Letting go 08: making the emotional connection

Before my diet I only felt bad about being overweight when I caught a glimpse of my reflection.

Then I would feel bad, but the rest of the time it wasn’t really on my mind.

And eating? Eating was one of my great pleasures in life. I never felt bad about that!

Joining the dots

It wasn’t until I embarked on my search for a final answer to losing weight that I realised this didn’t add up.

How could I be happy about the way I ate but unhappy about my physical appearance, which was a direct consequence of the way I ate?

This is what led me to see that my body was merely reflecting something about my behaviour. I just hadn’t joined the dots or made that connection before.

I mean the emotional connection: it’s obvious that people diet to lose weight, and over-eating causes weight gain. What I mean by joining the dots is seeing the connection between feeling so bad about my weight, but feeling so good about eating.

Either I shouldn’t feel so bad about my weight, or I shouldn’t feel so good about eating. Something had to give in this emotional dynamic.

The hidden connection

When I feel bad about my circumstances in life, there must be something prior – something I enjoy or feel good about – that sets me up for that suffering.

The painful part of these circumstances is their unwantedness. It’s painful to notice conditions that are not the way I want them to be.

What is it that sets me up for this fall? What is it that feels good at the time, but leads me into situations that feel bad? What is it that feels enjoyable but shouldn’t if I could see the bigger picture?

Assertion

I’m going to call it “assertion” for now. It’s an inner assertion of control, wanting, grasping, or conditionality within me.

It’s as though I’ve put forward a claim or a demand on reality to be a certain way, and this leaves me sensitive to every contrary circumstance and change.

This is the part that doesn’t feel bad, yet sets me up to feel bad.

It’s not about desire or inspiration. Desire is implicit in our very experience of life. Desire is preference. Desire informs our personality and shapes our existence and our whole sense of wanted and unwanted.

Assertion is different. Assertion feels important in the same way that having a stake in something feels important. Assertion is like getting involved because you don’t trust others to do it right.

But like anything we do, it stems from a thought. Here the thought is negative and resistant. It’s the thought that I need to speak up or I’ll be overlooked. It’s the thought that things don’t work out for me so I need to get involved. It’s the thought that I can’t trust or rely on life to go well.

It’s the thought that by sticking my oar in I can steer this whole thing in a better direction.

False premise

These thoughts hinge on a false premise that uninspired effort and action will improve my life and make me feel better.

It’s a change in mode from inspiration, enjoyment and ease, to worry, control, and struggle.

That’s why unwanted circumstances feel like failure or loss. They push against this invisible force I’ve set up within myself, this effort of trying to assert my will on the world.

The big picture

We would all prefer life to unfold with ease. Inner assertion is, like over-eating was, an attempt to feel better that only succeeds in temporary escape by kicking the can down the road a little.

The attitude of taking things into my own hands feels temporarily empowering. But it comes at a cost of trust and faith in the goodness of God and the universe.

If I could trust instead, I wouldn’t need this assertion and control; and since assertion and control don’t work anyway, all I’m giving up is an illusion.

After all, if everything is working toward my good, then what sense does it make to say that some circumstances are wanted and some are unwanted?

That’s why the Abraham-Hicks teachings say that everything has both a wanted and unwanted aspect, depending on where we focus.

Refusing this dynamic

I think the way forward for me is to become aware of whatever lack of trust or faith moves me to assertion and control in the first place; just as I learned to become aware of the negative feelings that used to motivate my escape into over-eating.

All it takes is to decline the false promise of escape, and the whole dynamic will start to lose momentum and wind down.

Let go of the urge to control, and the frustration of unwanted conditions will go too. Stop endorsing the underlying thought of negativity and dissatisfaction, and trust and faith will return.

Take it for granted?

It might seem unfair, but good things in life happen to the most positive, happiest, easy-going people.

We might prefer that good things happen to us because of how hard life has been, or how much we’ve struggled, but it doesn’t work that way.

It makes sense, because the positive, easy-going people are appreciative of everything. They’re so appreciative that they take good things for granted.

