Writing as spiritual discipline

Writing can be a spiritual discipline.

It can also not be. And like meditation or prayer it can be graceful and profound or a leaden itching struggle.

But writing is my spiritual discipline.

I used to feel bad that when I read a spiritual text I’d lose my sense of God as soon as I closed the book.

Real contemplatives didn’t need to stare at a page to feel close to God, right? I felt like a fake, inspired only by the words of real masters but having no power or wisdom of my own.

Well eventually I learned that reading this way is a legitimate discipline of prayer – lectio divina.

More importantly I realised it didn’t matter! For goodness sake! If reading spiritual texts helps me feel God’s presence that’s not “cheating”, that’s a blessing!

And now I feel the same discipline emerging in my own writing: a state of focus and tranquil depth that I can access with the right intention.

Because what is writing but accessing and enlarging and elaborating on a thought? Whatever the thought is, writing lets it expand within us.

So when I write about higher things I’m accessing higher thoughts and opening my mind to receive more of whatever I’m writing about.

Writing is therefore a contemplative practice, meditatio in the Western tradition. And with the right intention of accessing always higher and better-feeling thoughts, writing brings me closer to God and fills me with inspiration, love, peace and joy.

Writing is my path.

Happiness Day 26

Letting go vs highest control.

I’ve had some difficulty with meditation in the past, following all sorts of advice.

But I was listening to another Abraham-Hicks video where a woman had a similar problem, and Abraham’s response really spoke to me.

I am a very deliberate person. I like to be in control and I’m not used to “letting go”.

I’ve had a lot of success taking charge of problems and situations and questions and finding the answers by being in control.

So when meditation is presented as letting go of that…I struggle.

But that’s not the only way of looking at meditation. Meditation can be seen not as letting go of control but as utilising my highest control.

My inner being is vastly more powerful and wise than my problem-solving mind.

Or to look at it differently again, my mind is vastly more powerful and wise when it is aligned with my inner being.

It’s like in martial arts: beginners try to do everything with their arm strength alone. Punching and pulling and throwing, they copy the techniques but the power is very little because it’s limited to their arm and shoulder muscles.

But we learn over time to use the whole body in every technique, and the arms become merely the last link in the chain, conveying the much greater strength of the whole body rather than trying to do it on their own.

And in martial arts I faced the same problem: people could say “relax your arms” and for some that is enough of a cue for the rest of the body to be activated.

But I’m so used to being in control, if I relax I just get…weak arms that don’t move!

What I needed was to know that it’s not about relaxing the arms or letting go, it’s about activating and aligning with a much greater strength and a much greater control that the arms (or my mind) can then follow.

And Oh my goodness! This feeling of higher control is such a relief, now I see why people call it “letting go”!

If you’re all about control you can’t simply “let go”. You need to go to a place of higher control, and in that place the small-scale struggle and conflict just disappears.

Abraham recommends meditation not as an end in itself but because it’s the quickest way to let go of resistance. But meditation still has to be tailored to the individual because everyone has different forms of resistance in their experience.

Letting go of resistance allows our natural ease and alignment and flow to resume. And isn’t that what we’re seeking in our efforts to control things anyway?

The garden within you

There’s a place of peace and clarity within us. You can go there if you retreat just a little from all your worries and cares.

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

Getting there is easy. Staying there is harder, because we’ve spent all our lives investing in stories of “out there”.

Stories of how important it is to worry, strive, prove yourself, accomplish something.

Stories that began with us accepting there was something wrong or broken or inadequate about our own existence.

Stories where it’s a mean world out there and your success is a measure of your worthiness and your happiness is a reflection of your success.

Guard your heart

Guarding your heart means not allowing your thoughts about life to force you out of the peace and happiness within you.

After all, we have God’s own assurance that nothing can go wrong for us.

Christ didn’t let himself be killed to pay a price required of us by his own Father. His was a sacrifice to end all sacrifice, not because God requires or demands sacrifice but because we humans had got it into our heads that sacrifice was necessary.

Sacrifice was never necessary.

But Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

To obey originally meant “to listen”. The Hebrew for “obey” likewise means “to hear”.

