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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.

Categories: Spirituality Tags:

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: ,

Does Quantum Physics Prove God?

August 3, 2009 3 comments

Report to battle stations, Integral minions! Quantum Physicists are stealing our holons and locking infinity in the basement!

Meet Two New Quantum Particles: Spinons and Holons

As many of you probably already know, “holon” is a term coined by Arthur Koestler (and popularized by Ken Wilber) which basically means something that is a self-contained whole while simultaneously being a dependent part of an even greater whole—e.g. a whole atom is part of a whole molecule, which is part of a whole cell, which is part of a whole organism, etc.

In a fit of ontological irony, physicists have recently co-opted the word “holon” to describe one of two elementary particles—the result of a single electron breaking down when forced through a very narrow, quantum-scale wire—essentially stripping the holism out of the holon and reducing it to mere reductionism.  Obviously the world’s foremost particle physicists have yet to read either The Ghost in the Machine or Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.  Well, poo poo on them.

Anyway, all of this serves as an excuse to post the following dialogue i had with Ken Wilber about the relationship between quantum physics and spirituality.  It should be noted that my own role in this discussion was minimal (even negligible) and i am somewhat of an embarrassing neophyte when it comes to quantum mechanics and “spooky action at a distance”.  I was essentially there to lob an easy pitch over the plate, so that Ken could knock it out of the park.  And that he did.  Though i am still left with many questions about the relationship of consciousness and quantum physics, Ken does a really great job of clearing up much of the confusion around spirituality and quantum physics, as seen in things like the Tao of Physics, What the Bleep? and countless other New Age interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Stream the full 25 minute discussion below, or right-click here to download.

Does Quantum Physics Prove God?

Does the Tao find proof in quantum realities?

Ken’s answer: “Categorically not. I don’t know more confusion in the last thirty years than has come from quantum physics….”

Ken goes on to outline the three major confusions that have dominated the popular (mis)understanding of the relationship of physics and mysticism.

#1: Your consciousness does not create electrons. Unlike Newtonian physics, which can predict the location of large objects moving at slow speeds, quantum physics only offers a probability wave in which a given particle, like an electron, should show up. But here’s the funny thing: it is only at the moment that one makes the measurement that the electron actually does “show up.” Certain writers and theorists have thus suggested that human intentionality actually creates reality on a quantum level. The most popular version of this idea can be found in the movie What the Bleep Do We Know?!, in which we “qwaff” reality into existence.

Ken suggests this is both bad physics and bad mysticism. As for the former, in his book, Quantum Questions, Ken compiled the original writings of the 13 most important founders of modern quantum and relativistic physics, to explore their understanding of the relationship of physics and mysticism. Without exception, each one of them believed that modern physics does NOT prove spiritual realities in any fashion. And yet each of them was a mystic, not because of physics, but in spite of it. By pushing to the outer limits of their discipline, a feat which requires true genius, they found themselves face to face with those realities that physics categorically could not explain.

Likewise, none of those founders of modern physics believed that the act of consciousness was responsible for creating particles at the quantum level. David Bohm did not believe that, Schroedinger did not believe that, Heisenberg did not believe that. That belief requires the enormous self-infatuation and narcissism, or “boomeritis,” of the post-modern ego, and Ken goes into the possible psychology behind all of that.

#2: Quantum vacuum potentials are not unmanifest Spirit. The immediate problem with the notion that certain “unmanifest” or “vacuum” quantum realities give rise to the manifest world, and that the quantum vacuum is Spirit, is that it immediately presupposes a radically divided Spirit or Ultimate. There is Spirit “over here,” manifestation “over there,” and it’s only through these quantum vacuum potentials that Spirit actualizes manifestation—with Spirit set apart from manifestation.

