What if the spiritual life was merely life, a life lived in awareness? Thomas Merton once said, “Before you can have a spiritual life, you’ve got to have a life.” Being spiritual is not about disengaging from daily living. It is more about engaging fully.
In his book, On the Brink of Everything, Parker Palmer writes, “The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving closer to reality as we do.”
When we notice our world, people around us and our own being, we are practicing the spiritual life. The Spirit engages us in our moments of awareness. When we get too busy, too caught up in just moving from one activity to another, when we pass others by without a glance, we lose the ability to hear and see – to notice.
Thomas Merton’s story of his epiphany is an excellent example of living while aware.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.…
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time…. But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
Those of us who aspire to live spiritual lives push ourselves to do spiritual practices. In a society where activity is more valuable than being, we criticize ourselves for not spending more time with God—reading sacred texts, praying, meditating, and so on. I am not suggesting that these things are unimportant. On the contrary, research shows that these downtime activities are healthy. However, when we stress over them and berate ourselves for not doing them enough, we lose the benefits (spiritual and physical).
Perhaps the best practice is simply living while aware. We are always doing something, even if we are just sitting. We are breathing—how often do we take notice of our breathing and give thanks for the air that gives us life? When we are out in the world, do we notice—really notice— the people around us? Do we see them as Merton describes them, “walking around shining like the sun?” When we look in the mirror, do we see in ourselves the image of God?
Living while aware opens us up to the mystery and sacredness of everything.