere and trying to improve and beautify the life around us. 

Sarah: Wasn’t it the poet Kahlil Gibran who said, “work is love made visible?” Certainly, that applies to the street sweeper. When you say that that person can spread love, I don’t think you mean just smiling at people and being ever so nice. For some of us that’s more difficult than others, but the love of doing your job the best you can, leaving your corner of the world a little better than it was when you came to it, that’s love made visible and that’s work. So, what is our point here? You mentioned that there’s no circumstance that doesn’t offer some gain to the life of the soul. It applies not only to work, but to whatever is happening to you in life. People can go through terrible crises and disasters, and we could say that the whole of the world is, in a sense, entering into a kind of a crisis. Often, it’s at these very times that there is the most opportunity for spiritual growth. It’s when we’re comfortable and content that we kind of sit back and don’t really make that effort to expand our understanding of life, think in a new dimension or think outside the familiar walls of our usual attitudes. Sometimes crisis and even tragedy can be enormously productive to the soul, because to the soul there is no death, there is only life continuing on one plane or another. It doesn’t view disaster in the same way that we do. 

Robert: What do you think is responsible for the tension and the spiritual confusion of the times? 

Sarah: Well, one factor is the enormous speeding up of the times. I don’t think this is imaginary, that life is lived at a faster pace now than it was fifty years ago. And this, according to the writings of Alice Bailey, is a very productive opportunity for us to learn to handle time in a more organized and creative way. By being forced to live such fast-paced lives, we have the chance to accomplish more and to learn to handle energy in a way that was never demanded of human beings before. 

Dale: There’s much change taking place. As I think we’ve mentioned before, we’re going into a new age and there are new qualities that are coming into the world by way of the soul and these are making an impact on traditional ways of behaving and acting. There is bound to be conflict in a situation like this and especially at the spiritual level, at the very core of one’s existence, this conflict is felt, and that brings up more attention. 

Sarah: There’s also the phenomenon that, just as the Bible said, all things shall be shouted from the housetops. We live in an age now when we are inundated with Information, and sometimes with shocking revelations, which also adds to the tension and the confusion of the times. But all of it is producing light and understanding. If we could only see beyond the initial trauma and our sense of reaction against these shocks of having the veils stripped from our eyes, we’d see how it’s expanding our consciousness. 

Robert: Would you say that to know the soul is to know the ways of God?  

Dale: Well, yes, because the soul is the reflection of God and it’s essentially what we are. There’s the threefold trinity and the soul stands as the mediator between God and man. 

Robert: If you liked this discussion today, one book by Alice Bailey that we’d recommend is Glamour: A World Problem. In closing, we invite you to ponder this thought. Goodwill is the touchstone that will transform the world. Goodwill is love in action and is the energy that draws us together in right relationship. Let’s listen for a moment to these powerful words of the Great Invocation. 

Sarah: Closes the program by reciting the adapted version of the Great Invocation

(This is an edited transcript of a recorded radio program called “Inner Sight”. This conversation was recorded between the host, Robert Anderson, and the then President and Vice-President of Lucis Trust, Sarah and Dale McKechnie.)

(Transcribed and edited by Carla McLeod)




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