Rethinking detachment

I discovered mysticism when I was 15.

Having grown up with an unhappy home life I immediately saw it as a way to overcome what I thought was generic suffering and struggle in life.

My approach to mysticism was firmly focused on the negative conditions I wished to overcome, with the promise that if I could just get my unenlightened mind out of the way, then everything would be perfect exactly as it was.

But the mystics I was reading didn’t necessarily envisage dysfunctional conditions as the starting point.

Even theologically: samsara, the vale of tears, the fallen human condition…these include all forms of evil and suffering in life, but more specifically they refer to a systematic spiritual condition.

That’s why Buddhists want to be born into conditions that make it easier to achieve enlightenment. It’s hard to focus on enlightenment when you’re fleeing for your life from war or famine.

Detachment

Detachment was supposed to be the starting point, the necessary condition for the vision of God within all and beyond all.

It was our attachment to worldly things, through our desires and aversions, that rendered us blind to the supreme being behind and above it all.

I practiced detachment to counteract the suffering and negative conditions in my everyday life, with the understanding that if I could first find freedom from those bonds, the Way would then assert itself naturally and gently into my experience.

And then everything would be all right.

But my vision of the goal was a purely negative one: freedom from suffering and affliction and constraints. My ideal was limited to a kind of neutral spiritual ease and flow where I’d be freed from troubles but also empty of self and any kind of satisfaction or personal preference.

I’m now recognising that my lack of personal preference and the goal of neutrality and perfection amidst the conditions that had caused suffering and struggle still reflect unhealthy adaptations to unhappy childhood circumstances.

“There’s no point complaining, nothing is going to change, so just accept it.”

Detachment as a spiritual principle is not supposed to affirm the submissiveness or depersonalisation of a child who feels crushed and bullied. Being good at ignoring one’s own feelings is not the kind of strength that spiritual freedom can grow from.

Nonetheless this was my ideal: to become a spiritual non-person, inspired by the Buddhist themes of “no self” and Christian themes of “dying to self”.

Positive thinking

I don’t want to invalidate those themes that used to inspire me, and I don’t think my inspiration was wholly bad or off course. But combining spiritual ideals with personal dysfunction explains why my path didn’t lead where I thought it should.

Embracing the positive thinking/law of attraction material taught by Esther Hicks under the guise of “Abraham” set me on a course that would redeem my past spiritual ideals without prolonging the dysfunctional aspects of submissiveness and depersonalisation. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, not in the teachings of others but in my own foundational beliefs and self-perception.

I was always good at practicing detachment. But detachment is only the first stage in a spiritual rapprochement with the divine.

Where I went wrong in the past was in asking or expecting the divine to do something impossible – make me happy amidst profoundly unhappy conditions. Or more pointedly, to make me happy despite holding beliefs that ran utterly counter to my happiness.

Just as a minor example: if you believe in divine providence, you should not feel anxious about anything let alone material wealth and comfort. Divine providence conflicts with a stingy, fearful mindset about money.

Yet if we think that being a miser is in fact a good and virtuous way to live, then we cannot fully embrace the divine being in our lives.

Spiritual austerity or the abundance of life?

The way I saw it was that God had created everything in perfection, but humanity somehow went wrong.

That wrongness in us was perpetuated through our desires and aversions to the things of life.

But if we could let go of our desires and aversions we would find God waiting for us with a spiritual perfection that transforms everything.

My mistake was in thinking that desires and aversions had no place in the scheme of things other than as a symptom of our fallen nature.

But our preferences – consisting of desires and aversions – are the material of our individual lives.

The detachment required is not supposed to be our final resting place, but is to be practiced as a means of preparing ourselves for a much greater life.

Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

But we cannot accept or receive that abundant life unless we are detached from the constraints and limitations of our present existence, where negative beliefs and expectations keep us mired in the same patterns of behaviour and the same familiar experience.

It’s obvious in the Gospels that the people whom Jesus healed strongly desired healing, and their faith was synonymous with the detachment from their prior condition of sickness.

They did not simply detach from the desire for health or the aversion to sickness and limply or dispassionately observe their change in physical condition.

They did not say “Oh, now that I am no longer caught up in my desires and aversions, I notice that I am healthy.”

No, they were joyful and full of appreciation.

Detachment…and then?

