Monday 27 January 2014

The Good Old Days

It's something of a cliché that every generation thinks things have gone downhill since their day. Nostalgia for what once was seems to be an integral part of being human, and we assume that's because selective memory makes us idealise the past, remembering what was good and forgetting the bad. As we get older so we get grumpier, losing our youthful enthusiasm for life. That's how the story goes anyway, and it's probably true in the main. But what if there's something more, another reason for this almost universally shared characteristic? Could it be an expression of a genuine sense of loss, something deeply felt but not properly understood?

Looking at the world from a metaphysical perspective we can envisage it as emerging pristine from its source, but then gradually descending from original purity as it travels further from the point of origin. Manifestation is the exteriorisation in time and space of a spiritual principle. It is, therefore, a fall into limitation. As the process develops there is a movement away from the principle, and increasing separation from the centre. The connection to that centre is gradually lost as matter solidifies or condenses, and the material world moves more and more to the forefront of consciousness. Focus moves from the inner to the outer until the latter appears more real than the former, which process has reached a conclusion in our day with widespread materialism, the belief that the inner has no independent existence at all.

This is what occurs. At the beginning consciousness and the world itself are still bathed in the glow of pure spirit which is their origin. But as time goes by there is a progressive materialisation and the world closes in. The spiritual realm becomes more obscured and less accessible until the moment arrives when it is denied any sort of reality whatsoever. That time is now.

An important point to make here is that this is part of a natural cycle and, as such, inevitable. However it is up to us not to become identified with the later stages of the cycle, and to stand outside the process if we would hold fast to truth. Something may be inevitable but its inevitability does not mean that we should go along with it. Indeed, perhaps part of the reason for its existence, or for our involvement in it, is precisely that we may make the choice (based on adherence to the pole of truth which is spirit) not to go along with it, and to remain faithful to the real just when the unreal appears to be triumphing. For your spiritual resolve can only be truly tested and shown to be genuine when you hold to it in spite of everything. If we understand this process as one of progressive spiritual loss we can see that it may be unavoidable from the point of view of the unfoldment of a cycle as it nears its conclusion, but it is no less necessary for us not to get caught up in the external effects of cyclical degradation.

This traces the broad path of what you might call a world cycle, the descent from a spiritual to a material polarisation, with the resulting loss of integrity (meaning here the state of being whole and undivided), and an increasing separation from the originating principle. However to see it uniquely in those terms would be too simplistic, even if, broadly speaking, it would be correct. Superimposed upon the major cycle there are many sub-cycles, and against the prevailing downward trend there appear regular restorations of spiritual order, movements that seek a return to the centre, the appearance of inspired prophets and establishment of divinely ordained religions being the clearest examples of that. There is a general pattern of increasing materialisation, a tendency away from the essential pole and towards the substantial one, like the sand falling through an hour glass, but countering that, though never entirely able to reverse the general trajectory downwards, there are minor cycles within the main one that seek to reorient consciousness to its heavenly source.

So the belief many older people have always had, that the world is getting worse, has some metaphysical justification for it. Even if the conventionally accepted explanation is largely the right one, it is not the only one. Materially there is improvement because that is where human attention is now concentrated, but from a spiritual perspective things are deteriorating as spirit is increasingly veiled by matter. This leads not only to the eventual denial of spirit but also to its misrepresentation, both of which we can see today which is undoubtedly the point in the cycle when it is close to having gone about as far as it can go. From a higher perspective this all follows the natural path of manifestation (which presumably is why it could be prophesied so accurately in various widely separated traditions), and so may be regretted but cannot be regarded as a total deviation. However it is certainly a deviation from truth, and that is why prevailing tendencies must constantly be countered. At the same time, the current condition of the world does not deviate from the expected pattern of a cycle of manifestation, in which the veiling of spirit by matter as the cycle reaches its conclusion is anticipated, and if we can accept this (while never, of course, going along with it) we can save ourselves a lot of pain. It is also true that, even though it is scant compensation for what is neglected or lost, the opportunity now arises to develop previously neglected aspects of the whole which are undoubtedly secondary but still exist.

