Repentance for the disenchanted

I succumbed to disenchantment at a young age and took for truth my fear that there was nothing magical or mysterious in this world.

That’s what led me to investigate religion. Not the outer form but the inner essence, the mystics and sages and saints who performed strange feats and spoke of an utterly different relationship with reality.

I divided life into the sacred and the mundane, the mysterious and the miserable.

Yet this very division was an error that made most of life a misery to me, a self-fulfilling prophecy of disenchantment as I tried to push back against the banality around me.

Turning mysticism inside out

All the mystics spoke of a transformed vision of reality. They went to the very heart of existence and their eyes were opened to the true beauty of all things.

I tried to follow the same path, but my experiences were fleeting, ironically because I was so desperate for that transformation.

Like a clingy guy who pushes people away with his neediness, I was so fierce in my disenchantment that even God couldn’t make me appreciate this “ordinary” existence.

Even now I take for granted my deep antipathy for modern life. I’ve written screeds that only touch upon my full disdain for modern ugliness and meaninglessness, projecting my own unhappiness onto an entire planet.

All the this time I never thought disenchantment might be my fault, something I was doing rather than being done to me.

Too many people talk about having to grow up and accept harsh realities of life, it can’t be just me that resents and despairs of it, right?

No, it’s not just me. But that doesn’t make it the truth either. A delusion can be shared but that doesn’t make it reality.

I’m the one who chose to see the world that way, and of course I found evidence to support my choice.

It may have been an unconscious choice but it was still a choice, and one I repeated over and over for years.

Forgiving reality

Forgiveness might not be the right word but forgiving reality for being mundane, crappy, ugly, and bland goes some way to realising that maybe it isn’t like that after all.

Repentance might not be the right word either, but perhaps we disenchanted cynical and disillusioned people can accept that this very attitude of ours is what keeps us stuck in an unwanted reality.

I’m the one focusing on the ugliness and banality around me. I’m the one telling a story about a bleak and empty world. I’m the one wishing life was different and constantly reminding myself “but it’s not!”

I’m the one who approached mysticism as a way to transform the unwanted reality that I myself created.

And I’m also the one who undermined every moment of transcendence, quickly checking to see if things had “changed” yet.

In the Abraham Hicks material that’s called “keeping score” and it tends to undermine any actual progress in feeling better.

Feeling better about life

There’s a subtle yet profound difference between clinging to a problem and receiving a solution.

Often people sound like they are wanting a solution when in fact they just want to reiterate their problems.

But after a while it becomes obvious.

It’s obvious to me that my focus has been firmly on the “problem”, my unwanted aspects of life.

I’ve lived and breathed disenchantment, mistaking it for truth and reinforcing my own powerlessness and despair.

And how was that working out for me?

It’s time to take a deep breath and appreciate that the disenchantment was in my thoughts alone.

I create my reality, and by focusing on thoughts of disenchantment and banality I created more of the same.

But I also have the power to change my focus. I can find thoughts that match the enchantment, wonder, and excitement I have yearned for.

I can re-enchant reality as easily as finding thoughts that feel good to me.

A good place to start would be the exact opposite of the unwanted. If I don’t want disenchantment and banality then what do I want? What story would I prefer and to tell?

And if the answer is “I don’t know” then that right there was the real problem all along. Not reality, not banality, not other people, but my own unfamiliarity with the stuff of my desires.

Life is here to be enjoyed

Life is here to be enjoyed, I am here to enjoy life.

That is such a difficult thing for me to write.

I know it sounds strange, but I’ve spent more than twenty years explicitly thinking that enjoyment is a superficial distraction from the real meaning of life.

With a childhood in which enjoyment was scarce and a temperament prone to sensitivity and idealism, I accepted at face value that “enjoying life” was something that other people did, and to the detriment of finding meaning or purpose.

I looked critically at mainstream sanguine and choleric expressions of enjoyment, and let these stand for “enjoying life” and “having fun”. It didn’t occur to me that I might find my own forms of fun and enjoyment in life.

And anyway, there was a slew of mystics, sages and saints to reassure me that enjoyment and fun were vain, pointless adventures that would leave me empty and full of regrets.

Religious deprogramming

There’s a familiar trope of people who rebel against their childhood religious indoctrination, and need to search out for themselves valid and fulfilling beliefs about life, happiness, and their own identity and value.

