Americans recently spent nearly $1.5 billion on the chance to win a $640 million “Mega Millions” lottery jackpot, but that’s certainly not the only sign that legalized gambling has a greater hold on the public consciousness than ever before.
With the rise of state-run lotteries and the increasingly rapid spread of legitimate casinos, gambling has graduated from the realm of netherworld seductions to a widely-accepted means of raising revenues for city governments, public schools and Native American reservations.
Whether you perceive gambling as innocuous or insidious, it’s clear that the irrational lure of winning big has a hold on an increasing number of people, from the occasional lottery ticket buyer (like myself) to casino dwellers who may regard the greensward of the blackjack table as their front yard. Since gambling is never a practical means of increasing your income unless you happen to “own the house,” it’s worth asking why so many people fall for this peculiar bewitchment.
My theory—perhaps not shared by many—is that gambling is a form of distorted spirituality.
When we pick our numbers or pull the handle on the slot machine, we’re subconsciously seeking a divine dispensation. We’re hoping that we have the lucky combination to deliver us into a state of grace—that is, to free us from wage slavery, enable us to buy nice things without hesitating over the price, take a splendid vacation, or even become a benefactor to family, friends and good causes.
Whether any of these things would actually work out once we had our winnings, all of these dreams are substitutes for the authentic experience of grace—that is, an inward state of ease as opposed to a life on Easy Street.
Grace might also be described as spiritual equipoise, a state of inner strength and balance that enables us to deal with all the dramas and difficulties of life without losing our cool (or our warmth).
We get confused about how to attain grace partly because we think the experience of ease should come to us easily. And we’re not entirely wrong on that score; some spiritual traditions suggest that grace is our birthright. Perhaps the reason that so many people have ecstatic memories of certain childhood moments is that we naturally live closer to grace when we are young. The spiritual path is often one of unlearning our adult defenses—through the hard work of self-confrontation and forgiveness—in order to regain a state of grace. We all deserve grace because we have it within us. It’s just tough to remember and recover it sometimes.
At any rate, buying a lottery ticket seems like a much simpler route to a life of ease. That’s how gambling becomes invested with a spiritual charge. If we are not aware of this misdirection of energy, that same energy can turn into the force of addiction. Then we must work harder and harder at gambling (or drinking, or sex, or the pursuit of power) in order to find some grace within it. This soon becomes a deadly game because there is no grace at all within addiction.
The late great teacher Paramahansa Yogananda—who was not above spritzing his followers in the Self-Realization Fellowship with a water pistol—advised spiritual aspirants to “be cheerful but grave.”
That’s as good a description of a graceful approach to life as any I’ve heard. I’m sure we’ve all met spiritual types who suffer from too much seriousness, as well as New Agers whose chronic good spirits can quickly become too much to bear. A graceful balance of gravity and cheerfulness can seem impossible to attain. Still, the chances of reaching such an inward ease through our own intention, attention, and dedication are a lot better than the typical lottery odds.
Editor: Brianna Bemel