This is one of the great debates in spirituality: are our minds useful or useless? The destroyer or the creator of illusion?
- Genetic imperative
- A religious impulse to self-sacrifice
Have you ever wondered why self-help and healing strategies do not always work — even when practised diligently and even by their own teachers?
This has often bothered me, especially when I have seen close friends work hard at these techniques and then not achieve the new life or health they want. Sometimes my friends have been not only disappointed but have also, tragically, even felt stung and ashamed by their lack of success.
These negative feelings and thoughts arise, I want to suggest, because people do not have the full picture of what is going on when they strive to fulfil their potential and use these self-help strategies. They do not see what is beneath the surface, the unseen realities.
So let me create a couple of fables to help explain.
The first is about a young beech tree. This beautiful young tree was very happy to be part of his small forest, growing with his friends and family, passing through the seasons, providing a home for small creatures. Then one day he began to develop some self-awareness.
‘I am not just part of the forest,’ he thought, ‘I am also a unique me, a unique tree.’
That autumn he decided that he did not want to lose his leaves like the rest of his beech tree family. ‘I have my own unique consciousness. I decide my own fate. I shall keep my leaves green and vibrant through the winter.’ He focused and focused and willed himself, using mantra and affirmations, to retain his foliage.I am green and vibrant. I am green and vibrant.
But he lost his leaves. They turned golden and fell to the ground.
The next year he decided that he wanted to be the tallest tree in his forest and carry the most beechnuts. He concentrated hard to deepen his roots and extend his branches and stretch his DNA. He indeed grew an extra few feet but still there were older beech trees far taller and the giant douglas fir dwarfed them all.
Then the following year the weather system blew in some polluting acid rain from northern industrial Europe. Along with all other trees in his forest, unable to avoid the environmental realities, he suffered the burning effects of the pollution and took some years to recover.
For all his willpower, he could not avoid the realities of nature.
The second fable turns our attention to Antarctica and to a beautiful young penguin who was sitting on top of a small and icy mound. She was a proud and haughty penguin and felt that she too was a unique individual. She had hatched on an ice shelf along with several thousand others in her colony and had slid and slithered with all her cousins down to the ocean, but she knew deep down that she was special and had a unique destiny.
‘I will create my own life,’ she thought. ‘I will not only swim. I will fly!’
Bravely she left her colony and set off on her own. She was determined and wilful and waddled for many miles, finally reaching a small mountain. This, she knew, she felt it in her bones, was the magic place! If she could only reach the peak she would then be able to fly. After more days of gruelling struggle, she reached the mountaintop.
˜Now I shall fly!’
She put her all her will and intention into her desire to become airborne. Nothing happened. She remained earth-bound. Dismayed she collapsed on to the ground and fell into a fitful sleep from which she was awoken by terrible cracking and grinding noises. The earth and ice beneath her were moving.
‘If I cannot fly, I will use my will to stop the earth moving,’ she thought. But her thoughts were, sadly, useless. She looked around. To her dismay she saw that she was, in fact, sitting on the peak of an enormous iceberg floating off into the ocean, leaving behind the landmass and her fellow creatures.
‘Stop! Stop!’ she cried. But the iceberg floated away to its own inevitable destiny.
Penguins cannot fly and the major mass of an iceberg is beneath the surface.
Returning now to self-help strategies for achieving perfect health and wealth. The insights are clear. The unseen problem with these strategies is that they rarely look at the deeper realities and conditions. In fact, many unseen forces influence our physical health and our material conditions.
How many of us are like a tiny penguin sitting on an iceberg, trying to alter our situation, but unaware that the most important realities are below our conscious awareness?
Beneath our desire for a healthier and happier life is a massive substratum of powerful forces: personal karma, family karma, collective karma, unconscious emotions, feelings and histories. All of these cannot just be transformed by, for example, the repetition of an affirmation no matter how diligently or purely it is repeated. Even when we commit fully to deep transformation and do the hard work of personal growth, we will almost always meet the forces of our past.
How many of us are also like the beech tree, wanting the impossible and trying to escape the rhythms and waves of nature and the forces of our environment?
When we focus on our health we cannot for example avoid the reality that we belong to the vast interdependent collective of humanity, nature and cosmos. The actual atoms and molecules of our bodies, for example, do not belong individually to us, but belong to the Earth. This means that, regardless of our unique individual identities, our bodies share the collective conditions of all carbon-based creatures. So illnesses like cancer may arise simply from the contact of our bodies with the toxins of our surroundings. Or epidemics may overwhelm us. Just as beech trees shed their leaves in Autumn, so we too are embedded in nature and our environment.
Of course, there are also miracles, growth and development that transcend these collective realities. But in general penguins do not fly!
The real miracle, glory and majesty of being human is that we are also spiritual beings. This means that we have real control over and are sovereigns of our own consciousness and hearts. Regardless of our circumstances or health, we have the absolute freedom to develop spiritually: to grow our love, our awareness, our compassion.
