Wednesday 25 February 2015

A Question on Spiritual Practice

Here is a question which goes to the heart of the matter.

Q. Can you tell me what your Masters' chief recommendations were in terms of spiritual practice? I currently meditate for half an hour a day but would like to know if that is sufficient on its own or if there is more I could be doing.

A.  When the Masters spoke to me they did so in the particular rather than generally. What I mean by that is that they were addressing my specific needs and deficiencies and not giving a universal teaching to be followed by all. Having said that, it's not hard to extract a general teaching from their words because the needs of one soul are not greatly different from the needs of any other. We may all have our own individual points of weakness but the business of rising above identification with and dominance by the lower self or ego is pretty much the same for all of us.  So I can tell you what they emphasised with regard to spiritual practice.

There were no revelations. The path to God is quite well known and, although many seek short cuts or take diversions, and some stress one aspect and some another, it doesn't really vary and its arduousness cannot be dodged.

The essence of spiritual practice is purification of the lower self so that the soul may be able to receive grace without which there is no spirituality. The lower self is that in which are seated (and which, in a certain sense, is formed of) our attachments, prejudices, fears, greed, pride, desire for praise and power and so on, and it is from these that we must seek purification. The first step in that process is to actually acknowledge them but the good news is that the very awareness of them is the solvent that eventually leads to their dissolution. So we must begin the process, but we cannot conclude it. We can never make ourselves spiritual (a contradiction in terms since it is when we are not), but we can (and must for it won't happen by itself) fit ourselves to become pure vessels for the light of grace so that our individual consciousness may become one with divine consciousness. Or, in the Masters' words, we must forget the personal self and all that relates to it before we can merge with the Universal Self. Note that it is not enough to think that we already are the Universal Self and we just have to become cognizant of the fact. That may be the case on an absolute level and in potentia, but it is not the case in terms of what we are now. We have to work to reach the point at which we can truly know ourselves to be what we really are. It requires time to know eternity.

Merging with the universal self does not mean that individuality is lost but that the sense of separateness is overcome. The personal self is our image of ourself. It is our sense of ourself as a separate being. So when we say forget the personal self we are not saying forget individuality, still less deny it, but forget self-image. Your ego is not your individual identity. It is your perception of yourself as a separate individual and the attachments and desires you have that arise from that. True freedom comes with the release from identification with the self-image. It is stepping out of the boundaries and limitations which that self-image creates

Before we reach this culminating point, though, our immediate objective should be the awakening of the mind in the heart. This is often referred to as intuition though that is a potentially misleading term since it has nothing to do with the instinctual reaction to impressions received through the physical and emotional parts of our nature. Rather it is a transcendent supra-rational knowing by being that is a direct seeing into reality, and which completely bypasses what we commonly experience as the mind, the reasoning, head-centred, classifying, analysing faculty that perceives wholes in terms of their parts and which works in and through time. Intuition is the mirror that reflects Divine Intelligence and is that function in us which perceives truth directly: independent of reason, opinion, theory and without any calculation or effort. It is like a beam of light that illumines whatever it touches. In itself intuition is pure, perfect and incapable of error but our ability to respond to it is not and may need to be checked until we have reached the stage at which we are sufficiently detached from prejudice, preconception and preference to know what truly is intuition and what we may call that but in fact derives from or is coloured by the personal level.

The Masters' chief recommendations as regards spiritual practice were meditation and prayer, both of which they insisted were important for the serious aspirant. The disciple must become sensitive to the spiritual plane and this principally happens in silence. So meditation is the silencing of the mind: its withdrawal into stillness. But this is not just a question of making the mind empty. An empty mind can give the appearance of being in a spiritual state and it may be, after a fashion. But this purely passive consciousness will not necessarily lead to the blossoming of active spiritual qualities, in particular love, and the positive integration of the human and divine parts of our nature which is the true spiritual goal. It is for this reason that the Masters recommended meditation in the heart rather than the head. An empty head is still a head. To be focused in an empty mind is still to be focused in the mind.

