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A River Outside of Time

September 5, 2009 1 comment

In the world that exists just outside of time, Spirit is a single river, flowing from a single mountain with a million cloud-covered peaks, carving channels deep into the soul and soil of the earth.  It bubbles forth from unseen springs, tenderly gnashing through history with sublime patience and tenacity.   It has been called countless names—some of which endure to this very day, while many others have been forever lost to the whispers of time’s passing.  Spirit is a single river, reminding us all of our own inherent wetness, leading us back to the Source of being.

In the world that exists just outside of time, Spirit is a single river—but we do not live outside of time.  We live within the belly of time, swallowed at birth by a demiurge that separates us from our own eternal providence.  From within time, Spirit is not a single river, but a confusing latticework of streams, brooks, and tributaries—each suggesting a universal Source, but leading to a million different springs atop a million different mountains.  Within the world of time, Spirit has been broken up into a million pieces, a million different moments, and is made to dance with itself for all eternity.

If the single river of Spirit has been split into so many seemingly disconnected streams, decoupled from the single Source, then the information age represents the mighty delta of spiritual consciousness.  It is this fragile moment in history where all these streams may eventually converge once again, where the waters from the East lick the waves of the West, and faint echoes of timeless unity can be heard in the playful spray of ancient liquid.

We are standing in the middle of this convergence, this digitally-defined delta, in which more of the world’s knowledge, culture, and wisdom has flowed together than ever before possible.  The mid-to-late 20th century saw an unprecedented influx of Eastern traditions into the Western mind, most notably through the work of scholars like Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, and Aldous Huxley, as well as through influential (and controversial) teachers like Chogyam Trungpa, Krishnamurti, and Adi Da.  While we might regard some of these individuals as being relatively flawed in comparison to the perfection they attempted to embody, we cannot confuse these vehicles for the rivers they skim across, or we run the danger of distrusting the water for fear of a leaky boat.

This inundation of Eastern and Western traditions into the modern and postmodern worlds has yielded a rich pool of perspectives, principles, and practices—a sort of primordial ooze of spiritual consciousness that has become the habitat of an entirely new generation of Integral thinkers and practitioners who are now emerging from the muck of history, and using the tools and technologies of the 21st century to trace the countless streams back to their singular Source.  These new pioneers are beginning to recognize the ripples on the water’s surface as eternal patterns dancing behind the veil of time, and are once again seeing Spirit for what it is: a single river, flowing from a single mountain with a million cloud-covered peaks.

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Categories: Spirituality

Broken Expectations: How to Deal with Disappointment in Our Spiritual Teachers

August 31, 2009 5 comments

Note: This piece was originally written to summarize a dialogue between Ken Wilber and Tami Simon (which you can download and listen to for free by clicking here.) But i wanted to share it with the general community, as it is my hope that it can help frame the difficult emotions that inevitably surround people’s disappointment with spiritual teachers. It should be noted that this piece is not intended to help people emotionally process this disappointment, but rather to find some sort of theoretical grounding for their emotions, so that they may better relate to their own emotional intensity in a somewhat energetically hygienic way. This is the only way we can possibly hope to invoke the tremendous clarity, compassion, and resolve that is required to make sense of the impossible heart-ache of our teachers’ failings, and even find a way to use the disappointment as yet another opportunity for growth for student and teacher alike.

How to Deal with Disappointment in Our Spiritual Teachers

By virtue of running a business like Sounds True, which has produced a litany of audio interviews with a staggering amount of today’s heaviest-hitting spiritual teachers, Tami has had plenty of opportunities to get to know many of the world’s most extraordinary teachers in very deep and profound ways. As she mentions in the interview, when there is a business contract sitting on the table between herself and some of these teachers, she is often exposed to a side of them that many of their own students aren’t—a side that occasionally appears to be incongruous with the lofty perceptions that surround them. Rather than being the perfect vehicles of liberation they are often made out to be, Tami has found many of these teachers to be anything but perfect. She has been exposed to their full humanness, and finds that they possess many of the same relative foibles, flaws, and idiosyncrasies that so many of us are subject to. Sometimes this experience can be endearing, but many times it is painfully disappointing—especially when the teachers seem to be so unaware of their limitations, parading their spiritual realization in such a way that tries to mask their own human twistedness.

“Even though I’ve been exposed to Integral theory for a few years, it hasn’t prevented me from feeling disappointed again and again in teachers when a new aspect of their twisted humanness is uncovered in the course of working with them….” -Tami Simon

This sort of disappointment has been felt by a great number of people somewhere along their spiritual path, who have at some point become suddenly aware of their own teacher’s imperfections, in ways that can violently undercut the reverence and spiritual connection they feel with them. Sometimes students are disappointed when they hold on to the naive belief that spirituality is some sort of magical elixir, which, when done right, promises to make us happy all the time and cure all of our life’s ailments. And when flaws in our spiritual teachers are inevitably discovered, it must be because they are doing something wrong, and are therefore in no position to teach us anything. Other times, this disillusionment is simply a result of the quixotic projections many students unfairly impose upon their teachers—expectations that, since spiritual teachers are here as representatives of absolute perfection, they must themselves be absolutely perfect. And when it is discovered that these teachers still eat, use the bathroom, and have sex, they are immediately stripped of their demi-god status and cast out of our idealized heavens.

