Some of us spend a lot of time and money looking for a philosophy, a concept, a belief, a way to make our lives more bearable.
We take yoga, martial arts, meditate, pray, hang out at Starbucks looking for that “something” that will bring peace and reduce stress.
Some practise the Golden Rule, others the Categorical Imperative while still others go deeply into the esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, Christian mysticism or the Kabbala of Judaism, all searching for the secret weapon to go one on one with life.
Others keep searching, sampling the buffet of spirituality, looking for another morsel to satiate the insatiable hunger, to fill the void.
“In every heart sits a great homesickness,” said Rabbi Seymour Siegel.
Our search to overcome that homesickness is defined by our society. We in the Western world were taught that we could have everything. We’ve learned that isn’t true. We also know that even if it were, it wouldn’t help because the more we get, the less satisfied we become.
If having things – a new car, a super-sized digital TV, a new house, a new relationship – was the answer, we would be the happiest people since Eve bit into that apple.
The one worthwhile lesson Hollywood teaches is that fame and fortune don’t ease the gnawing at our innards – and that’s not a new discovery by movie stars and high-tech billionaires. It was ever thus.
In the Age of Faith, Will Durant quotes Caliph Abd-er-Rahman III, who ruled Spain for 30 years in the 10th century.
“Riches and honours, power and pleasure have waited on my call, nor has any earthly pleasure appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness that have fallen to my lot.
“They have numbered 14.”
That’s not much of a payoff for having everything, but it does prove once again that looking outside ourselves for the answer is not the answer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most quoted American ever, said the purpose of life seems to be to acquaint a man with himself. “There is really nothing external, so I must spin my thread from my own bowels.”
Harry R. Moody put it this way in the Five Stages of the Soul:
“the struggle is the way… As we see in the folk stories and scripture, the angels and demons of nature appear to us as beggars and genies as well as fountains of darkness or light; little things can be enormous things; the world is not what it seems.”
That’s a recurring theme, from quantum physicists to New Agers, mystics and meditation teachers.
Moody interviewed meditation teacher Natasha Noor, who spent time with many of the sages of India, and she echoed those sentiments.
“The world is not what you think it is at first glance. It is an illusion; it’s something else. One picture of reality has been superimposed over another. You have to refocus your inner eyes.”
Democritus, one of the first Greek philosophers, agrees. “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”
The Buddha said the same thing a few hundred years earlier: “With our thoughts we create the world.” And, of course, Proverbs said it just as eloquently: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.”
If they – and the creators of the Matrix trilogy, which said the same things in the language of science fiction – are correct, we should be careful what we think and when thoughts we don’t like erupt from our unconscious, should we not try to discover what prompted them?
We have been shaped by beliefs we don’t know we have, beliefs crammed into our minds by well-meaning parents, priests and politicians.
Challenging negative beliefs is not an easy or quick task. Rooting out the cause of a thought is as demanding and backbreaking as ripping out dandelions after a spring rain. But with persistence and diligence, we can have a green lawn.
As we stuff the dandelions into the compost, we should also remember that the only difference between a weed and a flower is a judgment, just as we judge that some thoughts are good and some are bad.
The people in the know, such as the Zen master Joko Beck, meditation teacher Eckhart Tolle, writer Wayne Dyer and countless others, suggest we simply observe our thoughts, and not get emotionally involved with them, just watch them pass like clouds across a blue sky.
With practice, we will be able to intercept the thoughts that create tightness in the chest and knots in the stomach and eventually see them as clouds, sometimes flimsy, sometimes cumulus, but just drifting by.
Peace will come when we learn not to judge ourselves, when we can live that old cliché: “It’s mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
We can start by slowing that river of thoughts by using our teeth as a dam, by keeping our mouth shut. This dictum is underrated, maybe because we first heard it from mom.
Her lesson: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
In other words, shut up. Silence is indeed golden.
The flood of thought will abate, with time and a little dental work, and we will no longer have to defend the indefensible, and we won’t have to man the ramparts of an ill-chosen stand.
Unlike writers, Zen masters didn’t need 1,000 words to make a point; they cut right to the heart of the matter.
“If you wish to know the truth, only cease to cherish opinions,” said Seng-Ts'an, the third Zen patriarch.
Pass it on twofold is a wonderful philosophy that, if practised by only 10 per cent of us, would change the world.
It doesn’t cost anything. Changing the world without cost or much effort should catch on as quickly as the last trend. But let’s hope it lasts a lot longer. It would probably take more than a season to change the world even if 700 million people are practising it.
All we have to do is take the good someone does for us and do the same thing for at least two other people. It would increase the speed of world change if we keep doing it.