So the Masters advised me to concentrate on the heart during meditation. By this they did not mean the heart chakra but something more fundamental. (Incidentally their attitude to all the chakras was that these should be left alone to open naturally, as and when prompted by inner spiritual development, rather than by the direction of mental energy towards them which might stimulate but could not bring about ordered growth.) What they alluded to here was the spiritual heart which is the centre of our being and the actual locus of spirit in the body. You might argue that spirit is everywhere so how can you restrict it to a particular place? That is theoretically correct but ignores the fact that, as regards our awareness of ourselves as manifested beings, spirit does have a specific location and that is the heart. All traditions confirm this. So to direct your meditation to the heart is to plug yourself into the spiritual source. As you do this seek to become aware of the presence of God which will pervade your being like a soft glow.

You say you meditate but you don't mention prayer. I think many a modern would-be mystic is rather similar to me at the time I first encountered the Masters.  Someone who leans towards the opinion that the personal God, the transcendent Creator, exists only for those still attached to duality, only for those religious types who see themselves as separate from God. But the fact is that we as individuals are separate from or, at least, different from God as God. That is the fact which no amount of philosophising can alter. We are not fundamentally separate, of course, but we are created beings. We are not God even if our being is God's being. And we need the humbling experience of prayeras the Masters put it, to remind us of this and help us remember the Creator. Prayer is how we address God and put ourselves in right relationship with Him.

A quality the Masters stressed as fundamental for anyone engaged in spiritual practice was inner calm. This is detachment from the emotions. Not from feeling but from emotions relating to the personal self and its likes and dislikes, its pleasures and pains and so on. In other words, detachment from the pairs of opposites as they might be reflected in the emotional nature. That doesn't mean that you don't have your own preferences, but you have to learn to keep a balanced approach to both joy and misery and not get carried away by either. You must be like a steady boat, calm and unswayed by happiness or suffering, taking each as it comes and not being attached to the one or rejecting the other. This is something that is relatively easy in a monastic or contemplative environment but becomes noticeably more challenging when one is in a worldly situation. But true calm must always be independent of outer circumstances, and, although it may be difficult, you will find that developing the habit of non-reaction to emotional disturbance, whether positive or negative, will lead to a sense of centredness that remains unruffled in any situation. One way to achieve this desirable state is to realise that everything you experience is transitory, everything passes. Fix yourself in the eternal.

The purpose of any spiritual practice is to develop the awareness of yourself as a being that is in the world but not of it. You need to see yourself as existing in your true nature above (figuratively speaking) the mind, emotions and physical body which together comprise the threefold lower self. Consequently anything that aids in that is good. I would say that meditation and prayer are the principal means but affirmations of one's divine origin, repetitions of God's holy name, concentrated readings of scriptures and sacred books can all help to awaken your sense of who you are and where you come from. You should always see your practice, though, as a means and not as something significant in itself. In other words, don't get attached to spiritual practice or the pleasurable effects that might sometimes arise from it. Nor should you engage in it looking for results. Naturally your practice has a purpose but if you have a goal-centred attitude to it your motive is impure, and right motive is something without which no spiritual practice will bear healthy, ripe fruit. Indeed, in a manner of speaking, right motive is the greater part of any spiritual practice.

Friday 6 February 2015

God and Suffering

The recent outburst by the actor and comedian Stephen Fry in which he denounced any God who might have created this world as ‘an evil and capricious monster’ has predictably stirred up all sorts of excitement with believers quick to damn him and fellow atheists eagerly cheering him on. But, setting aside the extravagant nature of his language, any fair-minded observer would have to concede that he has a point. How could a God that is good have created a world in which there is so much suffering?  Not just the suffering inflicted by human beings on each other, which could reasonably be put down to the result of the gift of free will, but the suffering actually inherent in nature. The sicknesses of children is the usual example given in these cases, and it’s the one used here.  Of course, to use this particular example does rather smack of emotional manipulation, but the point is made.