I say that the cycle has unfolded to the point at which it is near its conclusion, and we can be confident that this is the case because the materialisation of consciousness is almost complete. I mean by this that much of humanity now believes that the outer world is the only real world, the complete opposite of what is actually the case. The sands in the hour glass have practically all trickled to the bottom. There are certainly attempts to restore some kind of spiritual approach but, inasmuch as these are often attempts to revive old forms from which the life has departed, they cannot have a very far-reaching effect. Perhaps they are a reaction to the prevailing materialism, since humanity can never truly lose all contact with spirit, or perhaps they represent intimations of a new cycle. Whatever the case may be, and whatever the effect on those who follow them, the fact is their global effect is limited and they are not going to alter the general trend.  

So what happens next? Well, what normally happens is that the hour glass is turned upside down. One cycle comes to an end and a new one begins. There is a rebirth and a restoration of the correct order of things. How this happens I am unable to say, but traditionally it takes place with a great cleansing of the old, a radical uprooting, and if the hour glass really is turned upside down that would imply the same thing. When it happens I am certainly unable to say, but it may be next year and it may be a hundred years hence or more. All we can do is prepare ourselves for that time by dedicating ourselves to the spiritual path anew each day.

Monday 20 January 2014

Advice to a Longtime Seeker

Anyone who has been on the spiritual path for a number of years is likely to come to the point one day when they seem to hit a wall. We may have started off filled with enthusiasm (an interesting word whose literal meaning is ‘possessed by a god’), and we may have had certain numinous experiences which confirm the reality of our initial vision. Our spiritual practice may have brought us a measure of peace and detachment from worldly preoccupations. People we meet on the path who share our beliefs may have provided us with companionship. But one day, even if we remain true to ourselves and that initial vision, there will come a time when the world starts to close in on us again, and our spiritual achievements, whatever they might have been, begin to seem just a little hollow.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, I think we can say that, if it doesn’t happen, something is not as it should be. In that case it may mean that we have become caught up in the outer aspects of the spiritual path or, putting it in conventional terms, that our religion, the form our practice takes, now means more to us than God, the goal of our practice.  It may mean that we have become satisfied with what we already know, or even think we know all there is to know. It may mean we have settled into the position of a spiritual teacher and gain the wrong sort of fulfilment from that position of authority.  God forbid, we may even have become a spiritual expert. In all these cases we have lost the purity of that initial vision. We have ceased to be a child.

There is always a danger for the long-term spiritual practitioner that the mind will take over from the soul as the motivating force to advance along the path, and the individual won't even realise what has happened. He may continue for the rest of his life thinking he is making excellent progress when, in actual fact, he has become spiritually becalmed. I can tell you that there are many spiritual seekers (teachers and gurus among them) who imagine they have reached the end of the path when they have merely gained a certain stage on it, and who, unless they reassess their situation with a little more humility than they currently display, will arrest any further growth and might even regress.

That is why I say that it is not necessarily a bad thing to reach a point in your practice when everything seems to dry up and you feel you are not getting anywhere. At least you recognise that you have more to learn. You are saved from spiritual complacency.

What is happening here is that you are being tested. You might have received spiritual favours in the past, but these are withdrawn to test the worthiness of your motivation, and to prepare you for the next, and higher, step. Many people take to spirituality initially for what they hope to gain from it. There is nothing inherently wrong with that to begin with, but you can't carry on in that way. You must come to the point at which personal seeking gives way to acceptance of the will of God, whatever that may be. These periods when the light is withdrawn are to prepare you for that.

