Curiosity Is Wise and Intelligent

I like curious people. I do not mean people who are funny-peculiar curious (though I usually like them too.) I mean people who are enquiring and inquisitive.

This curiosity is, for me, a sign of intelligence and wisdom. Atheistic scientists can be endlessly curious. So too can spiritual seekers. Equally, both the atheists and the spiritual can imprison themselves in a fixed belief – and avoid further exploration.

There are so many mysteries.

No one can articulate how and why the cosmos came into being.

Explain what transcends time and space.

What is beyond infinity?

In neuroscience there is the forbidden territory often simply called the “C word.” C stands for consciousness. The best professors of neuroscience and psychology cannot explain how consciousness exists.

Curiosity is built into life.

We can see it in a toddler trying out anything. I once saw a toddler placing CDs into a bread toaster . . .

Perhaps plants reach up to the sun out of curiosity as much as seeking light for photosynthesis.

One perspective on spirituality is that it is never-ending curiosity. But our instinct to be curious is not only relevant to how we explore the world outside us. It is also crucial for our inner world, how we think and feel about ourselves, how we identify who we are.

This is one of the beautiful elements of psychotherapy and meditation. In those two practices we can enquire into the very essence of who we are, our emotions and thoughts, our instincts and intuitions, our relationships and habits.

Who is the I who is writing this? And why?

Why do I believe in Oneness? Perhaps it is a multiverse.

Why do I say that the universe is benevolent? Maybe it isn’t. Even then, I opt for Love.

Some cynics make passive-aggressive comments about people who are exploring spirituality. They suggest we are looking for something because we are needy, trying to fill a gaping hole of existential angst.

That criticism, perhaps accurate sometimes, completely misses that spirituality is about exploring and about expanding consciousness, curious about love, energy and connection.

Spiritual curiosity is the opposite of needy. It is sophisticated and often requires courage to ignore cultural conventions and to address our own inner shadows and negativity.

I love meditation. Inside the safety and privacy of that quiet space, I can enquire into everything. My limitations can be melted by expanded consciousness.

I am not sure what prompted this blog. Maybe it is because I have recently been meeting people on both sides of the vaccination debates and culture wars, who drop so quickly into the body language of defence and aggression (pursed lips, narrowed eyes, tense shoulders) and seem to have forgotten their intelligent and wise curiosity. It takes a while to bridge their defences and enjoy a conversation.

I love dialectics, which is the art of discussing the truth of opinions. In good conversation there can be a classic dialectic. My opinion meets your opinion, and together they create a third opinion. This resulting opinion then goes on to meet another opinion, which creates yet another opinion . . . Expansion and curiosity . . .

But like a snake swallowing its own tail, or a spiral, spiritual enquiry always seems to come home to a familiar place. Whatever my opinion, whatever your opinion, our curiosity requires benevolence and compassion.

Self-Healing, Internal Martial Arts and Mystic Love

Self-Healing, Internal Martial Arts and Mystic Love

There is an important connection between the internal martial arts practice of ‘bone marrow breathing’ and the mystic concept that ‘God loves you.’

They are not philosophical or intellectual ideas. They are both felt experiences that positively support us. 

Moreover, both experiences have strategies for deepening them.

The internal martial artist may seem very different from the mystic, but they are working with similar principles.

I was thinking about this, lying in bed, recuperating from a tough couple of weeks. I had been knocked out by a kidney infection and then, partially recovered, found myself caring for other members of the family facing health crises. I was exhausted to the point of irritability.

But I teach and practise self-care. So, I turned up the volume on my bag of self-healing strategies. 

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How do we turn up the volume?

For stronger and deeper healing, we have to become softer. Our attitude and mood need to resemble the lightest touch of the most delicate feather.

In yoga and internal martial arts (Qi Gung) there is a saying:  the softer, the deeper. For the healing energy to sink more fully into your body, it needs to be soft, gentle and subtle, not vibrant and intense.

This is explicitly taught in the Taoist approach to health, Taoism being the source of Qi Gung and bone marrow breathing. In the Taoist model, the universe is a flowing, moving, ocean of change. It is essentially benevolent and to benefit from this goodness, we need to place ourselves in harmony with it and become part of its flow. One crucial element in this harmonisation is for us to soften, become lighter, more flexible.