“In terms of actual real physics or actual real mysticism, they were incorrect on both counts. And the marriage of bad physics and sloppy mysticism has been a nightmare….”As the great contemplative traditions agree, true nondual Spirit is the suchness, emptiness, or isness of all manifestation, and as such leaves everything exactly where it finds it. Nondual Spirit is no more set apart from manifestation than the wetness of the ocean is set apart from waves. Wetness is the suchness or isness of all waves. By identifying Spirit with quantum potential, you are actually qualifying the Unqualifiable, giving it characteristics—”and right there,” Ken says, “things start to go horribly wrong, and they never recover. These folks are trying to give characteristics to Emptiness. They therefore make it dualistic. And then things get worse from there….”

#3: Just because you understand quantum mechanics doesn’t mean you’re enlightened. Physics is an explicitly 3rd-person approach to reality, whereas meditative, contemplative, or mystical disciplines are explicitly 1st-person approaches to reality. Neither perspective is more real than the other, but each perspective does disclose different truths, and you cannot use the truth disclosed in one domain to “colonize” another. The study of physics, as a 3rd-person discipline, will not get you enlightenment; and meditation, as a 1st-person discipline, will not disclose the location of an asteroid (or an electron). The “content” of enlightenment is the realization of that which is timeless, formless, and eternally unchanging. The content of physics is the understanding of the movement of form within time, i.e. that which is constantly changing. And if you hook Buddha’s enlightenment to a theory of physics that gets disproved tomorrow, does that mean Buddha loses his enlightenment?

Ken goes on to suggest that what might be influencing quantum realities is not Suchness per se, but bio-energy or prana, which may be the source of the crackling, buzzing, electric creativity that so many theorists have tried to explain at the quantum level. Of course, it remains to be seen exactly what further research does and does not support.

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.

The Church of Rock

July 22, 2009 1 comment

The Church of RockFrom indigenous shamans invoking the elements through rhythm and dance, to the ancient cult of Pythagoras seeking the ever-elusive “harmony of the spheres,” to Sufi dervishes whirling their way to enlightenment, to the hallowed tones of sacred hymns echoing through secluded monasteries—all throughout history, music has always been an important part of spiritual life. It has been used as an instrument of worship, appreciation, and fellowship; a channel for inspiration and illumination; and a gateway to both sensual embodiment as well as radical self-transcendence. Music has often been thought to mirror the elusive mysteries of creation itself: all melodies reflecting the mathematical patterns of the universe, all rhythms echoing the primordial heartbeat of God.

Such metaphors, however, seem to find little resonance in today’s world. Magical and mythical approaches to reality have been largely supplanted by the skeptical gaze of rationality, while purely metaphysical descriptions of existence have been almost entirely deconstructed by postmodern thought. A great many people have abandoned the myths of the past—exchanging blind faith for calculated reason, agrarian religion for industrial secularism, and the certitude of moral absolutism for the shifting sands of moral relativism. None of this is bad in itself—quite the contrary, it is an indication that the evolutionary engine continues to chug along in this corner of the universe, continuously adding new layers of depth and complexity to the spectra of consciousness, culture, and technology.

We can think of the entire human condition—everything that we are, all of our accumulated experiences, relationships, and knowledge, the essence of humanity itself—being reflected back to us in three dimensions or “value spheres”:

I We It
1st-person 2nd-person 3rd-person
Art Morals Science
Consciousness Culture Technology
The Beautiful The Good The True
Buddha Sangha Dharma

Prior to the European Enlightenment, these value spheres had existed in a state of undifferentiated fusion, until our newfound capacity for rational empiricism allowed these three dimensions of knowledge to be teased apart at last. The transition from myth to reason prompted an explosive advancement of human knowledge—the previously conflated realms of art, morals, and science became distinct branches of knowledge, each with its own methods of observation, discovery, and enactment. Freed from the spooky shadows of superstition, decoupled from doctrine, dogma, and dread of fundamentalist persecution, and guided by the inner aurora of logic and reason, humanity began to emerge from its collective adolescence.

