Speaking at the Lobero Theater fifteen years ago was the great scholar of world religion, Huston Smith. Almost 90 years old, he had difficulty walking on stage.
Once he reached the lectern and stabilized himself, he looked out at the audience, smiled, and said, “I’m going to make five statements tonight that I think you will disagree with.” People shifted a bit in their seats.
“There’s no such thing as progress” was one of them.
He acknowledged that, of course, there have been significant improvements in our lives over the centuries. Plumbing, for instance. Or scientific advances in many fields, including those that have improved health care, eliminated many deadly diseases, and reduced mortality rates. Not many of us would argue with that.
There’s been some progress in human rights, particularly regarding race and the status of women.
But with all our material advances, have we resolved the problems that create human suffering?
He finished by saying:
“If you go through life feeling you must solve the problems facing humanity before you die, you are going to come to the end frustrated and discouraged. But if instead you see life as a spiritual gymnasium – a place designed to learn timeless truths – you will find it’s perfectly equipped.”
In my twenties I realized how deeply embedded the illusion of progress is in our society – that every generation will make things “better.” Clearly there’s been great material advances. But would we say there has been “progress” in the arts? Has anyone “improved” on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis, the Beatles, Van Gogh, Aretha, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Marley? New artists come along and delight us with their creativity, but that’s not “progress,” that’s just new expressions. There is a timelessness to great art that is very different from a new washing machine model or a television with higher resolution.
The same can be said about great spiritual teachings. New insights and interpretations emerge, but core teachings endure. The importance of awe, wonder and gratitude. The call to love and serve your neighbor and guard the inherent dignity of others. To participate in a caring community. To treat the earth as a sacred gift. These values are ageless, and life offers us endless opportunities to practice them.
I find this helpful to remember when events challenge my assumptions of how we should be able to “fix” things.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many of us thought America might be entering a “post-racial” America. We were wrong.
Until the 2020 election, we took it for granted that a president who had clearly lost an election would never call it a “big lie” and encourage a violent attack on the Capitol. We were mistaken.
Europe has not seen large-scale armed conflict in 77 years and it seemed we were beyond such events. But Russia attacked Ukraine in February and millions of people have become refugees.
Ten years ago, after the Sandy Hook shootings, many Americans were determined to do whatever it would take to prevent further tragedies. Now we have this unfathomable event in Texas just days after the shootings in Buffalo.
Human behavior, it seems, is not as easy to upgrade as a cell phone.
But do we give up and disengage? Absolutely not.
First, we realize not everything that comes to us can be permanently solved, particularly when it involves human behavior and motivation. But everything can be addressed and engaged with a desire to make a difference and sometimes advances are made. That’s how social progress happen.s And it’s always a chance for a work-out in the spiritual gym.
One year I worked in inner city Philadelphia with an African American pastor who had grown up in the neighborhood. I once asked her how she kept going. “We just keep on keeping on,” she said.
Maybe it’s like practicing medicine. You can be a faithful physician or nurse without believing every disease will be eliminated in your lifetime. You just keep bringing your best efforts to every patient while hoping for new advances and better treatments.
At La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, we regularly welcomed people who were striving to make the world a better place. They often arrived discouraged, depleted, and burnt out. They unplugged and spent a few days resting and reflecting amid the 26-acre natural sanctuary. They’d leave renewed. Father Richard Rohr describes the dynamic:
One of the reasons I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation was to give activists some grounding in spirituality so they could continue working for social change, but from a stance much different than vengeance, ideology, or willpower pressing against willpower. Most activists I knew loved Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on nonviolence. But it became clear to me that many of them had only an intellectual appreciation rather than a participation in the much deeper mystery. The ego was still in charge, and I often saw people creating victims of others who were not like them. It was still a power game, not the science of love as Jesus taught it.
When we begin by connecting with our inner experience of communion rather than separation, our actions can become pure, clear, and firm. This kind of action, rooted in one’s True Self, comes from a deeper knowing of what is real, good, true, and beautiful, beyond labels and dualistic judgments of right or wrong. From this place, our energy is positive and has the most potential to create change for the good.[i]
Welcome to the spiritual gymnasium. There’s no enrollment payment or monthly fees, and it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week.
“Where do I get my membership card?” you might ask.
You’ve already got it – it was given to you at birth.
Photo: Huston Smith and me at Esalen, October 2010. He was born May 31, 1919, in China and died in Berkeley in 2016 at age 97. He continues to be an abiding inspiration in my life.
[i] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, “The Root of Violence,” May 1, 2022: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/ – search/jspohntwomey%40gmail.com/FMfcgzGpFgwXkxtbHMLVmRqMDsRphSGf. Thank you to my long-time friend and La Casa colleague Juliet Spohn-Twomey for calling attention to this post.