Spiritual Optimism I

How do we find our place in the world? How do we discover our part in the Plan of God? How do we instill purpose and meaning into our lives?

These questions lie at the heart of our existence. They provide the impetus which propels us onto the spiritual path. Finding answers to these issues makes life worth living. Without responses to these fundamental questions our lives become empty and aimless.

These questions assume certain basic assumptions about life: We are all here for a reason. The world does not move in random cycles, rather it evolves in a spiral of ascending circles of experience and growth. Human beings can and do change. Despite the partial appearance to the contrary, humanity as a whole is evolving toward the light.

This vision is based upon a profound faith in the love of the Creator, and an essential trust in the ultimate triumph of goodness. As Mahatma Gandhi once said:

“When I despair I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they may seem invincible; but in the end they always fall.”

This optimism is predicated upon a deep belief in the ability of a human being to grow and change. As Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches:

“If you believe that you can destroy, then you must also believe that you can repair.”

The spiritual life is about living with optimism; it is about living with hope and faith. The practice of religion should be empowering. Through our spiritual practices, we can join ourselves with our higher nature and become filled with the power of the Infinite and Eternal.

Swami Brahmananda used to tell the novices of the Ramakrishna Order:

“You must have conviction that if you realize God and receive his grace, all the problems of your life will be solved, the purpose of your coming to the world will be accomplished, and that by tasting the bliss of eternal Brahman, you will be immortal.” [1]

Sri Ramakrishna, himself, used to declare:

 “I am a child of God, the King of Kings. Who can bind me?” [2]

Spiritual optimism refuses to look only at the dark side of life. It insists that we look beyond the brutality and hate in the world to see the many acts of love, care and sacrifice that happen every day. It urges us to focus our thoughts on the love of parents for their children, the love of husbands and wives for their partners, the love for all of humanity shown by the many individuals who have taken up a life of service around the globe.

Humanity is capable of tremendous cruelty. Countless wars are still going on. Yet despite these negative realities, there are also many signs of human evolution and hope. The international aid organizations are one such sign. They are helping on a scale and in a manner that was unheard of one hundred years ago. The spread of a global consciousness is an enormous move forward for the human race.

The growing sensitivity to the environment is another important development. There has been a transformation in our perception of the relationship between humanity and the rest of the planet. There is an ever-increasing awareness of the delicate balance which supports life on this world.

The broadening acceptance of the universality of religion is yet another indication of our evolution. More and more people realize that there are many paths that will lead us to God. They recognize that love for our own religion need not preclude our appreciation of, and interest in, the wisdom and practices of other faiths.

The widespread interest in spiritual matters among even the most materially-minded segments of western society is another positive development. Spiritual ideas that were once considered to be in the realm of the bizarre and strange have become part of ordinary discourse. “Everyone” is doing yoga, everyone is studying Kabbalah; everyone is practicing some type of meditation technique.

Even if these changes are often only temporary and superficial, even if they sometimes take on strangely distorted forms, even if all these changes have only barely begun to be seriously implemented in our lives, they are nonetheless cause for great optimism. They are auspicious harbingers of positive human change and growth.

Spiritual optimism is not a naïve belief in instantaneous change that relies on shallow expressions of goodwill and love. Its faith centers upon the Divine spark that is in each and every one of us, the essential goodness that lies at the core of every human being. It looks for a fundamental transformation in human nature, a change that reaches to this pristine core and fans it into a radiant blaze.

True optimism acknowledges the long distance we have yet to travel in order to transform humanity. It acknowledges the human predilection for acts of greed, lust and hate. It accepts that the vast majority of human beings are still far from being an expression of their godly origin, but it continues to believe in our ability to one day become a true expression of the Divine image in which we were made.

The problem with our outlook is the limited perspective from which we view reality. We find it difficult to see the broader picture. We are impatient and restless for change to occur. We are caught in the small slice of time and space that we experience during our lives. But the transformation that we are hoping for is one that will take hundreds, if not thousands of years to come to fruition; not a long time frame at all in the eternal span of time.

The Psalms (90:4) tell us that a thousand years is one day in the Mind of God. We need to learn to observe reality from this Divine perspective. We need to have patient faith and optimism no matter what goes on in our world.

Spiritual optimism recognizes the value of putting one foot in front of the other along the journey. It understands the power of constant effort and perseverance to overcome all the obstacles in our path. The story of Rabbi Akivah beautifully illustrates this truth.

Rabbi Akivah was an illiterate shepherd who fell in love with the daughter of a rich man. She refused to marry him unless he became a learned scholar. Rabbi Akiva was forty years old at the time and he despaired of ever reaching such a lofty goal. Then, Rabbi Akiva went to the well in the town of Lod. There, he noticed a rock with a large convex indentation in it on the mouth of the well. He asked one of the people sitting nearby, “who has carved out this rock?” “It has been carved out by the water that has fallen on it drop by drop over many years”, was their reply. Rabbi Akivah thought for a moment and then declared, “Is my heart harder than stone? If water can cut through the surface of rock, then surely I can learn the teachings of the Torah.”

Spiritual optimism means refusing to adopt the defeatist attitude of the physically minded person. It means refusing to accept mediocrity as the inevitable fate of human beings. As Swami Chidananda, of the Divine Life Society, once complained to his followers,

“We are all like sparks that have come from a great blaze. A spark can also burn; a spark has got a potential to create a blaze. When you have this ability, why is it you only think of small ordinary, humdrum, mundane things!” [3]

Spiritual optimism is not born out of a hopelessness that awaits a sudden Divine intervention to transform our human reality. It is an optimism that arises out of our belief in our inherent identity with the Creator. It is the expression of our profound faith that we have been put on this earth to be the agents of its transformation.

This is the essence of the messianic idea: offering humanity a positive vision of our existence in this world. The messianic idea is founded upon a redemptive view of human history. Implicit in this vision is a strong belief in humanity’s ability to harness its innate courage and goodness; a fierce faith in our capacity to evolve and grow.

This spiritual optimism is embodied in these words of hope, exclaimed by Swami Chidananda to a gathering of western devotees:

“To be like God is the natural ability of every human soul. The ability to shine as God – sublime and radiant – is the natural heritage of one and all…

“What you really want to become, you can be. This is the absolute, unchanging truth. This great law will stand by you, and through this law, what you are determined to become, that you will become.” [4]

If we infuse our lives with these two mighty spiritual affirmations, our days will be filled with purpose and meaning. If we can incorporate these two principles into our very being, then we will be able to transform the world.

copyright © 2009, by Yoel Glick


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A Guide to Spiritual Life, Spiritual Teachings Of Swami Brahmananda, p. 91, translated by Swami Chetanananda
  2. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 138
  3. Divine Life Society website: thought for the day, 30/0/2007 www.sivanandaonline.org
  4. Swami Chidananda, An Instrument of Thy Peace: Sami Chidananda In The West, p. 53 and 57