Spirituality is on-trend again. Despite the best efforts of Richard Dawkins and his New Atheist colleagues, hipsters are meditating and learning to be “present”, wannabe gangsters are tattooing rosaries and apostles on themselves, and Hillsong keeps banging out chart-topping albums.
But practising spirituality comes with a risk. When working hard to establish a regular rhythm of prayer, study, yoga and cleansing diets (or whatever) it’s easy to forget the needs of other people. Sometimes there’s a fine line between being centred and being self-centred.
The problem may lie in our 21st century habit of treating spirituality like a smorgasbord of options from which we can pick and mix. Should it really be a surprise that we—thoroughly saturated and immersed in our individualistic and consumerist culture—tend to select those options that meet our immediate, private desires rather than challenging us to entangle ourselves in the mess of people around us?
Here are two reasons why serving others needs to be considered an equally necessary spiritual discipline alongside standard items such as prayer, meditation, studying of scriptures, singing, chanting or fasting.
1. The rational reason
Have you ever tried to look at a faint star in the night sky? Strangely, the best way to see it is not to look straight at that elusive pinprick of light, but next to it. Then suddenly, there it is! But as soon as you try to return your focus directly onto the tiny glimmer, it disappears again. Happiness is a bit like that. It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the secrets of making ourselves happy is not to focus directly on making ourselves happy. Consider these comments on research into volunteering, which is, by definition, about helping other people rather than ourselves:
Volunteering confers both physical and psychological health benefits. Older adults who volunteered at least 200 hours a year were 40 per cent less likely to develop high blood pressure in one study, while another study found that those who gave money instead of spending reported feeling happier…
In a meta-analysis of five cohort studies, they found 22 per cent lower mortality among volunteers than those didn’t volunteer. These volunteers were not only less likely to die earlier, but were also less likely to be depressed. Overall, volunteers showed improved well-being and satisfaction with life.
This insight makes the most sense when we consider the extremes. Most people will agree that a life spent in a constant quest for self-gratifying experiences—eating, intoxication, shopping, sex, travel, reading, movies, massages—is likely to follow the law of diminishing returns. That is, the first chocolate bar tastes incredible; the second feels wickedly decadent but honestly doesn’t taste like anything much; the third makes you want to throw up. The immediate problem is a lack of self-discipline (or the choice not to make use of it); the underlying issue is an unhealthy focus on Me.
But when self-discipline is put to work for the benefit of others, both these problems are dealt with. We can have a sense of a job well done and enjoy the positive impact we’re having on the people we’re helping (or the organisation we’re assisting, the natural habitat we’re rehabilitating, etc). On top of this, we’re able to see the indulgences we do allow ourselves as a reward for our hard work—indulgences that can be savoured more fully as special moments in our lives rather than everyday events.
So commonsense tells us and the science is clear: the discipline of helping others is good for us.
2. The religious reason
But we’re talking about spiritual disciplines here. Many of the world’s major religions encourage their adherents to care for the needs of others: Buddhism enjoins compassion, Islam requires hospitality and alms-giving, the Judeo-Christian traditions uphold the needs of orphans, widows and strangers. So if you want to properly follow one of these religions, “doing good” comes with the package.
Christianity goes the extra mile in identifying its god and founder especially with the poor and disadvantaged. Jesus Christ envisioned a Last Judgement scene in which he, the King, will sit on his throne and decide the fate of all humanity:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Matthew 25:34-40 (NIVUK)
For a Christian, who claims to “love Jesus”, that’s a killer punch line. And the implications are obvious: if you’re serious about your faith, roll your sleeves up and help someone who needs it. Look into the face of the abused child, the refugee, the criminal, the cancer patient, and recognise the eyes of Jesus gazing back at you.
The involvement of a believer in acts of selfless giving can have a massive impact on the rest of their spirituality. Confronting the crippling reality of human need forces us to recognise our inadequacy and drives us to our knees, seeking a deeper connection with the divine power we need to continue our work. Our holy books come alive as we recognise the links between those ancient words and the challenges we’re confronting. Fasting takes on new meaning as we remember that there are millions in the world for whom hunger is a daily reality.
Buddhist doctrine suggests that the way to enlightenment involves wisdom and compassion working together like the two wings of a bird—both complementing one another. And both useless without the other. It’s a powerful metaphor that points us away from an ultimately empty self-focused spirituality and towards an active, integrated faith that makes a real difference in the world.