The spiritual path has many stages and what is right at one point is not at another. Generally speaking, the further you advance along that path, the more you will be tested and the less you will be offered spiritual sweets to encourage you to step into the wilderness. For the path does lead through the wilderness and the road is thorny. It is so because, despite what you may have been told by teachers of the feel good and be positive variety, there is no spirituality without suffering. That is not to say that suffering is part of God’s plan for us, but it is the inevitable result of identification with the ego. It requires a measure of suffering to cleanse the soul from the canker of self. Theoretically it would be nice if this could be accomplished simply through an awareness of the truth about the separate self and the fact that it is constructed by thought. If perception could bring this about then well and good, and perhaps in some cases it does. But the reality is that perception is usually just the first step. An essential step, to be sure, but it is rare that what we know alters at a fundamental level what we are. The prising away of ego, the stripping of self, must take place at a deep, deep level and that is why we need to experience the pain of suffering. That and the fact that without suffering there is no true compassion for, if you have not suffered, how can you identify with the suffering of others?

This is why, if you look into the eyes of a saint, you see depth. This depth has been brought about by the experience of suffering but, in the case of the saint, suffering freely accepted as the agent of purification and self-cleansing.

It may seem strange to speak of spiritual emptiness as suffering. For a worldly person it just proves that it was all nonsense to begin with, and it's time to 'get real'. But for someone who has had a taste of the soul and who has perceived its reality, for someone who knows in his head and heart that the spiritual world is the real world, to be denied access to that world is indeed suffering. It is correct to say that a really spiritual person would not be attached to his spirituality (for this is what is going on here), but we are frail creatures. We may know that emotional detachment is the mark of the sage, and we may aspire to that, but you cannot expect someone on the path to behave in exactly the same way as someone who has reached the end of it – even if that is what they have to learn to do if they would progress.

So what do you do in such circumstances? Well, one thing you can profitably do is put yourself into service to others in whatever form is appropriate for you. This will take your eyes away from yourself and arrest any tendency to self-preoccupation which, along with apathy, is one of the besetting sins of many on the spiritual path.  Or else, if no such avenue opens up (and it may not), you just soldier on, living from moment to moment, forgetting self, forgetting your emotional reactions, ignoring your sense of loss and thanking the higher powers for their continual presence because, whether you feel it or not, they are there. These are the times when God is rewarding you for your efforts by withdrawing His presence. He wants nothing more than to give Himself entirely to you but He can only do that when you have given yourself entirely to Him. It is to enable you to do that that He plunges you into this darkness. You are on your own, abandoned and bereft of support. Only when you are in that state can you truly let go of self. Only when you have nothing can you be nothing, and only when you truly and absolutely know yourself to be nothing can God give Himself to you. For God is all there is, and if you would be filled by Him you must be perfectly empty of what is not Him. God is the True Self and you can only know that True Self when the false self has gone.

Monday 13 January 2014

Spirituality or Religion?

I read an article recently suggesting that spirituality and religion were two quite different, almost mutually exclusive, things with the former deriving from an inner experience of God while the latter was merely a matter of externals, of doctrines and dogmas and obedience to authority. The article maintained that spirituality meant the understanding of an essential oneness between Creator and created but with religion there was always a sense of separation between human beings and God. At one time I would have agreed with this and, up to a point, I still do but the position seems to me now to be rather subtler than such a rigid distinction between the two would imply, and I would say that the writer of this article has done what many people do. That is, he has attempted to substantiate his argument by presenting all the good aspects of the thing he wants to promote and then selected the more negative side of that which he wishes to present in an inferior light.

It is true that real spirituality goes far beyond religion of the elementary variety, that of the believer who believes what he is told to by the priests and conventions of his faith, and doesn't make much attempt to see further than that. He is satisfied with accepting outer authority and doesn’t try to internalise the teachings. However real religion goes beyond this too. Some of the most spiritual human beings on the planet have been some of the most religious people too, and, until a century or so ago, hardly anybody would have thought themselves spiritual who was not religious. So I would say it is not religion that is the problem but the mistaking of its form for its substance. Admittedly that is not uncommon but it is not religion’s fault so much as that of some of its leaders and many of its followers.

It is indisputable that the moment a divine revelation starts to be codified it becomes subject to human interpretation and its essential purity is lost. But this is true of anything which is translated from a higher level to a lower. Does it mean that we should never seek to express an intuitive insight in thought or word? The fact that such an expression descends to a lower level than the original inspiration (giving form to something inevitably restricts it) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it. Only that we should remain aware that any attempt to describe what is beyond description is necessarily limited. And that it can never capture truth (an absurd impossibility), only suggest it. It’s a cliché to say that the map is not the territory, but a map can be a great help when you want to go somewhere.

