Attuning to God’s presence

God transcends everything, yet God is also present within and through everything.

We can attune ourselves to God’s presence in us and in the world around us.

Whatever can be said of this tuning into God’s presence does not do justice to it.

But in every religion, mystics have tried to communicate it and express it, even while knowing it cannot be contained in a single expression.

Hence, “the way that can be spoken is not the eternal way”.

The aim of every mystic is to go deeper and more surely into this presence, toward a union that promises the complete fulfillment of the soul.

But in every form of mysticism it is acknowledged that the real work is already accomplished…it is only our resistance, our delusions, our misapprehensions that must be let go.

Resistance

When Peter walked on water, it was only his doubt and fear as the waves grew higher that made him sink.

Doubt and fear have no substantial existence, they are like optical illusions, misapprehensions. But the point is not to try to “see through” them, the point is to look elsewhere.

“Perfect love casts out all fear”, but we can’t hold onto our fears, continue breathing life into them, and expect love to come along and erase them.

Loving God with your whole heart means to stop entertaining fears and doubts, and ultimately this requires a choice or a decision to let go of them and focus only on love.

Tuning into God’s presence means letting go of anything less than God. So long as we are focused on God’s presence, so long as we actually feel it, we can’t entertain anything contradictory.

A motive of love and happiness is always compatible with God’s presence, but a motive of fear and doubt is not. Our everyday lives are run through with these two motives…we can eat, speak, act, and move from a motive of love or a motive of fear.

External acts can appear similar, but the difference between awareness of God’s presence and obliviousness is like the difference between happiness and depression.

When I first studied mysticism, I interpreted it through my own lens of struggle and unhappiness and saw it as demanding austerity and sacrifice as the price for overcoming all suffering.

But this interpretation merely reflected my own resistance, fear and doubt, back at me.

The simple answer is that happiness lies in one direction and suffering in the other. Suffering doesn’t need to be “overcome” it just needs to be replaced with happiness. And the source and culmination of all happiness is found in God’s presence.

That doesn’t mean we need to go around stifling and sabotaging all other forms or expressions of happiness. It doesn’t mean we have to heighten the contrast between suffering and happiness.

It’s enough to just stop refreshing the suffering and misery and all thoughts and beliefs that fuel it.

If perfect love casts out all fear, trust that in tuning into God’s presence there is no need for doubt and fear anymore.

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Faith and heresy for Thinkers and Feelers

A reader asked a great question on my post about explaining myself, and I wanted to respond at length:

How do you reconcile this approach with the demands of Christianity to submit to authority (Scripture, the Church, sensus fidelium, etc)? Doesn’t Christianity demand not only that we conform to its doctrines, but also to be able to justify our ideas by appeal to the sources?

I’ve enjoyed your posts on being an INFP tremendously, and wanted to put some of your ideas into practice, but I’ve felt unsure of how to do so as a Catholic. What if I end up being a heretic?

I’m not a practicing Catholic, and my views are likely heterodox; but I can relate to your struggle.

Studying Catholic theology and philosophy as part of my own search left me with some big questions, especially when challenged by friends or family.

But I think there are a couple of different issues here.

The first issue is about me as an INFP having embraced my inferior function (extroverted Thinking) and subsequently letting go of it.

This is really a question of how we arrive at judgements, and I think you’ll find that Catholicism does not require you to arrive at judgements in a particular way, it just requires assent.

In that sense it doesn’t matter whether a person says “I feel this is true” or “I think this is true”.

There’s a lot of apologetics material out there that blames poor formation and sloppy thinking for the crisis in the Church and the broader culture.

Apologists have written in criticism of “feelings” as a basis for belief. But honestly that’s just a prejudice given by people (mostly Cholerics – xNTx) who want everyone to play on their intellectual “home turf”.

Feeling as a judging function in the Jungian/MBTI sense is more subjective, harder to communicate, and harder to scrutinise than Thinking; but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid.

No one can claim that Thinking renders people inerrant and brings only objectivity and convergence of opinion.

On the contrary, scripture and Church history are full of instances of conversion and holiness that have little to do with intellectual formation or education.

So who says that Thinking is superior to Feeling?

That brings me to the second issue: what is it that makes a person believe?

I don’t have a simple answer to this one. Faith is a gift – and a divinely infused virtue. If God decides whom to give faith to, then is there anything for us to worry about?

If you look at Aquinas on predestination, free will, and providence it is clear that nothing is outside of God’s command or God’s plan.