We should observe first of all that there is nothing new in the accusation.  Why there is evil, why there is suffering, why there is so much imperfection in nature are all questions that have long been asked, and they are ones that anyone who posits a supernatural origin to this world must address.  They can’t just be dismissed as unknowables whose purpose will become clearer later on.  They must be acknowledged and an attempt made to explain them now even if the truth of the matter is that their full significance will probably only become clear after we have left this world. It is just a fact that we are not given all the answers in this life.  Our capacity to respond to the truth that is in inscribed in our hearts is tested as that is the way we develop spiritually and become more identified with the soul and less with the separate self-centred mind/ego. Sometimes we do have to proceed on faith, much as the modern temperament may revolt against that, and we have to do so because attunement to the spiritual world requires an open channel. That doesn’t mean that we should suspend reason or intellect but nor must we close the mind to what is beyond it.

 That is why I think we are better off taking the reality of God as a given and then trying to work out the meaning of suffering in this context rather than just using the fact of suffering as an excuse to dismiss God. This attitude may seem like a cheat but then suffering is not the only ingredient in the mix of this world. There is love, there is beauty, there is the mystery of life and consciousness themselves, and there is the testimony of practically all human beings from all cultures throughout history which cannot just be dismissed as superstitious ignorance. As a matter of fact, I believe that everyone knows in their hearts that there is a God but many of us, for a variety of reasons, deny this in our heads which is where most of us live most of the time. And that is why someone like Stephen Fry can seem to be so angry with God. Why be angry with a non-existent being? Does he suspect God might exist but doesn’t like the implications of this?

However that is speculation on my part. I have no insight into the reasons for his rejection of God and the need he has to make this public. What I would say is that one common reason for the rejection of God is egotism and pride, and another is the dislike people have of being told what to do coupled with the feeling that they might be being judged if they go against the rules. Needless to say, that is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the divine. There is truth and there is anti-truth but to obey truth means to fulfill our true nature and leads to the highest bliss. It is to conform to what is real. To go against truth is to go against reality and leads not to judgment, as in condemnation and punishment by a dictatorial overlord, but to the same inevitable consequences that follow the letting go of a stone in mid air. The stone will fall. Why rail against the laws of God if you don’t rail against the laws of gravity? What needs to be understood is that these laws are not coercive but lie at the very roots of our being and define what we truly and genuinely are. It is only the ego that rebels against them. In actual fact, to obey them is the only real freedom.

I may seem to have gone off the point a bit here but the active rejection of God is often founded on a psychological maladjustment, and it’s necessary to expose this if we are fully to answer the question of why there is suffering, and see why that question is posed in the first place. You might think that it is posed because there is suffering but, to return to the point made earlier, that is not a sufficient reason to reject the idea of a creator outright, given the many other extraordinary and unexplained characteristics of existence. There is suffering in life but that is by no means all life is or even anywhere near most of what life is. It is an aspect of life and must be seen in an overall context, one in which the positives considerably outweigh the negatives as I'm sure even dyed-in-the-wool atheists would agree. Still the question must be asked. Why is there suffering in life at all if this world is the creation of a perfect and loving God?

There are, in fact, several answers to that question, all of which tie in together to give a full and complete explanation for the imperfect state of our world. To begin with, it is worth considering whether, as some teachings aver, the platform of this world was not created by God, the Causeless Cause or Supreme Being, directly, but by high spiritual beings or angelic powers who were carrying out God's will but on their own level of understanding and ability which may have been far beyond anything we might conceive but was still not perfect.  This is point one and may be regarded as academic, given it certainly does not explain, still less justify, suffering, but it is worth making. 