We live in the world and must bring our spiritual impressions down here if we would share them. Inevitably much will be lost in the transition but if we didn’t do this then how would we communicate anything? More importantly, what forms of guidance would there be for others who cannot yet access the spiritual realm themselves directly? And, let’s face it, that’s most of us. Besides, aren’t the advocates of spirituality rather than religion doing just what they decry in religion every time they give a talk or write anything? They too are making the abstract concrete for the purposes of aiding others.

I don’t deny that religion can, and often does, descend into rules and regulations but that is when it falls into the hands of the power hungry and the ignorant. It exists primarily as spiritual guidance, a means of reconnecting earthbound and fallen man with his source in God. It does not seek to replace that link unless it has become corrupted (which, of course, it often does). It seeks to restore it.

There is another point worth considering here. Today much that is called spirituality leans towards self-indulgence for if religion can lapse into observance of outer rules and regulations so spirituality, or what is called that, can descend into seeking what is personally satisfactory and coincides with pre-existing prejudices. Spirituality may offer a direct connection to the source, in theory, but what if you are not able to make that connection or not able to make a true connection? At least the principal religions are based on divine revelation and they contain an experience and authority that goes beyond that of just one individual, having been honed and refined by many great saints and mystics over the years. They have been thoroughly road-tested. On the other hand spirituality without religion can mean following a path pleasing to the ego, a path without challenge or sacrifice that has as its object the fulfillment of desire. Of course, I am doing here just what I claimed the writer of the article that started me off on this train of thought was doing in pointing out the potential deficiencies of spirituality without religion, but only in the interests of balance and fairplay!

Despite all I have just written I myself have never been able to subscribe to any particular religion, and this for two reasons. Firstly, it it undoubtedly the case that all religions are in a state of decline and have been for some time. They are well past their prime, and the original spark that lit them is dying out with the consequence that their ability to inspire and enlighten is vastly diminished. Religions are not eternal and follow the same pattern of birth, development, maturity, old age and death as everything else. So all religions, as they exist today, have lost the connection to the world of spirit they once had. Make no mistake, they did once have this connection but the further they travel in time from their origin the more they become materialised and lose it. There is a balance between spirit and matter, life and form, in any true religion. When that balance becomes weighted too heavily on the side of form the religion becomes a belief system rather than a pathway to God.

Secondly, I do actually agree with the statement that spirituality is a higher form of religion since spirituality, truly considered and lived, is the reality of which religion is only a presentation in the lower worlds. Religion in this respect is a crutch which we must eventually throw away if we are to walk unaided. The point is though that to throw away our crutches before we can walk unaided is foolishness at best and arrogance at worst, and if you believe you can walk when you can't you are likely to fall flat on your face. With that thought here's something the Masters said on the subject of traditions and conventions that, with a little alteration, seems to me to be appropriate to our present subject. They told me that conventions and traditions have their place in the world, some good, some not so good but still valid at some level, and, whilst most of them would be outgrown in time, they should be understood before they were rejected.

 So it is with religion. We need to go beyond it to find truth but it exists to help us get to the point where we can go beyond it. To reject it before we have got to that point risks leaving us floundering in a spirituality of egotism. But, at the same time, to hold onto it after a certain point shows an inability to distinguish between a lantern and its light. Religion only exists to serve spirituality.

Sunday 5 January 2014

The Nativity

The birth of Christ is routinely dismissed nowadays as a fable, a religious myth of interest only to school children for their nativity plays or believers who really should know better than to give credit to such an obvious fairy story. It’s a pretty tale but clearly made up, or so runs contemporary opinion. Now I am not a member of any particular branch of the Christian religion, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Nativity was one of the most important events in the history of humanity. Certainly, in terms of its impact on the human race, the life of Christ is the most significant life ever lived.