So I think the answer is to practice detachment with the faith and expectation that my desires will be fulfilled – practice detachment so as to desire more strongly, detaching not from the things of love and joy that enlighten my life, but from the restrictions, disbelief, and fears that cast a shadow over it.

It is not detachment into emptiness, but detachment into possibility, promise, and therefore faith, hope, and love.

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On reading omens part 2

I used to read the Yi Jing a lot, the Chinese Classic of Change.

I often received a result that included words like “It furthers one to have somewhere to go” and “It furthers one to see the great man”.

I baulked at these lines, not because I disagreed with them but because I had nowhere to go, and no idea who “the great man” might be.

Somewhere to go

Throughout my life I’ve often had a yearning to go somewhere, with the sense that once I got there I would find respite and a sense of identity.

But where was this place? All I had was a feeling.

Knowing the INFP temperament, I can see that this Feeling is the place I was yearning for. Not a physical location, but a feeling-place presented to my imagination as a physical location that I had to find.

It was a message from my innermost being, guiding me not to a physical place but to a Feeling where I would find rest and strength.

There was no mystical cave or temple monastery to go to in search of wisdom.

Or maybe there was, but I had already read so many stories of people who travelled to some mysterious destination only to find that what they were looking for was within them all along.

Without going out of your door you can know all things on earth, without looking out of your window you can know the ways of heaven. The farther one travels the less one knows.

– DaoDeJing

Find the feeling

The work I’ve done this past year with the Abraham-Hicks material has shown me that everything begins with the feeling.

It was not fruitless to have only the feeling of the mysterious place I sought; but it was a mistake to discount and suppress the feeling just because I could not find an obvious physical correlation to it.

The feeling itself was the place I needed to find and take comfort in and from.

This is especially true for Melancholic-Phlegmatics (INFP/ENFP) because our yearning and search for ideals means that we don’t always appreciate or move toward real instances of what we desire.

We might look around and see nothing that matches our desire and our ideal, so we tear down the ideal as too vague or too unrealistic or simply unhelpful.

But feeling better is the most helpful thing in the world. Feeling better is the reason why we pursue our ideals in the first place.

It’s not so much that achieving the ideal will make us feel good, but that feeling good is aligned with these particular ideals and desires peculiar to us as individuals.

Re-reading the Yi

Without resistance the idea of having “somewhere to go” elicits a feeling that is very uplifting. In this sense it matches the spirit of “seek and ye shall find”.

Some people know exactly what they want. But for others it’s better to know how we want to feel, and then let feeling be the filter and the guide that brings us to what we desire.

Re-reading the Yi Jing in this light, in a strictly personal, private interpretation, the meaning is much clearer than before because it is unconstrained by worries about objectivity, historicity, and consistency with how others might have read it or are reading it now.

In the reading of omens none of that matters.

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.

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!

A Spiritual Reality

Ours is a spiritual reality.

We are spiritual beings, and though we inhabit bodies our bodies do not describe our limits.

Spirit is obvious, yet so obvious it can be denied if we fixate only on the material aspect of our experience.

Like watching a movie and forgetting there’s a whole film crew just out of view. We suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that the objects of our senses are all that matter.

When he tries to extend his power over objects, those objects gain control of him. He who is controlled by objects loses possession of his inner self.

Zhuangzi

A spiritual reality doesn’t follow the laws we have ascribed to life, the conventions and limitations of “the world”.

Spiritual reality inverts the relationship between inner world and outer: our innermost being is one with the creative power behind all things.

We might spend our days struggling to arrange things to our liking, but the deeper part of us is united with the singular being that created all those things, holds them in existence, and governs them.

There are effectively two “selves” within us: the self who experiences reality as a limited, physical being, and the self who is one with the creator.

Our goal is to reconcile or align the two; bring peace, love, and joy to the smaller “self” who has suffered so long under the illusion of separateness, powerlessness, and mortality in an uncaring world.

Our innermost being feels only love and joy, suffers no fear or anxiety, sees eternity and knows the pure, endless sufficiency of the creative power.

Our spiritual work is to relinquish the falsehoods accrued by our outer self and seek refuge in the abundance of our inner being.

Don’t go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.

– Kabir

And then what?

This is where I used to get stuck.

Withdraw from the outer self and enjoy the vision of your innermost being…but then what?

Even though I knew the theory, in practice I couldn’t help but return to the limited, constrained, and conventional view of reality.