We tend to interpret this verse as saying “enough with the sacrifices, just do as you’re told!”

Because obedience conjures images of dutifully following commandments. Listening and hearing God’s guidance is conflated with following orders.

Yet the whole point of the Bible is that God desires a genuine relationship with us.

Or rather, God has never ceased pouring out His love and blessings upon us. We are the ones hiding, refusing, and rejecting the grace available to us.

The garden within

It’s easy to find the quiet place within you where God dwells. But to carry that peace and love out into life requires us to let go of the worries and cares that have accrued around our external circumstances.

I can close my eyes and feel close to God, but open them and feel the tie of thoughts about everything I see before me: house, belongings, family, YouTube, chores, plans, worries and fears and hopes and wishes.

The work before us is to let our thoughts be changed by the peace and love we find within.

Bit by bit, soothe and soften and ease the story of our lives until we can remain in this love always.

The Way is like an empty vessel
That yet may be drawn from
Without ever needing to be filled.
It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world.
In it all sharpness is blunted,
All tangles untied,
All glare tempered,
All dust soothed.

It is like a deep pool that never dries.
Was it too the child of something else? We cannot tell.
But as a substanceless image it existed before the Ancestor.

– DDJ 4. Waley

Happiness Day 16

Happiness flow chart (sorta).

I had the idea just now to make a flow chart about feeling good that covers all the general possibilities.

How do I feel right now?

Good! -> appreciate it!

Not good.

Can I find a better feeling?

Yes! -> appreciate it!

No.

Can I accept/make peace with where I am right now?

Yes. -> appreciate it.

No.

Can I soothe myself?

Yes. -> keep soothing.

No. -> go have a nap, find a simple distraction, change the subject, get your mind off what is bothering you.

A more positive approach?

But this flow chart feels like it could be more positive. I mean, it’s good to demonstrate what to do when you feel bad, but it doesn’t really develop a good feeling.

For all intents and purposes, good feeling is the grace, spirit, divine presence, whatever you want to call it, that we seek to cultivate by prayer or meditation.

When people visualise a pure white light surrounding and infusing them, the whole point is that this visualisation feels good.

If it doesn’t feel good, it isn’t working for you.

I can visualise all sorts of things and have no effect whatsoever.

That’s where I went wrong in the past: not by visualising per se but by thinking the point of all the different spiritual practices was something other than feeling good.

Meditation should feel good. Prayer should feel good. Sometimes it’s difficult, sure. But it mostly should feel good.

If you’re accustomed to feeling bad and distrusting ordinary good feelings, you might make the mistake of thinking spiritual practices should not feel good.

You might overemphasise stories of struggle and effort and how “different” spiritual practice is from everything else in life.

But the bottom line is that it should feel good. And for my purposes I should treat good feeling as a direct sign of the spiritual substance I’m seeking to connect with.

The presence of God feels good. Divine love feels good. Our hearts’ desire is to feel good.

Feeling good is the path and the destination. Accept it, embrace it, and be changed by it until everything feels good for you.

Happiness Challenge Day 10

Feeling good is your magic power.

I used to love fantasy stories as a kid, and even as I grew up I longed to find magic in the real world.

Eventually I grew disenchanted, and sought my magic in spiritual teachings instead.

But I’ve found my magic power after all. It’s called feeling good, and though I’m only a novice at it I can already see the effects of this magic in myself and in my world.

If I could go back in time I would teach my younger self exactly what I’m learning now.

Feeling good is the key; practice reaching for thoughts that feel good, no matter what the circumstances.

My favourite thing to do right now is to sit and simply feel good.

Well I say “simply” but I’m also aware that by feeling good I’m allowing this magic to spread within myself and through the farthest reaches of my reality.

In untold and mysterious ways, my feeling good benefits and improves everything and everyone around me.

My feeling good works magic on the whole of life, because in fact it is “life” itself that causes the good feeling in me.

It might make more sense to some readers if instead of “feeling good” I called it meditation or contemplative prayer.