Here, though, I am interested in the story of his birth, and while I do concede that this may well contain elements of myth I maintain that it is a true myth, which is to say it has symbolical truth but there is literal truth as well. All I have to substantiate this claim is intuition, or faith as it might once have been called, but it is deeply felt and I have been told to trust it. Intuition, if genuinely sensed and devoid of what is personally desired, can be mistaken as regard to particulars but is usually right insofar as the substance is concerned. It may be countered that I just want the story of Christ to be true, but I don’t especially. Spiritual truth would remain whether it were or not. But I am convinced that the birth of Christ was the greatest breakthrough from the spiritual realm into this one there has ever been. It was the irruption of light from the higher world into the darkness of this physical world, and that light illuminated everything it touched. Nothing was the same thereafter.

The birth of a divine child was a common component of ancient myths, and that fact is often taken as a valid reason to dismiss the story of Christ's coming into this world. It's just one more version of the same old thing, updated for the propaganda purposes of a new cult. But what if the old tales were fictional expressions of an archetypal truth that attained full reality with the birth of Jesus? What if two thousand years ago the myths became fact and the previsions truth? Does this mean that I believe Jesus Christ to have been the incarnation of God the Creator, born of a virgin? Not so fast! As I said I think there is a blending of the symbolic and the real in this story. I think a divine principle, unknown in this world before, was incarnated in the person of Jesus and came into full expression in his lifetime. I think people attempted to describe the significance of this principle in their own way, and that the symbolic and true elements are intertwined so much it is almost impossible to disentangle them. I also believe that there is no pressing need to do so for the message does not depend on whether Christ actually was God but on whether he spoke with the voice of God. And of that, for anyone whose spiritual antennae are properly functioning, there can be no doubt.

Children instinctively recognise the magic of the Christmas story. All the elements are there. The pure white star shining in the heavens in the darkness of a winter's night. The dignity and humility of the weary travelers forced to take refuge in a stable. The great (kings) and the lowly (shepherds), representing the whole spectrum of humanity and showing that here is a message for everyone. Even angels and animals! And, as the focus of it all, the new born child who is the light of the world and who comes to save us from death. He is the still centre around which everything else revolves. 

To my mind one of the most interesting aspects of the story is the presence of the kings or wise men. They are both worldly rulers and priestly representatives of the pagan religions of the past, and they symbolise at once how matter and the earthly powers should act towards spirit and how spiritual knowledge which is purely human is superseded in the face of the divine. The magi come to pay homage to the child, at whose feet they kneel and who sums up and goes beyond everything they know. There is a lesson in that for all the psychics, occultists and teachers of spiritual enlightenment, should they choose to receive it. In effect, the kings renounce their power, temporal and spiritual, before Christ just as, later on, John the Baptist did and just as, when the time comes, we must too. But note that the renunciation of power comes from those who have it. There is significance to that fact too.

Christ speaks to the heart which is why the intellectually focused and those who pride themselves on their 'rationality' (a word often used as a cover for a temperamental disinclination to believe what is not susceptible to proof on the mind's own terms) cannot hear him. He does not ask us to dismiss the mind or neglect to cultivate its powers (surely God requires us to develop all aspects of our nature), but to recognise its limitations and acknowledge that truth, spiritual truth, lies beyond the mind in its rational or intellectual modes.

So the birth of Christ into this world is a true myth. It really happened, but each part of the story has spiritual symbolism to it as well. Each part is worthy of study and each part can have an application to our own lives. It seems too good to be true because we are bowed down by our own unrighteousness (if you will forgive the use of such an old-fashioned word), and dare not hope that that there is something so good, so pure, so holy in the universe that all tears can be wiped away and all burdens lifted. But there is and all we are asked to do is accept that it is so.

I had hoped to post something on this subject on Christmas day but I was away from computers for a couple of weeks, and holiday idleness prevented me from putting any sort of pen to paper until now. However tomorrow is Epiphany which is almost as appropriate for a post on this topic, and besides this is a subject which is always relevant.