Much more difficult, however, is the disappointment that comes with recognizing very real pathologies within some of our most cherished spiritual teachers. Often these manifest as insatiable drives toward money, sex, and power—drives which are typically expected to be transcended as a result of spiritual practice. These pathologies can often be devastating to a student, who at best expects the teacher to simply “know better,” or who has at worst fallen victim to a teacher’s abusive dynamics, whether physically, sexually, or psychologically. Perhaps the most tragic consequence of these incidents is when disappointment and disillusionment begin to slowly devour the student’s faith in Absolute perfection itself, becoming lost in the wilderness of suffering and ignorance.

As we can see, there is a wide range of disappointment we can experience around any given spiritual teacher—from naive projection, to authentic pathology, to egregious abuse. In all cases, the student must follow the same general process: identify the problem, understand the problem, and modify—or sever—the relationship accordingly.

There are many times when, despite the disappointment we might feel toward a particular teacher, we continue to recognize in her or him something extraordinarily valuable to our own spiritual path, and wish to maintain the relationship. Unfortunately there is no universal formula for these difficult cases, as the circumstances are often unique to each student/teacher relationship. There are, however, at least three very broad concepts that can really assist our understanding of the dynamics at play, thus helping us to make a more informed decision on how to move forward with the teacher.

Multiple Intelligences

All human beings possess what are often called “multiple intelligences,” all of which grow through different levels of development, often quite independent of each other. Examples of these different sorts of intelligences are: cognitive, moral, spiritual, interpersonal, kinesthetic, musical, etc. It is therefore quite possible to have people with very advanced spiritual lines, but less advanced moral or interpersonal lines, essentially making them “enlightened assholes.”

States and Stages

Much of the emphasis of the world’s spiritual traditions has been placed upon cultivating and stabilizing states of consciousness, ranging from gross (waking) states, to subtle (dream) states, to causal (deep dreamless sleep) states, to ever-present Witness states, to radically unqualifiable Nondual states. While most spiritual teachers are capable of embodying and transmitting these states at different degrees of competency, it is extremely important to take into consideration that all of these states are available at every stage of psychological and spiritual growth. For example, using Jean Gebser’s developmental scheme, people are able to evolve through magical, mythical, rational, pluralistic, and integral stages of development—and states of spiritual enlightenment can be experienced from any of these stages of development. Enlightened Zen masters, therefore, can still remain strongly racist or fundamentalist in their beliefs, while having successfully stabilized some very advanced states of consciousness.

The Two Truths Doctrine

As we continue to deepen our spiritual practices, we are able to notice both the Absolute perfection at the center of this and every moment, as well as the twisted, flawed, deeply imperfect manifestation of the entire relative world—an insight commonly referred to as the “Two Truths Doctrine.” Only through contemplative practice can we fully understand the difference between the relative and the Absolute, slowly dislodging us from our expectations that our spiritual teachers be perfect in every way. After all—sometimes Absolute perfection can only be seen through a dirty bathroom mirror, through the grease and grime of human perception and ambition.

***

By taking these important concepts into careful consideration, we are able to more accurately triangulate the source of our disappointment, and decide whether we will maintain the relationship, or perhaps move on to another one. Often the relationship can be salvaged, indeed improved upon, by this understanding—by acknowledging the limitations of the teacher, we can actually free the teaching, and more fully submit ourselves to the Absolute truth reflected therein. In fact, the disappointment itself can have the remarkable power to transform, as it brings into powerful contrast all that we already know to be true—a stinging reminder of the inherent perfection that lies at the heart of every experience we have ever had.

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Fully Human, Fully Divine: Integrating the Work of James Fowler and Evelyn Underhill

August 25, 2009 2 comments

In this piece I will outline two concepts that lie at the core of the religious, spiritual, and mystical dialogue: the notion of “vertical development” through the major stages of consciousness studied by the world’s great developmental psychologists, and of “horizontal development” through the major states of consciousness that are found in virtually all the world’s religious traditions.  States and stages, fullness and freedom, human and divine—these are the two axes of personal and spiritual development, two vectors of human potential that intersect deep in our hearts, tracing an outline of Christianity’s most sacred symbol with each and every breath.

Here we will explore this notion of states and stages of consciousness by taking a closer look at two of the world’s foremost Christian thinkers, theologian James Fowler and mystical writer Evelyn Underhill, exploring ways to integrate these two pioneers into a more comprehensive view of the Christian experience.


Fully Human: James Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Dr. James W. Fowler III is Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, and was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He is a minister in the United Methodist Church, and is best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he sought to develop the idea of a developmental process in faith.

“Faith may be characterized as an integral, centering process underlying the formation of beliefs, values and meanings that (1) gives coherence and direction to persons’ lives, (2) links them in shared trusts and loyalties with others, (3) grounds their personal stances and communal loyalties in the sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference, and (4) enables them to face and deal with the limit conditions of human life, relying upon that which has the quality of ultimacy in their lives . . .The stages aim to describe patterned operations of knowing and valuing that underlie our consciousness.” – James Fowler

Here is a synopsis of Fowler’s stages of faith, in his own words:

Primal Faith (stage 0): “If we start with infancy-the time from birth to two years-we have what we call undifferentiated faith. It’s a time before language and conceptual thought are possible. The infant is forming a basic sense of trust, of being at home in the world. The infant is also forming what I call pre-images of God or the Holy, and of the kind of world we live in. On this foundation of basic trust or mistrust is built all that comes later in terms of faith. Future religious experience will either have to confirm or reground that basic trust.”