All those monks and nuns and hermits and spiritual people around the world, sitting daily or on their knees communing with God or drawing on the great reserve of love and compassion and radiating it out to the entire world: they know what they’re doing is magical. They feel their part in the deep wellspring of peace and joy that flows to all of us, even if we are not ready to receive it.

Do you know that what we call God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and exists outside of time and space? So when we pray or meditate on this pure Being we participate in something totally transcendent.

And at the same time we allow that totally transcendent Being of pure love to participate in us and in our reality.

That is why this practice feels so good that it might as well be magic.

To feel as good as possible

Focus on the word “contentment” and feel it. It might take a few seconds to really embrace the good feeling of contentment.

If you can feel contentment you can then go to a better feeling:

Appreciation

Love

Freedom

Joy

Contentment is easier and more stable, and good enough if you’re not used to feeling good.

Appreciation is also very good because we have less resistance and fewer preconceptions about it than love, joy, and freedom.

But whatever feels best to you.

Resistance

You might feel some resistance to feeling good. A bit like you’re reluctant to relax or let your guard down.

Keep focusing. The whole point is to feel the relief of letting go and allowing these good feelings.

You might also have resistance in the form of thoughts that dissuade you from the task.

But hopefully the exercise is general enough and simple enough that other thoughts don’t really have a foothold.

If they do, try to soothe the thoughts gently.

Eg. “I suck at this kind of thing” well it’s okay to suck at it. It’s just an experiment, right? I’m giving it a go, and maybe it’ll be interesting. It’d be nice to have this trick up my sleeve to feel content whenever I want to.

“This is pointless” Actually the point is to feel better and I’d like to do that more, and if I can feel better just by focusing on the feeling I want to feel then that would be worth practicing I think.

“This won’t change anything” It will give me the ability to find relief and feel better, and if nothing else were to change wouldn’t it be better to feel good rather than feel bad?

Do it all the time…eventually

My goal is to feel genuine appreciation all the time.

Feeling appreciation makes me a better person – the person I think I’m meant to be. I’m happier, more creative, much nicer to be with! People have commented on how much happier I am.

It makes my life better. I’ve already seen how feeling appreciation can transform my day from a monotony of worries and burdens to a light and easy adventure.

And the only thing I need to do is practice feeling appreciation.

From general to specific

With credit to the Abraham Hicks material, I’ve found that practicing a general feeling of appreciation eventually translates spontaneously into specific appreciation for things in life.

It’s a bit like suddenly coming into a whole heap of money and thinking “wow I’m rich!” And then after a while being inspired to spend your money in specific, good-feeling ways that enhance the feeling of well-being and prosperity.

So the more time I spend feeling appreciation, the more I will continue to notice wonderful things to appreciate in my life.

This is how feeling good really does change your life, because in consistently feeling good you are naturally drawn to entirely different aspects of your present experience and hence to a different future experience altogether.

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.

Going with the flow

The lamp of the body is the eye: if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

Some contemplatives look outward and see the underlying flow, the pattern, the mystery governing all that is.

Some contemplatives look inward and find the divine being-itself within.

Whether inside or outside, they approach a unity of vision. Perhaps it’s just a case of where they first notice it, or where they are most at home returning to it.

Synthesis

I’m different from the contemplatives, mystics, and sages whose words I’ve read, because I’ve read all their words and put them alongside one another in my own mind.

Reading into different traditions from outside those traditions and looking for the underlying commonalities and themes, my perspective remains an individual one, not belonging to any single set of teachings.

I’ve tried to see “the way” described in Daoist and East Asian Buddhist literature, the mysterious unity dynamically at play behind all phenomena.

I’ve also tried to see the divine essence in my innermost being, either there, or near there, a presence of love and light and transcendent joy that is our true identity, whether it is described as a union with God that occurs through grace when we turn toward Him, or as a pre-existing unity with the divine that has been obscured by ignorance and illusion.

Finding God within themselves, they look out and see God in everything, just as the sages who saw everything following “the way” then knew to look within for their own intimate connection with it.

Reconciling the external and the internal

When I looked outward I could see the mysterious patterns of “the way” but it did nothing to change me.

When I looked within I felt the love and joy of the divine in my innermost being, but “the world” remained impassive and impervious.