Yet even your grappling with questions such as these is part of God’s plan, is it not?

Does God make believers believe and heretics diverge?

When I start thinking about these kinds of questions I quickly resolve to a feeling that “all is well”. I trust that inner knowing, and it clearly transcends my intellectual activity without nullifying it.

What it does nullify are anxieties and worries, including (for me) any fear of being in the wrong.

I feel comforted by the knowledge that everything is in God’s hands and always has been, and our role in it all remains a mystery even though the outcome is guaranteed.

Isaiah’s words on the potter and the clay come to mind.

If that still doesn’t bring me to accept certain teachings, then that is how I am. In the end, if you don’t want to be a heretic that is a pretty good indicator that you won’t be.

Weight loss and happiness

It’s been over a year since I published The Weight-Loss Paradox: an enlightened approach to body weight and diet.

I reread the book recently and what struck me was how intense it is. It’s like a concentrated dose of all the principles and ideas that helped me lose weight and change how I was eating.

Reading it again helped me get back in that mindset, and to appreciate what an intense period of reflection it was.

Ultimately any major behavioural change requires a lot of focus and energy. What made this approach work for me?

Above all it’s about clarity – clarity of purpose and clarity of method. It’s much easier to commit to a path when you know for certain that this path is the right one.

Looking back on it, I can’t say that it’s the definitive approach and I doubt that any approach to diet and weight loss will work if you can’t find it within yourself to focus and change.

It doesn’t matter how straight the path if you refuse to walk it.

In hindsight what I would most like to explore in greater depth is the relationship between our motivation to change, and the need to find sources of happiness other than eating.

I touched on it in the book, but my own motivation was already well established by that stage. For people who are reading, rather than writing, the book – is it really enough to just look for alternative sources of pleasure and enjoyment?

I think next time around I would make this question more central, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that eating too much goes hand-in-hand with insufficient sources of happiness and enjoyment.

Many of us think we would be happy if we lost weight, but it’s likely the other way around: we would lose weight if we were happy.

And to achieve happiness we need something more than just a change to our eating habits.

What if we made happiness central to our lives, trusting that issues like body weight and lifestyle choices would gradually shift?

After all, over-eating and being overweight are not the happiest experiences in life. As I get deeper into positive-thinking it seems obvious that we overeat partly because we don’t know how to treat ourselves better.

Why explaining myself makes my ankle hurt

I see meaning and significance in many places.

Like an Augur – someone who could read omens in the flight of birds and other seemingly random occurrences.

Recently I went to see a physiotherapist about chronic stiffness and discomfort in my shoulders and neck, and he immediately traced it my right hip having rotated forward.

I saw it as signifying how I’ve been forever trying (unsuccessfully) to put forward a more practical, worldly, and conscientious part of me in an almost defensive posture that asserts the dominant side of my body.

Not long after seeing the physio I had a recurrence of inflammation in my left ankle, an old ache that leaves the joint feeling unstable and sore.

Again, it’s not that I go searching for an interpretation. I just immediately saw it as connected to my timidity about my own personal beliefs.

In fact both the hip and the ankle correspond to an issue I’ve raised before: the pressure for a Melancholic/INFP to conform to objective, shared reasoning and logic.

In MBTI terms it’s the INFP struggle with inferior extroverted Thinking (Te).

The INFP dominant function of introverted Feeling (Fi) is intrinsically subjective and difficult to describe or communicate, let alone explain or justify.

Other people (even other INFPs) tend not to understand our Fi approach and request or demand explanations or justifications for our beliefs and choices.

Taken to an extreme, an INFP can end up utilising inferior Te to try to “translate” nebulous yet powerful Fi judgements into more commonly accepted language and contexts.

This effort to translate is – like an artist or a comedian having to constantly explain their art or jokes – taxing, demoralising, and at odds with our dominant mode of being.

How can you justify yourself?

The pain in my ankle signifies my hesitance at putting forward my own personal beliefs and judgements.  I’m much more comfortable asserting broad generalities and carefully weighed observations.

But I can’t stand upon these measured justifications and explanations because they aren’t really a part of me. Like my hip, I’ve tried to push them further than they are meant to go.

The sad thing is that in conversation with others I’m so preoccupied by the effort to frame and contextualise my own beliefs that I end up losing sight of what those beliefs are.

I know my own thoughts deep down, but they’re unpracticed and wordless after years of trying to explain myself in other people’s terms.