Just as the Tao is benevolently harmonious, so too the mystic’s experience of deity is benevolent.

For the mystics who want a deeper spiritual connection and experience, there is also similar practical advice. They are asked to empty and yield softly to benevolence and love.

In mystic poetry this is often described as a form of swooning — but your lover is the Divine. Dissolve me like sugar in warm tea, wrote Rumi the Sufi mystic.

In practice, this mystic emptying and yielding is, I suggest, the same felt experience as softening to go deeper.  

I notice too that there are parallels in the practices of many spiritual traditions. The metta practice of Buddhism, for example, points in the same direction. May I be at ease in my own body . . . May I develop compassion . . .

Different cultures have different ways of expressing the same concept, practice and experience.

 

A Quantum Leap

To even better experience the softness, the love, the flow and healing, there is also a quantum leap we can make.

This is a sincere personal surrender and commitment to the love, benevolence and compassion of the universe.

You, and you alone, know whether you have made this shift.

Having committed to this love, we are not perfect. It is always work in progress. We still have the usual human faults, but essentially we are at peace with the universe.

This means that our self-care and self-healing can go ever softer and deeper. Good for us. Good for those around us.

 

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Be as comfortable as you can.

Patiently contemplate that the cosmos is benevolent.

Notice any good feelings.

Soften your attitude and mood.

Allow the goodness to sink into you. Yield. Breathe it in.

Practise this again and again.

New Evidence for Health Benefits of Spirituality

Some good news.

JAMA the journal of the American Medical Association has just published new evidence for the physical and mental health benefits of spirituality.*

“This study represents the most rigorous and comprehensive systematic analysis of the modern-day literature regarding health and spirituality to date,” says Tracy Balboni, lead author and professor of oncology at Harvard Medical School. “Our findings indicate that attention to spirituality in serious illness and in health should be a vital part of the future of whole person-centred care.”

In summary the conclusions of the paper are clear: People who describe themselves as spiritual tend to live longer, smoke and drink less, and have better mental health.

This research mirrors exactly what was found in Harold Koenig’s 2012 paper** which reviewed over 3,300 studies of health and religion/spirituality; and also in the 2009 paper by McCullough and Willoughby***, which analysed eight decades of rigorous research and concluded:

‘Believers performed better, had better health and greater happiness, and lived longer than non-believers. . . . were, on average, 29 % more likely to be alive at any given follow-up point . . . 25% reduction in mortality….’

How are these benefits achieved?

Here is one way of understanding it.

Your body is an interdependent and holistic system.

Connection with Spirit (by whatever name)

— Helps develop harmony, calm and flow

— Brings a sense of Oneness and community with nature and cosmos

— Creates meaning and purpose in a confusing and complex world

— Supports and encourages love, service and compassion

All of this can cascade through your mind, emotions and body, improving wellbeing.

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To support people in exploring spirituality and how to put it into practice, we in the Spiritual Companions Trust have developed this free resource Secrets of Spiritual Health and we also deliver a 10-hour practical programme. For more  information: https://spiritualcompanions.org/secrets-of-spiritual-health

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References:

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2794049

** Harold D Koenig : “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications”, International Scholarly Research Network Psychiatry Volume 2012, Article ID 278730

*** Michael E. McCullough and Brian L. B. Willoughby, ‘Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations and Implications’, Psychological Bulletin, January 2009

Three Types of Spiritual Healing (video)

This presentation for experienced healers and therapists was hosted by the Healing Trust and Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary for Healing Week 2022.

After sharing about my own background in healing, I describe three types of healing:
1. Push Prana (Yang);
2. Loving Presence;
3. Drop back into pattern (Yin).

I also define health as ‘Comfortable Flexibility’ and illness as ‘Uncomfortable Rigidity.’

Later in the presentation I discuss strategies that address healing the etheric wounds of sexual abuse. 

I describe how to cooperate with the spirits-angels-devas of healing, so that the healer can attune to how best to approach their work.

The session was hosted and moderated by Jennifer Jones, director of the Healing Trust. 

Dying – No More Doom and Gloom

I am in the middle of preparing a new seven-session course on how to feel and think about end-of-life, dying and the transfer of consciousness.

My office-studio-lounge is littered with books on the subject – from worthy tomes on compassionate nursing by hospice medics, through practical self-help books on wills and funerals, to wonderful stories and visions about the other side.

