Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Spin on Spirituality

On Sunday Laura and I drove to Albuquerque and attended a Satsang held by John Taylor, a spiritual teacher based in Santa Fe. Laura had heard about him through her grapevine, and I figured it was an opportunity for me to do something totally different, to “stir the pot” as I like to call it.

*

But before I can go any further, I need to explain why it’s necessary to have spiritual teachers in the first place. This brings us to “the human condition.” Most people identify with – consider themselves to be – the constantly nattering, chattering, sense of self apart from everything else, known as “ego.” The ego is constantly churning out thoughts – thoughts about the past, thoughts about the future, thoughts about hypothetical situations – that prevent us from fully living in the present moment. We live enmeshed within a web of thought-patterns -- which is a trivial way to live.

This ego started out as survival circuitry in the brain. When our proto-human ancestors, with chimpanzee-sized brains, were running naked around the plains of Africa, it was advantageous to remember the past (“Leopards attack at night!”) and to predict the future (“Trees on that mountain produce edible fruit after the rainy season.”) This is nothing special – many animal species do this. In fact, most animals have a rudimentary sense of “self.”

The “human condition,” which can also be called the “human problem,” is the result of a series of mutations that led to us having a large brain, a brain much larger than needed for survival. My hypothesis is that the mutations gave the larger-brained proto-humans a competitive advantage over proto-humans with smaller brains. Over time, the larger-brained humanoids wiped out the smaller-brained humanoids. (This might be the evolutionary basis for our instinctual “fear of the other,” which politicians exploit to this day -- humans different from us are to be feared, and destroyed.)

The new larger brain allowed our survival circuitry – the sense of self which can remember the past and predict the future – to run amok. It became a “sense of self on steroids.” It essentially became a virus within the computer (the brain), and we have given this virus a name – “EGO.” We take for granted – and tend to ignore -- the fact that we are conscious, that we are aware, and instead identify with ego – brain circuitry -- because it chatters so insistently.

The actuality is, our true identity is the consciousness itself. (It’s your consciousness that’s absorbing this essay right now.) But we, being human, manage to complicate the situation in our typical way, and manage to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy searching for what we already are. As John Taylor writes, “There is nothing for you to do in order to be you because you are already you.” Thanks for pointing this out, John! (This must be why he’s a spiritual teacher.) We now return to our narrative:

*

A Satsang is a combination lecture, question-and-answer session, and meditation. This one was held in the home of a couple of Taylor’s students. There were ten students, including Laura and me – three men and seven women – a typical ratio, I suspect.

During the Q-and-A session, a couple of the students mentioned their Dark Night of the Soul experiences. One called it her “spiritual desert,” and the other one called it her “wasteland.” (I have mentioned this phenomenon already in a couple of blog posts: “Drop Your Nets and Follow Me,” and “A True-Enough Fable.”) Joseph Campbell, in Creative Mythology, talks about the quest for the Holy Grail (which turns out to be none other than our own True Nature, consciousness itself), in which the seeker is required to wander through “the unknown pathless forest in his own heroic way.” (Though wandering through life lost and alone seems anything but heroic to the wanderer.) Campbell says, “Today the walls and towers of the culture-world... are dissolving; and whereas heroes then could set forth of their own will from the known to the unknown, we today, willy-nilly, must enter the forest... and like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us.” (Laura and I call it the Goat Path, as opposed to the Freeway Path most people seem to be on. With the Goat Path, the individual is often not sure if there is even a path at all.) Hearing the students talk about their experience of spiritual dryness reminded me of my own Years of the Locust, from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, and made me grateful to be stumbling along the Path with Heart once again.

It struck me, during the Q-and-A, that many spiritual seekers are looking for something else, something over and above the life they are now living. That was certainly true in my case. We aren’t satisfied with life-as-it-is; we’re looking for something more -- Oneness With The Godhead, Permanent Bliss, Astral Traveling – whatcha got? Whatever it is, I’ll take it! But the fact of the matter is,

* There is no “ordinary” reality

and

* there is no “ordinary” state of consciousness. It’s always the same consciousness, whether you’re having a toothache, or experiencing the most exalted state of Oneness.

My apologies to the Greek Mystery Religions if I give it all away so quickly: This particular channel we’re all tuned to, that we call reality, is the Mystery Channel. Our programming on this channel is All Mystery, All The Time. It’s all the Great Mystery, which is to say, it’s all beyond words and thoughts. For example, we can never encompass the is-ness of the simplest rock with mere words and thoughts. We can write an encyclopedia about the rock and it just sits there and grins at us, incomprehensible as always. We can’t understand reality with our intellects, and never will. It’s beyond understanding. And it’s all right here, in our day-to-day existence. It may be incomprehensible, but nothing is hidden away.