I had a strong sense of the divide between myself and “the world”.

But through slowly improving my mood, recognising the legitimacy of desire and how my experience reflects my beliefs and expectations, I’ve found that I can bridge that divide.

By both turning toward the divine in my innermost being and then looking for the mysterious pattern in the external world, I’ve found that they are one and the same thing, mutually reinforcing, and unifying my whole experience.

I have to actively do both. Actively turn toward the spark of love and joy that resides deep within us, and, when secure in that, look to the sense of pattern and connection and flow in the outside world.

Go with the flow

The flow is difficult to describe. I get it by paying attention to my field of experience as a whole. For example, when driving we can pay attention to any number of things but we ought to be aware of the other users of the road around us.

If we were sitting by the side of the road at a busy intersection we might be able to look at the many vehicles as taking part in the greater flow of traffic. We could get a feel for the flow that transcends but is present in the multitude of vehicles and drivers and passengers and their individual actions and behaviours.

Can you do that while you yourself are part of the traffic?

The Zen monk Takuan Soho described this aspect of the way like so:

“When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

Creation unfolds moment by moment, and there’s a correlation across all things in the one moment, just as much as there is continuity of one thing across many moments.

Attending to this correlation or flow points us intuitively towards the invisible “way” that governs the flow.

This “way” is the proper object of attention externally, just as the divine spark within us is the proper object of attention internally.

In other traditions this flow or way might be described as God’s will, or the sense of God’s presence in all things. Perhaps it takes different forms for different people.

It still takes practice. I find that fears and worries and grasping for certain outcomes obscures my sense of the flow. At the same time, there’s an inner reluctance to turn toward the love and joy within me, which is puzzling but points to the various traditions’ interpretation of torpor or sloth or an unwillingness to embrace the joy that is available to us right now.

Yet there is also immense consolation in the direct experience of union as the sounds of traffic, my baby daughter wriggling in her bouncer, the tweeting of birds, and the pulsing of my own heart-beat converge with the deep and mysterious sense of love and joy within me.

Stages of positive thinking

My journey into positive thinking has gone through a couple of different stages so far.

Decrease negatives, increase positives

In the first stage my focus was mostly on feeling less bad.

I tried to soften the impact of my most negative thoughts on a number of subjects, and at the same time inject more optimism into my life on other subjects.

The biggest positive of all was the thought that this positive-thinking stuff might actually work!

I liken this stage to being a beginner at any skill or hobby: a beginner tries to decrease the number and frequency of their most egregious mistakes, the kinds of mistakes that make them want to give up entirely.

At the same time, a beginner benefits from being inspired, star-struck even, by the greatest examples in their field. These positive examples inspire hope and optimism.

But a beginner really has no idea of the scope of the skill. They can’t even imagine how much time or effort will be required to gain proficiency. Even if they think the task is enormous, they really have no idea how enormous it is.

Watch your thoughts systematically

Eventually I had the feeling that I wasn’t making as much headway as I would like.

I’d seen some genuine improvements, but they were more haphazard than the material suggested they should be.

I mulled on this for a while. It had been perhaps six months since I really started, six months of unsystematic practice.

Finally it dawned on me that I really needed to work at this. When they said “every thought is either making you feel better or feel worse”, they really meant every thought.

I decided to make the effort to focus on every single thought, daunting though this may seem.

This is just like when the beginner realises they must seriously apply themselves in order to gain skill. It’s all very well to dabble in a skill or art and see occasional improvement following occasional inspiration, but eventually you want to see your efforts rewarded. You want to make real progress.

And the effort paid off rapidly.

I very quickly observed that indeed each and every thought either contributed positively or negatively to my emotional state, with a 1:1 relationship between thoughts and feelings.

The greatest byproduct of this close attention to thoughts was to rapidly reduce the severity of my negative thoughts.

Paying such close attention, my mind suddenly made the connection between the negative thought and the negative feeling, and automatically softened the thought accordingly.

Wanting more

It’s been a couple of weeks since I started observing my thoughts like this, and the results were impressive.

But gradually I began to feel as if I’d plateaued.

