Self-inflicted spiritual damage

As a teenager I found some books on mysticism, meditation, and spirituality and saw in them an answer to my problems.

But recently I’ve been reviewing them and recognising how, far from providing help, they set me further on a harmful path of emotional inhibition, withdrawal from life, and confusing alterations in consciousness.

Today I revisited a short book called Practical Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. Here’s an excerpt from it:

First, the subject of your meditation begins, as you surrender to its influence, to exhibit unsuspected meaning, beauty, power.  A perpetual growth of significance keeps pace with the increase of attention which you bring to bear on it; that attention which is the one agent of all your apprehensions, physical and mental alike.  It ceases to be thin and abstract.  You sink as it were into the deeps of it, rest in it, “unite” with it; and learn, in this still, intent communion, something of its depth and breadth and height, as we learn by direct intercourse to know our friends.

Moreover, as your meditation becomes deeper it will defend you from the perpetual assaults of the outer world.  You will hear the busy hum of that world as a distant exterior melody, and know yourself to be in some sort withdrawn from it.  You have set a ring of silence between you and it; and behold! within that silence you are free.  You will look at the colored scene, and it will seem to you thin and papery: only one among countless possible images of a deeper life as yet beyond your reach. 

And gradually, you will come to be aware of an entity, a You, who can thus hold at arm’s length, be aware of, look at, an idea – a universe – other than itself.  By this voluntary painful act of concentration, this first step upon the ladder which goes – as the mystics would say – from “multiplicity to unity,” you have to some extent withdrawn yourself from that union with unrealities, with notions and concepts, which has hitherto contented you; and at once all the values of existence are changed.  “The road to a Yea lies through a Nay.”  You, in this preliminary movement of recollection, are saying your first deliberate No to the claim which the world of appearance makes to total possession of your consciousness: and are thus making possible some contact between that consciousness and the World of Reality.

Now turn this new purified and universalized gaze back upon yourself.  Observe your own being in a fresh relation with things, and surrender yourself willingly to the moods of astonishment, humility, joy – perhaps of deep shame or sudden love – which invade your heart as you look. 

So doing patiently, day after day, constantly recapturing the vagrant attention, ever renewing the struggle for simplicity of sight, you will at last discover that there is something within you – something behind the fractious, conflicting life of desire – which you can recollect, gather up, make effective for new life.  You will, in fact, know your own soul for the first time, and learn that there is a sense in which this real You is distinct from, an alien within, the world in which you find yourself, as an actor has another life when he is not on the stage. 

When you do not merely believe this but know it; when you have achieved this power of withdrawing yourself, of making this first crude distinction between appearance and reality, the initial stage of the contemplative life has been won.  It is not much more of an achievement than the first proud effort in which the baby stands upright for a moment and then relapses to the more natural and convenient crawl: but it holds within it the same earnest of future development.

Reading this now makes me feel ill. But back then it promised so much. Maybe it kept me going and gave me hope, but honestly I can make little sense of it now.

On the basis of this text and others like it I threw myself into mental contortions that became ingrained over time. I developed an attitude of depreciating “appearances” and longing for the vague “something within” that would supposedly become new life.

I feel angry at the harm this text did me. In hindsight I see it’s inadequacies and faults, though I surely wasn’t it’s intended audience.

I think it’s unfair to criticise it out of its own context, nonetheless it’s clear to me that the text itself is a grandiose and poetic attempt to take contemplative mysticism out of its context and exhort people everywhere to have a go.

Maybe the things she describes work for some people, but I think they are more likely an individual approach, and as we discovered with the mindfulness fad: spiritual methods are not “one size fits all”.

Using absorption and heightened self-consciousness to search for a more “significant” reality set me up for a form of dissociation that persisted on an habitual level for years.

I’ve since found it’s far better simply to find ways of feeling better, rather than using psychological tricks to change my perception of reality.

Other people’s bad moods

I used to feel responsibility and fear of other people’s bad moods and negative emotions.

But like everything in my experience, how I feel is not determined by circumstances (including the circumstance of other people being moody). How I feel is determined by my thoughts about circumstances.

For example: “he’s in a mood again!” feels pretty bad. I could sit, tense with anxiety, because I think someone expressing unhappiness or frustration is the foreshadowing of angry outbursts and cruel attacks on bystanders like me.

And in most cases I’d be wrong. Not just wrong, but blinded to the many positive aspects of the other person’s experience of contrast, blind to the value it holds for them and me, and at worst unwittingly contributing to the outcome I fear.

For all I know they might look up from their moderate feelings of frustration to catch me staring sidelong at them as if they are something horrible.

For all I know, my fearfulness contributes to their sense of dissatisfaction and overshadows the ease and happiness that is there even in the midst of a bad mood.

And for all I know the reality might be entirely benign. A moment’s contrast amidst a sea of calm, but I fly off in panic and stick the label “bad mood” over the whole day.

Is the bad mood in them or in me?

I don’t really know how other people are feeling, but if I’m sensing a dark and foreboding mood then that mood is active in me too.

Even if someone is in a bad mood, how does that effect me?

No, a bad mood is just another circumstance, and it’s my resistance that makes it seem so dire.

It’s therefore within my power to ease my thoughts and find relief, either by changing the subject of my focus or by telling a new story about it.