I’m doing that now, but the terrain I’m covering is a little more varied and eclectic due to my own early search for deeper meaning and purpose.

I can’t remember all the books I read, and my mistaken beliefs are an amalgamation of many different sources, because I adhered to no single creed or set of teachings.

For example, I’ve gone back and reread parts of Awareness by Anthony de Mello, and I can see how I took that text and interpreted it in my own way, oblivious to my own idiosyncrasies or those of the author.

Yesterday I reread a little about Bede Griffiths, and reading between the lines, the guy had a difficult life and his own fair share of problems. Would the answers that he found really be appropriate for me, two generations later, in completely different circumstances of life?

Just now I’ve taken a quick look back at the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, and I can see immediately that his work is decidedly not for me. Wrong temperament, maybe even the wrong teaching, and something that clearly contributed to my sense of needing to battle against an internal enemy, whether it be called Ego or Thought.

In recent years I’ve come to respect my desire to arrive at my own conclusions and my reluctance to invest in anyone else’s point of view. But it was not always the case, and I feel it’s now time to let go of these authorities I discovered and appointed for myself.

Perhaps in a sweeping clean of my past willingness to believe, I can say that: only what speaks to me is of value to me. It doesn’t matter that a person is a saint or a sage or a seer; their inscrutable or obscure insights are their own and not mine, and it’s for me to test them and apply them, not take them on faith and try to force myself to fit.

Do I deserve to enjoy life?

At the heart of this is a question of whether I myself deserve to enjoy life, or whether I must instead change myself, become better, be transformed. Transformation is what I sought in the writings of these mystics. But no matter how hard I tried to change myself, all I found was more and more dissatisfaction with my life, my self, and the whole of reality.

When I looked for answers I hoped those answers would show me the way out, out of unhappiness and suffering, out of the mundane world, out of my mundane self.

And in part that simply reflected the confusion and unhappiness of my early life, but it also reflected a sense that I wasn’t good enough as I was, did not deserve to enjoy life or be happy.

When I think about how we create our own reality through the filter of our thoughts and expectations and feelings, I can see how fitting it was that “enjoyment” looked crass and empty to me, and the things I would have truly enjoyed seemed too distant or ethereal or unachievable.

And my memories of feeling deeply insecure and unworthy when good things did happen completes the picture.

Because there were always good things there, I just didn’t think I deserved to have them, and feeling undeserving I sought to change myself to become worthy of the freedom, love and happiness I wanted.

That is why my prayers went unanswered – I was praying to not be me. Or I prayed to be rid of unwanted conditions, all the while clinging to the thoughts and feelings that exacerbated and created those conditions.

Feeling better is unconditional

Lately I’ve discovered that I do not need conditions to change in order for me to feel better.

That includes the internal conditions I have set such stock in: solving problems, finding answers, understanding, engaging with negative emotions, making progress.

I don’t need to do any of that to feel better, because feeling better is intrinsic to our nature. It is only the conditions we set upon it that keep us from naturally feeling better.

So when I ask whether I deserve to enjoy life, I think the question must be flawed, because feeling better is unconditional and enjoying life is something that flows naturally from feeling better.

If I can naturally feel better simply by not placing any conditions on it, then what is the relevance of desert? Why do I have to deserve to feel better, in addition to simply being able to feel better?

It’s actually exciting to know that enjoying life will flow naturally from feeling better, which in turn flows naturally from not placing conditions on it.

And feeling excited about life is a very good place to be!

Rethinking a spiritual quest

I had a pretty unhappy childhood, but found refuge and escape in fantasy books.

After a while I realised all my friends were growing up, and I was left still wishing I could escape into one of the fantasy worlds from my novels.

I hid my interest in fantasy stories for fear of being ridiculed, and did my best to fit in, all the time wishing there was more to life than the mundane world I saw around me.

Eventually I discovered mysticism, through the writings of a Jesuit named Anthony De Mello. I followed up all the quotations and references in his books, searching for more traces of the “Golden String” described by the Christian monk and interpreter of Hindu and Buddhist teaching, Bede Griffiths.

