“One day your soul will depart from your body and you will be drawn behind the curtain that floats between us and the unknown. While you wait for that moment, be happy, because you don’t know where you came from and you don’t know where you will be going.”
A feature of the work that I do with people who request it, is helping them recover, clarify and develop their spiritual questions and needs, which for many people have become lost and confused in a New Age stigmatisation and disintegration of religions, and politicised conflicts between secular and religious groups around the world. My intention here is simply to offer some clarity from the ground up, on what spirituality can mean for us in existential terms. I offer this bare bones synopsis as a starting point for the reader’s further exploration:
- What Spirituality is
- The existential context that we call ‘God’
- Morality and Ego
1. What is Spirituality?
Spirituality or spiritual concern is our need to question and attempt to make sense of the vastness of our existential context and to find ways of living in harmony rather than in conflict with it. It is born out of a realisation that we cannot exist outside of or separate from this context, that we exist for a brief period and then we die, and prompts our search for the meaning of our place in the world and the universe and ways of managing the temporal part we play in it. Some characterise spiritual awareness as a feeling of ‘interconnectedness’ in Being-with-others and Being-in-the-world, connection with rather than separateness from the earthly and cosmological space from which we emerge and then disappear upon death, and a need to examine our relationship to the eternal mystery of life and death that evades our rational understanding. Questions about how life started, why there is something rather than nothing, what might constitute an honest and good life, or how we came to be thrown into this context through birth, and what happens after life. These kinds of concerns and the genuine enquiry, contemplation and practices that we build around them can form the foundation of one’s personal spirituality: a clear, coherent and structured way of understanding and being in the world.
2. The bigger context we refer to as ‘God’
Some call this existential, cosmological and metaphysical mystery ‘God’, ‘Allah’, ‘Yaweh’ and a variety of other names, since for many people, personifying an otherwise abstract cosmos makes it more understandable in human terms and gives us something more tenable to which to relate our words. Some consider the mystery to be a deity that is separate from the universe; some that God is the universe, and evidence of a permeating creative intelligence and life force that is continually unfolding its design over time. Others declare that they simply do not know and can never know or understand God (Agnostics). Still others either calmly, or sometimes vehemently reject any and all notions of God (Atheists); others believe that God consciousness exists in all things (Panpsychism) and even some scientists are now proposing that the universe may be conscious (ref). There may well be as many positions to take regarding spiritual concern or its lack as there are people, and each person chooses and has a right to choose his or her own path in how he or she makes sense of life within, around and beyond us.
I’ll use the word ‘God’, simply to refer to the existential context or ‘ground of Being’ mentioned above that is evidently – when we examine life closely – characterised by a permeating life force, creative intelligence and design. I use the word ‘God’ simply because this is the word traditionally used in discussion about spiritual matters to signify the obvious presence in life of a creative energy and organising principle, and in this case God also refers to the bigger canvas of life from which our individual life both emerges, unfolds and then recedes and ends in death, passing ‘as a vapour’. This is in contrast to our childhood notion of God as ‘a giant man with a beard who sits above the clouds watching everything we do’. This view of God is rooted in ancient perspectives that viewed the sky as a canopy through which God watched over us and this simple metaphor gave us the rudiments of a cosmic perspective on our relatively small lives on earth. If we look at the word ‘God’ as a word for the cosmological and metaphysical context that encompasses the mystery of our life and death, how life started, of consciousness, and the expanding universe and everything that we recognise as ‘the great mystery’ of its design and purpose – life eternally unfolding in both chaos and order at the sub-atomic, earthly, cosmic and trans-cosmic levels – then we can begin to clarify the raw materials we have to start with regarding what spiritual enquiry might entail, prior to any desire to name God as a deity or involve ourselves in a specific religion or church.
Seen as eternal mystery that the human mind may never solve (because we cannot gain a perspective outside of the cosmos, for example), God as contextual, life-giving mystery can be viewed as the immense, endless, creative unfolding of life from which all life forms emerge: the creative intelligence behind and in all life. The importance of acknowledging our context of being-in-the-world lies in the value this has of bringing perspective and scale to our life as an individual in relation to something much bigger. A life that is small in relation to the vastness of the universe, for example. This humbling sense of scale can be valuable in eliciting the experience of humility and gratitude for the life we have been given; given in the sense that we did not create it ourselves. This awareness can help us keep our feet on the ground, against the counter-pull of individual Ego. The individual becomes aware of him or herself as a unique instance of one life among many emerging from and taking our place within the cosmos for a brief period of time.