Isn’t that bad?

Were told that it’s bad to take things for granted. We think it means the opposite of appreciation and gratitude.

But to grant means to give, bestow, or allow. Taking for granted doesn’t mean being ungrateful, it means:

“to regard (something) as not requiring proof”

In other words, taking for granted is believing without seeing.

Getting it wrong

Sometimes we resent positive, easy-going people for the good things they enjoy. We tell ourselves that we would appreciate good things much more, because we don’t expect them.

Aren’t we therefore more deserving?

But that’s not how it works. God is bestowing good things on all of us, but it’s up to us to accept or allow them.

God makes the rain fall on the fields of the good and the bad alike. Like the parable of the workers in the field, He undeservedly pays the same wage to the late-comers as to those who had worked all day.

When we look askance at those who seem to have good things just fall in their lap, aren’t we like the all-day workers griping at the unfairness of it all, and thereby missing the point about the One who grants us everything?

Taking as given

The good news is that we can change our attitude from one of negativity, struggle, and griping, to one of positivity, expectation, and trust.

After all, each of us has aspects of life where we take good things for granted – take them as given – however small they might seem.

It takes practice to change, but as I meditate I feel the relief of letting go of old stories where I’m struggling and hard-done-by. I begin to feel the tremendous ease of life. I feel that nothing could really be a problem or an obstacle unless I tell a story about it being a problem or an obstacle.

And if I let go of that story, I feel the immense reserves of pure energy quietly beside and within me. Nothing ostentatious or grand, but an ever-fluid ocean of potential, of power.

My only mistake is trying to put up walls in and around that moving presence. The walls of story and belief can’t capture or contain or limit this ocean; all they can do is make me sea-sick and distraught at the effort of holding them together.

As easy as that ocean feels, let me feel that same ease in life. Let me trust that I will float on its currents, and not be dashed to pieces on the rocks. Let me inhabit the breadth and magnitude of it, as I know that it uplifts and sustains us all.

Learning to complain

I’m learning to complain, and it’s wonderful!

Growing up, I was taught that complaining was pointless, immoral, unvirtuous, and ineffective.

So whenever I dealt with government departments, bureaucracy, or businesses my attitude was to follow their advice or their systems and hope that things would work out.

Today I rang a government department to complain, and it only took two months and some clues from the universe to get me to that point.

Beat your breast

It turns out that complain literally means to beat your breast, which in turn is to openly display your sorrow, disappointment or other strong feeling.

It took me two months to really comprehend that I wasn’t at fault, that the system had failed and my family had been unfairly disadvantaged.

I didn’t need to have a solution, and I didn’t have to trust the system. My trust is in God, not in systems.

So I found a way to feel good in my complaint. I rang with the intention of sharing my story, of the incorrect information we had received and the efforts we had gone to on our end.

And the people I spoke to were wonderful. They fixed the problem within minutes and everything is now reinstated, back as it was two months ago.

Except that I’ve grown and changed and learned so much through this process. It’s helped me focus on money and really appreciate all that I have. It’s helped me let go of resistance to having, receiving, and spending money.

It’s helped me trust so much more, and it’s shown me that God hears our complaints as much as our prayers.

Expecting better

For me now a complaint is the opposite of holding in or hiding my disappointment or sorrow. A complaint means openly expressing my dissatisfaction, and it by no means negates trusting, feeling good, or focusing on the positive while I do it.

A complaint is a genuine and authentic expression of something unwanted. I don’t expect to do it often, but I won’t resist it anymore when it feels like the path of least resistance.

You might even say that complaint is part of an entreaty. Like the psalms, it specifies what is wrong and demands, or requests better with an air of expectation.

Complaint is like an empowered and purposeful expression of dissatisfaction. It presumes worthiness, faith, and trust that things are supposed to be better. And it looks forward with expectation to having everything made right, made new, and reinstated.

You don’t have to do it on your own

My early efforts with prayer and asking for God’s help felt like failure. And as I read more about it, I decided the failure must be mine.