From the archaic backwaters of magic and myth to the modern miracles of rationality and pluralism—as truly momentous as this advancement was, it was certainly not without its own casualties. As more and more people became critical of traditional approaches to religion and began to shift into more contemporary worldviews, something precious was being almost entirely left out of the picture: our sense of spirituality, our connection to the Mystery, and our recognition of the world around us as sacred. Spirituality itself became confused with mythic belief—and while religion is certainly capable of acting as a “conveyor belt” of human development that helps people develop through magic, mythic, rational, and pluralistic stages of psychological and cultural growth, the vast majority of religions have remained stubbornly embedded within the mythic worldview, and so more often than not the baby of spiritual awakening gets thrown out with the bathwater of religious fundamentalism.

But of course, spirituality does not evaporate from our lives simply because our modern and postmodern worldviews cannot account for its presence or explain its purpose. Scientific materialism tends to strip subjective meaning from the universe by reduce all our experiences to physical interactions, while postmodernism deconstructs our notions of universal truth and replaces it with an endlessly sliding chain of relative truths. As such, it can be easy to feel something like a spiritual nomad, wandering aimlessly through the desert of the Real, searching for some palm-shaded oasis of meaning. When the world cannot make room for it, spirituality has no choice but to become covert—to go underground, to disguise itself in the cultural accoutrements of the times, to find a way to smuggle itself into our modern lives. Spirituality, in other words, has become a game of Kosmic cloak-and-dagger.

There have been few safe havens for spirituality in today’s world, and none so amenable to God’s modern and postmodern plight than within the arts. The realm of Beauty has become a natural asylum for spirituality in the 21st century—perhaps it is because art is allowed to remain so completely unhinged from convention, or because recognition of beauty is such a deeply subjective experience; or perhaps it is because the creative process of inspiration and self-expression is itself so damned inexplicable. Whatever the reason, the fact remains: upon the vanity table of today’s world, art has become Mystery’s most admired mirror.

There are certain aspects of spiritual awareness that are infused within each and every one of us, regardless of our familiarity with the trappings of spiritual life. For example, almost every musician has had some sort of flow state experience, a sense of being “in the groove” or, in athletic parlance, “in the zone”, often described as moments of effortless creativity, spontaneous improvisation, rapturous inspiration, peak performance abilities, powerful feelings of bliss, love, and openness, experiences of self-transcendence and oneness with the music, the band, the audience, the universe, etc. These flow states have very much in common with the spiritual states cultivated by traditional contemplative practices from all the world’s religions—whether meditation, prayer, or otherwise. But it’s not just the artists having these experiences, but the listeners as well—we form intimate relationships with music that can be deeply personal as well as profoundly transpersonal, using our music collections to both shape our identities and transcend identity itself. It is very possible for music to invoke these same flow states simply by listening deeply, becoming fully absorbed in the song, lost in the music, hearing the pregnant silence behind every tone. When listening to a really good song, there is an opportunity to actually feel creativity come alive—the very same creative force that ignites the stars and breathes life into dust, unraveling itself in the timeless moment, as if it were being played right in front of you for the first and only time, never to be heard again.

We all seek meaning. We all seek relationships. We all seek communion with the world around us. We all seek happiness, pleasure, and sensual embodiment. And at one time or another, we all seek change, transformation, and self-transcendence. These are all distinctly spiritual impulses, and, for many people around the world, are being fulfilled through the temple of iTunes more than any other source, religious or secular.

And so—to every artist bobbing for muses by dunking his head into the murky waters of the Mystery; to every listener who uses the song to hear the silence behind every sound; to every stadium-sized congregation of faithful frenzied fans; to every rhythm, melody, and flavor of noise ever to seduce the human ear: you are all part of the Church of Rock! Where Spirit no longer needs to hide—where we can all see God dancing in the math, in our relationships, and in our hearts—and where together we slowly awaken to the universe as it always already is: a Uni-Verse, One Song, forever rippling through the eternal silence behind this and every moment.

Categories: Art, Spirituality Tags: , ,