In the world’s religious and spiritual traditions I found a cast of real characters who most closely resembled the sorcerers, wizards, and adventurers of my fantasy novels. The sages, saints, shamans, and seers had found the pinnacle of meaning in life, many of them even exhibiting mysterious and supernatural powers.

I plunged into every text I could find, interpreting it to the best of my ability.

I was convinced that the suffering in my life, the mundanity I sought to escape, was a manifestation of the universal suffering and dissatisfaction attested by the world’s religions. My problem was a universal problem.

What I got right was that there is a source of divine, transcendent love, goodness, truth, and light within us and accessible to us.

What I got right was that depending on external circumstances for our happiness was like building a house upon the sand.

But what I got wrong was my conclusion that all of life, the whole material world, was therefore a shipwreck or a pit of fire, something wholly negative and insubstantial and best to just escape from.

I depreciated and devalued every scrap of happiness and meaning in life, thinking that if I rejected the world with enough totality I would have only the truth left to support me.

That didn’t work out too well.

The net effect was that I continued to live a relatively “normal” life, but accentuated and concentrated my sense that ordinary life was devoid of meaning and full of unhappiness.

I conflated my personal unhappiness with the spiritual teaching that life is suffering.

Looking back, I would have been better off focusing on whatever made me feel better, softening the self-critical and anxious thoughts that led me to abandon my interests.

Instead I developed the strong belief that I must urgently find “the answer” that would help me transcend the world of suffering and turmoil and find the peace and happiness I was searching for.

Teenagers probably shouldn’t be reading about “dying to self” and “letting go of the ego”. In a formative stage of life it is too easy for spiritual teachings to be conflated with adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms, and there’s a danger that legitimately powerful teachings become familiar and lose their impact when we are not ready to receive them.

It reminds me of this Koan from the Gateless Gate:

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.

Or another line that I can’t recall the origin of: If the world sends people to hell, Buddhism can save them. But if Buddhism sends people to hell, what will save them?

But the biggest weakness of my spiritual quest is that it didn’t bring me to happiness. Instead of liberating me from harmful beliefs it reinforced them, and I delved deeper into depression and anxiety, convinced that the solution lay in closer embrace of the problem.

I want to start rethinking aspects of this quest. Appreciating the things I got right in light of the things I got wrong. It’s been long enough that my attempt to find a solution has itself become a part of the problem, an obstacle rather than a source of relief.

For one thing, why assume that the world is intrinsically unsatisfying on the basis of a teenager’s experience and worldview?

Why assume that my negative experiences are the final word on so-called “mundane” life?

I would be happier if life were going better for me; that’s not a weakness or a failing, that’s just normal.

How do I reconcile this normal attitude with the deeper truth that happiness comes from within?

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.

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.

What do you really want?

When working out my approach to diet, I arrived at a very strange and powerful moment.

I knew that losing weight was objectively simple: eat substantially less food, and your body will consume more of its own reserves.

And I was under the impression that I really wanted to lose weight.

So why didn’t I follow that objectively simple path?

Cognitive dissonance

I remember this powerful moment so clearly, the feeling of astonishment at uncovering a deeper level of my psyche, and the self-deception at play.

It seemed that my strong desire to lose weight was not as strong as I thought…or that it might be more accurately described as “a strong desire to be thinner without changing any of my behaviour”.

At that time I resolved the tension in my own mind by redefining “want” or “desire”.

A want or desire is an intentional state. It motivates us to action. Therefore if no action occurs it is not accurate to say we “want” or “desire”.

I like that idea

To make sense of my behaviour I changed my story:

I really like the idea of being lean, but I enjoy the pleasure of eating too much to change my behaviour and actually lose weight.

Do you see how powerful that is? It might sound like admitting defeat, but the alternative wasn’t “victory” but self-deception.

I had been telling myself “I want to lose weight, but it’s really hard”. Changing the story showed that I didn’t really want to lose weight in the sense of having the necessary motivation to change my behaviour.

Think about the things you want in life. I want to go to the bathroom -> so go. I want a glass of water -> so get one. I want to lose weight -> so eat less. I want to play the piano -> so practice.

If I want to play the piano but I don’t practice, then it’s probably more accurate to say “I wish I could play the piano, but I don’t want to do the requisite practice”, or “I wish I magically knew how to play the piano without having to go through the trouble of actually learning.”

