In chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu writes:
Do you have the patience to wait
Until your mud settles and the water becomes clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Until the right action arises by itself?
There is great wisdom in these two questions for they speak to the heart of what often ails us. When faced with challenging situations (We will consider interpersonal relationships for the sake of this conversation.) we are often overcome with the impulse to react rather than having the patience to wait for them to unfold - at which point we are more likely to recognize right action. With this in mind let’s take a moment to look at these two questions but first, let’s consider the mechanism of our reactivity.
When we react to a challenging situation what is actually happening within us?
1) There is an environmental stimulus (e.g., a slight by a coworker, an insensitive comment from a romantic partner, a non-cooperative child, etc.).
2) We judge that stimulus negatively; it doesn’t jibe with the way we think the world should be.
3) We have an emotional reaction as the result of our judgment.
4) We have a physiological reaction as the result of our emotional reaction.
5) We act, in order to alleviate the mental, emotional, and physiological tension that has arisen within us.
Understanding this, let look at these two questions.
Do you have the patience to wait
Until your mud settles and the water becomes clear?
While taking action in the midst of challenging situations can be cathartic it is often not productive because we take those actions under mental, emotional, and physiological stress. That stress is the stuff of Lao Tzu’s mud metaphor. That is, when we act under conditions of stress our vision is “muddy” and we incorrectly perceive the situation. Incorrectly perceiving the situation we often take wrong action. Hence Lao Tzu’s counsel to have the patience to wait until our mud settles (stress dissipates) and the water becomes clear.
Can you remain unmoving
Until the right action arises by itself?
Having patience means to “remain unmoving;” not to take action. There are two benefits in not taking action until the mud has settled. First, not taking action until the mud settles prevents us from taking unproductive (or even destructive) action. Second, not taking action until the mud settles allows clarity of vision to give rise to right action. Note the language here - “give rise to right action.”
Lao Tzu tells us that “right action arises by itself” and this is true. The action needed in a given situation tends to emerge of its own accord when we can occupy a neutral position relative to that situation rather than being overly identified with it (Hopefully the reader recognizes this as different language summarizing what we’ve just discussed.). It can be hard to understand or have faith in this when we are in the midst of challenging situations, when the cathartic impulse to act is so strong. However, if we can manage to heed Lao Tzu’s counsel to have the patience to wait until the mud settles we will see, even after just a few instances, that he is correct.
There is a popular poem by Rumi that begins:
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
There is much that can be said about this part of the poem, especially about the relationship between love and devastation but I will save that for another post at another time. What I want to discuss today is the second half of this poem:
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
they are given wings.
I have a thing for raptors. I have always been mesmerized by their ability to stay aloft on invisible air currents. Sure, I understand the physics of all this. Nevertheless, I find the sight mesmerizing. Visually, it strikes me as an incredible act of freedom. Indeed, I spent many an hour one particular summer taking in such sight while seated on a butte in the Badlands of South Dakota. This is probably why the second half of Rumi’s poem interests me so much. Those “great sky-circles of freedom” reflect my own deep desire. Like Rumi, I, too, wonder, “How do they learn it?” Rumi gives the answer. “They fall, and falling, they are given wings.”
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a bird leaving the nest for the first time, hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground, never before having taken flight - falling… falling… falling… before ever having used your wings? What a tremendous act of faith that must be! What a risk taking! What a thrill! What fear! What hope! Yet without leaving the nest that first time, without tumbling into the unknown one cannot fall and if one cannot fall, one cannot be given wings.
Of course Rumi is using this as a metaphor, by means of which he wishes to convey a spiritual lesson. In simple terms that lesson is this: one must let go of what one knows before one can become what one will become. Risk, Rumi is telling us, is the prerequisite for spiritual growth.
