The Delusion of Life Purpose

I met a bewildered woman. She was a successful civil servant in her forties who was waking up to her spirituality and had begun to attend some psychic development classes.

 
‘I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,’ she said. ‘I don’t seem to have a purpose.’
 
We started to have a conversation and it turned out that she had a family and was a senior manager in social services. She was a good person and she was doing good. But she now thought that being psychic and having clairvoyant experiences was the only meaningful way of living. She had stopped valuing her role as a carer, manager and parent. She was temporarily enchanted by the illusion that psychic experiences were more meaningful than being of service.
 
This reminded me of an old friend who once confessed that he was envious of my being a spiritual teacher and workshop leader. He himself was a financier with a sumptuous life style and I asked what it was about my life that he envied, expecting him to say that it was because my work was congruent with my soul or that it helped me to be centered. Instead, he started to describe how he saw my life as being a bit like a pop or movie star, with status and glamour. That, he felt, would bring him real satisfaction.
 
I winced with embarrassment. My model of a good spiritual teacher is not someone who is successful or well known, but someone who is quiet and hidden. I love the stories of the great Muslim mystics, the Sufi Masters, who work as cobblers and bakers. To find them, you have to look for the most invisible person in the crowd.
 
 
LIFE’S PURPOSE
 
People are always trying to work out what they should be doing with their lives. But the more I look at this idea of having a life’s purpose, the more I think and feel that it is an illusion. Let me risk a wide-sweeping generalisation.
 
Everyone’s life purpose is the same.
 
Our purpose is to develop our compassion and consciousness until finally, in every single cell, we are completely and totally loving, awake and of benefit to all living beings.
 
Full stop.
 
One hundred per cent compassionate and conscious in every fibre of our being.
 
No buts or ifs. No waiting until we have found the right career. Being awake and compassionate is The Career!
 
Everybody knows this. It is at the core of all spiritual traditions.
 
So why is it that we so often get lost and confused and think we do not know our life’s purpose – when, in fact, we do know it?
 
 
SIX IDEAS
 
So here are six thoughts that help me and may be of use to you too.
 
One – When something gives us pleasure, our basic survival instinct for self-gratification drives us to wanting more of it. So if we enjoy imagining a different type of life, we will start to desire the actual thing. Imagination and desire are normal parts of being human. Unfortunately, as the Buddha so helpfully reminded us, desire is the source of all suffering and a destructive emotion. So enjoy daydreaming about other possibilities, but don’t get hooked in by actually desiring them.
 
Two – Spiritual growth is not easy because we have to meet our wounded psychological selves in order to heal and integrate them — and this can be painful. Not surprisingly we have an instinct to avoid this pain, but this avoidance can then lead us away from true spiritual development. We look for easy solutions and finding our life’??s purpose is an easy sounding solution, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The way forward here is courage and realism about the spiritual journey.
 
Three – Our brains are genetically hardwired to understand life through stories that have a plot and a conclusion. The basic story is hunt, gather, eat and survive. Ambiguous stories cause us anxiety. (How do you feel when you only know three quarters of a story?) We are therefore impatient to understand the plot and the ending of our own life stories. Again, we may look for simple solutions and reject the ambiguities of paradox, unknowing and mystery. The trick is to learn how to be and accept all of life’s conundrums.
 
Four – We all carry personal and collective karma, which can create almost unbearable feelings of negativity. Like infants we want the comfort and gratification that might come with success and material fulfilment. But no amount of success or riches from the right career will deliver satisfaction. Only through building a strong centre and learning the skills of self-healing will these internal hungry ghosts be integrated.
 
Five – Then there is a sense of being stifled and having creative talents that need to be fulfilled. Dealing with these feelings is a life art. There are no easy answers. Sometimes we need to explode and release ourselves into something new. Other times, we need patience and careful experimentation. And often we just need to accept that we are perfectly fine the way that we are.
 
Six – And then there is the great illusion that once we have achieved our life’s purpose and are in the right career we will feel fulfilled and content. But we are not islands. Is it possible to feel fulfilled when fellow creatures are still suffering? Are personal purpose and personal fulfilment inherently self-centred? It is probably more realistic to stay with the core message of Christ and with the Vow of the Bodhissatva Buddhas. This Vow states: We shall not rest until every being is liberated from suffering.
 
So here then is the possible life purpose for all of us — to become fully awake and compassionate; and to strive until all beings are free of suffering. Each in our own unique way, each in our own everyday lives.

Are Our Minds Useful or Useless?

 

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.
 
 
ENJOYING THOUGHTS
 
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.