Intuitive-Projective Faith: “The first stage we call intuitive/projective faith. It characterizes the child of two to six or seven. It’s a changing and growing and dynamic faith. It’s marked by the rise of imagination. The child doesn’t have the kind of logic that makes possible or necessary the questioning of perceptions or fantasies. Therefore the child’s mind is “religiously pregnant,” one might say. It is striking how many times in our interviews we find that experiences and images that occur and take form before the child is six have powerful and long-lasting effects on the life of faith both positive and negative.”

Mythic-Literal Faith: “The second stage we call mythic/literal faith. Here the child develops a way of dealing with the world and making meaning that now criticizes and evaluates the previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this stage is narrative. The child now can really form and re-tell powerful stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the stories and reflect upon their meanings. The child takes symbols and myths at pretty much face value, though they may touch or move him or her at a deeper level.”

Synthetic-Conventional Faith: “There is a third stage we call synthetic/conventional faith which typically has its rise beginning around age 12 or 13. It’s marked by the beginning of what Piaget calls formal operational thinking. That simply means that we now can think about our own thinking. It’s a time when a person is typically concerned about forming an identity, and is deeply concerned about the evaluations and feedback from significant other people in his or her life. We call this a synthetic/conventional stage; synthetic, not in the sense that it’s artificial, but in the sense that it’s a pulling together of one’s valued images and values, the pulling together of a sense of self or identity.

One of the hallmarks of this stage is that it tends to compose its images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and Personal Reality, in relationship to which I’m known deeply and valued. I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I’m struggling to find who I can be.

At any of the stages from two on you can find adults who are best described by these stages. Stage Three, thus, can be an adult stage. We do find many persons, in churches and out, who are best described by faith that essentially took form when they were adolescents.”

Individuative-Reflective Faith: “Stage Four, for those who develop it, is a time in which the person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships that have sustained his life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world that defines one’s life. I sometimes quote Santayana who said that we don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t fish. The person in Stage Three is like the fish sustained by the water. To enter Stage Four means to spring out of the fish tank and to begin to reflect upon the water. Many people don’t complete this transition, but get caught between three and four. The transition to Stage Four can begin as early as 17, but it’s usually not completed until the mid-20s, and often doesn’t even begin until around 20. It comes most naturally in young adulthood. Some people, however, don’t make the transition until their late 30s. It becomes a more traumatic thing then, because they have already built an adult life. Their relationships have to be reworked in light of the stage change.

Stage Four is concerned about boundaries: where I stop and you begin; where the group that I can belong to with conviction and authenticity ends and other groups begin. It’s very much concerned about authenticity and a fit between the self I feel myself to be in a group and the ideological commitments that I’m attached to.”

Conjunctive Faith: “Sometime around 35 or 40 or beyond some people undergo a change to what we call conjunctive faith, which is a kind of midlife way of being in faith. What Stage Four works so hard to get clear and clean in terms of boundaries and identity, Stage Five makes more permeable and more porous. As one moves into Stage Five one begins to recognize that the conscious self is not all there is of me. I have an unconscious. Much of my behavior and response to things is shaped by dimensions of self that I’m not fully aware of. There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God’s mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God’s closeness and clarity.

Stage Five is a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious—those myths and taboos and standards that we took in with our mother’s milk and that powerfully shape our behavior and responses. We really do examine those, which means we’re ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in paradoxical tension.”

Universalizing Faith: “Some few persons we find move into Stage Six, which we call universalizing faith. In a sense I think we can describe this stage as one in which persons begin radically to live as though what Christians and Jews call the “kingdom of God” were already a fact. I don’t want to confine it to Christian and Jewish images of the kingdom. It’s more than that. I’m saying these people experience a shift from the self as the center of experience. Now their center becomes a participation in God or ultimate reality. There’s a reversal of figure and ground. They’re at home with what I call a commonwealth of being. We experience these people on the one hand as being more lucid and simple than we are, and on the other hand as intensely liberating people, sometimes even subversive in their liberating qualities. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last years of his life. I think of Thomas Merton. I think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I think of Dag Hammerskjold and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the last years of his imprisonment. These are persons who in a sense have negated the self for the sake of affirming God. And yet in affirming God they became vibrant and powerful selves in our experience. They have a quality of what I call relevant irrelevance. Their ‘subversiveness’ makes our compromises show up as what they are.”

***

These stages of faith map quite well against the many other models of human development suggested by the great developmental psychologists of the world, including Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow, Clare Graves, Jean Gebser, etc.  Each of these models focus upon a particular aspect of intelligence or psychological growth (e.g. cognition, values, drives, emotional and psychosexual development, etc.) and unfold in a strictly sequential fashion—meaning that while an individual can be “higher” in some developmental lines and “lower” in others, he or she needs to progress through one stage before moving on to the next.  In other words, there is no skipping of developmental stages—you cannot, for example, move from Fowler’s stage 2 (Mythic-Literal Faith) to stage 6 (Universalizing faith) without first developing through the three major stages that lie between them—a process that can often take adults years, if not decades, to accomplish.