I clung to a polarised view of spiritual vs physical, contemplation vs action.

I devalued the physical world in order to focus more on the spiritual, and yet that polarisation proved unstable.

And illogical: if the spiritual is all, how can the physical undermine or confound it? If the outer self is so much less than the inner self, why does it dominate?

I might enjoy a wonderful vision of spiritual reality, but then it was time to return to the real world.

And the whole time I thought I was being impractical, but it turned out I wasn’t being radical enough.

When Peter walked on the water, it was his fears that sank him.

In my case, the very question of “what now?” shows I still had fears, and a kind of faith in the physical world, even though I professed to believe in a spiritual one.

Does happiness come from outside, or from within?

Is this a spiritual world or a material one?

Did God create everything, or did everything create God?

In the end I discovered that my negative expectations about “physical reality” had spiritual ramifications.

I persevered under the mistaken premise that physical reality represented a “problem” for which spiritual insight was the solution.

I kept searching for answers, by unwittingly reiterating the question, over and over again.

And so the true answer is to stop asking the wrong question. Ours is a spiritual reality – it just is.

Not in contrast to how everyone thinks the world works; why should I care (and how would I know?) what everyone thinks?

The point, a spiritual point, is what I think: and embracing a spiritual reality means no longer affirming a physical reality as the problem I have to solve, or the prison I need to escape.

Spiritual reality is not an instead of, or in contrast to. It just is, and is all that is.

The Lamp of the Body is the Eye

This phrase is usually interpreted as a metaphor where the eye is likened to a lamp.

But what if it is the other way around?

The standard reading

In the typical reading, it seems obvious that the physical eye is being likened to a lamp.

The eye shows us what is around us in the same way a lamp lights up our surroundings.

It seems straightforward. So what is the purpose of the metaphor? Is Jesus giving opthalmological advice?

The lamp of the body is the eye, if therefore the eye is clear the whole body will be full of light.

If “lamp” is the metaphorical component, then “eye” should be the literal component…but since no one thinks he was talking about literal eyes, the standard interpretation is that he’s referring either to the “mind’s eye” and hence to clear-mindedness, or “single-mindedness towards God”.

In the standard view, this passage is a metaphor within a metaphor, and it’s not entirely clear what is being said. Since the next immediate passage refers to an eye that is “evil” and a body that is full of darkness, the whole framing is reduced to “don’t be evil.”

In this reductionist ethical context the metaphor doesn’t add much value. He might as well have said “good and bad are like light and darkness, be good rather than bad, ok?” Or at best: “being good is like having good eyesight, and being bad is like having some kind of eye disease that makes you go blind.”

Rethinking the metaphor

So what if it’s the other way around instead? What if “lamp of the body” and “light” refer to something concrete and real that is then elaborated on via the metaphor of the eye?

The lamp of the body is like the eye…

If so, what is the lamp of the body?

The lamp of the body is that which “lights up” our bodies. It is what we call consciousness or the mind.

In this sense, consciousness is like an eye – the mind’s eye. We can direct it, we can focus it.

This eye can be “clear”, from the Greek haplous which literally means “without folds” and is often translated as simple or single.

And if it is single, the whole body will be full of light.

In other words, if you make your consciousness single, it will fill your whole body.

The final line warns that:

If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Which doesn’t make literal sense since darkness and light are opposite.

It’s another metaphor. What it refers to is that consciousness, the light within us, is not “all or nothing”.

Rather there are degrees of concentration or intensity to it.

This is something attested to universally by contemplatives and meditators from all traditions: the “normal” mind or consciousness can become imbued with a higher or more intense or more pure consciousness.

The light within us can be full of light, or it can be (comparatively) darkness.

To those who have some, more will be given, and to those who have nothing even the little that they have will be taken away.

Am I right?

This whole passage is either a moderately esoteric teaching about contemplation or an unnecessarily complicated metaphor about being a good person.

I prefer the former interpretation because it makes more sense to me. People with exposure to meditation or contemplative prayer should see what I’m getting at.

I haven’t found many others espousing the same interpretation, perhaps because esoteric or mystical perspectives on scripture tend to be either deeply private and idiosyncratic or heterodox.

But this passage is one that has always called to me, and I’m increasingly aware that my need to justify my point of view with seemingly objective or impartial reasoning doesn’t serve me.

So take it or leave it. It makes perfect sense to me.