Why We Do Good Things

 

My dad was sometimes very cynical. He claimed that people only do good because it makes them feel good. Any act of generosity according to him always has a self-centered motive. I remember when I was fourteen and a friend telephoned to say that she needed help looking after her mother who was ill. I immediately replied that I would go over and have never forgotten the look in my father’s eyes or the cool tone in his voice.
 
‘Don’t fool yourself that you’re doing it for her,’ he said. ‘There’s always self-gratification.’
 
Doing good and self-sacrificing for our families, for our clans and for our species, say some biologists, is a genetic and evolutionary imperative. They suggest that this is the instinctive drive of the ‘selfish gene’ ensuring that its gene pool survives, even to the cost of its host carrier. This is why, they say, that parents are prepared to sacrifice themselves for their children.
 
Similar to this, one of the most startling of all religious symbols is the sacrificial symbol of the Rosicrucians, a sixteenth century European mystical society. This symbol is of a pelican, pecking at the flesh on her chest in order to feed her young. This spiritual imperative to self-sacrifice, for many, is the core meaning of Christ on the cross, dying in order to redeem all God’s children. In fact, there are many traditions in which deities sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their communities.
 
So why do we do good? I don’t like the three answers that I have just described above.
  • Self-gratification
  • Genetic imperative
  • A religious impulse to self-sacrifice
They may all be part of the equation, but I prefer to think and to feel that something else is at work — something more direct and inspiring.
 
***
 
When Copernicus and Galileo said that the Earth was a spinning globe and that the sun was the centre of our system, their colleagues did not believe them. I can easily understand this because my actual second-by-second experience is that I am standing on something flat and stable. It is flat. It is not moving. Surely if the Earth were really spinning and orbiting through space at thousands of miles an hour, I would fall over or fall off. The reality is of course that, because of gravity, we do not experience or feel the movement.
 
But there are more profound and powerful dynamics in the cosmos than just spinning and orbiting. The universe exploded and emerged from some single incomprehensible event. In fact, everything in the cosmos is perpetually emerging, expanding, growing, developing, changing, flowering, contracting, recycling and re-birthing. We ourselves emerge from single cells to grow and expand. Plants emerge from seeds. These are universal dynamics.
 
But unlike the motions of the Earth, planets and Sun, which we do not feel, we can and do feel the dynamics of emergence, change and growth.
 
Within ourselves, if there is no flow, no flexibility and change, we experience physical or psychological stiffness and a loss of good health. When we are open, flexible and developing, we experience physical and emotional wellbeing.
 
It is the same with how we behave and feel towards those around us. If our feelings and behaviour are frozen, then it does not feel good. When our feelings and behaviour are flexible, supportive and creative, it feels good.
 
Generosity and service, helping things to grow — these activities put us in harmony with the fundamental dynamics of nature and the universe. It feels good to do good because we are then on the same frequency as spirit. We are cooperating with it, congruent with it, dancing it, enjoying it. This is so very different from behaviour that is frigid, greedy and obstructive.
 
When we live and behave with generosity, something happens within our chemistry and our consciousness. To be creative and in harmony with the thrust of existence feels good.
 
We do not do good because it brings self-gratification. We do good because that is part of the natural order of things. It is a way of being fully alive.
 
***
 
Of course, to cooperate with this creative cosmic dynamic is difficult when we are lost in illusion, frightened, hungry or insecure. But in times of crisis, heroes emerge who demonstrate poignant courage. Barack Obama’s life is one such inspiring story and I recommend both of his books. At the same time, I pray that the more negative forces of politics and history do not corrupt his instinct for service.
 
Doing good and being of service do not, however, have to be dramatic or visible. Just having a good attitude is of benefit. Moods and attitudes ripple through social networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, wrote Nicholas Christakis, a professor of sociology at Harvard Medical School, in a recent British Medical Journal. ‘A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25%.’ His research over a twenty-year period with over four thousand people concluded ‘People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.’
 
Being of service to our communities, being congruent with the fundamental dynamics of emergence and change, then is not just about overt and recognised acts of benevolence. Doing good is crucially about the type of people we are and the ripples that we send out into the pond.

Why Self-Help May Not Work

 

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.

Talk Your Walk

November 2013

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.  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. 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 . . .