What is it that Rumi wants us to risk? Everything! Spiritual growth requires that we free ourselves from the narrative we hold in our heads about who and what we are. We must relinquish our identification with everything from the historical facts of our being to the subjective experience of our being. That is, we must let go of things like birthdates, achievements, family dynamics, financial successes (or lack thereof), and romantic successes (or failures). We must let go of things like addictions, aversions, anxieties, pleasures, and neuroses. These historical facts and subjective experiences comprise the narrative that we hold in our heads about who and what we are. This narrative is our psychological nest. Rumi is telling us to let it go - to tumble into the unknown.
Leaving this nest would seem an easy thing to do but it is not. The truth is that we are adamantly attached to that narrative. It is our identity, for better or worse. Relinquishing it is a daunting prospect. But until we do, until we leave this nest through an act of faith, until we take that risk, until we experience the thrill, the fear, and the hope such leave taking entails, we will not fall and if we cannot fall, we cannot be given wings.
Come! Soar with me!
In 1876 the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche penned these words:
If the doctrine of sovereign becoming; the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly – are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification, and greed, [then finally] falls apart and ceases to be a people. In its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of the non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future.
In numerous citations scattered throughout Nietzsche’s corpus the philosopher proved uncannily prophetic. This citation is no exception. In it he speaks about the effects Darwinism would have upon humanity, as the teaching of evolution became more widely known. He warned that rampant egoism would prevail if we came to understand ourselves as arising from the swamp rather than having a transcendent origin. It is hard to debate the fact that we now live in an age in which rampant egoism is ascending. Was Nietzsche right? Is this rampant egoism attributable to the loss of belief in a transcendent origin? Let us look at this question from the perspective of the mystics.
As mentioned in my previous post (see “What Is Faith?”) the mystics believe that we have both a lower nature and a higher nature; that we are both physical and spiritual beings (i.e., we have a transcendent origin). The lower (physical) nature operates through the ego. The higher (spiritual) nature manifests Divine virtues. Hence, the aim of the spiritual journey is the transformation of being, from the dominance of lower (physical) nature to higher (spiritual) nature. Complete transformation of being is the state in which the ego, eventually free from the influence of lower (physical) nature becomes the vehicle for the manifestation of Divine virtues, e.g., compassion, forgiveness, charity… unconditional love.
From the point of view of the mystics then, if we abandon belief in our higher (spiritual) nature there is no transformation of being to be had. There is no motivation, let alone possibility of becoming anything other than what we already find ourselves to be. We shall forever be dominated by our lower (physical) nature, trapped in the egoic state, which has no other agenda than personal survival. The ego thus left to rule, Divine virtues lay dormant while egoic tendencies dominate: self-centeredness, instinctual gratification, the use of the other (people, animals, and natural resources) as means to personal ends, etc. Does this mean that Nietzsche was right, that rampant egoism is attributable to the loss of belief in a transcendent origin?
Not entirely, not even from the mystics’ point of view. Mystics have always understood the transformation of being to be a great struggle; the vast majority of people have always served their lower (physical) nature in lieu of their higher (spiritual) nature (“One cannot serve both God and mammon,” taught Jesus). Our modern age is somewhat exceptional, however, in that the tendencies of the lower nature are exacerbated in a world in which capitalism and materialism are held up as evidence of one’s personal, even existential worth (that mammon thing again…). In sum, the loss of belief in our transcendent origins may contribute to the rampant egoism we see in today’s world but capitalism and materialism (and other factors) also contribute to this phenomenon. It’s a complex situation...
While it is not a panacea, we do need to return to belief in a transcendent origin in order to help counteract rampant egoism. This belief is not rooted in wishful thinking nor is it a psychological strategy conjured up simply to counteract rampant egoism. Rather, it is a known truth rooted in the mystics’ direct experience of our essential nature. We are, the mystics tell us, sparks of the Divine and being such, our essential nature partakes of Divine virtues: compassion, forgiveness, charity… unconditional love.