Click image to enlarge

Taken together, these psychological models offer a comprehensive map of human growth and development in all its multifarious dimensions. Each successive stage of consciousness adds more complexity and more understanding of the world around us, as well as more capacity for love, compassion, and connection.  By ascending the spire of psychological development to higher and higher altitudes of consciousness, humanity becomes increasingly more human with each and every step.


Fully Divine: Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was an Anglican writer known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, drawing upon hundreds of different sources to formulate her own version of a universal scheme of spiritual experience.  Her groundbreaking book Mysticism (a term defined by Underhill as “the direct intuition or experience of God”) is still held as a classic treatise exploring the individual’s journey to God, second only to Aldous Huxley’s 1946 classic The Perennial Philosophy in terms of its impact and influence upon early 20th-century thinkers.

Underhill characterizes the spiritual path as unfolding through five broad states of consciousness—awakening, purgation/purification, illumination, dark night, and unification:

Awakening: One begins to have some consciousness of absolute or divine reality for the first time and the spiritual identity begins to emerge.  This experience is often abrupt and fairly dramatic, and is typically preceded by a period of existential crisis or sense of longing.

“That which the Servitor saw had no form neither any manner of being; yet he had of it a joy such as he might have known in the seeing of shapes and substances of all joyful things. His heart was hungry, yet satisfied, his soul was full of contentment and joy: his prayers and his hopes were fulfilled.” – Henry Suso (disciple of Meister Eckhart)

Purgation: Conscious for the first time of the Divine reality and the immeasurable distance separating it from finite existence, one attempts to bridge the gap with focused discipline and practice—purifying the mortal self to prepare for the emergence of the spiritual Self.

“We must cast all things from us and strip ourselves of them and refrain from claiming anything for our own.” – Theologia Germanica (14th-century mystical treatise, often attributed to Meister Eckhart)

Illumination: Intimate knowledge of Reality, a certain apprehension of the Absolute—but not a true union with it; awareness of a transcendent order and a vision of a universe infused with the love of God.

“Everything in temporal nature is descended out that which is eternal, and stands as a palpable visible outbirth of it, so when we know how to separate out the grossness, death, and darkness of time from it, we find what it is it in its eternal state…. In Eternal Nature, or the Kingdom of Heaven, materiality stands in life and light; it is the light’s glorious Body, or that garment wherewith light is clothed, and therefore has all the properties of light in it, and only differs from light as it is its brightness and beauty, as the holder and displayer of all its colours, powers, and virtues.” – William Law (English cleric and theologian)

Dark Night of the Soul: Borrowing the language of John of the Cross, this state is one of final and complete purification and is often marked by confusion, helplessness, stagnation of the will, and a sense of the withdrawal of God’s presence. It is the period of final “unselfing” and the surrender to the hidden purposes of the divine will.

“Lord, since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me the gift which every dog has by nature: that of being true to Thee in my distress, when I am deprived of all consolation. This I desire more fervently than Thy heavenly Kingdom.” Mechthild of Magdeburg (medieval mystic and Cistercian nun)

Unification: Nondual union with God, the timeless beloved, Absolute Reality—the spiritual Self has been permanently realized, and the finite self liberated for a new purpose. Filled with the Divine Will, it immerses itself in the world of appearances in order to incarnate the eternal within time, becoming the mediator between humanity and eternity.

“When love has carried us above all things into the Divine Dark, there we are transformed by the Eternal Word Who is the image of the Father; and as the air is penetrated by the sun, thus we receive in peace the Incomprehensible Light, enfolding us, and penetrating us.” – John of Ruysbroeck (13th-century Flemish mystic)

“Further, these mystics see in the historic life of Christ an epitome—or if you will, an exhibition—of the essentials of all spiritual life. There they see dramatized not only the cosmic process of the Divine Wisdom, but also the inward experience of every soul on her way to union with that Absolute ‘to which the whole Creation moves.’ This is why the expressions which they use to describe the evolution of the mystical consciousness from the birth of the divine in the spark of the soul to its final unification with the Absolute Life are so constantly chosen from the Drama of Faith. In this drama they see described under the veils the necessary adventures of the spirit. Its obscure and humble birth, its education in poverty, its temptation, mortification and solitude, its ‘illuminated life‘ of service and contemplation, the desolation of that ‘dark night of the soul‘ in which it seems abandoned by the Divine: the painful death of the self, its resurrection to the glorified existence of the Unitive Way, its final re-absorption in its Source – all these, they say, were lived once in a supreme degree in the flesh. Moreover, the degree of closeness with which the individual experience adheres to this Pattern is always taken by them as a standard of the healthiness, ardor, and success of its transcendental activities.” -Evelyn Underhill

A remarkable synthesis of almost two thousand years of Christian mysticism, Underhill’s classification of awakened spiritual states can be seen reflected in the esoteric teachings of almost all the world’s religious traditions.  There is an abundance of deep-rooted similarities found in the writings and teachings of history’s most profoundly realized mystics, East and West.  Though the texture, tone, symbolism, and general flavor of these spiritual states vary greatly from culture to culture, when these similarities are taken as a whole, they reveal a remarkable snapshot of the heavenly estate—describing spiritual realities that mirror the broad states of consciousness we experience every single day.  Though we can certainly classify these states with much more granularity than we shall use here, we can group the wide variety of state experiences into a minimum of four categories:

Purgation is largely concerned with the fleshy instincts and compulsions found in gross states of everyday waking consciousness

Illumination reflects the inner light and visions found in subtle states of dreaming consciousness

The Dark Night of the Soul is a silent echo in the empty causal state of deep dreamless sleep

Unification symbolizes the somewhat more elusive—but never eclipsed—nondual state, recognizing emptiness as form, form as emptiness, and the radical “not-two-ness” of all things.


