Friday, 23 November 2012


One of the most gritty  fault lines that exist between our human religious traditions is the problem of evil and sin. Are we inherently bad, wrongly constructed to always choose the path that ultimately leads us to painful suffering? Or are we basically good, grouped round an inner core of dazzling purity, but with a case of spiritual amnesia? Do good or evil even really exist? If they do, where do they come from? If not, why do we think they do?

These are the kind of questions that can quickly tie us into knots, and different religions provide very different answers. But as we live in our skin, as our lives play out, we get a sense of both the good and bad propensities in us.All of us are a mix of attributes, and we all have weak points that can damage both ourselves and others. 

The other day I re-read one of my favourite spiritual texts, and for once it is not a Sanskrit chant! It is one of the Psalms, revered in two religions (Judaism and Christianity) as the outpourings of religious devotion which transcend their original purpose as musical accompaniments to temple rituals. Only the hymns of the Sikh Gurus, especially Guru Nanak, hit this same wonderful devotional spot 

The Psalms are at times surprisingly and starkly honest with a surprisingly modern sensibility, and none more so than Psalm 51, the famous "Miserere" which begins "Have mercy upon me oh God... wash me thoroughly of my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin... against You and You alone have I sinned.." This is one of those Psalms that were originally ascribed to the famous King David. It is an excruciating "I'm sorry" poem, which acknowledges that when we go badly wrong, it is ultimately an occasion of sorrow.

It is the equivalent of a Buddhist tradition held by Buddhist monks of coming together and confessing their faults in front of the assembly. Similar behaviour is found in the monastic traditions of many religions: the "I'm sorry" moment. 

The Yogic way is always based on profound common sense, and the question of good and evil is not side-stepped, but simply seen from another perspective: the quest for self-mastery.

So, Yogic tradition (best found in the wonderful brief aphorisms of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita ) points out that true goodness can only spring from true purity of heart. And that in turn can only be achieved by one thing: spiritual practice, or sadhana. One more thing: this spiritual practice only really works if it is constant and uninterrupted. We need, as many wise people tell us, to cleanse the windows of perception, let the Divine Light in, and then the mystery of good and evil begins to become solvable.

Yogic tradition comforts us: we may always go wrong; but bit by bit the scope of our wrong-headedness becomes a little more limited. Bit by bit, hour by hour, resolution by resolution, sigh by sigh... in the middle of the raging storms of our worldly existence.

I spent some years in my spiritual life exploring Christian spirituality from the outside, and found that in the most exalted accounts of the lives of Catholic saints there were startling parallels to the lives of the great Yogic saints. Not exactly in terms of miracles or wisdom, but in their shared determination to live simply and nobly, to refuse to admit defeat when it came to mastering our baser impulses. 

Of course we can always simply decide to go with the flow and give up the spiritual path as simply too challenging, and saying we are all basically sinners seems to me a great cop-out that can excuse all kinds of behaviour. Saying we are all saints in the making is a better way, one I truly believe. Our hearts may indeed be treacherous, our untramelled will threatening, our past history dreadful to behold. But as the great Yogananda once said, "a saint is a sinner who never gave up".

So, reciting Psalm 51 I pondered my own life, all its twists and turns, and all the hints and omens it has contained warning of storms ahead. Earlier this year,. reciting the Chandi Path for 108 days, around day 50 or so I dropped some incense and burning frankincense on the carpet and the carpet burst into flame. That very night i had to deal with the onset of a storm of long suppressed urges, a toxic ball of rage, lust, pain, self aggrandisement that has still not subsided, and it has been long months now.Following that I had to deal with a senile mother who needed care, when the rest of the family walked away from their duties. 

This has provided a depressing glimpse of my and our humanity, but its not the whole story. All of this is hidden in our inner cupboards. But other qualities exist , too: mercy, compassion, patience, gentleness. Why do I practice spiritual disciplines? Not to suppress, not to walk away from the problem of good and evil... but to be clear sighted enough to be able top appreciate God even in the worst inner storm and the lowest mood.

The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron gave once a wonderful illustration of how we could live, if we have the playful courage and resolution. She pointed out how the crows near where she lives on the Noprth Atlantic coast manage not just to survive the severe winter storms but even appear to be playing in the wind! She writes:

Once I saw them in an incredible hurricane-velocity wind, grabbing each others feet and dropping and then letting go and flying out. It was like a circus act.... In order to exist there they have had to develop a zest for challenge and for life. As you can see it adds up to tremendous beauty and inspiration and uplifted feeling. The same goes for us.
(from the Wisdom of No Escape)

It does take courage to get right with life after we have done something not so praiseworthy, something which might cause us to put our heads in our hands. But, hey, we're human. As Psalm 51 puts it, "Behold, a Sinner was I conceived"...we were born on this earth to work on this very problem: the problem of mastering ourselves. Or, as I like to see it, wading upstream in a fierce current when so many others are floating on sunbeds in the opposite direction. But, hey, when we finally do get it right, the joy of self-mastery is beyond description. It is a pearl of great price.