By returning to belief in a transcendent origin we can resume the project of the transformation of being, a project jettisoned with the rise of Darwinism. This is what we modern mystics have to offer our world, namely, the possibility of becoming other than what already find ourselves to be. It is our task, even our destiny to become vehicles for the manifestation of Divine virtues, as the Shvetashvatara Upanishad tells us:
“Hear, O children of immortal bliss!
You are born to be united with the Lord.”
Such love does the sky now pour
That whenever I stand in a field
I have to wring out the light when I get home.
- St. Francis of Assisi
What a tremendous image and beautiful sentiment Saint Francis gives us! Indeed, the mystics often regale us with such imagery and sentiment, too beautiful even to be believed at times. Yet they intend us to believe them, for theirs is not an imaginative hope with which they console themselves a la Freudian wish fulfillment. Rather, their imagery and sentiment arise out of a direct experience of the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. No, theirs is no wishful thinking but an honest report - sometimes invitation - of and into the reality of Being.
But we doubt our beloved mystics, or explain them away (Modern psychology is a great tool for this: "To those that hold hammers everything looks like a nail," and all that...), or simply ignore them because theirs is not our experience and for what one has no reference point, one will have no ear (or vision, as the case may be.) Jesus said this very thing, as reported in saying 113 of The Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to him: "When will the kingdom come?" [And Jesus said,] "It will not come by watching for it. People will not say: 'Look, here it is,' or 'Look, there it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth and people do not see it."
The great Hindu mystic Shankara said something very similar when he spoke of a rope mistaken for a snake, regarding his teaching of adhyasa (fundamentally meaning misperception due to past conditioning). In short, taught Shankara, ignorance gives rise to skewed perception which in turn causes one to misperceive reality. That is, we live in a world of illusion and, returning to the application of this fact to Saint Francis, fail to see the love that the sky pours down.
What if one wanted to know for oneself the truth of Saint Francis (or Jesus', or Shankara's) words? What if one wanted this experience as one's very own? Then what?
All that is needed is a shift of attention and enough trust to surrender. That is, one simply needs to direct one's attention away from one's thoughts, one's feelings, and one's sensations; become internally silent - then surrender to the moment. When one does this, perception corrects itself and one sees the reality of Being; the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. Is this a struggle? If so, consider taking on the practice of silence...
"Be still and know..."
Spiritual fads come and go (Yes, you guess rightly. This is a critical take on “The Secret.” Hopefully that does not mean I will lose its fans before the end of this post.). “The Secret” is one such fad whose time should have come and gone by now, at least according to my calculation. But over and over again I see it reappear in all its New Age glory.
"The Secret" is a supposed spiritual principle that holds that focused concentration on certain desired goals (e.g., objects, situations, wealth) will help one realize said goals. To buttress the claim, advocates of "The Secret" invoke its many famous historical adherents, such as Plato, Newton, and Emerson. Setting aside this logical fallacy of the argument from authority, which in and of itself ought to raise suspicion about "The Secret," let us focus on the principle itself.
"The Secret" begs the question, Why would someone on a spiritual journey desire certain goals (a Tesla, a bigger house), situations (a particular job, a particular relationship), or wealth (nuff said). The answer proponents of "The Secret" give is why not?! Well, here's the rub, folks... "The Secret" is a form of New Age prosperity preaching with which the soul holds no kin.
The aim of the spiritual journey is a journey from ego identification to self-realization (Who am I, really?) Any spiritual journey that does not bring one to this realization is an ego masquerade Given that, the problem with "The Secret" is easily identified, namely it promises egoic treasures which not only serve the ego alone, they are impediments on the path to self-realization Despite the argument, the ego may pose the acquisition of objects can aid the journey or are fruits to be harvested along the way, "The Secret" does not lead to self-realization. It is a New Age dead end.