Spiritual Pomposity, Hats and Hair Styles

May 2009

A writer recently contacted me about a book he was putting together of truthful stories about the challenges of the spiritual path. He said that he was tired of all the teachings that suggested the journey was easy or pretended that the teacher had achieved some spiritual status and was special.
I agreed to see him immediately.
This business of false or exaggerated claims in religion and spirituality is not a new problem. The great world religions all assert or imply that their way is the best way. That has been, and still is, a source of conflict. It is not much different in shamanic and tribal traditions where there can be uncomfortable arguments, for example, about what elements should be placed in the four directions of a Medicine Circle. Esoteric and occult study groups too have been notorious for their exclusivity.
And, of course, as I often like to remind people who get spiritually earnest, there are also the great men’s hair-do debates. If women think they have a problem with their hair, it is nothing compared to some spiritual men for whom their hair is a sacred gateway to the divine. What will it be today, sir? We have several choices. Completely shaven for humility? A tonsure so the soul can escape through the crown chakra? Abundant hair and beard, each strand an antenna picking up spiritual vibrations? A top knot so that the spirits can lift you up into heaven?
But religious hats are also entertaining. The bigger the hat, the bigger the spiritual status. Bishops’ mitres. Tibetan Buddhist top hats. Great feathered bonnets. Animals’ heads. Fantastically decorated hoods and crowns.
In fact, first year anthropology students learn that you can recognise religious artefacts, because they are only used by special people on special occasions.
So the logic here is that if you get the right hairdo, the right sacred hat and the right special objects, then you will have attained spiritual status. You can see this in spiritual traditions all across the world. Big chief always wears the best and loudest outfits.
This is all rather like the Wizard of Oz. He appears to be extremely powerful, lord of thunder and lightning -  until Dorothy pulls back the curtain and reveals a small insecure man pulling levers and pressing buttons. It is all show and no substance.
Plus there is the added problem that these people in special clothes assert that they have all the special answers.
And then there is the even greater problem – that people want to believe them.
INTRIGUING PARADOXES
This can create a difficult position. I do not want to offend anyone or deflate their spiritual path, but I also don’t want to collude in giving respect to a spiritual teacher or teaching just because they have the clothes and the status, or appear to be confident and certain.
Sometimes people like me – your friendly meditating writer and freelance mystic – are given status because we have books published or write in an enlightened manner.
Sometimes status is given just because someone is teaching spirituality or preaching or leading ceremonies.
But inside the status is just another human being, another Wizard of Oz. That’s me. That’s you. Of course, it can be lovely and reassuring to have status, but those of us in the spiritual biz need to beware of ever taking it seriously. Power corrupts. The more emotionally insecure we are, the more likely it is that we will believe that our own status and power are true and meaningful. I won’t name names, but I imagine you yourself can think of a few people like this. (It might even be you! Or me!)
This is made more difficult because there are many people who are looking for a perfect mother-father figure who will make them feel safe in a challenging world. So you end up with insecure followers following insecure leaders, which is a typical and very human group-soup to be found in all areas of life especially in religious and spiritual teaching.
It is also often made even more confusing because many of these insecure or pumped up teachers also bring through and carry a blessing. This is one of the most intriguing spiritual paradoxes: a flawed human radiating a blessing. This will be the subject of a future column.
REALISM
What I want is a spirituality that is realistic about the human condition.
I want leaders and teachers of spirituality to be honest and open about their own internal challenges and weaknesses, and to stop pretending they are special or perfect. I am tired of the pretence. It is also emotionally exhausting and unhealthy for the teacher.
The traditional justification for all this pretence was that the masses needed the stability and reassurance of an established and authoritative spirituality. This was the way to control the rabble and maintain a stability. This was, and often still is, the justification for all that pomp and false dignity. Often of course it is a cunning argument used to justify the abuse of power.
We know better.
It is now over 150 years since Sigmund Freud was born and founded contemporary psychology. The most profound insight of his psychology, which has coloured the way that all of us today understand the human condition, is that beneath our conscious mind and behaviour are unconscious thoughts, feelings and instincts that are really driving us.
What a powerful revelation! We are not really what we appear to be, what we present to the world or even who we think we are. We are highly strung creatures seeking to survive, driven by primal needs and defence patterns, putting on a front. (Of course, we are not only that - but we forget those unconscious realities at our peril.)
Freud is often presented as hostile to spirituality, but his major revelation gives tremendous support to our spiritual development, mapping how we create our own unreality and how we are conned by our own thoughts and emotions.
This richness of the human condition - the weakness and the courage, the insecure neediness and the cosmic consciousness - is the source of great art. I often opine that it is artists, not spiritual teachers, who really understand the human condition. Look to Shakespeare or Beethoven for a fuller understanding of all that we encompass â?? the tragic-comic mask.
So let me finish this column by recommending a wonderful compassionate novel, which some of you may have read, about the early days of psychiatry and neuro-science, Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Human Traces’.
There are no easy answers, but compassionate and insightful enquiry into the human condition is a good start.