3. Religion as an attempt to help us live life together in a bigger context
Religion, in its most sincere application, might be seen as a system of thought that attempts to help us understand our humble place from a position of incomplete knowing. It offers many people a way of making sense of life and death, helps them cope with feelings, including loss and grief, provides a shared narrative, helps us develop awareness of self, others and the natural world. It can teach the value of forgiveness and the folly of revenge, and provide guidance for living in awareness of and in harmony with all of life. At its best it is an invitation to adopt a mode of being that helps us align ourselves with the vastness, beauty and tragedy of our context through gratitude, love, reverence and wonder: beneficial states that help us sense and appreciate something beyond the reductionistic grasp of our minds and the arrogance and vanity that can befall us when we allow our Ego to lose perspective and grounding in our broader reality.
In using metaphors and allegories, religion – when used for the good – typically attempts to help the individual comprehend his or her social, existential, metaphysical and cosmological contexts as something that sits beyond our current capacity to makes sense of life in purely intellectual or self-serving terms. Essentially this means that in trying to understand something as vast and unknowable as God, the use of story, metaphor and allegory help us approximate a sense of the unknowable from which we came and of which we are a part. It is a means of helping us see our place in the cosmos and a set of social codes originally intended to cultivate balance and harmony between people.
Many would argue that religion has failed to do this by being obscure, contradictory, controlling, not credible, and misused for political and self-serving purposes to enslave individuals. Like a political philosophy, individuals and religious leaders are at liberty to use religion for the common good or abuse it for their own destructive purposes, and ancient and more recent history has indeed shown this to be the case in both politics and religion.
To illustrate the capacity for religion to be misused to create imbalance and disharmony we can look at political philosophies. The communism that promised fairness and equality for all, has been used by tyrannts to impoverish, silence and inflict misery upon people. The democracy and capitalism that claim freedom, liberty and justice for all in the free market, are also operated in manipulative, tyrannical ways that serve the wealthy few. Democratic capitalism now more closely resembles the Fascist merging of government and corporation, and whose net effect expoits, impoverishes and enslaves people to lives of continual money-making, causing misery and poverty, albeit in less obvious ways than the misuse of communism. The misuse of communism and the misuse of capitalism can be likened to the historical misuse of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and all other systems of belief and thought, including the sciences. Such systems of thought have been misused to exploit, subjugate and profit from people, to whip up hatred, bigotry, fear, division and to instigate and justify war. Unfortunately, we often fail to recognise when this misuse is happening, and simply reject the entire system rather than the malice and greed of those individuals or groups who dominate or control the system or who benefit most from its misuse. Our task here is to separate out the wisdom and value in religious texts, from the misuse and abuse of positions within religious settings.
4. Values: helping us find balance and harmony in human nature
The existential significance of living in conscious relationship with our full context is this: doing so helps us to maintain a realistic, grounded perspective on ourselves as very small parts of a greater collective. Being aware of just how small we are and our necessary interdependence helps us value living a life in optimal balance and harmony with other beings. The pull of the ego away from a fuller awareness of its interconnected state of being-in-the-world and being-with-others can be viewed as the pull of pure self-interest that forgets its cosmological and social foundations. There are for this reason discreet systems of values inherent in religions that attempt to help individuals retain their awareness and loving, respectful connectedness to other beings, reminding us of our existential foundation in ways that are intended to benefit the cooperating collective. Morality, or values determining right and wrong, entail a code of conduct usually inspired to help people live harmoniously together by avoiding causing ourselves and others harm, loss or insult. Empathy, compassion, love, kindness, forgiveness, respect, charity are all value-based skills that benefit everyone and demonstrate our appreciation of the life we have been given. These codes also provide us with a framework for elevating ourselves to a level of human dignity that can distinguish us from other creatures on earth if we abide by our moral intelligence.
Morals are given with an understanding of the tension that exists between acknowledging our instrinsic connection to everything, and the opposing pull of our temptations to meet our desires at the expense of others, by forgetting that we cannot exist in isolation. Acting as if we can exist separately from our context tends to come with self-serving behaviours that exploit, demean or disregard the welfare of others. Morality helps us regulate our self-interest, encouraging cooperation with others in mutual support of common needs. Self-serving behaviours divorced from social context and responsibility also tend to be indulged by people who disregard the value of authentic, egalitarian relationships with other people in favour of the accumulation of wealth and resources. Sadly, many of us fail to recognise the intrinsic value of shared morals in helping us regulate inner tendencies towards vanity and self-aggrandisement; instead viewing commonly agreed ideas of right and wrong as unfair rules and limitations that restrict our individual freedoms.
