One of the most common dilemmas faced by spiritual seekers is whether they should engage in escapist activities or not. In most spiritual circles, we can find individuals who vehemently crusade against anything that does not bring a person closer to God. They frown upon watching shows, playing video games, or reading fantasy and science-fiction books. Some of them are even strictly against listening to rock or metal music, especially if it contains some darker or violent themes. Although I can totally understand where they are coming from, I have to respectfully disagree with their black and white approach. In this post, I would like to present my views on this topic. Before we proceed, here is some atmospheric background music that you may want to consider listening to while you read my words:
In many instances, engaging in escapist activities is not desirable. When a person is dissatisfied with the shape or direction of their life, he or she is very likely to seek the aid of imagination and entertainment. It can be something as seemingly inconspicuous as binge-watching shows, obsessing over fantasy novels (J. R. R. Tolkien is the best example), or playing computer games. Others escape into daydream fantasies, the thrill of compulsive shopping, utopian political ideas, or one-time hookups. Some people become workaholics to psychologically detach from their imperfect home life. Finally, we have those who drown in the Neptunian oceans of alcohol or venture into the Rahuvian abysses of drugs. There are so many forms of escapism!
Haven’t we all engaged in at least one or two of these activities at some point? The sinless one among you, raise your hand!, to paraphrase Jesus. Interestingly enough, whenever I see these obnoxiously pious and self-righteous people crusading against “degeneracy”, I have serious doubts about their moral standards. Yes, they might be addiction-free and I am pretty sure that they meditate or pray on a daily basis. When you get to know them closer, however, you will quickly realise that they are not completely free from anger, jealousy, pride, greed, and other undesirable qualities. You will not see them shouting at you in rage, but they may very well stab you in the back with passive aggression and gossip. In fact, they are frequently more negative than the very “degenerates” they criticise. Why is it the case?
spirituality as a form of escapism
When people fail to succeed in their personal ambitions or social roles as partners, parents, providers, siblings, employees, and friends, they often turn to spirituality and religion. You know, it is easy to love Jesus. It requires little to no responsibility. Jesus will always love you and forgive you, even if you are the biggest blockhead on Earth who has no clue how to navigate interpersonal relationships. As long as you worship Him, you can do whatever you want in other areas of your life. Or at least this is what these people erroneously think. To use a Freudian analogy, it has been suggested that many adults experience a desire, usually unconscious, to return to their mother’s womb, where one is deprived of freedom, but relieved from responsibility and protected from dangerous and chaotic external world. Whether Freud’s theories were correct or not, in some cases escapism into spirituality may serve as a surrogate of the womb-like paradise of security and comfort.
In my opinion, a healthy approach to spirituality necessitates constant improvement on all levels: physical, intellectual, interpersonal, and devotional. Embarking on a spiritual journey is much more than just meditating and chanting mantras. In Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), there are four goals of life: Artha (prosperity, economic values), Dharma (duty, ethics), Kama (pleasure, love, sensual gratification), and Moksha (the pursuit of spiritual liberation). It means that an individual should strive towards earning livelihood (Artha) through lawful, ethical, and socially beneficial means (Dharma) and fulfil his bodily and psychological needs (Kama), whilst remembering the impermanence of worldly attachments (Moksha). An individual can find happiness and inner contentment by balancing and fulfilling these four objectives. Traditionally, however, realising the goal of spiritual liberation was prioritised in late years of one’s life after a person’s children had been raised and firmly settled. Even though it was technically possible to skip straight to the last stage of renunciation (Sannyasa), this step was reserved for evolved souls (such as Ramana Maharshi or Swami Vivekananda), as it required immense mastery over one’s sensory attachments. Most people don’t have that capacity and they need to pay their karmic debts, which involve fulfilling goals related to livelihood, love, and children. In summary, we should not escape the world out of weakness or resentment.
Life in the Kali Yuga is undoubtedly difficult. We are surrounded by materialistic amenities and comforts. Yet we suffer inwardly, alienated from others and God. Entertainment and escapism are so popular, because most of us no longer know how to navigate this strange modern world. We are lost and confused, looking for an easy way out of problems and dilemmas. Older generations cannot provide us with any guidance. They are too busy watching television, just like we are glued to our screens and digital games. Everyone is looking for some kind of distraction. What, then, can be done in these undesirable circumstances?
Sometimes life becomes so hard that everyone, including spiritual seekers, needs a little bit of escapism. Stilling one’s mind through meditation does not always work, especially if one experiences tremendous suffering or some other intensely negative emotions. An hour or two spent on watching a movie, playing a game, or attending a rock concert does not have to be a “degenerate” activity. As long as there is moderation involved, there is no need to feel guilty. Yet we need to remember that all these distractions have a beginning and an end. We can enjoy entertainment with a sense of healthy detachment, understanding its limitations. Ultimately, we have to realise that taking responsibility for our lives is the only way forward. Facing reality is scary and even if sometimes we may temporarily require the support of “crutches”, it is our duty to eventually leave the safe castle and venture into the dense jungle where we feel vulnerable. The goal is to live a satisfying life that you do not need to escape from.
There is nothing more fulfilling than experiencing adventures in the real world. The sheer joy of hiking in the Scottish Highlands through the sleet and through the rain is incomparably greater than watchng Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time. Being praised for your achievements in the real world feels much better than gaining a new level in any computer game. Holding the hand of your significant other while you gaze at the pale August sun sinking into the ocean is blissful; the same cannot be said about witnessing a similar scene in a romantic movie. Not that I have something against such movies. But they aren’t real.
Wishing you all the best,