Fully Human, Fully Divine:
The Wilber-Combs Lattice

Underhill continues: “The mystic cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader.”

It is not enough to have direct and immediate experiences of spiritual realities, powerful and life-changing as they are, as these experiences must then be properly interpreted and internalized before it can be communicated to the rest of the world.  After all, what would Moses’ fabled encounter with the burning bush have amounted to much if he had not returned from the mountaintop with the Ten Commandments, carving the Divine Will into stone, sculpting the interpretive foundation upon which thousands of years of Western history are built?  What good would St. Teresa of Avila’s experiences of the “Interior Castle” have done for the world if she hadn’t translated her transcendent visions into the viscera of language, unveiling the blueprints to the Heavenly Kingdom for all to see?  Would we even be having this discussion if Christ had left his revelations in the desert, lost forever to the scorched sands, without ever coming back to the world to become one of history’s greatest exemplars of divine Love?  Our interior states need to be interpreted and communicated to the rest of the world, burning in our hearts and haunting our dreams until we somehow find a way to express them—and this process of expression and communication is almost entirely determined by one’s vertical stage of consciousness

These vertical stages of development act as containers of consciousness—unseen structures that pattern our knowledge and mold our interpretations of the world around and within us. Horizontal states, on the other hand, are the stuff of experience itself—gross physical and emotional experiences; subtle visions, inspirations, and revelations; causal glimpses of transcendence, clarity, and emptiness; nondual states of radical union, flow, and Atonement.

Although spiritual practice such as meditation or contemplative prayer typically work to transform temporary states into permanent traits by stabilizing gross, subtle, causal, and nondual states in succession, we do not experience these horizontal states in a rigidly sequential way like we do vertical stages of development. States are ever-present, meaning they are accessible to all people at all times—“peak experiences” that punctuate our personal narratives with moments of catharsis, epiphany, clarity, and unity.  This is true regardless of our psychological and spiritual growth—a person can experience a subtle state of divine Illumination early in life at Fowler’s stage 2 (Mythic-Literal), and then again decades later, after developing to stage 6 (Universalizing).  Though the actual phenomenological state may be similar, the interpretations of the experience would differ drastically from different altitudes of consciousness, with an immense chasm of meaning, context, and sense of personal duty separating the two experiences.

Even those who have realized permanent or semi-permanent nondual awareness—the integrative dissolution of self and other, form and emptiness, the temporal and the eternal—even these people need to continue exercising their vertical growth.  To be fully enlightened in today’s world is to be both fully human and fully divine, which means developing vertically through all the developmental stages currently available to us as well as mastering the many horizontal states, and continuing to inch closer and closer to the unreachable horizon of human development—or else we miss out on a substantial part of a world that remains “over our heads,” limiting the amount of reality we can become one with.  While states of consciousness teach us why we should love, stages of consciousness determine who, what, where, when, and how we love, increasing the heart’s capacity for love with every stetp.  Full enlightenment, of course, can never be attained, in much the same way that we could never say that we were “fully educated.”  We are again asked to love beyond our means, to open our hearts as wide as we possibly can, to the point of breaking forever.  We are asked to simply love, and more often than not, we simply say no.  And yet we are always loved exactly as we are, broken, flawed, and perfect.

Only by taking a truly comprehensive approach to psychological and spiritual life can we begin to make sense of the full complexity of the human condition.  Knee-deep in the information age, we are watching every conflicting worldview, interpretation, and experience from every possible coordinate of the Wilber-Combs lattice coming into contact for the very first time—different worlds, realities, and perspectives all struggling to coexist upon the same planet. Friction and dissonance proliferate within the developmental gaps, giving rise to just about every religious conflict we can think of: moral absolutism versus moral relativism; exoteric religion versus esoteric religion; “New Atheism” and the war against religion; culture wars between traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews; unthinkable violence in the name of God; religious fundamentalism and persecution; terrorism and the desperation of suicide bombings, etc.

It takes this sort of comprehensive approach to appreciate the role religion has played as history’s greatest source of suffering and liberation alike, and to help us to update our spiritual traditions so that they can offer a path beyond religious fundamentalism and ideological zealotry—carrying people vertically through magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral stages of consciousness, as well as horizontally through gross, subtle, causal, and nondual states, and onward into the limitless heart of human potential.

By understanding and embodying these two directions of human growth and spiritual revelation, our mortal and immortal hearts are able to truly become one, following the path Christ laid down for us two thousand years ago, and fulfilling our evolutionary heritage, billions of years in the making—fully human, fully divine, feeling the blissful union of two hearts beating as one.

