“Learn as if you were to live forever.” Gandhi
It’s always stimulating to shift from the monologue of writing to the dialog of discussion. So I’m happy to respond to an important issue recently raised from a couple of people in different settings. It is good to question, even challenge every assertion concerning spiritual matters. In this case, I’ve been asked to draw a distinction between the notion of the complete soul and the thrill and challenge of continued learning. Is it an either/or proposition, or can we have both?
Debunking the notion of the evolving soul does not mean our days of learning are over. Remaining true to our spiritual birthright, in fact, assures we will never stop learning. The irony is that those who would challenge the notion that their soul is already complete usually do so because it goes against something they have learned previously. Isn’t the act of attempting to protect such a preconceived notion similar to saying, I’ve learned all I need to learn on this subject? If I once learned that some object of interest lay in the south but it’s really in the north, do I argue to justify continuing my southbound travel or do I become willing to learn the new route to the north? We tend to reject ideas, not based on the idea’s lack of veracity, but because it doesn’t fit the framework of what we believe to be true.
There is a major difference between learning because you’re interested in a subject and learning because you won’t graduate if you don’t take the class. Many see our earthly appearance as the required class. If you flunk the tests given, you return to take them again. For some, this is a more appealing alternative to the one chance, two alternative eternities offered by most mainstream religions. But it is nevertheless an endless treadmill that leads nowhere. Being good doesn’t get you off this treadmill. The only way off is to step off.
Many hold a certain reverence for the ascetic who retires to a cave in the mountains and spends his life denouncing the material world. But I would ask a simple question: Why go to the trouble of taking on a body and material environment then spend all your energy denouncing it? It seems more logical to learn to be in the world but not of it. I believe we shoot ourselves in the foot by thinking we came here to transcend our physical environment. It makes a lot more sense to me to assume we came here for the unique experiences it has to offer.
Denouncing the world makes perfect sense if you subscribe to the evolving soul model. The world and its countless distractions is, after all, the source of your problems. Our earthly life becomes a school full of soul-advancing tests. But what if this isn’t true? What if we’re here not to merely pass tests but because we were interested in exploring this earthly experience? We can’t do it without a body. And we certainly can’t do it successfully with the fear of eternal damnation or the prospect of endless incarnations dangling over our heads. Are we not equipped with a natural, unbridled curiosity about what makes this world tick? We don’t see children denouncing it. We see them diving into the thick of it, eager to explore. I say this because Jesus apparently saw the natural curiosity of a child as a prime example of the mental disposition required for spiritual advancement:
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:2-4).
The theory of soul evolution has spawned a framework of expectations that must be met before the individual is deemed spiritually enlightened. There is indeed more to learn, but what is it that we need to learn? The fact is, we have created a false spiritual ideal (based largely on the opinions of others) against which we weigh our perceived progress. If we respond positively to a challenging situation, we conclude that our soul is advancing. If we respond negatively, we assume our soul has more to learn. But here’s the problem. This is a false benchmark that has nothing to do with the soul. It is, rather, the misguided attempt of our self-image to build the perfect soul.
In the parable of the prodigal son, there is a line that perfectly illustrates this idea (Luke 15:1-32). When the boy hit bottom, “… he came to himself …” (15:17). If, as is implied by the evolving soul model, his condition in life represented the condition of his soul, how could coming to himself provide any kind of solution? Wouldn’t following the promptings of this “self” guarantee a repeat of the same dysfunctional thinking? It is obvious that his bad behavior led him to the far country. What isn’t so obvious is that the solution to his problem was to reconnect with the saving influence of his spiritual essence, his soul. Unscathed by misguided behavior, this inner connection prompted him to cease chasing the endless cravings of an inadequate self-image and begin making decisions aligned with his authentic core. While it’s true that we drag around Emerson’s sad self wherever we go, it’s also true that our saving core, our spiritual essence is with us even in those lonely, cloud-shrouded moments of self-inflicted despair. It would appear the Psalmist captured this truth in these immortal lines:
Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light”— Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.
You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know. (Psalms 139:7-14).
The parable of the prodigal is not the story of a developing soul or of a religious conversion. For me it has become an illustration intended to show that no matter how far we stray from our spiritual center, our soul remains healthy and intact. The parable does not depict the act of spiritual discovery but the act of spiritual recovery. Discovery implies finding something you never had. Recovery suggests the regaining of something that has been yours from the beginning. The boy didn’t merely discover a new scheme that would lift him out of trouble. He came to himself. He recovered a conscious connection with his spiritual essence which immediately placed him on the road home.
Learn as if you were to live forever is sound advice. The truth that we do live forever should allow us to relax and take a new interest in learning as much as we can about this world we temporarily inhabit.