Point two is more relevant. It introduces the human element.  The world now is not as it was originally intended to be and at one time was. It may have been created perfect, or as perfect as it could be within the limitations mentioned above as well as those imposed by matter itself which inevitably tends to disorder and disintegration (because only spirit is really real and anything less will eventually revert to that), but it is now a fallen world, and it is so because of human beings whose disequilibrium has spread through or infected the whole of nature. Now, whether this is just the result of a necessary temporary focus on self and the separation from oneness that causes, as some believe, or whether it is because of something actually having gone wrong in the distant past, as the book of Genesis implies and as the existence of free will makes possible, is perhaps of secondary importance. This world has fallen away from what it should have been and into corruption because of the activity of human beings. Because, in a certain sense, they (we) rebelled against the divine order. Of course, we are still doing that.

Taken together these two ideas could reconcile the apparent opposites of a benevolent Creator and the imperfections of this world. We have been expelled from Paradise and now must live in a world in which death and the opposites hold sway. Through our own choice we have rejected the perfection of oneness and sought out the separative life of the ego, and our internal psychological state is reflected in our external environment. However there is more. Let us now consider a question which atheists such as Stephen Fry do not appear to have contemplated. What is this world actually for?

There is an answer to that question and I will give it in a moment, first of all in words that the Masters used and then in my own words. But before I do I will ask another question which has a bearing on the answer to that one. What are we? What is a human being? Are we just the mind and body that are at the forefront of our immediate experience or are these just the outer parts, the sheaths, if you like, that cover what we truly are, being but the expression of that true self enabling it to experience the material realm? I would say that only a mind overly influenced by worldliness can reject the strong probability, supported by most traditional teachings as well as by our deepest intuitions, that we are spiritual beings or souls that are using the mind and body as vehicles. We are no more those things than a car driver is the car he drives. However we identify with them because we are in the material octave and that is the cause of our confusion. It is because those in the materialist camp cannot see beyond their materialism that they cannot understand that this world is not intended to be a perfect environment for the embodied self. It is meant to facilitate that self to transcend its limitations. It is not a holiday camp but a training ground.

So, to quote the Masters, Earth is a school. That is what it is for and we are here to learn. To learn what we are and to become what we truly and fundamentally are through the various tests and experiences we undergo here. This material Earth is an arena for the development of consciousness, and we come here to grow. Growing can be painful, especially if the shell we surround ourselves with has to be broken open in order that we may expand out of our current limitations, but it is liberating and it is what we want whether we know it in our conscious minds or not. As a Master said to me (and this applies to us all so his words are something to hold on to in times of trouble), "I can assure you that you wish this training to take place however difficult it may sometimes seem".

As a platform for growth this Earth must include scope for tests and trials as well as contain opposites, the tension between which can stimulate new growth and help us to avoid stagnation. And is it not the case that it is often only through a degree of suffering that we are jolted out of complacency and self-centredness, and more able to enter compassionately into the sufferings of others? Perhaps it is because Stephen Fry has suffered himself that he feels so strongly that suffering is something we should be concerned about and try to relieve. Of course, not all suffering can be regarded as potentially creative and an impetus to change but some is, and it should be clear that a life without a negative side to it is a life in which growth is much less likely to take place.

As for the suffering that may seem to have no creative purpose we can turn for explanation to the idea of karma. Certainly this requires a belief in the pre-existence of the soul, and so will not be acceptable to the materialistically inclined, but, if we are looking for something that reconciles the apparent contradictions of a benevolent God and an imperfect world, the law that we reap what we sow bridges that gap very well. So the imperfections we meet in this world are frequently the reflections of our own imperfections. That is not to say that the sufferings of the innocent can be blithely dismissed as their own fault. They may well be the result of previous actions but they may also be restrictions accepted by the soul in order for it to grow, or even sacrifices it has volunteered to make to help alleviate world karma or arouse compassion in others.

Let me conclude with a brief summing up.

The purpose of this world is not in and for itself but as a school in which consciousness may grow, moving from an unconscious state to a self-conscious one and then on to god-consciousness. That is why it must be an environment in which work, effort and potential for sacrifice are required. Without these there can be no spiritual growth. The world is not perfect in order that we may become so.

More discussion on this and similar topics can be found here and here.