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In the Zone: Sports and Spirituality

August 6, 2009 3 comments

Note: I should mention that, when i wrote this, i had almost no interest in athletics whatsoever.  It feels almost like i came upon a fork in the road early in my adolescence, could only choose one way forward, and decided to go with music. But simply writing this piece (and establishing a wonderful friendship with David Meggyesy, author of the widely influential book Out of Their Leaguea fascinating man, not to mention a complete and total sweetheart) went a long way to instill a long-overdue sense of admiration and appreciation for sports, and even helped me to confront a few of my own somatic shadows.

Since the dawn of civilization, sports have been an intrinsic part of human society. From the militaristic competitions of ancient China, Greece, and Egypt, to the enormous rise of spectator sports in the wake of the industrial revolution, athletics have long served society as a foundation of human triumph, camaraderie, and excellence, as well as a source of personal discipline, achievement, and improvement—not to mention a common language of stories and statistics that men have traditionally used when women aren’t around to fill the often-awkward spaces between them.

In many ways, sports represent the very best of the human spirit. And yet, some may find it odd to suggest a connection between sports and spirituality, as though these are two completely distinct facets of human life with very little in common, if anything at all. Maybe if we are talking about kung fu, tai chi, or some other martial art we can see an overlap, but what does spirituality have to do with modern western sports like football (of either variety), baseball, or basketball? After all, these games are fueled by the decidedly earthly elements of blood, sweat, tears, and testosterone, while spirituality is often charged with the role of dealing with the more abstract and heavenly concerns of our finite human existence. But really, this establishes a sort of false dichotomy, unable to capture the full complexity and richness of either athletics or spirituality. After all, an athlete can find as much virtue, luminosity, and self-transcendence through sports as a monk can find through his or her spiritual practice. And a monk can find as much personal power, potency, and embodiment through spiritual practice as an athlete can potentially find in any type of sport.

As it turns out, there is an extraordinary overlap between sports and spirituality. The Integral model maintains that the human being is composed of many different intelligences, talents, and skills, each of which can grow through multiple stages of depth, complexity, and competency. Examples of these “multiple intelligences” (or “developmental lines”) include: cognitive ability, kinesthetic intelligence, moral development, aesthetic skill and appreciation, etc. Although each of these developmental tracks grows along its own path, each with its own unique stages of unfolding, there is enough symmetry in their overall development to suggest a very general barometer to make sense of all these different trajectories of human growth—a concept known as “altitude,” and demonstrated in the accompanying graphic. “Athleticism” draws upon a combination of these developmental lines, in varying degrees of importance. But what is especially interesting is that, as any of these individual intelligences approach the highest stages of development currently available to us (teal, turquoise, indigo, and beyond, as indicated below) they begin to take on qualities that can only be described as “trans-rational” or, more simply, “spiritual”—which is why, for many, watching Michael Jordan play at the peak of his game can feel like listening to Mozart, looking at the Sistine Chapel, and reading Rumi at the same time.

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

Developmental altitude not only describes the progress of each of these multiple intelligences, but also influences the overall cultural sense of meaning that surrounds sports, for both the athlete and the spectator. For example, sports allow fans a certain amount of magenta ritual, a healthy outlet for red aggression, a source of amber allegiance to a particular team, city, state, nation, etc. For athletes, sports have historically had an exceptional ability to bring people from red to amber, tempering the rawness of the ego by plugging the often testosterone-driven identity into a higher-order structure of self-sacrifice, discipline, and teamwork, before opening them up to orange principles of accomplishment and excellence. These structures also determine the general values of sportsmanship with which the athlete approaches the game—whereas red is focused upon the glory of victory, amber reminds us that “there is no I in team,” orange tells us that it’s “not if you win or lose, but how you play the game,” while the modern Olympic code reflects the green sentiment that “the most important thing is not winning, but taking part.” These different modes of sportsmanship are especially important in today’s world, which situates sports in an aggressive business market that can seriously reinforce the power-hungry ego. Without properly internalizing the ethical sensibilities of amber-and-above structures, it is all too easy for the ego to be seduced by delusions of self-importance, enabling athletes to remain red megalomaniacs running loose in an orange world of fame, status, and celebrity—which may help explain the apparent moral transgressions of people like Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, Tonya Harding, and many others.

There is another definition of “spirituality,” which has more to do with the fleeting—but very real—subjective experience of spirituality that athletes frequently tap into, regardless of which developmental altitude they may be coming from. Often described as being “in the zone” or “out of his head,” athletes can often slip into the same exact nondual states of consciousness that have more typically been associated with artists and mystics—states of utter self-transcendence and unobstructed creative or performative flow. These nondual “flow” states (along with gross, subtle, causal, and witness states) form the very core of esoteric and contemplative forms of spiritual practice at the heart of virtually all the world’s religious traditions—and although they have very different names, metaphysical assumptions, and cultural contexts from tradition to tradition, there is an astonishing symmetry in all of these various descriptions, enough to suggest an essential unity underlying every single spiritual experience and expression in the history of mankind.