The paradox

Paradoxically, changing my story to more accurately describe how I felt gave me more motivation to change my behaviour.

Realising that I didn’t want to lose weight made me want to lose weight, because I saw quite clearly that the path I was on did not lead to a good place.

If losing weight is easy, why does it feel so hard? Because we don’t really want to change our behaviour. Why would we?

Changing my story again

Redefining “want” to mean a motivational state that leads to action is a bit extreme. It could be equally true to say we have numerous conflicting wants or desires of varying strengths and intensities.

The real value in that story I told was the clarity, seeing myself clearly and seeing through my self-deception.

It was so empowering to realise that the path was not hard, I was just deeply ambivalent about walking it.

Do I want to be profoundly happy?

I’ve arrived at another powerful and momentous question, this time not about food and body weight, but my ability to be profoundly happy, feel profoundly good in this very moment.

My forays into mysticism and spiritual practice have shown me time and again that we have the ability to find true love and joy deep within us. The only thing that stands in our way is…our own reluctance to embrace it.

Admittedly there’s a lot of confusion and conflicting messages out there about spiritual practice, just as there is about weight loss and diet.

But I’ve studied enough to be satisfied that the path is actually very simple for me.

All that remains is the mysterious fact that I’m so reluctant to walk the path.

Facing our own resistance

The question is why?

Why would I not want to feel profoundly good right now?

So far the answers are

“That’s not what life is about”

“I need to face reality”

…and the ingrained sense that struggle is somehow more rewarding or necessary or unavoidable so you might as well face it.

This struggle is captured in various traditions, but the one that comes to mind is:

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Clarity will yield desire

As with the weight-loss example, seeing clearly my own reluctance – that the path is simple, I’m just reluctant to walk it – will gradually build my desire.

After all, feeling profoundly good right now would be…profoundly good. And realising that the only obstacle is my own obstinacy is the quickest way to wear it down, change my mind, and soften my heart.

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.

God in our innermost being: Mundaka Upanishad

For those who are interested, the Mundaka Upanishad depicts precisely the relationship between innermost being and the outer self described in my previous post.

MANTRA NO. 1:
Two birds living together, each the friend of the other, perch upon the same tree. Of these two, one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, but the other simply looks on without eating.

MANTRA NO. 2:
In the self-same tree the individual (bird) is drowned in grief because of delusion and impotency. When it beholds the other (bird), viz., the adorable Lord, it realises its own glory and gets freed from sorrow.

MANTRA NO. 3:
When the knowing individual has the vision of the intelligent creator, the Lord, the Purusha, the Brahman which is the source of all, then it shakes off both merit and demerit, and having become taintless, attains to supreme equality with the Lord.

MANTRA NO 4:
In all beings this one supreme life manifests itself. Knowing this, the wise one does not speak of anything else. Having his sport in the Self, bliss in the Self, and action in the Self, he is the best among the knowers of Brahman.

MANTRA NO. 5:
The Atman is attained through truth, penance, correct knowledge and Brahmacharya (self-control), observed continuously without break. The Atman is beheld within in the form of light and purity by the austere ones who are freed from all kinds of sins.

MANTRA NO. 6:
Truth alone triumphs; not falsehood. Through truth the divine path is spread out by which the sages whose desires have been completely fulfilled, reach to where is that supreme treasure of Truth.

MANTRA NO. 7:
That which is supremely expansive, divine, of unthinkable form, subtler than the subtle, much farther than that which is far, and at the same time very near, shines and is seated in the Central Being of those who have the consciousness of That.

MANTRA NO. 8:
It is not grasped by the eye, not even by speech, nor by the other senses. It is not possible to know it through mortifications or deeds. He who meditates upon it with absolute purity (Sattva) of mind, as the partless Being, beholds it through the serenity attained in knowledge.

MANTRA NO. 9:
This subtle Atman should be known with the purified mind into which the Prana with its fivefold aspect has entered. The mind is pervaded completely by the functions of the Pranas together with the powers of the senses. In this purified mind this Atman is revealed.

MANTRA NO. 10:
Whichever region is thought of by the mind and whatever desires the man of purified mind desires, that region and those desires he obtains. Therefore, one who wishes to have prosperity should worship the knower of the Self.