Do you know some happy mystics? You may be one yourself.
The luckiest of these people have had a most lovely experience since childhood. They have known and felt that existence is permeated with benevolence. They have felt loved by an invisible presence. They recognise and feel suffering and cruelty too. But deep and wide they experience a kind magic permeating life.
You might want me to name famous spiritual and religious figures who have had that experience. But I won’t name any. I don’t want to suggest that this experience belongs to ‘special’ people. One of the greatest lessons of my life is that many ordinary people, with no bells or whistles, simply know that the essence of life is love.
Others of us have struggled to achieve a similar understanding. In my own life since childhood I always knew that life was filled with awe and wonder, but it took me longer to experience and surrender to the love. Much longer.
I don’t know about you, but I had to make an active commitment to surrender to love. Deep in my heart, deep in my meditation practice, I have long understood that love-compassion-benevolence-beneficence is the ultimate meaning and destiny of life. Intelligence, wisdom and vitality are great! But without love . . .
And even though I understood it, that did not mean I practised it. It has been a piece of work. I have been a piece of work. I have committed to love. I have surrendered. I have then failed. Then improved. Then failed again. But am slowly but surely getting there.
My resolution was not enough. It also needed time and repeated experience.
So this column is about New Year’s Resolutions. How we commit to change, fail, improve, fail and improve.
ITS NOT A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE
One challenge with spiritual development is that many of us have a simple linear model. I sell this model myself sometimes. The journey, the path, is directly from ignorance to wisdom, evil to compassion. It is a Hollywood happy ending. But growth isn’t usually as simple as that, is it?
We make a resolution. I will be more compassionate to Adolph. I will stop eating sugar. I will be more assertive. For a while our intention is fulfilled. But then so often we slip back and have to start again. If we are self-critical or suffer low self-esteem, this defeat feels terrible or may be completely denied. But, as every good educator or psychologist or parent knows, it is not failure. The setback is a healthy and normal part of our learning process.
Learning and development are cyclical not linear. We move forward but then we have to go back and integrate. Learn. Integrate. Expand. Contract. It is a natural rhythm.
This cyclical rhythm, this breathing, is built into the cosmos. There is a crucial insight in cosmology and Taoist philosophy. There is the expansive power of the Big Bang. There is also a force that is opposite and equal to it. This balancing force is gravity, magnetism. Without this cohesive glue there would be no form, no galaxies, no stars, no flowers. Energy would just be expanding chaotically. The Yang of expansion requires the Yin of containment. It is a dance, a rhythm.
Inside us we can find the same dance. We grow; we develop; we transform. But we also stay the same. In biology and psychology this drive to remain the same is called homeostasis and is crucial for our health and survival.
So when we make a commitment or a New Year’s resolution, it is normal that we experience these two forces. On the one side we have emergence, change and transformation. On the other side we have containment, form and conservation.
When we see a beautiful flower we don’t complain that it stays beautiful, do we? In fact we want it to stay in that form for as long as possible. When it wilts we may feel sadness. We may feel the same as we watch children become adults. There are things that we want to conserve and things that we need to change. Our development, to repeat myself, moves repetitively, cyclically, between expansion and conservation and integration. On and on.
THE RHYTHM OF THE SEASONS
This cycle is played out too by humanity. The history of our species is filled with these great cycles of growth and consolidation, spirals. These spirals form the essence of the Hindu Vedas. They are also the spirals of cultural and political evolution.
The freedoms and democracy for example that we experience in most of the English-speaking world have been hard won. Arguably it began with the Magna Carta a thousand years ago. It included a revolution and the execution of a king. It finally enfranchised women. And the cycle continues as we continue to find a balance between individual freedom and collective safety.
It is the same with commercialism and greed. Since the 1960s we have witnessed the emergence of emotional literacy, multiculturalism, sexual inclusivity, the celebration of diversity and green consciousness. Fantastic developments. But then to our dismay we have seen a new cycle recently of greed, vulgarity, thoughtless celebrity and pollution.
And we are naive.
How gullible it was to think that the growth and gains of the sixties and seventies were simply going to continue until paradise was here on earth. It is always a learning cycle. The flow of development requires integration, steps forward and steps back.
This is also the way of the seasons. Gestation of Winter. Birth of Spring. Growth of Summer. Harvest of Autumn. Â Winter again.
So my friends be both realistic and profoundly hopeful. In our personal lives and in the collective development of humanity, it is a long journey. Keep your eye on the long term. Trust the process. Make your commitments and resolutions. Pray for humanity. Be an activist. Be wise when we slip back. It is all necessary for integration.
In the words of Julien of Norwich, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’