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

According to many athletes, these states occur with astounding frequency—especially for those who have evolved to the highest reaches of development in any of their developmental lines, which seems to allow more stable access to these higher states. These nondual “peak-experiences” are rarely acknowledged by the sporting community, largely due to the unavailability of adequate language in sports culture to properly communicate these experiences, or to help take them off of the field/court/ice and into daily life. But whether acknowledged or not, nearly every athlete has had his or her own sense of being “in the zone” at one time or the other—the effortless collapse of player, opponent, audience, and game, until all that remains is the erotic scent of freshly-cut grass, the weight of the warm sun pressing against your skin, and the slow-motion frenzy of a Kosmos-at-play.

All in all, this exceptional dialogue goes a long way to remind us that all those aspects of our lives that seem separate or distinct from our spirituality are, in actuality, anything but. There is nothing Spirit doesn’t touch—from our highest ideals of love, respect, and sportsmanship, to the drunken bloodlust of hearing millions of people cheering you to victory—everything finds its home in the transcendent mind of God, nestled in the immanent heart of the Sacred, where the line between winning and losing becomes the very same line that separates self and other, part and whole, here and eternity.

Originally published on Integral Life: Sports and Spirituality (w/ David Meggyesy and Ken Wilber)

Categories: Spirituality Tags: ,

Gratitude and God in 2nd-Person

July 30, 2009 2 comments

For some, the notion of “God in 2nd-person” can initially seem somewhat confusing, off-putting even. After all, with whom exactly are we communing? The anthropomorphic “personal God” we know from the Western religious traditions? The pantheon of deities and demons we find in the East? Mother Nature? The Great Web of Life? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? There seem to have been so few exemplars in the modern and postmodern worlds to help us understand the “we” that exists between our individual selves and the divine, especially since this crucial “Second Face” of God is so frequently labeled as obsolete, a quaint relic of mythic consciousness.

It is interesting that, while modernity and postmodernity are quick to dismiss the importance of the 2nd-person nature of God, the Golden Rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) is widely acknowledged as the common core of all the world’s religions, and is so easily adaptable to these post-mythic levels of development. And what else is the Golden Rule, if not a distillation of the very essence of God in 2nd-person? While it can be difficult to find this sort of devotional spirituality role modeled beyond the mythic stage of development, it nonetheless shows up in everyone’s life—in every act of kindness, compassion, and empathy, in every quiet feeling of gratitude, in every heartfelt “thank you,” and in every intimate connection we have ever felt with each other and with the world. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, we are in relationship with God every single moment of our lives. And every moment is another opportunity to express the deepest gratitude for this relationship, allowing the love we feel between ourselves and God to fill our hearts—until we feel ourselves overflowing with warmth and limitless light, spilling it into the rest of the world.

Cultivating this experience of gratefulness—or “great fullness”—is the impulse behind all devotional practice, no matter what tradition it is situated in. As such, gratitudeitself represents a unique space in which we can anchor our discussions of the unity underlying all the world’s religions. While our third-person descriptions of the divine often vary greatly from tradition to tradition, and our first-person experiences of Spirit are usually elusive and difficult to wrap meaningful language around, the feelings of gratitude and thankfulness are universal—so universal, in fact, that they form the living bedrock of all the world’s great spiritual traditions, from the beginning of the world until the end of time.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s an ancient deity with a long white beard, a thousand-armed bodhisattva, your guru, priest, or sensei, your friends and family, a stranger on the street, your cat or dog, or the unknowable Mystery behind it all—the point resides within none of these objects of devotion, as they all equally reflect the fractalized perfection of the One. As Martin Buber reminds us once again—in the ‘I-Thou’ relationship, God is not some sort of ultimate ‘Thou’ at the end of the universe, but the hyphen that connects you with everyone and everything in creation. God is the essence of relationship itself, the temple of “we” in which every gesture is a prayer, every kindness a blessing, and every conflict an opportunity to bring even more love into the world.

Panentheism: The One and the Many

July 29, 2009 3 comments

treeoflifeAs human beings continue to evolve, so do our conceptions of God. In fact, some would go so far as to say that as human beings evolve, God evolves right along with us, and with every small step humanity takes toward wider care and deeper consciousness, God takes another step toward its own perfection and the divinization of the universe. And it is through our very conceptions of the divine that God’s voice can speak to and through us, finding more volume and resonance as the architecture of thought becomes more sophisticated and inclusive.

This is why our theoretical understanding of spirituality is just as important as our actual experiences of God, or Buddha, or Spirit of any name. There is an aspect of God, our selves, and the universe that is best described as being ultimately “One,” and there is an aspect that is best described as the “Many.” And while we may all be looking at (and as) the very same ultimate Oneness, it is our interpretations of that Oneness that determine our relationship with the Many.

Central to the discussion is the notion of panentheism as a foundation to anchor our conceptions of God. This is not to be confused with the idea of pantheism, in which the divine is completely imminent within the physical world itself, but is without transcendent qualities whatsoever. Panentheism also offers a way to step beyond merely deistic conceptions of Spirit, in which God is credited with the creation of the universe but remains eternally removed from it, with no imminent qualities whatsoever—the “great clockmaker in the sky,” as deists often describe the divine, able to be perceived only through the light of reason. Panentheism also frees us from the typically mythological conceptions of God that are found in traditional forms of theism, in which one particular group of people claim an exclusive knowledge of God’s nature—usually a single, monolithic, omniscient God who reveals himself only through faith and revelation, which more often than not resembles the “great superego in the sky.”