What is a bad mood?

What is a bad mood after all, except misaligned thoughts creating negative feelings.

The person in question is experiencing contrast, and their emotional guidance tells them their thoughts are out of alignment.

It’s actually nothing to do with me, anymore than my emotional guidance is the “fault” of others.

In fact my guidance is telling me, in my fear of others’ moods, that I have the wrong idea about them. Other people’s moods can have no impact on me, because other people do not create my experience.

Other people do not decide what thoughts I will think, what stories I will tell. Other people do not control my perception and focus.

When I was a child people’s bad moods scared me because I thought they were about me, reflections of my self giving rise to anger and malice in others. I interpreted their moods as judgement, and anticipated a terrible punishment to follow.

Now I’m an adult and I understand how things work. Other people’s negative emotions are not about me, but about their own thoughts, stories and perceptions.

Change your perception

I’m lying here on the couch and my wife is watching a video with headphones on, and it sounds like she’s sobbing her heart out.

Except she’s actually laughing her arse off, quietly so as not to wake the baby.

My thoughts lead me to hear crying before I hear laughter (don’t worry, I checked) and that’s just a matter of practice and momentum.

What kinds of thoughts can we have to help soften our experience of others’ emotions?

People are happy most of the time. People are usually in a good mood. People have their own emotional guidance to help them find alignment. People have their own inner being to call them always towards happiness and joy.

Sometimes people get stuck in their resistance but it’s okay. Being stuck just increases their desire for freedom.

And if people are resisting, and feeling really strong guidance, I hope they get it. I hope they heed the call. I hope they learn to feel good too, as good as I feel right now.

I’ve had my own resistance too. I’ve dug my own hole deeper than it ever needed to be, and that’s how I understand now that it was never necessary to increase my suffering.

I can really relate to people in a state of resistance feeling strong guidance, and that’s why I feel good for them. I know the joy and the trust and the ease and the freedom that flows to them, even though right at this moment they are looking away from it.

I know how good life can be for them, and with that loving intention I can let them go, knowing that they will find their answers too. Knowing that there’s nothing really “wrong” about a bad mood.

Islam, terrorism, and the Westboro Baptists

I’ve been trying to steer clear of references to the Westboro Baptist Church because it does get dragged out as the half-baked Christian equivalent of “Islamic extremism”. But in replying to comments on my latest article at MercatorNet, I think the comparison is apt:

Why have Muslims not spoken out in criticism of terrorists who give Islam a bad name? That’s a very good question, and a very complicated question, because – as I’ve been suggesting – Islam is diverse and complicated.

I’m sure we can agree that some Muslims have criticised the terrorists. You don’t have to search far on the web to find examples. Why do these criticisms not seem sufficient? Perhaps because we do not understand the situation well enough? Perhaps we imagine that if all the Muslims stood up and protested against terrorism, it would end?

And I can appreciate your point, given that we have never seen worldwide protests by Muslims against the Jihadists. Hence the suspicion that they are secretly sympathetic to the Jihadists’ aims.

However, my suspicion is that for the majority of Muslims, Western perceptions of Islam are not as salient as they are for us. Let me offer an analogy: when the Westboro Baptist Church appears on the tv news in Australia, I find that people without much understanding of Christianity interpret it as merely the worst instance of fundamentalist Christian insanity in the US, and the onus is on other Christians to disavow them and their declarations of animosity toward homosexuality.

Actual Christians tend to respond differently – not with expressions of contempt and criticism for the WBC, but with criticism and contempt for the media, for presenting the WBC as though they are anything more than a bizarre little fringe group. In other words, they don’t blame the WBC for giving Christians a bad name, they blame the media for being so ignorant as to portray the WBC as Christians. They actually think the media reports of the WBC are indicative of deeper anti-Christian sentiment.

So when someone asks a Catholic, for example, “do you think ‘God hates fags'”? The answer is of course “no.” But then the follow-up question is something like “so you’re in favour of same-sex marriage then?” and the answer is “no” again; leaving some people with the impression that Catholics really do think that God hates homosexuals, they just don’t have the guts or the brazenness to admit it openly like the WBC and other such groups.

Very few people are willing or able to get involved in the more complex philosophical or theological discussion that goes to the heart of distinctions between different Christian denominations and their attitudes to homosexuality.

What I’m interested in is the detailed and complex discussions that take place within Islam; because I’m not content to persist with superficial dichotomies that don’t reward us with real understanding of the situation.

I suspect, but am yet to verify, that for many Muslims the equation of terrorism with Islam is primarily the preoccupation of Westerners who have from the outset only a dim understanding of Islam, and who view Jihadism as only the most extreme reflection of ubiquitous Islamic sentiments. We’re effectively saying “I think you’re all terrorists at heart; can you prove you’re not?”

The fact is that like the Catholic/WBC example, we may find the truth is not to our liking anyway. We probably don’t want to hear from various branches of Islam that: no, they do not support terrorism, but at the same time they do view our society as godless, decadent, and ultimately destined to convert or collapse. How well do you think that would go over?

Most Islamic nations have far bigger problems on their hands than bad press in the West. In that sense I’m not surprised that ordinary Muslims around the globe do not try harder to reassure us they do not support Salafi Jihadists.