Every book I consulted insisted that God was always responding to us, we were the ones unable or unwilling to see.

My answer was to try to work it out on my own, read everything I could find about mysticism, faith, meditation and prayer, and then hopefully reach a conclusion about what worked.

A closed system

Unfortunately because I felt God hadn’t answered me, and because I knew theologically that God is perfect and unchanging, I pretty much wrote God out of the picture while I went about trying to “fix” myself.

I’ve had a kind of iron-clad focus on finding my own answers, and even things like faith and trust were translated into belief-states or attitudes rather than relational states of being.

In effect, I was so convinced that I was the problem I stopped expecting or looking for help from outside.

Learning how to trust

Sometimes it’s empowering to look for answers on your own, but to always be alone in the search is actually bleak and miserable.

It makes a lot of sense: feeling betrayed and let down by God and other people, I resolved to work it all out by myself without help. If you can’t rely on help, take pride in your independence.

But as Esther Hicks likes to ask “And how’s that working out for you?”

Allowing help

I was so convinced I needed to find all the answers before moving forward that I ignored the bigger picture of God’s help.

It’s true that the resistance is all on our side of our relationship with God, but that doesn’t mean we have to do all the work, or that we have to fix everything ourselves before receiving assistance.

It reminds me of my son wanting to do things by himself, even when I can see the task is more complex than he realises. Sometimes I have to just let him try until he realises for himself that he needs my help. And then we can work together as I show him how to do it.

Ready to trust

I’ve reached a point with the Abraham-Hicks teachings where I know how to feel good all day, by focusing on thoughts that feel good to me and letting go of thoughts that don’t.

But whether it be Abraham-Hicks, Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Sufism or Christianity, everyone has said I need to trust more, and my response up to now has been “I’ll try that, and see if it works”.

Which simply means I wasn’t ready to actually trust. I wasn’t ready -until now- to open up this closed system of my own thoughts and perceptions and depend on something greater.

Trust that all is well. Trust that it is being done. Trust that everything is ordered for our happiness and my happiness in particular. Trust that God’s love is active, not inert. Trust that He wants me to be happy and is moving Heaven and Earth to make it happen. Trust that I don’t have to do it on my own.

Feel good all day 14

Allowing, eh?

So how do I allow?

Part of me wants to hit this with everything I’ve got, but we know by now that when we strive or push or try it’s because we think we have somewhere to be, something that needs to change, something we must fix.

It’s tempting to seize control, but it’s also dismal and small to then feel responsible for everything that’s going on.

You create your reality, but two-thirds of the process don’t require any effort and the final third is only effort in the most minimal sense.

It’s kinda tiring and sad to think that you’d have to build your reality thought by thought and brick by brick. But it doesn’t work that way. The real work is being done by the divine being of which you are just an extension, a thread, a single point of view.

That’s why mysticism is full of surrender: surrender to God, surrender of the individual self, surrender of the illusion of separation.

But the individual perspective is still part of the plan, we still have a role to play, and we can still allow it to be a whole lot easier.

My efforts to be as happy as I can and feel good all day have definitely paid off. But they were also efforts I embarked on when I thought effort and focus was my greatest strength.

I wanted to take control of my experience and I’m very good at focusing intensely on a given subject until I feel completely on top of it. Yet the fruit of this intense effort includes realising that there’s a better way; that needing to be on top of things limits the scope of what can happen in your life.

Allowing is the better way. Making space for surprises and miraculous occurrences is the better way. Leaving openings for God to do the work is infinitely better than insisting I oversee the action step by step from my own limited perspective.

Allowing is the antidote to thinking I’ve gotta do it all by myself. The expectation of a DIY job resists the benefits and cooperation of divine help.

Allowing is, therefore, the expectation that it’s all being done for me, by someone whose power and efforts entirely eclipse my own. Isn’t that far more exciting?

Believe that you have received it

It’s much more simple than I imagined.

The things we desire in life each have a “feeling” associated with them.

I want to be wealthy, and if I imagine having wealth right now it feels a certain way.

