This is one of the great debates in spirituality: are our minds useful or useless? The destroyer or the creator of illusion?
A few weeks ago my mind was definitely a problem. It was racing and I was having trouble slowing it down. Its speed had been triggered by some books and CDs I had received in the post that week, asking for my endorsement. They were all on the same subject, how to achieve material success; and they all claimed that they were spiritual.
As I looked at the books and CDs I reflected on why people still sent me stuff like this. Anyone who knows me, especially those looking for an endorsement, would know that I do not usually support this kind of material. It may give people temporary hope but it also, I believe, sets people up for disappointments and confuses material success with spiritual development.
Why were people still sending me this stuff? What kind of lesson was there here for me? Maybe, I thought, I was too critical and missing something. My mind started chewing on all this.
I was also preparing for a weekend workshop and I needed to plan some of the sessions, so I knew I needed to calm a bit. I settled down with Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’ because I really like Eckhart’s balance and loving vibration.
However after about fifteen minutes, my thoughts were still speeding. I was now mentally arguing with Eckhart about his eastern approach to the mind, in which the mind is perceived as a creator of distress. This assessment of the human mind, I feel, does not appreciate how beautiful and creative the human mind can be. Shakespeare, for example, cannot be dismissed as lost in illusion. Nor Plato. Nor many others. This ignores their genius. (To be fair, Eckhart changes his tack on the mind later in his book.)
GOD’S PHONE CALL
So there I was, now wrestling with Eckhart and the success-and-happiness authors — I’m a double Aquarian so enjoy a good tussle — when the telephone rang.
It was a journalist from The Independent and — hail the great goddess of synchronicity — they were doing a long piece on Eckhart for the Saturday colour supplement and wanted my opinion on him!
I centred and switched on my best mental attention. I then asked whether the paper was doing a serious or a sarcastic piece, and the journalist assured me it was serious. My mind did a quick acrobatic flip. I put the wrestling to the side.
I like Eckhart so much that I made an instant decision to say only supportive things. I particularly spoke up for how he encourages people to witness their actions and also to be aware of their bodies, and how he makes obscure eastern teachings accessible. And I managed to drop in that Eckhart asserts that happiness is not based on getting what you want, but comes from a state of consciousness and from being present to the wonder of life.
(A week later The Independent indeed carried a long and appreciative feature article, which was then lifted by the Daily Express who accused Eckhart of being in it for the money. Groan.)
After the telephone call I was buoyed up, amused by the ‘coincidence’ and feeling how lucky I was to be having such an enjoyable life. I was also thinking that I enjoyed thinking.
Human beings have this wonderful ability not just to imagine and to create, but also to rationally think about things. We can pause and ponder possibilities — and then make choices and take decisions. We can realise that we do not understand something and then go looking for information that will help us understand. (Why else do we continue to read books?)
‘Good’ thinking is one of the ways that we connect with and express the intelligence of the universe. In fact, Plato observed that the rational mind is proof that the soul exists.
Many eastern spiritual teachers accuse the human mind of being illusory and harmful, but they paradoxically use their own minds to create and present that very argument. Logically, if the mind is so harmful, how come all these spiritual teachers are using it too?
In my opinion, the mind, like all human attributes, is one of the great paradoxes of our existence, capable of both nobility and debasement — and a major tool, when used correctly, in spiritual development.
SOME MENTAL CALM
I finally achieved some mental calm later that day reading Karen Armstrong’s wonderful book ‘The Great Transformation’ in which she describes the historical changes in religion that took place around 600 years BC, when a general savagery was replaced by a spiritual philosophy that was more compassionate, thoughtful and benevolent. She hopes that something similar can happen now.
I do not often quote at length from someone else’s work in my column, but I feel her words are well worth the space and legitimate the spiritual genius of the human mind.
If the Buddha or Confucius had been asked whether he believed in God, he would probably have winced slightly and explained with great courtesy that this was not an appropriate question.
What mattered most was not what you believed but how you behaved. Religion was about doing things that changed you at a profound level.
The only way you could encounter what they called ‘God’, ‘Nirvana’, ‘Brahman’ or the ‘Way’was to live a compassionate life. Indeed religion was compassion.
First you must commit yourself to the ethical life. Then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought. This meant that you had to be ready to change. These sages were not interested in providing their disciples with a little edifying uplift, after which they could return with renewed vigour to their ordinary self-centred lives. Their objective was to create an entirely different kind of human being.
Those conclusions reached through careful thought and a compassionate heart.