Care versus Provocation for Personal Development and Spiritual Growth

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.

Each Breath New Patterns

Each Breath New Patterns

One of my problems, like everyone, is that I get stuck in habits and opinions.

And these habits slow down, even sabotage, my development as I seek to become more connected, more conscious and more loving.

My opinions and my sense of self are the worst ruffians.

Just because I have a particular opinion I am attached to it. These opinions are both very shallow and very deep.

At the shallow end I have a sense of aesthetics and culture. So for example I think people should enjoy certain television series and not others, wear colours that suit their skin tone and not own motorcycles of a certain brand.

Less shallow, I am opinionated around politics, social and cultural affairs. It does not take long to identify me as an anarchic green socialist with strong tendencies to intellectual snobbery.

I also have distinct opinions about metaphysics, esoterics and spirituality. These inform much of my daily life and practice.

And then so much deeper is this sense of self, this particular William.

Being glued into any of these opinions — I use the word ‘opinion’ lightly and deeply — blocks the flow and expansion of my growth.

So a while ago I wrote a prayer-poem to help me.

I share it with you now:

EACH BREATH, NEW PATTERNS

Life within me

Life around

Unfold within me now the

Power of growth

Wisdom of love

Intelligence of being

Let me find integrity in the

Service of liberation

Let my inner life be proved in the strength of silent action

As each breath creates new patterns

Give me rhythm to embrace unfoldment

May I know beauty in every difference

Welcome change in every crisis

And give compassion to every cry

Consciousness joins all in life

Earth to cosmos

Soil to stardust

Human to divinity

Let love flame within

Freedom is with all

How Mystics Manage Isolation

Isolation can be a recipe for anxiety and depression. Left alone people may wither.

But what about hermits and mystic loners who enjoy solitude? What is their secret?

Mystics have always had a simple answer. They experience companionship in nature. From a grain of sand, the touch of air on their skin, out to the infinity of the cosmos, mystics sense a connectedness with all that is. They also sense an invisible and benevolent presence.

 _________________________

Mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect. (Oxford Dictionary)

 _________________________

Yet mystics are not cut off from cruelty and suffering. In fact, because of their deep connection with the wonder and energy of life, they can meet pain with courage, compassion and dignity.

This is one of the assets of great spiritual leaders: they model a deep connection with the wonder and energy of life yet are simultaneously fully present to suffering.

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Mystics also do not need the companionship of other people. They may enjoy the company of others, but they do not need it.

But infants and children absolutely need people around them. Without other people the infant brain simply does not grow. (See Sue Gerhardt: Why Love Matters – How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain.)

Children then mature. As part of their development they gradually detach from their families and carers. They need to explore, expand and become independent.

Adults, even though independent, still experience instinctive biological needs, including those for company and touch. At its most physical there is a DNA programmed biological response. Being in a crowd can feel great. Like most animals we like being stroked. Massage and lovemaking can even be blissful.

Unhappily natural instincts can become habitual, addictive and self-harming.

We see this in cravings, from food to sex. We see it too when the instinct for human company and touch becomes needy.

So here is a stark question. In this context of the pandemic and lockdowns, how much of the current concern about solitude and restriction is based in neediness rather than necessity?

We know that children absolutely require human company and affection. But do we adults really need it too or is it just the desire to satisfy a habitual craving and not a necessity?

That may seem an unnecessarily harsh enquiry. Certainly our first awareness should always be compassion and the relief of suffering. But when the suffering is based in addiction, we may need tough love.

Desire is the memory of things that have given us pleasure in the past — Patanjali 200 BC

This is where mystics have useful strategies.

They are content in solitude and isolation because they are nurtured by a felt, benevolent presence. But to achieve that state they conduct regular spiritual practice.

Their ongoing experience of the wonder and energy of life is not serendipitous. It does not just happen. Its foundation is in commitment, perseverance when times are tough and self-discipline. Mystics have robust rhythms of taking long periods of time to give full awareness to their spiritual connection.

Self-discipline however is a sensitive subject.

When someone is vulnerable and in pain, stoic willpower can be irrelevant, insulting and harmful.  

On the other hand the stoic willpower of daily spiritual practice can be beautiful, nurturing and liberating.  What is better for us than a deepening experience of the wonder and energy of life?

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Although entangled in the web and habits of biology, instinct and human relationships, we are still independent beings.

Solitude, even restriction, can be enjoyed. Even the poignancy of feeling alone whilst also being spiritually connected can be appreciated. The choice is ours.

Blessings and love to all.

Space Consciousness Love and the Pandemic

Space Consciousness Love and the Pandemic

Recently a research project asked me for my definition of consciousness.

Answering this enquiry philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists usually disappear down a rabbit hole of complexity. But I like a simple answer.  I encountered it first in Vedic philosophy and the books of Alice Bailey.

I summarise it:

Consciousness is the innate capacity to respond to stimulation. 

It is the capacity in everything to respond to stimulation.

Every time we see something responding to stimulation we are witnessing consciousness in action.

This applies to everything. I really mean everything — electron, atom, rock, plant, animal, human, planet, solar system, galaxy, cosmos, space . . .

Here are examples:

A rock responds to pressure and temperature. That response is an indication of the rock’s consciousness.

A plant may respond to temperature, gravity, sunlight, moisture and nutrients.

Animals may respond to many stimulations.

Humans respond to even more stimulations. Humans can respond to their own thoughts.

So the difference between a rock and a human is this. Human consciousness is more complex, more responsive to multiple stimulations.

Based in this interpretation we can suggest that consciousness is woven into the essential fabric of life and cosmos.

Expanding their awareness beyond the human realm mystics suggest that planets, our sun, stars, galaxies and the cosmos also have consciousness.

Space is consciousness.

This possibility can be a focus of enquiry in metaphysical meditation as human consciousness expands and experiences altered states. Sitting quietly it is the empty mind, like a receptive radar dish, that can garner insights. These insights are found in what one of the fathers of yoga, Patanjali, called ‘the raincloud of knowable things.’

Some meditators may reject the idea of any activity when sitting in silence. Others are very happy to explore inner realities, possibilities and dimensions.

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I have been building on this understanding of consciousness. In meditation I have been contemplating these seed thoughts and exploring their mysteries:

— Space is an infinite ocean of consciousness with an innate capacity to respond to stimulation

— Empty space is filled with matter, energy, electricity, vibrations, beings, ideas, plasma . . .  some miniscule, some galactic

Like all mystics and meditators my consciousness expands further when I am in a soft mindful state of love and bliss

Let me now add a thread that may help us address our current global crisis.

Ultimately our galaxy and all the dense matter we know will disappear.  It will be sucked into the mystery of a black hole.

This event is billions of years away, but it is inevitable.

So here is an interesting possibility:

When all the matter of our galaxy disappears into that black hole, will human consciousness also disappear?

Perhaps only dense matter is sucked into the black hole.  And the more subtle matter of our consciousness continues.

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This kind of enquiry posed in meditation is profoundly relevant to how we manage the current global crisis.

We can only conduct these contemplative enquiries if we are deeply calm, centred in our hearts and awake.

In that state we can truly see the bigger picture.

Waves and cycles of human history come and go.

There have been many plagues and demagogues. They pass.

Calm compassionate equanimity radiates.

It can balance, stabilise and heal the suffering, distress and anxiety of our times.

Humanity’s destiny is to be loving, conscious and connected.