How often do I let myself feel that good? If I’m honest with myself, it’s not as often as I would like.

If you prayed for wealth and, as instructed, believed you had received it, wouldn’t you enjoy that good feeling right away? And would that good feeling persist?

That’s how simple it is. Simple, but not easy to do if you have practised believing other things, like your old stories that feel terrible and only add momentum to unwanted circumstances.

All you need to do is let yourself feel the feeling of what you desire (believe you have received it), and let the feeling be enough.

That last part is crucial because your embrace of the good feeling must be genuine. You can’t have one eye on the feeling and the other eye scanning for signs of what you want.

Keeping score and looking for evidence apart from the feeling itself dilutes it. It’s the difference between believing and “wishful thinking”.

Wealth has a feeling, if I believe then I must embrace that feeling and let the feeling be enough. Only that will count as sincere belief.

And after all, the reason we want wealth is to feel better. So feeling good right now is already the result I’m after, and the last, final step in letting go of old habits and old stories.

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.

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.

Distilling the search for God

Roughly 20 years of searching for answers I can distill to a simple report:

God/the divine/the transcendent dwells in our innermost being.

But our individual self can choose to focus on it, or not.

It is the summum bonum, the creator, the beginning and the end, self-existent being itself; and it is also love and joy to us.

We focus outwardly on the world, hoping to achieve and procure love and joy – happiness – for ourselves through various actions and ends.

But since the source of all things dwells already in us, looking out to “things” while neglecting the source is why we experience repeated suffering and confusion.

My mistakes

Turning inward and despising the outer world is a mistake. God doesn’t despise the world, so how can you turn towards God while hating his creation?

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

But this doesn’t mean pretending that evil is good.

The plumbing in our home is a bit funny. You can turn on the hot tap and it will run warm, then go cold, before becoming truly hot.

If you turn off the tap because it gets cold, you’ll never allow the really hot water to flow.

In fact you want to open the tap as much as possible, and just let the cold water go, all the sooner to enjoy the heat again.

The key is trusting and knowing that the heat will come, even if it has to first push out a whole lot of cold water sitting in the pipes.

Faith, Hope, and Love

The God who dwells in your innermost being is the creator of all that is. There is nothing higher, greater, more powerful, or more eternal than that.

Yet we experience a multiplicity of things “the world” that seem to exist on their own and obey their own rules.

If God is love, why do we suffer?

We suffer because we turn away from God in our innermost being, and try to share our attention with other ‘gods’ or idols, or simply fears and doubts.

That is why faith, hope, and love are so important, because they are how we translate God in our innermost being into the outer world of our experience.

Faith, hope, and love are what it feels like when there is no resistance in us to the divine flowing out from our innermost being into the world.

While these three have layers of meaning, in a personal spiritual context faith is the knowledge, trust or certainty that God in our innermost being is in complete and perfect control of all that is, and that only our resistance colours the perfect creation God wills for us.

Hope is desire and expectation. It is the belief – despite how the world might appear – that our desires will be fulfilled, that the love, joy and happiness we seek are being met.

Love is considered the greatest of these three because love is the nature of God. Both the nature of the divine, and His disposition toward creation, and hence when we adopt an attitude of love toward creation we are embracing God’s own attitude. We are united with God’s will.

Love is God Himself, while faith and hope are antidotes to the doubts and fears that we have created in our world. Love without faith and hope would be difficult to muster.

For me, faith and hope mean that nothing is impossible, and the fulfillment of Love can expand out into my experience, my reality.

It helps to know also that there are already people for whom this is reality. I may not have met them yet, but I know that they exist.

The path forward

Magnify the divine in my innermost being. Turn towards it continually, and cease focusing on anything that detracts from it, knowing that such detractions exist only in my own divided focus.

There is no other power, no other path, no other goal than the God in my innermost being. There is nothing and no one else to turn to. And everything else I might turn to, I do so only in search of the love and joy that is already there within me.

It is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the kingdom for which all else is given up, and through which all else is gained.