When I talk to others I find myself trying to work out where they stand and what they believe, as if I can then build a bridge from their world to mine.

But what if that isn’t possible? What if people aren’t interested or able to see where I’m coming from, no matter how straightforward and simple I draw the map?

And at the heart of it all is not a genuine desire for others to understand me, but a fear of their judgement if they misunderstand me.

That’s why I have a pain in my ankle, because I’m afraid to put my weight on my own personal, private, unerring belief. I’m afraid to stand on it, because of how others might judge me if I drop the defense of framing and contextualising, justifying and explaining myself.

But there’s a simple remedy to this ailment.

I don’t need to justify or explain my beliefs to anyone. I simply don’t need to justify or explain my beliefs to anyone.

My beliefs do not need to be explicable or justifiable. I do not need to internally audit my thoughts and feelings in preparation for giving account.

After all, most people don’t want justifications or explanations beyond the most basic. No one but bullies demand justifications, and even their demands are more about power than about justification per se.

The genuinely curious ask questions and try to understand.

After all, justification implies permission or approval, and nobody needs permission or approval for their own beliefs.

Other people might criticise you or mock you if they don’t like your beliefs, but that’s not really about beliefs, but about how we interact with others.

If I want my ankle to stop hurting, I need to stop speaking in impersonal, cautious generalities. I am not, after all, an objective and impartial person. I’m not meant to be, and no one is.

What I desire and appreciate is the freedom to not explain myself or justify myself in this way; the freedom to not reach for the most justifiable or relevant aspects of my experience, and stop hiding behind the most plausible words I can conjure.

I don’t want to be at pains to cast myself in a sympathetic light anymore, always translating my thoughts into what I think other people will find easier to relate to.

NB: Yes, I realise this reads like an explanation of why I don’t want to explain myself, but…I don’t have to justify this!

From “never enough” to “always more”

I’ve been searching for answers for more than 20 years and I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve thought “This is it! This is *the* answer I’ve been searching for!” only to find myself searching again within days or even hours as the euphoria of discovery dissipated.

I kept searching even though searching began to feel less like a journey and more like a compulsion. I can’t help but search, and I continue searching even when I know that no answer will ever be completely satisfying.

But what if “complete satisfaction” is an impossible goal in the first place? Better yet, what if this never-ending search is not a bug but a feature?

The Abraham material I’ve been reading states that the whole point of life in this world is expansion. We will never be fully satisfied, because we are not meant to be fully satisfied.

Searching for complete and final satisfaction is like looking for a meal that finally and forever sates our hunger.

No such meal exists, and if we look at it negatively it means we will never find “true” satiety. But if we look at it positively it means we get to explore and create and try all kinds of different food.

Technology is another good example: I used to feel annoyed and cynical because no matter how good my computer or phone was, it would always become obsolete.

But if you love technology this isn’t a bad thing. Technology becomes obsolete because technology is always improving and advancing! The phone you have now is a vast improvement over the phone you had 10 or 15 years ago.

Both perspectives are true: obsolescence and advancement, endless hunger and gustatory exploration. But one perspective feels bad and the other perspective feels good. Which one would you rather have?

Would the same change in perspective apply to my endless search for answers? It does!

It turns out that while it feels bad to endlessly search for answers, it feels very good to be endlessly having fresh insights and understandings.

Answers that don’t last become insights that never run out. The attitude of endless searching becomes an attitude of unlimited curiosity and wonder.

Getting into alignment

The apex of so-called “positive thinking” is for your thoughts/mind to be in alignment with your innermost being. To that end, I’m putting together a series of principles or reminders to help me return to that state of alignment.

It’s a work in progress, but I thought it would be nice to share it and keep track of it in this space:

  1. if you’re feeling any negativity your thoughts are not in alignment
  2. misalignment can come from habits of thought/belief, or from focusing on external reality, which is a reflection of prior misalignment.
  3. to align it is necessary to have the intention of ‘allowing’ it, but most importantly to stop focusing on misaligned thoughts.
  4. further, detachment or ignoring of present reality may be required to allow thoughts to come into alignment.
  5. alignment is found in the absence of resistant, negative thoughts and hence in the absence of negative feelings too.

The themes of alignment, detachment, and misalignment can be found in mysticism across the great religions.

These principles incorporate the paradox that our lives improve when we stop trying to improve them. It’s our own focus on negative thoughts and beliefs that mars our experience of life.