For most spiritual systems of thought, moral humans are thus those who ‘maintain balanced and harmonious relationships with all beings’ (ref). Most of us, for example, understand that theft, greed, violence, hoarding wealth whilst others starve, and exploitation of people is wrong. We know that cruelty, for example, is wrong if we have the capacity to empathise regarding physical and emotional pain, and when our empathic intelligence tells us that inflicting cruelty on a sentient being – making it suffer – is a product of malevolence or ignorance. Most of us would not want to be treated in such a way, and so most of us – using our empathic awareness – avoid being cruel. Some people, however, who have under-developed empathy, or who indulge their desire for sadistic ‘pleasure’ seem able to inflict pain and suffering deliberately upon others as a result, for example, of their own personal deficits, desires for control, dominance or revenge, or as part of a process of ‘acting out’ aggressions in pathological rather than healthy ways.
Morality, then becomes a straightforward value system of right and wrong conduct that gives us a set of guidelines which naturally help us live in equality, harmony and balance with other beings in recognition of the interconnectedness of ‘life as a totality and synergy of creation’. Moral codes help us support justice, personal integrity, and socially responsible living. We need to indulge the needs of our individual Egos to the extent that we must meet our needs to live in balance with our fellow beings. To indulge our Ego desires to the point of forgetting our actual context means that we run the risk of detaching from the ground of Being. This detachment can be seen illustrated in behaviours that most moral people view as toxic, unhealthy or harmful: arrogance, self-aggrandisement, domination and exploitation of others, for example. Sadly, our western society and beyond has quickly descended into an ‘every man for himself’ social philosophy that is resulting in the disintegration of social cohesion.
Likewise, addictive behaviours, for example, tend to start off as a form of avoidance of pain, hedonistic self-indulgence or social conformity whereby craving pleasure and avoiding discomfort eventually subjugates moral codes of right and wrong that we may have held before. Pleasure and comfort are thus substituted for ‘right’. Similarly, malignant narcissism subjugates an awareness of right and wrong in the interests of meeting extreme Ego desires to feel superior by perverting relationships and the existential value of self and other. The more we indulge pleasure and avoid discomfort, the more we crave pleasure and the less concerned we become about the rights and wrongs of our behaviours. The Ego, in this sense, is pleasure-seeking. Whereas harmonious and synergistic alignment with God-as-ultimate-context and the other beings with whom we share this context, is truth- and life-enhancing, requiring the development of a mature understanding and discernment of right and wrong versus pleasure and discomfort. Moral disintegration today has resulted in a conflation and confusion of right with pleasure and wrong with discomfort.
5. Jesus as an Example
Jesus as the Christian religions understand him through various texts can be understood as the embodiment of a human being living his life in moral alignment and perspective with God-as-context. He taught people who wanted to better understand, codes of conduct and a metaphysical understanding conveyed in allegory and metaphor designed to help individuals know their contextual relationship to the creative intelligence, and how to live in balance and harmony with other beings. His is one example of how the individual Ego can conduct itself in the world in a radical, revolutionary, enlightened, and some might argue Anarchistic manner that illustrates a life guided by a contextual and transcendent awareness of right and wrong, of the equal humanity that all of us shares, of the power of truth to transcend hardship, misery and conflict when it is used in a loving way. Jesus models a clear way of being in how a life can be lived in harmony with others and the divine, rejecting anything that tempts us to lose our common groundedness and connectedness with our greater context. Unfortunately, his life story also illustrates the self-serving forces that exist in the world that wish free individuals to detach their awareness of this context in the service of tribalist divisions, destructiveness and hate. Divide and conquer has been a well-established tool of narcissistic Egos so lost from their ground as to exploit the material benefits of social fragmentation and control for their own ends.