Retrospective on a spiritual journey

A conversation with my brother prompted me to reflect on my spiritual beliefs and perspective. It’s not something I’ve shared with anyone at depth, partly because no one has been interested, but also because I’ve been in “observer” mode for so long, collecting data and perspectives and not wanting to make grand declarations of ultimate truths.

So it’s a bit of a surprise (but obvious in hindsight) to realise that people don’t know what my perspective is, let alone whether they agree with it or not.

This is probably a good indicator (if one were necessary) that I’m not an INTP, because an INTP ought to be pretty clear about their own perspective as a conceptual framework.

Where my search has taken me

Beginning at about age 15 I read a copy of Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness” which introduced me to the concept of mysticism or personal spiritual development as the inner core of Christianity, and of religion generally.

On the most basic level, De Mello (an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist) was pointing out that outward religious observance is empty without interior spiritual development.

From that starting point I set out to find out more about mysticism. These are the key figures and texts I explored over the following decade:

Christian

The Cloud of Unknowing

St John of the Cross

Catherine of Siena

Evelyn Underhill

The Philokalia/Desert Fathers

John Cassian

Dionysus the Areopagite

Meister Eckhart

Albert the Great

Thomas Aquinas

Brother Lawrence

Julian of Norwich

Bede Griffiths

 

Sufi

Jallalludin Rumi (not just the poems)

Hafiz

Hazrat Inayat Khan

 

Sikh

The Guru Granth Sahib

 

Hindu

The Bhagavad Gita

The Upanishads

Advaita Vedanta

Sankara

Ramana Maharshi

Kabir

 

Taoist

Dao De Jing

Zhuangzi

Liezi

Wenzi

Hua Hu Jing

Liu Yi Ming

“The Secret of the Golden Flower”

 

Other Chinese

The Analects

The Book of Changes

The Book of Rites

The Doctrine of the Mean

The Great Learning

Mencius

Wang Bi (Neo-Daoist)

 

Buddhist

Hui Neng (The Platform Sutra and other commentaries)

Dogen

Takeda Sokaku

D.T. Suzuki

Blue Cliff Record

The Diamond Sutra

The Heart Sutra

The Dhammapada

Assorted Pali resources

Naropa

Chogyam Trungpa

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Lama Yeshe

Dzogchen

 

New Thought/New Age

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Don Miguel Ruiz

Eckhart Tolle

U.G. Krishnamurti

Carlos Castaneda

A Course in Miracles

Neale Donald Walsch

Caroline Myss

Esther Hicks

 

Other

Joseph Campbell

Joel Morwood

 

In no particular order, and I’ve forgotten some, as well as omitting secondary sources that would have included other less well-known figures and texts.

Reflection

In addition to this eclectic mix of texts (some I hated, some I loved), I undertook tertiary studies in philosophy as part of the same search, though I eventually realised that philosophy was the wrong place to look for answers.

Initially I had no interest in theology, because I’d accepted the “via negativa” notion that we can’t really say anything substantial about the divine, but also because my earliest exposure to theology was a book by Teilhard de Chardin, which is a bit like having your first exposure to music be a free jazz performance.

Eventually through my work in ethics I discovered the natural law tradition, and from that the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to metaphysics and theology, and from there got a bit of an understanding of the neo-Platonist tradition too.

(My unfinished PhD study was in the intellectualist versus voluntarist traditions in the West, and the possible application of those themes to the neo-Daoist philosopher Wang Bi.)

Along the way I avoided stuff that was too esoteric (Tibetan Buddhism leans that way, “A Course in Miracles”), too boring (the Vedas), too focused on outward observance (sorry Islam), or just too peripheral to the core subject of union with the divine (Carlos Castaneda….someone recommended him, but it was a poor recommendation).

So you can view this search as a massive, long-term effort in sifting and sorting through everything and anything that I felt or somehow knew intuitively was getting right to the heart of the mystery.

It’s not that hard…it’s obvious that John’s Gospel is the most mystical of the four, right?

Question time

Starting from scratch in my search for answers, I ended up facing a lot of questions that others have also faced along the way.

For example, the basic one of “does God exist?”