Rather than spend one's time in meditation with focused concentration on desired objects, one ought to spend one's valuable practice time relinquishing such desires in order to come closer to one's true self, which is already perfected. That is, one's true self neither needs nor desires the objects of egoic satisfaction that "The Secret" promises. Once this is realized, one realizes that a better use of a spiritual practice is the cultivation of the Divine qualities inherent in one's true self: compassion, forgiveness...unconditional love, etc. A spiritual life that bears these fruits will quickly realize the secret of the "The Secret."
If this critique does not convince you of the secret of "The Secret," consider swami Puppetji's take on the matter...
It’s 2:30am here in Kerela, my fifth night on pilgrimage in India and still I am not adjusted to the time change. There’s a 10 and a half hour difference between here and home. So, I am enjoying being wide awake in the middle of these glorious Kerela nights. And what a productive time this has proved to be! I’ve completed four blog posts so far in these wee hours of the morning. Though best not to try this at home for the gift will surely wane as I become accustomed to Kerela time. But before that happens I will leverage my sleeplessness, hoping to create an audio blog.
Our theme during these ten days in Kerela with Russill Paul is healing. We are discussing the importance of healing the egoic structure while we walk the spiritual path. This is an important topic because it is our woundedness around which the ego constricts and that constriction is part of what prevents the surrender necessary in one’s practice.
Anyone who honestly reflects on their life surely can identify the numerous wounds with which they are afflicted. There are wounds we suffered in childhood at the hands of others who expressed their own woundedness on our childhood innocence. There are wounds we suffered in childhood as we ourselves thoughtlessly hurt others, only to feel the remorse of our transgressions after the fact. And of course there are wounds we have suffered in adulthood, again, because of what others have done to us or what we have done to others. (You’ll notice here that even when it is we who are the culprit we still suffer wounds ourselves. Self-recrimination sets in and we carry that with us throughout our lives. No transgressor gets off conscience free!)
In all this conversation about woundedness a question is begged, namely, “Who, ultimately, is to blame for my woundedness?” While we can clearly point to culprits, even ourselves at times, the fact of the matter is that no one is to blame for our woundedness. “But wait!” you might be protesting. That scoundrel clearly wounded me! Well, on one level that is true. On another level that scoundrel can point to yet another scoundrel who caused their woundedness and had it not been for that experience, they would not have wounded you. When their transgression toward you occurred they were coming from a place of woundedness themselves. Given this, are they then to blame? No more than you are when you wound others when you act from woundedness. In otherwords, transgressions that cause woundedness are born out of transgressions that caused woundedness which are also born out of transgressions that caused woundedness. It’s an infinite regress of woundedness and unless you buy into the Christian explanation that it all began with Adam, the only person who cannot point to his own woundeness as a justification for his actions, no one is to blame. This reminds me of a story I once heard in a Philosophy class as an Undergraduate at The University of Michigan.
A school teacher was lecturing on the nature of the universe and had just finished explaining the mechanisms of our own solar system. When she asked whether the class had any questions a young girl raised her hand and asked a question most everyone wonders upon seeing a visual representation of the solar system for the first time: “How does the earth manages to stay in its place?!” Another hand immediately shot up and without waiting to be called upon a young boy shouted, “I know! “I know! It sits on the back of a giant turtle!” The amused teacher saw a perfect teaching moment and gently inquired of the boy. “And on what does the giant turtle sit?” The boy paused for a moment then responded, “It sits on the back of another giant turtle!” The bemused teacher couldn’t help but inquirfurtherthinking that with this next question her point would surely be made. “And on what does that turtle sit?” she asked. “Why, another giant turtle!” exclaimed the boy. “And THAT turtle?” inquired the increasingly impatient teacher. “Why,” said the boy, “it’s turtles all the way down!”
In case you missed the relevance of this humorous anecdote relative to our topic, it is this. Don’t look for culprits. Wounds are not healed in a court of moral law as no one is to blame. Accusations and justifications will go on forever in the search for a conviction, which is ultimately a fruitless endeavor - though the ego will find temporary satisfaction in the attempt.