As the Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768) said,

This very earth is the Lotus Land of Purity,
And this body is the body of the Buddha.

Since it’s all right here, it’s just a matter of removing the distractions that prevent us from experiencing “The Lotus Land of Purity.” It’s like a bird singing in a tree. If the tree is next to a busy superhighway, it’s hard to hear the bird. Ego is the superhighway, and consciousness is the bird. We need to shift our emphasis.

Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth, made two main points:

* The goal of the spiritual seeker is to be consciously present, ALL THE TIME. (This is probably what Paul meant when he said, “Pray without ceasing.” Eph. 6:18)

and

* All you need do -- in fact, all you CAN do -- is to be consciously present RIGHT NOW, because right now is all you’ve got. No matter what’s happened to you in the past, and no matter what you want to happen in the future, all you need to do is to be consciously present right now. Stay consciously present, and everything will work out in due time – just trust the process. Evolution is slow, sure, and steady. It’s like planting a peach pit in the ground. At first you have to nurture the little seedling – feed it, water it, and keep weeds from choking it – but within a couple of years it will be a sturdy little tree, and eventually it will bear fruit. Spiritual growth works the same way.

This is literally kindergarten-level stuff (in that the brightest children could be exposed to these concepts at a very early age, and surely almost all children could handle this in their teen years). The fact that children aren’t universally exposed to these concepts is a prime reason we don’t have a true civilization anywhere on the planet. What we have instead is a chaotic mish-mash of truth and lies, science and superstition, with no standard of truth, only competing systems of propaganda. No wonder the Earth is being destroyed!

The key concept in all this is this business of being “consciously present.” It’s the difference between being conscious and being consciously conscious. Between being distracted and being focused. Being consciously present means becoming the Watcher, so to speak. It’s sometimes called “mindfulness.” It’s a shift in perspective, and it can seem like such a little thing. One could easily say, “That’s all there is to it?” The answer seems to be: “Yes, but it’s only the beginning. Just wait till evolution has a chance to work on you for awhile!” Like I said earlier, nothing is hidden away. But that doesn’t mean we can experience it, because ego has rendered us helpless and blind. But eventually our blindness will be lifted. (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” 1 Cor. 13:12)

The beauty of this is, it’s all experiential. There’s no doctrine, no dogma, nothing to explain, nothing to think about, nothing to understand. As I see it, it’s the ultimate mental discipline: Just KEEP WATCHING.

And it’s not a matter of stopping your thinking, either. (Which is good news for those of us who do creative thinking.) It’s about watching your thinking, (along with everything else) not drifting off into uncontrolled reveries in which you become lost to yourself. If you persist, you will remember to be consciously present more and more as time goes on. Just keep watching, every second, 24/7 (whenever you remember to, that is), and eventually the watching process will become automatic. Keep watching long enough, and ultimately the constantly-chattering “monkey mind” ego will fade more into the background, and consciousness will have a chance to work its evolutionary magic within you. Eventually, life becomes a constant meditation, existence becomes its own reward, and the individual becomes a fully-integrated human, in which the ego has been integrated into its true place within the total body-mind-spirit package. It’s not about “annihilating the ego,” it’s about normalizing the ego – returning it to its proper function.

The integrated ego, rather than being in control (or so it likes to think), once again serves its true survival function. (In its proper place, when it no longer dominates, ego can be a fascinating companion – what marvelous creatures we are!) As evolution unfolds within you, you will automatically know what to do. (Just do it, and see what happens. You might be delighted by the results.) Your destiny will unfold in a natural way. People who’ve achieved this integration are the wealthiest people on the planet. They lack for nothing. This is why this integration is sometimes called “the pearl of great price.”

*

This seems like a good place to stop for now. My little peanut brain has been milked dry. I realize I’ve left a lot out, and what I’ve written needs a lot of editing work, but I think the article is sound as far as it goes. I’ll probably add to it and refine it later. Eventually I’ll post it again as my “New, Improved Spin on Spirituality.”
Nov. 11, 2008

I revised it slightly and added a few clarifying sentences.
Jan. 28, 2010

2 Comments:

Anonymous jacques said...

Wow........ that's a lot of information...... I appreciate you sharing your personal process. I took the liberty of forwarding your link to a couple of other people who I think will appreciate what you're saying.... Perhaps if the next few years brings a slowing to our lifestyles, more folks will be in tune with what you're experiencing and sharing.

Tremendous..... Core teachings. Fingers pointing to the moon. Good pointing work Gordon!
Thanks.......

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes right on! Very clear and well written. Perfect. thank you

9:22 AM  

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