Honestly that was a pretty easy one, and I answered it pragmatically: if there’s no divine thing out there, then nothing matters and there’s no deeper truth or answers to be had, so I might as well just die. The desire for answers doesn’t logically necessitate the existence of answers, but it does practically guarantee the search. Next question!

“Is God a person?”

This was much trickier.

Many people who are interested in comparative religion conclude that a personal God is an anthropomorphic concession to the simple-minded who can’t handle abstract concepts.

But it depends what you mean by “personal”. When the Christian tradition itself tells you that anthropomorphic characteristics are just an analogy, and goes on to define “person” as “an individual being of a rational nature”, all the “simple-minded” objections evaporate.

Like Hieromonk Damoscene, author of Christ, the Eternal Tao, I concluded that to be a person (by this definition) is greater, not lesser, than an impersonal divine being.

“Is Jesus divine, or another ‘great teacher’ like Buddha?”

This is another amusing one, because comparative religion types tend to argue a la John Hick that the divinity of Christ is a metaphor, that Christ was really just a “great teacher” like the Buddha. You almost want to add “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

But I had to conclude in the end that the depiction of Christ in the Gospels bears little to no resemblance to Buddha as a teacher. If he was just a teacher, Christ really didn’t do enough teaching.

If he was a teacher, he failed miserably. But the coherence of his comments regarding his unique relationship with God the Father only make sense if Christ is unique. And his significance makes sense only if you look at the events of his life, death and resurrection.

Compare the Gospels to the Dhammapada and you have to conclude that either Jesus was not a very good teacher, or it wasn’t about his teachings per se.

Besides, it’s not as though the unique nature of Christ is the only stumbling block in comparative religion. The complexity of the trinity and Christ as logos is an excellent complement to the seemingly unnecessary complications of the Laozi on metaphysics.

Christian metaphysics offers a potential lingua franca for understanding the Buddhist focus on “emptiness” (the contingency of creation and negative theology), as well as the peculiar insights of the Taoists on “the way” (the logos) Yang and Yin (substantial form + prime matter?), and glimmers of Isiah’s prophecies in abstruse passages like:

“Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.”

An individual path

It’s hard to discuss this stuff with other people because they’re not coming from the same starting point of a personal search, nor have they necessarily covered the same ground along the way.

So I’ve come to accept that mine is necessarily an individual path, and that’s great. It ties in with my greater understanding of temperament (Melancholic-Phlegmatic), my intellectual formation, and even my family history.

I’m probably a little defensive when discussing religion with others, because I’m agreeable (Big 5 trait) and prefer to avoid conflict, plus I guess I intuitively expect that others won’t understand where I’m coming from, doubleplus I haven’t practiced communicating it to others so where would I begin?

Ultimately I think it’s perfect for a melancholic to find his own way. I think everyone is finding their own way, even if “their own way” includes choosing to follow others. I’ve tried following others as well, but it turned out that we were never really on the same page to begin with!

I’m very open to ideas (Big 5 trait) so I tend by default to try to understand where other people are coming from, and if necessary then describing where our paths diverge. All this time in philosophy and theology and comparative religion have made it second-nature for me to ask “what do they mean by this?”

I mean, you don’t have to go far to find radically divergent perspectives on what ought to be fairly simple questions. When Muslims worship Allah, are they, from a Christian perspective, worshiping the same God from a different (less complete) perspective, or are they pointlessly worshiping a non-existent being because their theology isn’t right?

When Buddhists say there is no God, are they denying the Christian God? Are there really any Buddhists well-versed enough in Christian theology to definitively answer this question (and vice-versa)?

But ultimately I’ve returned to the realisation that I’m not really in this for the analysis. My melancholic temperament has led me to search through an intellectual lens, but I’m not fulfilled by intellectual play. It’s always been a means to an end, or rather, a search for the ideal.

I accept that the truth I’ve searched for is much more than a set of intellectual propositions. Some of those propositions fill me with the deepest joy when I contemplate them, but it’s the joy, not the propositions I’m after.