Feeling like a different person

There’s a saying in the Abraham Hicks material that “you can’t get there from there”.

It has a couple of different meanings, but the meaning I discovered recently is that in my quest for happiness I must at some point feel like a different person.

Living with depression and anxiety for so many years, it makes sense that feeling genuinely better would also be profoundly unfamiliar.

I was so accustomed to my baseline feeling of weariness and dread that going without it almost seems fake.

But the truth is that there’s no continuity from feeling terrible to feeling good. A change in mood is like becoming a different person, and for that reason it’s not possible for the depressed anxious version of me to go along for the ride.

I kept fixating on those negative feelings looking for a solution or some means of transmuting lead into gold. But that’s not how these things work.

Negative feelings are something we create in ourselves, a by-product of the misalignment between our inner being and the beliefs or thoughts we are focused upon.

Those negative feelings don’t need to change, it’s our focus and our thoughts and beliefs that need to change. Then the negative feelings will simply be gone.

It really does feel like becoming a different person after all.

Action and Distraction

If you feel bad and use action to distract yourself, then your action will produce a result that also feels bad.

That’s why my efforts to “problem-solve” my way out of anxiety and depression didn’t work. I used intellectual effort to try to escape those bad feelings, and the promise of an “aha!” moment, the feeling of clarity and understanding, became addictive like a drug.

I’m learning now that I can change how I feel just by changing my focus.

But how is changing focus different from problem-solving or other distractions?

The difference is that it starts with acceptance of how I feel right now, whereas distraction is an abandonment of feelings in favour of activity or stimulation.

Since my aim is to improve my baseline feeling, it makes no sense to abandon and lose track of it for the sake of temporary reprieve. It’s better to feel what I’m feeling (even if it feels not so great) and see if I can gently improve it.

Otherwise when distractions end, we are just back where we started, with the added pain of having been distracted and disconnected from ourselves all that time.

And that’s why life seems to go on so consistently despite the many things we do each day. When our actions end we are right back to the feeling that inspired them. Years can go by without much change to how we feel.

Unless your actions challenge and expand you, they won’t bring about deeper change – they remain mere distractions.

Can you be too positive?

No one has ever accused me of being too positive.

But I’m hoping that will change as I make more progress in my journey from cynicism to optimism happiness.

Last night I swept away some old beliefs that had sat like a deep chasm across my inner landscape.

My prior attempts at being more positive were hitherto hemmed in by that old negativity — I was convinced of a threatening malice in my world, and of my own powerlessness to defend against it.

Now that it is gone – now that I’ve ceased to keep it alive – the relationship between my thoughts and my feelings and subsequent experience of life is clearer than ever before.

It is obvious now that I should focus on finding thoughts that feel good, rather than struggling to control or manipulate external circumstances – since the existence (and my interpretation) of those circumstances hinges on the quality and direction of my thoughts.

So how do we change our thoughts?

The mechanism is obscure, but we do it all the time. We constantly reach for, and accept, thoughts about everything, but we rarely exercise our ability to hold back and be selective about the thoughts we accept.

Reflexivity: thinking about thinking

Today the weather is hot, and the first thought that comes to mind is that the heat is unpleasant.

But I don’t have to stay with the first thought that comes to mind. I can choose one that feels better: it’ll be over soon. The sun is so beautiful. It’s great beach weather. I love how variable the weather is here. I’m so glad we don’t have terrible heat-waves anymore. I love how bright it is outside!

You can tell for yourself which thoughts feel better, and how much better they feel.

If you choose a thought that feels better instead of one that feels worse, you have successfully changed your thoughts and hence your feelings, and hence your reality.

So far so simple.

But what might happen in the midst of choosing a new thought is that you find yourself thinking about this process itself.

You might think: this is stupid, you can’t change anything just by thinking about it.

Or: this is hard work, I don’t want to have to do this all the time.

What’s happened is that choosing a more positive thought has brought out of hiding higher-order thoughts or beliefs.

And it turns out that these higher-order thoughts or beliefs also determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

So try as you might to feel better about the weather by changing your thoughts, if you have higher-order thoughts that say positive-thinking is a load of wishful thinking and self-delusion, you will continue to feel bad and nothing much will change.

The good news is that you can change your thoughts about positive-thinking itself just as easily as you can change your thoughts about the weather.

So can you be too positive?