6. God and ‘Eternal Life’
It is possible to understand moral adherence as the means of aligning our individual lives with the reality of the big picture: our modest position as temporal human beings with social equality living within a context that is both finite and eternal. This allows us to view a ‘personal relationship with God’ as one of aligning ourselves with a context that is marked by both the eternal vastness of the cosmos and the smallness and finiteness of our everyday interactions. This is quite different, for example, to aligning ourselves solely with our ever-changing contemporary culture, political parties, fashions, celebrities, and social trends. In this sense we have ‘eternal life’ as a result of our commitment to living in balance and harmony with other beings by remaining in moral harmony with the eternal flow of life, rather than being pre-occupied by temporal concerns that come and go and are largely driven, in free-market capitalism at least, by self-interest and vanity. ‘Eternal life’ is thus obtained metaphorically by the acceptance of a concrete and transcendent reality in a sincere and authentic manner. It is not necessarily a promise of an afterlife of conscious awareness and reward in heaven for good behaviour. Heaven can instead be viewed as a metaphor for how our individual lives emerge and then recede into life’s ground and how a life lived in harmony with this ground can echo into eternity in a metaphysical sense. The heavens – the sky and cosmos – are thus our reminder of the greater cosmological significance of our individual lives beneath them.
Our ‘reward in heaven’ can mean the recognition of the gift of embodied consciousness that we have been given and our power as individuals to contribute to supporting and enhancing the wonder and beauty of life versus harming or destroying it as so many do today in the name of profit. Whether consciousness continues on in an unembodied state is open to speculation and debate, but it is our contribution to life, whether good or bad, seen or unseen, that becomes part of the fabric of life as an eternal continuum. What we, the living know for sure, is that people around us die and we never see them again. Yet their contributions can ‘live on’ in our minds, behaviours, understandings, embodied in our feelings and works.
7. The significance of the Devil metaphor
The metaphor of the fallen angel in Christian, Judaic and Muslim religions can be viewed as an Ego-driven attempt to usurp God. The indulging of the Ego’s narcissistic needs deny anything greater than one self and to assume one’s superiority to others, for example, is ultimately a compensation against feelings of inferiority. Satanism’s mantra of rejecting morality in favour of the indulgence of every carnal desire is essentially an invitation to ‘be a god’ and to ‘worship self’ by moving away from any balance or harmony with other beings. Evil can be seen as the individuls attempt to deny his or her origins in the foundational God-as-context with its attendant moral imperatives. This can be summarised in the central tenet of Satanic and Luciferian doctrine as ‘Do what thou wilt’. This is the Ego completely detached from relationship to God as context, where morality is whatever we decide it is according to the ever-changing demands and whims of the individual Ego that has little or no concern for other beings. Satanic ritual child abuse, for example, captures the lengths to which some individuals will go in an effort to satisfy personal desires to the extent of self-degradation and the horrendous suffering caused to children who manage to survive. In this sense the Ego that is able, if it choses, to meet its needs in harmony with God, has the free will to pervert its relationship to the greater context that created it and other human beings for the sake of self-indulgence, ambition, greed, ‘success’, vanity, fantasy and sadistic ‘pleasure’ as a result of rejecting moral codes designed to help us elevate ourselves to live in peace together. The Satanist and Luciferian seek to deny the reality of the individual’s smallness and interdependence via narcissistic self-aggrandisement to the role of ‘I am God’.
8. Faith in God
Faith is an attitude of accepting that we cannot know and do not know about the vastness of our context simply because we cannot know how this eternally unfolding process of creation began, exactly how it works or ultimately what it means. Faith is, in my view, an existential orientation to Being as unfolding mystery. Faith isn’t ‘blind’ when so defined, because in addition to our scientific knowledge, we have enough sense and sensory awareness to know that God as a vast unfolding process can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, felt, intuited and aspects of it detected and measured. As courage isn’t the absence of fear, but is instead action governed by integrity in spite of fear, so faith is not the absence of doubt, but action governed by integrity in spite of doubt. Faith is the act of stepping forward even though we can never know everything or know the future outcome and thus our journey is one that is always marked by incomplete knowing and certainty. In this regard, each choice always has some degree of doubt and some degree of faith, with life’s totality and the future ultimately unseen.
Faith here is a way of contextualising our short life in its wider reality: we are beings who live for a brief time, with limited understanding of a vast context defined by mystery and an unfolding creative intelligence. We share this same context with other beings. Our sense of alignment to all this via our capacity to love, to act in good faith, to trying to be honest and true to what we know, and to trust that our emergence from this eternal flow of life is itself a product of truth, is in itself a way for us to ‘know’ God as a presence if we allow ourselves to be so attuned. In this regard, science can be compatible (and is compatible in the hands of notable scientists) with a moral relationship with God. Equally, scientific advances can, like religions, be misused in detachment from their impacts upon other beings, the world and even the universe (the development of atomic and nuclear weapons, and CERN for example [ref]).