“I am a little concerned that so many people who have discovered the One simply eradicate their sense of the Many, or consider it unimportant….” -Brother David Steindl-Rast

Rather than saying “the universe is God,” as the pantheists would, or that “God is beyond the universe,” as the deists and even theists likely would, the panentheistic view would more likely state that “the universe is in God, and God is in everything in the universe.” In this conception, God is the universe, while being infinitely beyond the universe—that is, to borrow terms from Nagarjuna, there is a sense in which God represents Absolute unmanifest perfection, while simultaneously becoming increasingly more perfect in the relative world. It is precisely this divide between God transcendent and God imminent that, in the modern and post-modern worlds, only panentheism can seem to bridge. As American philosopher Charles Hartshorne put it, “panentheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism” (the synthesis of deism and pantheism, in which God preceded the universe and created it, but is now equivalent with it), “except their arbitrary negations.”

One of the most important contributions Christianity has to offer the world’s discussion of spirituality is the idea of the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This unique conception of God as “three persons, one substance” has been a central part of Christian doctrine since the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. And when viewed through the lens of Integral panentheism, the Trinity truly comes alive in our minds as three very different ways of experiencing God:

– The God that is the great, unknowable, Absolute Mystery, from which we come and to which we shall return—God transcendent, or God the Father.

– The God that we recognize in everything that we see, everything that we touch, everything that is—the entire universe as the Body of Christ; God imminent; or God the Son.

– The God that exists through doing, creating, knowing, understanding—the dynamic aspects of God; God as verb; or God as Holy Spirit.

The Holy Trinity is just one of many traditional religious symbols from around the world that take on renewed life, relevance, and significance in the light of a panentheistic conception of the physical and spiritual worlds. As such, the panentheistic model is an almost ideal place to begin any Integral discussion of religion and spirituality, as it not only helps to reconcile some of the apparent contradictions within the Christian tradition (e.g. transcendence vs. immanence), but also provides a common foundation upon which we can begin a truly inter-religious discussion, revealing many of the essential similarities (and important differences) between a multitude of different religions and faiths, as well as with the secular and scientific worlds. In a panentheistic universe, there is no need for conflict between spirituality and science, between consciousness and biochemistry, or between God and evolution.

Previously: The Beginning is the End is the Beginning: God and Evolution

Originally published on Integral Life: Integral Christianity – Theory and Practice. Part 1: The Relationship of the One and the Many (w/ Brother David Steindl-Rast and Ken Wilber)

The Theater of Experience

“Did you have a good life when you died? Enough to base a movie on?” -Jim Morrison

While trying to describe the nature of emptiness and form, Ramana Maharshi once used the analogy of a movie theater: your entire life, all your experiences, thoughts, and memories, all your quiet victories and deafening defeats—everything you have ever known is something like an epic movie, being projected upon the empty screen of consciousness. This screen was present before the movie ever began, is present during the entirety of the film, and remains present long after it ends. As vivid and intense as the film ever gets, the images on the screen never affect the screen itself—if an image of fire is projected upon the screen, the screen never gets any warmer; if an image of water is projected upon the screen, the screen never gets any wetter. The screen remains radically untouched by the film, while somehow touching everything in the film.

And yet, when we are so fully engrossed in the dancing images of our lives, it can be very difficult to notice the screen itself, even though it underpins every experience we have ever had. In what might be described as an existential suspension of disbelief, we no longer notice the permanence at the very core of consciousness. Rather than identifying with the eternal presence that we truly are, we tend to identify with the sounds and visions of our relative existence—seeking refuge within the film itself, losing ourselves in the characters and story arcs and special effects. Seldom do we notice the empty screen that lovingly embraces all we have ever seen, heard, tasted, or felt; the empty expanse upon which the living light of reality is cast.

Of course, noticing the ever-present nature of the screen does nothing to enhance or diminish the quality of the film itself. Simply observing the screen does not suddenly make The Godfather interchangeable with Gigli—a good movie is still a good movie, a bad movie is still a bad movie; even more so you might say. All it does is help us to no longer be subject to the film—if we are watching a horror movie, we can experience fear, but not be subject to fear. If it is a love story, we can experience longing and heartbreak, without being subject to either. By transcending our identification with the film, we are able to engage and experience it much more deeply than ever before possible, simply by virtue of being able to bring an awareness to the film that cannot be found anywhere within the film itself.

Continuing to notice the empty screen and the film together, we slowly begin to discern the fact that, in the simplest act of viewing, in that very moment of observation, there is absolutely no difference between the two. That is, the distinction between the film and the screen is understood as the final obstacle of the dualistic mind, a secondary product of the experience in and of itself. They are profoundly not-two—inextricable from and irreducible to each other, yes, but somehow utterly the same nonetheless. To paraphrase the famous Zen koan: “When I hear the bell ring, there is no bell, and there is no I—there is only the ringing.” Empty consciousness and the ornaments of experience become indistinguishable from each other, as the film and the screen are both devoured in the carnal embrace of form and emptiness—at which point you step out of the theater altogether, feeling the crisp night air against your face.