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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Is Your City a Spiritual Desert?

The bright lights of Hong Kong

(For those living in other big cities, you can ask the same question of your urban centre. This comes from a booklet I have written called "Urban Enlightenment: Reactivating the Spirit in Hong Kong").

Is Hong Kong a spiritual desert?
When the Buddha wanted to reach enlightenment, he sat under the banyan tree. If he were alive today, would he come to a place like Hong Kong for some shopping therapy?  Probably not. Shopping in Central is less likely to lead to satori, as drive a man half crazy (although there are rumours that some women actually like it). Most of us would agree that we need peace and quiet to find serenity.
I am here to tell you that this is not correct. The more urbanised and chaotic a city, the greater the opportunity for psychological and spiritual growth. You just have to think and act a little smarter than the average guy.
You cannot control the culture of a city. People in any large city have certain restrictions, and these might include their exact mode of work, their working environment, the style of accommodation, the habits of the locals etc. Perhaps, like many people in Hong Kong, you live in a relatively small space in a high rise, far away from the serenity of nature. Maybe the only “greenery” you ever see on your way to work is the contents of a drunk’s stomach on the sidewalk, left over from the previous night's drinking binge. 
But you can control your personal “culture”. Most importantly, you have the potential to control the relationship that you have with yourself. In spiritual terms, you can develop the right relationship with ego.
Connecting with your spirit is not complicated. It is simple. That is why this book (Urban Enlightenment) is simple. I’ve got a PhD, and for my doctoral thesis I studied a lot of this kind of stuff. But let me tell you that head stuff is mostly useless as far as the practical process of living spiritually every day goes. Too much cleverness is the death knell of the spiritual.
Many Hong Kong expats, whether from the West, Asia or elsewhere (including myself), had well developed spiritual lives before they came to Hong Kong. We swam in the oceans, walked in nature, attended meditation workshops, and chatted with friends and acquaintances about spiritual matters. Many of us had spiritual routines such as meditation, prayer, yoga and so on.
Then we came to Hong Kong. As we all know, Hong Kong is a centre of finance. It is what I call a real “money and machines” society. It seems that most people are focused on work and money, and a lot of free time is spent fiddling with gadgets and computers. On the weekends, many locals like to peruse the shopping malls. As for expats, many work hard during the week, and then hit the bars on the weekend. They develop a lifestyle of working hard and partying hard.
The lifestyles of many expats and local Hong Kongers leave little room for the spirit.
Yet that culture is not compulsory. There are choices.
The truth is that Hong Kong, and virtually any big city, is actually a great place to develop your spiritual life. It may not be easy, but you can think of it as a test for the ego. It might well be easier to live the spiritual life if you are, say, a surfer living by the sea in a small town in Eastern Australia. You would have slow days, clear skies, unspoiled nature, a clean ocean, and far less hustle and bustle.
But the very full-on nature of a big city provides multiple opportunities to observe the workings of the human ego, especially your own. You just need to be more self-disciplined than that surfer on Oz.
Of course there is the reality that there are indeed many serene and tranquil places in Hong Kong to chill out and be with nature. It’s just that it is not in the local culture to use them! Trust me, relative to some other megacities in mainland China (such as Beijing and Shanghai), Hong Kong has numerous “getaways”, and many of them are much less than an hour from downtown! Check out this great view, above Discovery Bay – 23 minutes in ferry from Central. In how many cities in the world can you do that!

Yet you do not need to flee the urban areas to reactivate the spirit in Hong Kong. You can actually use everyday life processes as a means to connect with Spirit. Just one process I have developed is called “Subway Satori”. You can do it on the MTR (subway), a bus, tram or on any other form of public transport.
But you do need to make time with spirit a priority. There’s no way around that. You have to be committed and self-disciplined. If there is a sure way to bring your spirit down and invite depression, it is to reject your world and the people in it. It is pointless living the Hong Kong or expat lifestyle and then blaming Hong Kong for being “unspiritual”.
The key principles of urban enlightenment are these.
·         Develop intention. That means that you have made a decision within yourself to commit to the process. Only you can bring this to the table.
·         Prioritise. You will need to make your spiritual life important, and honour the spirit within yourself.
·         Practice presence. You will need to bring your mind into the here and now.
·         Practice non-judgment. Allow people, places and events to be what they are. You cannot experience peace while you are in judgment. Period.
·         Develop the right relationship with ego. When you/your ego slips up, a gentle correction will bring you back on your spiritual track. Be like a parent to a naughty child: firm but loving.
·         Responsibility. Your level of personal responsibility needs to be higher than that of most people in today’s world. You need to stop giving your power away to people and life circumstances by blaming and judging. You must start to assume responsibility for your reactions and your perceptions.
·         Letting Go. Surrender all thoughts and judgments to a higher power. You are not here to be perfect, so don’t even try. Give it to God.

It is true that the culture of Hong Kong is not focused upon spiritual concerns. They are not a priority for most people and institutions. However, that is no reason to fret. Like in all cities, opportunities to connect with Spirit abound.


  1. I think it's more a presence of mind, rather than location, as you've described here. I guess I'm lucky to live so close to nature, and when we lived in big cities it was usually on the fringe. Shopping is not my thing. Concrete and asphalt are not my thing either. My dream is small communal living with like-minded people living in the country - close to a city.

  2. I agree, Nancy - the best of both worlds is ideal! That's one of the reasons why I live in Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island, not far from the Central District of HK. It's easy to get out into nature, and the city is not that far away either.

    I do think that keeping connected to nature is important for psychological well-being. My intention in writing this piece is not to suggest that you should sit in the shopping mall and meditate, and all will be well. I'd probably get sick if I did that every day. There's a need for balance.