Losing this attunement in minor ways, is of course, a daily occurrence for most of us, as we forget our relationship to ourselves, to others, to love and truth in the context of the eternal life flow. Faith in God, is trust that this mystery from which we emerged is on our side in so far as we are living in fidelity to our ground of Being by being faithful to and honouring life rather than engaging our energies in its destruction. Martin Buber’s exposition of the I-Thou way of relating is a classic example of the kind of attitude of loving truth that allows this attunement to happen via our awareness of God as it emerges in our deliberate adoption of the I-Thou relationship to other people, animals, insects, plants, etc. This attitude is about liberating ourselves from Ego-driven mindsets that frame other beings in terms of their usefulness to us. This I-It way of being, says Buber, is an objectivising of others; reducing them to the level of utility. It is the I-It relation that gives us a clue as to whether we are relating to life in an Ego way or a spiritual way.
9. Love as Truth
As we have been confounded by endless definitions of love in emotional and romantic terms, clarifying the meaning of love is important for understanding its real significance in spiritual terms. Love itself is not an emotion, although it can be accompanied by a variety of emotions. Love is essentially an attitude of truthfulness and commitment to refusing to reduce ourselves and others to object status as mentioned in my reference to Buber’s I-Thou mode of being. Love is also a mode of action, behaviour that is driven by truthfulness and caring. The significance of love in the existential context outlined above is quite profound when it is considered in terms of our having a basic way of relating to the world and other beings in our shared context. Love as truth and a conscious resistance to objectivise other beings is an invitation to, for example, strong relationships, families, communities and societies built on cooperation and mutual respect, with a genuine desire to understand one another, to overcome the temptation to compete, to work together to find solutions, and to honour one another’s liberty and right to life. As truth, love is about openness and resisting secrecy and the culture of lies and deceit that we have grown to tolerate in our contemporary world. In this sense, love is also a profound refusal of fear and fear-based motivations. As such it is also a healing mode of being (ref).
Prayer is a means by which individuals can both contemplate and personalise their relationship to God-as-context. It is a means of focussing our minds, feelings and intentions in ways that help us stay concentrated on personally beneficial directions and states such as gratitude, humility, love, kindness, forgiveness, peace (video). Prayer also allows us a structured means of being honest with ourselves and God in revealing our innermost thoughts and feelings, helping in the development of more aware, authentic and conscious living. Prayer can be a means of affirming our relationship to our vast context in a way that is immediately undestandable. The therapeutic and wider benefits of prayer have been studied in some detail (ref) as well as the interaction between consciousness and matter (ref)
It would be a mistake to think that if we as individuals simply adopt all of the above then all will be well in the world. We live in a world of beauty and tragedy that is divided against itself, by deceit, manipulation and by ignorance, where any commitment, faith or belief is continually tested and criticised regardless of how earnest and genuine our efforts may be. Our folly and arrogance lie in mocking, attacking or demeaning others’ beliefs and ways of making sense of the world when none of us is in possession of greater knowledge than anyone else. There will always be people who refuse to believe in anything beyond what they can view under a microscope, or through a telescope, or what they read in peer reviewed journals, or what makes the individuated Ego feel righteous or superior over others.
My point in writing this simple outline is not to provide an apologetic or scholarly rigorous definition of spirituality, but to invite those who do have genuine spiritual interests to begin a process of earnestly and rigorously exploring for themselves the foundational aspects of what the spiritual dimension of life can mean in terms of how we choose to conduct ourselves in a world shared by others, prior to any decisions to pursue or dismiss religious or other morally-guided pathways to spiritual development. In my view the value of examining our spiritual dimension as individuals is in becoming more aware of our contribution to the world as beings, and the bigger picture beyond our own needs; of feeling our feet on the ground of Being rather than having our heads in the clouds.
In Part II I’ll look at some of the kinds of work I offer that can support you in developing spiritual awareness and practices that enhance empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and contemplative focus.
- Religiosity and Spiritual Engagement in Two American Indian Populations
- Love Heals
- The universe may be conscious
- Science proves that human consciousness and the material world are intertwined
- Gregg Braden Feeling is Prayer
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