Hence the title of this post: the idea that you can be too positive, or that being positive is a superficial attempt to delude oneself, these are themselves beliefs or thoughts that determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

There is no such thing as “too positive”, because the thought of being “too positive” is not a positive thought.

If you think there is such a thing as “too positive”, you are, by definition, being too negative.

The path of happiness

It’s been over a year since I decided to stop being a pessimist.

I finally let go of my embarrassment and intellectual vanity and began reading and listening to the Abraham material by Esther Hicks on how to change your thoughts and learn to feel better.

Esther and her late husband Jerry were the first to use the term “law of attraction” and their material was the inspiration for “The Secret” movie and book. Hence my reluctance to delve into it.

But it turned out that the Abraham material is far deeper, more nuanced, and metaphysically inspired than derivative “law of attraction” material would imply.

Law of attraction and Mysticism

What I like about the Abraham material is that it converges with the key points of the mysticism I’ve studied for years.

It’s not about using new age tricks to try to get rich, but about understanding our real nature, and the spiritual causation at work in our individual lives.

Intentionally avoiding traditional spiritual terminology to avoid preconceptions and emotionally laden ideas, it nonetheless aligns with the core principles of mysticism.

Feeling good matters

The Abraham material urges us to prioritise feeling good, observing that feeling good is the ultimate motivation behind all actions and desires anyway.

We want various things in life because we think we will feel good if we obtain them.

But as with other versions of mysticism, Abraham tells us that it is possible to feel good right now, even though we have not yet obtained our desired ends.

This is possible because our true nature is not limited to the physical body and mind we inhabit. We are connected, united with, or an extension of, a purely nonphysical kind of being that created and continues to create all of physical existence.

In more traditional terms, we are not just a physical being, but we have a greater spiritual self who is (depending on the tradition) identical to, or united with, God the creator.

“Feeling good” is therefore not merely a mental trick based on imagining we have already achieved our desired ends; it is the path toward our inner relationship with the divine being whom the various traditions tell us is love, bliss, and happiness itself.

That life will improve as a result of being happier correlates with the blessings and providence that come with closeness to God.

Seek first the Kingdom, and all these things shall be added unto you.

Just the two of us

Another point of convergence with older forms of mysticism is the idea of two selves.

The Abraham material depicts our physical self as the focal point for our inner being or spiritual self, which is an extension of God.

This is immediately reminiscent of the two selves of the Upanishads – the outer, worldly self and the inner self or Atman, which is identical to Brahman.

You can read about this two-self model from the Upanishads in my posts on two birds in a tree and the Mundaka Upanishad.

The Abraham material encourages us to “align” ourselves with our inner being, with the greater, nonphysical part of us that is the fulfillment of all our desires and the source of all existence.

We know we are in alignment because we feel better, and we can follow that path of relief and better-feeling to ever deeper levels of contentment and satisfaction.

Some forms of mysticism present us with two selves, and encourage us to live through the inner, spiritual self rather than the outer, worldly self.

Other forms of mysticism depict the same journey as a transformation of the one self, dying to the worldly self and being reborn as a spiritual self.

I think it’s the same thing in practice.

Only one thing is necessary

If you’re not familiar with Christian mysticism, it can be as varied and arcane as the Eastern stuff, but ultimately the same dynamic is at play.

Here is Meister Eckhart in full swing:

As surely as the Father in His simple nature bears the Son naturally, just as surely He bears Him in the inmost recesses of the spirit, and this is the inner world. Here God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground. Here I live from my own as God lives from His own. For the man who has once for an instant looked into this ground, a thousand marks of red minted gold are the same as a brass farthing. Out of this inmost ground, all your works should be wrought without Why.

In the past I interpreted such passages as derogatory of the external world. But that’s because, à la the Abraham material, the world I was creating was a perfect match for the pessimism and resistance already within me.

Isn’t it fitting, then, that I should find the answers I was seeking in the “foolishness” of embarrassing, New Age-sounding, positive-thinking material, instead of in the ancient esoteric tracts of mysticism and philosophy?

From this I have learned to embrace and accept feeling good, to prefer thoughts and perspectives that make me happy, rather than dwelling on ones that feel bad.

Because I was already such a pessimist in the past, I interpreted the various mystics as saying that we must entirely abandon the world, become dead to it, in order to find true happiness within.

I’m no longer a pessimist. I’ve worked hard to change my thoughts and allow myself to feel good, and now it seems obvious that the path to true happiness would be…a happy one!