And I am feeling frustrated.

Why? Because in all these books, almost without exception, death itself is coloured with an aura of doom and gloom. There are clouds of depressed attitude around death throughout our culture and society.

My own personal experience is 100% different.

I had a life-threatening illness in my twenties and had a series of out-of-the-body near-death experiences, which introduced me to the absolute beauty and loving-kindness of the cosmos. Yes indeed there are pockets of negativity, but the cosmic ocean we all experience after death is benevolent, friendly and spacious. That is my experience – and also the experience of thousands and thousands of others.

You do not have anyone who comes back from those expanded dimensions then groaning and complaining about the experience. Grumble, grumble, the Clear Light was horrible. Paradise! Heaven! Yikes. Dreadful.
It is incarnating that is challenging — Parents! Families! Biological instincts and compulsions!

Dying is like going to bed after a long, tiring long day. It is wonderful to sink down into the bed and then shift dimensions.

In my opinion and my experience, once we have experienced how wonderful it is on the other side, then our lives here and now are so much easier and more present.

We are reassured because we know that we are situated in this wonderful spiritual context.

Our lives are not just biological and psychological in this three-dimensional solid world. We exist in a much greater narrative, expanding consciousness, growing love and compassion.

I want to magic away death’s gloom and doom. I want everyone at every age understanding the cosmic context.

Please do not misunderstand me. There is still suffering, grief, pain, loss and poignancy that we must carefully and compassionately hold and heal. But the cosmic context is benevolent and extraordinary.

Knowing the true context enables us to live a happier life, to prepare for our own graceful passing, and also to support others as they approach their own transition.

This coming Saturday 30th April there is a free video event. It is a conversation that I have with Stephen Dinan, founder of the Shift Network. I talk more fully with him about everything that I have written above. And then Stephen segues into telling everyone about the seven-session course. https://shiftnetwork.isrefer.com/go/adwWB/a21385/

Care versus Provocation for Personal Development and Spiritual Growth

Right now, with covid and global warming, my concern is that people will hunker down and seek to be soothed, instead of rising to the challenge of the provocations.

 

The Russian mystic George Gurdjieff was rumoured to have hosted orgies for his normally well-behaved middle-class followers. It is said that he created a seductive atmosphere and hypnotically inducted his party guests into their orgy. Then, when they were all fully engaged in their sensual activity, he would clap his hands and shout Wake up! Wake up! Do not be animals. Be fully conscious and awake!

True story or not, it hints at a long tradition of provocative activities intended to shift people into a new state of consciousness. Wake up, he was saying. Do not be robots. You have higher consciousness.

This startling tactic recognises the usefulness of discomfort on the spiritual journey to enlightenment.

Does the usefulness of provocation and discomfort have any relevance to covid and global warming?

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I once sat in a meditation class where the teacher hit my back with a stick to correct my posture.

I have also experienced workshops where the doors were locked and there was no organisation or structure. The group stormed, normed and were expected to enter new states of detachment and awareness. Sometimes the result was a good-humoured shift. Other times just irritability.

There are provocations that are more gentle, for example in the Zen and Sufi traditions where humour, riddles and paradox are used to shift consciousness. What is the sound of one hand clapping?  is one of the most well-known.

Shortly after a stroke which paralysed one side of his body, the American hippy guru, Ram Dass, wryly commented: I now truly understand the sound of one hand clapping. He fully appreciated the tradition of provocation and paradox.

In nursing and social work, there is an appreciation too of what is sometimes called post-traumatic awakening. In my own life I have had two long and painful illnesses. In both there were key moments when I realised I had a choice. Continue moaning, complaining and being victim — or shift into another state of consciousness.

The new state was more detached, but also kinder, more accepting and more appreciative of life in general. I understood that these painful experiences were an opportunity for growth and learning.

This is not to say that I applaud or want illness and pain for myself or anyone else. Equally I want to muzzle those cleverdicks who respond to others’ pain and suffering with a passive aggressive, know-all quip that someone’s suffering and misfortune are useful stimulants for personal development.

In this context I often quote the professor of nursing, Margaret Newman. Between birth and death, she taught, everyone experiences cycles of health and illness. A nurse’s obvious role and calling is to relieve suffering. But equally important, she suggested to them, is that they midwife consciousness. Patients could make more sense, find greater meaning in their illness, if they woke up to a higher consciousness. To be more conscious, more discerning and more connected, can provide the deepest relief and healing of suffering.