It’s great to reduce the severity of negative thoughts and feelings, but the absence of negativity is not the same as positivity.

Feeling neutral isn’t the same as feeling good.

Breaking the feedback loop

The explanation for this plateau appears to be a kind of feedback loop.

Reducing negatives is great, but if we are consistently focused on external reality as our point of reference, we will never advance beyond that point.

In learning a skill we would always be exposed to a teacher and peers who are more advanced, pushing us to improve our own performance.

But in positive thinking, your experience always reflects your own thoughts. Therefore, the answer is to let the quality of our thoughts improve without regard to external reality.

Don’t let external reality be the determinant of your thoughts or feeling. In practice this might mean taking the time to “meditate” and allow thoughts and feelings to improve, trusting that external reality will eventually catch up.

Otherwise, we will keep repeating the same quality of thought over and over, and experiencing the same quality of experience over and over.

Breaking the feedback loop is as easy as letting go of that focus on external reality. Why let the momentum of past experience determine how you feel?

 

Mindfulness for people who hate mindfulness

I tried mindfulness in the past. It didn’t work, and I developed reservations about the purpose and direction of mindfulness as a movement or fad.

I’m not alone in being critical. Edwin Ng wrote a great piece from a Buddhist perspective, critiquing aspects of the mindfulness movement:

this initial reception of sensorial and perceptual impressions with non-reactive awareness has to be followed through with the ardent application of what is described in Buddhist teachings as appropriate attention and the clear comprehension of the conditionality of phenomenal reality-selfhood…

In this way, mindfulness is guided by an ethical imperative which requires the practitioner to cultivate a wise and compassionate ethos of care and engagement towards self, others and the world. Mindfulness is, therefore, not exactly non-judgmental but rather entails an ongoing evaluative task of being heedful and discerning about the intentions driving the actions of body, speech and mind.

I think this is the difficulty I encountered in practicing mindfulness. It’s generally promoted as non-judgemental awareness, but I think people are either misunderstanding what non-judgmental means, or merely repeating a principle they don’t literally apply to their own practice.

Non-judgmental could mean “don’t beat yourself up for having bad thoughts”. In other words, don’t judge if judging adds another layer of reaction to your awareness.

But mindfulness can’t be truly non-judgmental in the sense of not preferring some states of mind over others. At the very least, mindfulness practice must prefer being mindful over being unmindful.

Mindfulness and positive thinking

I’ve begun using mindfulness as part of my positive thinking work, because I finally understood that the relationship between thoughts and feelings is immediate.

In other words, if I’m feeling bad it’s because I’ve just had a negative thought.

Today I walked past the mechanic and felt bad, because my mind turned to the thought of when I need to get my car serviced, and from there to a general thought about all the hassles and responsibilities I have in life.

That train of thought is guaranteed to make me feel bad, and produce a greater sense of life’s burdens in me.

But if I’m mindful, I’m paying attention to each and every thought I have, and noticing the immediate emotional reaction to it.

Esther Hicks’ material refers to this as our “emotional guidance system”, which tells us whether our thoughts are in alignment or out of alignment with our desires and the perspective of our “inner being”.

Without getting into the metaphysics of that system, the point is that your emotions are always giving you immediate feedback on the direction your thoughts are taking you.

The self-aware mind

What happens in mindfulness is that the mind itself becomes aware of the connection between thoughts and emotional feedback.

I began paying attention to my thoughts – all of them, one after the other – and to my surprise it was as though my mind began regulating itself, diminishing the intensity of negative thoughts as the correlation between thought and feeling became clear.

If we are not aware, we don’t see the connection, and we persist in focusing on thoughts that make us feel worse and worse.

Hicks explains that if you put your hand on a hot stove you know immediately what is wrong and pull your hand away. That we don’t do the same for negative thoughts is due in part to lack of awareness of cause and effect, and in part to the insistence of others that such thoughts are necessary, realistic, and somehow virtuous to hold.

So practicing mindfulness in the context of positive thinking really is valuable, because it amounts to a highly focused and disciplined application of the basic principles. You wouldn’t consciously put your hand on a hot stove, and you won’t consciously focus on thoughts that make you feel bad either.