Rather, notice the ego’s tendency to contract around your woundedness and have the courage to relax that contraction – without first requiring that culprits be identified. As difficult as this is it is very important for your spiritual practice and hence for your spiritual journey, because the contracted state of the ego is not in fact protecting you from your woundedness. Quite the contrary - it is preventing your progress, both psychologically and spiritually.
In order to understand this we must take a moment and consider the mystics' understanding of human nature. The mystics believe that we have both a lower nature and a higher nature; that we are both physical and spiritual beings. The lower (physical) nature operates through the ego. The higher (spiritual) nature manifest Divine virtues. This understanding of human nature is what accounts for the moral struggles we humans face in life. We feel an inherent tension between our lower (physical) nature and our higher (spiritual) nature, that is, we would like to manifest Divine virtues but our ego often overpowers our best intention. Thus the moral struggle, which the apostle Paul illustrates so well in his letter to the Romans:
...what I am doing I do not understand, for I am not practicing what I would like to do but I am doing the very thing I hate... I find then that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good, for a while I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin...
The mystics further teach that the spiritual journey is a journey of the transformation of being, from the dominance of lower (physical) nature to higher (spiritual) nature. Complete transformation of being is the state in which the ego, eventually free from the influence of the lower (physical) nature becomes the vehicle for the manifestation of Divine virtues. Then one acts with compassion, forgiveness, charity...unconditional love. This is what the prophet meant when he said that faith manifests itself through the ego, that faith is "the knowledge of the heart, the words of the tongue, and the actions of the body." It is also what Jesus meant when he said, "you will know them by their fruits." As for his part, Paul was still ripening at the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, as are we all, in this season of life...
There is a straw man run amuck in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, has proffered that one can be “good without God.” The book has received wide acclaim, more for the title, I suspect, than the reasoning contained therein. In fact, so popular is the book’s title that it has spawned a billboard war between believers and nonbelievers. But that is not why I throw my fellow Harvardite under the theological bus. Well then, pray tell?
The problem with Epstein’s book is not the title’s proposition, that nonbelievers can be morally good despite a lack of belief in a deity. Anyone not blinded by the right and who has the least bit of sociological savvy can observe that faith is not a prerequisite to living the moral life. Hence, Epstein’s argumentation toward this end amounts to a rather moot point (though his is an admittedly kinder, gentler Humanism than the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens). Rather, the problem with the book is that the title’s proposition itself rests upon a shaky proposition, namely, that the notion that one cannot be good without God has ever had traction beyond the minority Christian movement we call “the Christian right,” which happens to be wrong about most things theological (which in turn begs the question as to why intelligent Humanists with the public’s ear continually deplete their air time engaging that community).
If Humanists want to engage the religious world in a constructive way (of course continual publications attacking theological straw men does fascinate the public and so predictably sell books, which may be their ultimate goal, in lieu of genuine dialogue) a better point of contact begins with the following proposition: The aim of the religious life is the transformation of being toward the end of realizing one’s full human potential. And, it might be added, that that potential is hardly tapped by merely living the moral life.
It was Voltaire who said that “God made mankind in His image and mankind returned the favor.” But whether mankind is a construction of God’s or God is a construction of mankind’s, the notion of the imago dei (to be made in the image of God) speaks to my very point. In the imago dei we have the highest conception of human potential in that the imago dei represents an amalgamation of the highest virtues: compassion, forgiveness… unconditional love. In the end, this is that toward which the religious life calls us via the transformation of being.
In sum, merely to live the moral life, while laudable, is no remarkable achievement and certainly is not something that requires belief in God. Indeed, those who thusly view the religious life utterly fail to understand the religious life. The point of the religious life is the transformation of being; it is to hold out the invitation to become other than we already find ourselves to be - to be better than merely good.
Can we be good without God? Of course we can. But, we can be better with…