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

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.

Vaccines Culture Wars – Creative or Suffering – How We Think Really Matters

Am just back from my motorbike journey to Wales and Scotland. I had a good time.

I walked up and down Snowdon. (My legs! Arghh.) The landscape of Snowdonia has a brilliantly happy vibe, full of joy. 

Scotland too was beautiful and the stay at the Findhorn Foundation inspirational.  The over-lighting spirit of the place is as strong and loving as ever, but the community members are understandably still orienting themselves following the effects of lockdown and the fires. I was intrigued by how they decide their next steps and make their policy decisions. This is always a challenge in utopian communities. Talking with Findhorn members set me thinking. . .

So here is one of my longer pieces – with a few diagrams to help illustrate my thoughts. It is all about thinking. Some thinking creates suffering.  And some thinking creates enjoyable flow. 

The Survival Dynamic

Here is an obvious idea. Our thoughts often have an emotional investment. This means that we want them to be respected, welcomed and appreciated.  And we feel threatened and aroused if our thoughts are disrespected or challenged.  

This is a good illustration of the Buddhist teaching that ‘desire is the source of suffering.’

We desire that our thoughts be respected. If our desire is not met, we experience suffering.

Thoughts + Feelings  = Emotional Investment  =  Arousal if disrespected or challenged.

The current arguments around covid vaccinations are uncomfortable examples of how unpleasant emotionally invested thinking can be. The power of the emotional charge can be intense. 

In a different world there could be a relaxed conversation between vaccine sceptics and vaccine advocates. This could be similar to how cooks might debate the best recipe for chocolate cake. The discussion could be passionate and noisy, but filled with creativity, flow and friendship.  

The crucial triggering difference between emotional thinking and friendly creative thinking is the instinctive biological dynamic of threat and survival.

In emotional thinking there is always an unconscious dynamic at work.  When our opinions are challenged, the vagal nerve is aroused. The gut becomes uncomfortable and acidic. Heart rate loses its integrity and breath loses its natural rhythm. The  brain goes into the electrochemistry of fight/flight. The endocrine system ditches its cocktail of wellbeing hormones and releases a flood of anxiety neuropeptides. 

As a result clear thinking is impossible. Feelings overwhelm the ability to be rational. Conversation becomes conflict.

Unconscious Triggers

 When people with an emotional investment in their thinking are challenged or disrespected, there is an instinctive arousal as they unconsciously perceive a threat to their survival. But why do people feel such a primal emotion when there is no actual attempt to kill them? 

My doctoral research was in identity politics and how we become glued to our sense of self.  This sense of identity can be so powerful that we may be prepared to die for it.  We can see this throughout history where people volunteer for death to maintain their ideology, religion and nationality.

The power of this sense of identity comes from the social and psychological safety it provides.  Think of any cultural clan — lads, ladettes, greens, tories, bikers, Trump-ists, Obama-ists, bankers, goths, billionaires, vegans  — and notice the psychological glue that binds them to that identity. It is not superficial. Through the processes of identification, internalisation and socialisation, it develops into a deep biological and neural groove.  Our identity provides a primal sense of security,  a compensatory  safety in a world where most infants, children, teenagers and adults experience endless micro-aggressions and mini-traumas, as well as full blown abuse.

Enmeshed in this sense of self are our ideas and our opinions.  Any challenge to our thinking can therefore be experienced as a threat to our identity and to our survival. Disrespect my clan and you disrespect me. 

In my home town of Glastonbury I know people who were once friends, but now avoid each other because of their disagreements over vaccines. On both sides they are so emotionally invested in their thinking that the biological imperatives of survival are triggered the moment they start discussing the topic. We can clearly see this too in politics, community processes, religion, identity and culture wars. These types of argument are deeply confrontational and uncomfortable.

Education, Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence

One solution of course is good education. Education not knowledge. 

At its best education teaches us how to enjoy thinking, how to explore and develop knowledge. Opinions based in beginner’s knowledge mature into thoughtful explorations, knowing that there is always new knowledge. New thoughts and perspectives are harvested through conversation, research, contemplation and being open to new insights. The further we go in education the more we appreciate the elasticity and infinite scope of knowledge and ideas.  

Mindfulness and meditation are useful too. They provide strategies that help us work with the feelings that may be triggered by challenging thoughts. Sitting in the calm of meditation we can bring into our awareness those thoughts that usually provoke and trigger us. Vaccines. Governments. Global warming. Difficult family members. Identity politics. Trump. The meditation strategy is straightforward:

We bring the provocative thought into our awareness.

We notice the uncomfortable arousal.

We compassionately welcome the feeling.  We breathe into it.  We calm and integrate it.

In this way we train our body and neural grooves to stay calm when experiencing challenge.

Noticing these feelings and managing them wisely is the heart of emotional intelligence.

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The first year groundhog day problem

Psychotherapy of course can be very helpful too in disengaging our thoughts from the unconscious, instinctive arousals of threat and survival. 

Imagine if politicians — for example the Labour Party extreme left or the Conservatives extreme right — enjoyed the benefits of psychotherapy. They would learn to have some distance from their feelings, opinions and glued-in identities. Emotional devotion to ideologies would be a thing of the past.