And here we have the raw poignancy and paradox. There is a polarity. On the one hand we can relieve suffering through care. On the other we can relieve it through awakening.

Relieve Suffering
Care <–  or  –> Awakening

So when the meditation teacher struck my back with his stick was he helping to birth my consciousness or just being abusive? Was Gurdjieff perverted or strategic? Is the sound of one hand clapping just a cleverdick’s quip?

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It is surely obvious that when someone is in a state of trauma, it is offensive and abusive to use provocation to awaken them. Trauma requires care and patience.

But when someone is not in trauma, but just habitually complaining or just habitually unconscious in their thinking and behaviour, then provocation is useful.

But who is to judge whether someone is in trauma or not?

Over the last few years, the concept of trauma and its effects have become very well-known, almost fashionable. It has added deep and useful insights to our understanding of psychological distress and development.  There is also a problem here when trauma is wrongly diagnosed and is equated with the suffering that arises when people’s desires have not been met.

Not getting what we want, being thwarted in our desires, is not trauma.

No family, for example, is one hundred per cent perfect.  Therefore, is it appropriate to claim trauma because there was not enough affectionate parenting or kind schoolteachers? There is a difference between active abuse and a lack of love.

This is a difficult grey area and requires sensitive reality checking.

In Christianity the greatest symbol of this challenging ambiguity is Jesus on the cross — a messenger of unconditional love in a state of torture. I have several friends who in sincere states of spiritual enquiry have contemplated Christ’s passion and crucifixion. When in their contemplation they have approached his tortured body on the cross, Jesus smiled and winked at them with loving good humour. 

We are in a very grey area here.

Sometimes comfort, care and soothing are one hundred per cent necessary.

Sometimes to care for someone who is complaining, is to collude with them.

Other times a provocative kick is appropriate.

Occasionally the spiritual path asks us to take risks and throw ourselves into chasms of fire.

How can we steer ourselves through these raw ambiguities? The only way forward is an ongoing reflective practice in which we apply compassionate awareness and a moral compass. We learn our lessons, become more conscious, and perhaps wiser and more loving.

 

But this enquiry is not complete unless we also address the elephant in the room. This is the human shadow.

 

 

 

Here is a reality check and some unpleasant observations about human behaviour and psychology:

We can be obstinate, self-sabotaging, cunning, nasty and cruel. We are capable of ignorance, sociopathy and a complete lack of moral compass. We can be ingenious and self-sabotaging in how we deny and cloak our shadow behaviours, harmful addictions and compulsive polluting habits. We can invent so many stories and excuses to justify our meanness and closed hearts.

Look at any awful behaviour . . . There but for the grace of God go we . . .

It is therefore normal that our spiritual paths to more love, consciousness and connection can be fraught.

Our shadows do not go away just because we ignore them. We have to acknowledge, wrestle with, heal and integrate our shadow aspects. This is a normal part of personal development.

So although we may not appreciate or like it, it is crucial to identify and own our shadows.

As Carl Jung put it: One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.

This then is another blessing brought by provocations and crazy gurus. They can wake us up and they can illuminate our shadows.

 

The injustice and suffering experienced by our fellow beings should be enough to provoke our awakening.

But when the pain of others does not trigger our hearts and birth compassionate mindfulness, then provocations and crazy gurus are surely to be welcomed, even invited, into the privacy of our growth.

Of course, external provocateurs can be threatening, even traumatising. I do not want meditation masters hitting me or hungry ghosts jumping out of the shadows.

But I do know that risk and stretching beyond our usual comfort zones can be crucial in awakening.

Right now, with covid and global warming, my concern is that people will hunker down and seek to be soothed, instead of rising to the challenge of the provocations.

In times of crisis, we especially are called to model spiritual leadership and be the change that we want to see.

So if I have any advice for the coming year it would be:

Think, do and be different from your usual patterns.

Stretch beyond your comfort.

More spiritual generosity and good humour.

Stop complaining. Stop being surprised by the state of the world. Be surprised by yourself.

Throw yourself into the chasm of fiery enlightenment and awakening.

Relieve suffering. Midwife consciousness.

More love. More compassion.