So even when we are not succeeding at self-help strategies to improve our material conditions, we can still develop our spirituality. More compassion, more consciousness. True healing, development and fulfilment.
The wise beech tree and the contented penguin.
Here’s a dilemma that many of us face. On the one side we want a quiet life. On the other we want to create a better, more just and more loving world.
Does that description fit you? If so, then like me you may face a problem. When we are open with our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues about our idealism and spirituality, then sometimes we will meet scepticism and even upfront hostility. (Do you have a relative you only meet at Christmas who always asks sardonically, ‘Still into all that weird and flaky stuff, eh?’)
Whether we like it or not, we are part of a paradigm war, a conflict of ideas and worldviews.
I was reminded of all this by the recent death of the wonderful Pat Pilkington, one of the co-founders in 1980 of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, now the Penny Brohn Centre. Pat and Penny pioneered a holistic mind-body-spirit approach to cancer care which, supported by Prince Charles, has had international influence.
At one point however, twenty years ago, they came under vicious attack from the media and the medical establishment. They were accused of being deluded and endangering lives.Â The attack was sustained and unpleasant. But there was a silver lining to the conflict because it forced Pat, Penny and their colleagues to be more professional and articulate about their methods and ideas. Marshalling their research, they began to argue effectively with their opponents and achieved respect and legitimacy. Today their approach is widely accepted as a positive contribution.
But here we have our challenge and contradiction.
Pat and Penny were creating a place of healing and spiritual medicine, yet they were forced into a harsh paradigm war.
Although I meditate and love being alone, since my late teens I have also been an activist for complementary healthcare and new approaches to spirituality. I have experienced many paradigm skirmishes beginning, of course, in my own family! My dad was an old style doctor and psychiatrist. My mother was a cynical New York journalist. You can imagine what they thought of new age spirituality and complementary medicine.
So, over the decades, have I learned anything useful about how to manage these paradigm wrangles? The following suggestions, gleaned from experience, might be useful for you.
Know your stuff. As Penny Brohn and Pat Pilkington experienced, goodwill and idealism are not enough. Research and know your subject. This will build your confidence and gain respect.
Centred and mindful. Whenever you find yourself in a skirmish of ideas, make sure you remain centred, grounded and calm. Otherwise your body language and attitude will wind up the situation. And the tension will be bad for your health.
Build bridges and be realistic.Â Use language and concepts that are understandable to your antagonists. Don’t expect them to understand what for you is basic.
Don’t assassinate. Be compassionately mindful that when someone changes their opinion or behaviour, a part of their identity is dying. Be friendly. Greet their soul.
Know which battle you are fighting. This is important and often ignored. There are at least three different arguments that you need to keep separate. It gets really difficult if they are mashed together. Let’s look at them one by one so as to be clear.
THE THREE DEBATES
1. The Spirituality Wrangle
This is a dispute about whether spirituality is useful or intelligent and whether it is different from religion. Atheists and people from traditional religions are often suspicious of spirituality. To counter this scepticism I have a definition that you may find helpful:
Spirituality is everyone’s natural connection with the wonder and energy of life — and the instinct to explore that experience and its meaning.
Spirituality is about the growth of compassion and consciousness, heart and mind — love in action.
Spirituality is not the same as religion. It is not organised and has no doctrines. Remember too that the word ‘spirituality’ is used explicitly, for example, in the Education Acts of Parliament and in many NHS statements.
2. The Metaphysics/Psychic Wrangle
This is the squabble about the existence of invisible things like spirits, angels and chakras. Imagine telling Jeremy Paxman to talk to the pixies in his garden. Do yourself a big favour and, no matter how important the psychic world may be to you, don’t bring it into discussions about spirituality or complementary healthcare. You can easily talk about spirituality — connection, mindfulness and compassion — in a school governors or hospital board meeting; but if you introduce the psychic stuff you’ll provoke trouble and be seen as flaky.
Be careful. Remember that the 2008 Consumers Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations legislates that spiritualists and mediums can now only advertise their services as ‘for entertainment only’.
3. The Vital Energy/Prana Wrangle
And then there is the prana divide. For most of us reading this piece the idea of vital energy is completely normal, but unfortunately it is a red rag to a bull and the core issue in the medical paradigm war. Medical science cannot measure prana and has no theory for it. Be aware too that in 2008 the BBC removed all the complementary medicine pages from its website. Nevertheless a huge proportion of the UK uses complementary medicine and healing, because it works.
Finally it is interesting to assess the state of play for each one. See if you agree with my appraisal. (It would be good perhaps to review them annually.)
The spirituality paradigm is doing very well and gradually integrating into the mainstream.
The metaphysics/psychic paradigm has popular support but is rejected by the mainstream.
The vital energy/prana paradigm has popular support and is only slowly developing a foothold in mainstream medicine.
I hope all of the above might be of some use to you if you ever find yourself in one of those difficult conversations again.
In the meantime how shall I end this article? I know.
May the angels of peace and healing be with you.
And if you want to, debate with me the existence of angels or healing . . .