This approach would also be relevant to religious gatherings, conclaves and synods, so that fundamentalists would temper their passions.

But there can also be a negative side to psychotherapy when it comes to conflict and disagreements. 

I have experienced this in psychotherapy training centres, in intentional communities and in many couples. When discussing hot topics, we can get caught up in endlessly recycling our emotions. We can justify this by asserting that the release of our emotions is not only therapeutically beneficial, but also a vital and ‘authentic’ part of group process. 

This is what I call the ‘first year groundhog day problem.’

In psychotherapy and counselling trainings, the first year is usually about helping students recognise that emotions and feelings are driven by unconscious dynamics. In the first year we learn to identify and express these feelings, rather than deny and repress them.  Feel it – Express it – Release it.

In the second, third and fourth years, we then become skilled in recognising, managing and maturing these unconscious dynamics.  

But some folk stay stuck in the first year, endlessly recycling their emotions, justifying their behaviour as necessary and healthy, when in fact it is immature.  In this scenario groups, organisations and couples get stuck in emotional process. There is little clear thinking and painfully slow progress. 

This does not mean that there is no space for creative passion, especially in the face of abuse and injustice. But this passion needs to be conscious and guided by clear, reflective thinking. 

There is a place for emotional process. 

And there is a place for intelligent discussion. 

It can be difficult and exhausting to do them together.

The Spiritual Perspective 

In spiritual development, clean thinking without emotional attachment is a crucial stage on the journey towards more love, more compassion and more connection with the great mystery and beauty of life. It is about the expansion of consciousness and wisdom. 

In inadequate language, we might describe this as moving from lower to higher mind, from small to big mind. This means an expanding awareness of what our minds and hearts can access, perceive and cognise.

As a first step in consciousness expansion, it is absolutely necessary that we are able to step back, and observe ourselves with love and compassion. We watch our feelings and thoughts.  We witness.  We empty.  We expand. We reflect. The rational, higher mind, Plato suggested, is proof of the human soul.

Talking with my colleagues and students over the years, and from personal experience, I know that this is tough spiritual practice — being awake, being observant and compassionate, being embodied and aware, being comfortable with unknowing, being mindful and fully in the heart. 

This aspect of spirituality requires passionate motivation, discipline and a willingness to flow gracefully with the tides of the natural, psychological and spiritual worlds.

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So where does this leave us in the real world? 

It leaves us with the normal disciplines of being a better person. 

It reminds us to contain our emotional processes and guide them into suitable contexts. 

It reminds us that so many of humanity’s problems and abuses originate in bad thinking – thinking that is fuelled by unconscious and primal drives.

 We need those teachers who clap their hands a few inches from our faces and exclaim:  Wake up!

Moment by moment we are invited to be conscious and aware. This is not stern and earnest behaviour. It is beautiful and enlightening. Each breath brings new patterns.

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I hope that is helpful.

Thinking in progress . . .

What do spiritual teachers and leaders do when no one is looking?

What do spiritual teachers and leaders do when no one is looking?

Out in public they lead, worship, support and teach. But what are they up to when home and alone?

Over the decades I have hosted and met many of them. From experience I know that they all do the same thing. Away from their audiences, their students and congregations, they take quiet time to connect more deeply with their spiritual source.

It does not matter what their tradition is — mainstream religion, pagan, shaman, healing, yoga, meditation, dance — they take time day by day to deepen their spiritual connection. Without exception this is done quietly and humbly, with an appreciation of how small they are in the context of the cosmos.

Yes of course, after the outbreath of public service, they need to regenerate and fuel themselves. And Yes their legitimacy as a spiritual leader comes from the authenticity of their own spiritual practice. But this is not their primary motivation for ongoing spiritual practice.

Their primary motivation is their own inner calling. The core of their spiritual lives is not public outreach, though being of service is crucial. The core is their private and internal vocation — to greater connection with all that is, more love and compassion, expanded consciousness.

Think of any spiritual teacher you like and contemplate their life at home.

Be realistic. Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Amma, the hugging saint, is not hugging everything in sight but is quietly allowing herself to be hugged by spirit. The shaman is not continually transported by plant medicines and trance-dancing but sits quietly in landscape. The Dalai Lama spends hours in meditation. The Pope is not ceremonially processing around his apartment in robes and mitre but is in contemplation and prayer.

This was always their real calling. Release all the teaching and leadership. They are solid in their spiritual practice.  

Some of their ambitious followers and students may seek to be like them, also leading and teaching. But they may be missing the point, the essence. All the different spiritual paths and styles lead to the same thing — the individual’s personal spiritual calling and practice. Repeating myself now, that essence is:

— Deeper connection with all that is

— More compassion and love

— Expanded consciousness

Spiritual growth may sometimes happen serendipitously or with a wave of grace. In reality it requires dedication and daily perseverance, a rhythm of quiet opening and connection.

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So I wonder if for some of us there has been a silver lining in this Covid crisis. It has provided a time and focus for spiritual practice. We do the same then as all the teachers and leaders. We are called to an ever-deeper relationship with the wonder and energy, with the awe and mystery of all that is.