If the English proverb “The giving hand gathers” is correct, we will keep passing that goodness on because the kind deeds we do for others will come back to us – twofold, at least and then we pass it on again, endlessly.
What we send out into the world eventually comes back to us – the boomerang effect. This idea isn’t new, the concept of what goes around comes around has been going around for a long time. A modern, corporate version is, be kind to the people you meet on the way up because you’ll meet them again on your way down.
The Dalai Lama called it selfish altruism while Newton called it the third law of motion – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Bible said as a man sows, so shall he reap, while the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions call it karma.
Millions of people are starving to death all over the world. There's even a top 10 list of countries where hunger is epidemic. But in this global village, there is little chance we’ll encounter a villager from one of the poorest countries in the world, so how do we benefit if we sacrifice the equivalent of a few lattes to help a child just like our own stay alive?
For that matter, how do we benefit if we help the people in the Central Okanagan who depend on the food bank?
Good questions, but ultimately they will be as personal as our fingerprints. We could do it for the sheer pleasure of giving, because it makes us feel good, because it helps another human being, who, under different circumstances, could be us.
Maybe it will, in time, be us, if, as the popular saying goes, we are all two paycheque away from having to stay at the Gospel Mission. “There, but by the Grace of God, go I.”
What’s the alternative to becoming fully engaged with life? Wall ourselves off, build a castle and then a moat so we can't be touched or bothered by what is happening? Reject our humanity? That’s a sterile path, one that leads to a dried-up soul and a friendless future where we will be forced to knock on death’s door alone, knowing we’ve never done anything to help others.
Leaping into the unknown without a few good deeds on our conscience is a scary proposition. Maybe the abyss does await us, but it can’t hurt to hedge our bets.
Voltaire hedged his. “This is no time to be making enemies,” he said on his deathbed to priest was who urging him to renounce the devil.
This old joke sums it up nicely. A guy stumbles up to the Pearly Gates and St. Peter asks him what good did he do for others in his life. The man thought about it and said, Well, I gave a bum 50 cents for a coffee once and put 50 cents in a Salvation Army kettle. St. Peter flips him a coin and said, here’s a dollar, now go to hell.
We don’t have to give away the family estate. It can be a dollar, as long as we give it more than twice. We’ve all received more than a dollar of kindness in our lives. Indeed, it doesn’t have to be money.
It could be as simple as giving blood – all it takes is an hour. Along with that tremendous feeling that comes from helping people – and being treated like a hero by the blood-clinic staff – we get cookies, juice and tea or coffee.
Or we could volunteer. The Hospice society, the Crisis Line and the hundreds of other worthy charities are always looking for people willing to help others.
Forty years ago. years ago, a man was walking beside a deserted road in the Yucatan night, broke. He stuck out his thumb as the headlights of an approaching car clawed through the thick darkness. It skidded to a stop beside him. Miles later, as their paths parted, the driver gave the hitchhiker $20.
That kindness has burned bright for 40 years and the debt has been repaid many times to other people who were simply asked to pass it on – twofold.
James Allen, in his amazing little book As A Man Thinketh put it this way:
“The greatest achievement was at first and for a time a dream. The oak sleeps in the acorn; the bird waits in the egg; and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities.”
We have all dreamed of changing the world and, no matter how old we are, it’s not too late to start. We can give two bucks to someone we consider a bum, send $100 to South Sudan, give $50 to the food bank and $5 to everyone who knocks on our door collecting for all those wonderful charities.
We can turn a dream of a better reality into reality.
We will never be completely whole until we accept the invitation that Darth Vader extended to Luke Skywalker.
“Come to the dark side.”
Star Wars director George Lucas learned his mythology from Joseph Campbell, the world’s foremost authority on the subject.
“The self is the totality, and if you think of it as a circle, the centre of the circle would be the centre of the self,” Campbell wrote in Myth and the Self. “But your plane of consciousness is above the centre and your ego’s up there above the plane of consciousness, so there’s a subliminal aspect of the self which you do not know. And this is in play constantly with the ego.”
Campbell’s circle metaphor comes from Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist who used the word shadow to describe those dark parts of ourselves we don’t like and refuse to acknowledge.
“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate,” said Jung. “That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.”
We are controlled by beliefs and urges we don’t know and until we shine a light down into our own abyss, we’re doomed to dance to a tune we might not recognize. When we were young, we assimilated just about everything our parents, priests and peers told us. Because we wanted, needed, to be part of the tribe, we accepted societal norms and dictates.
The qualities that didn’t fit were thrown into the dungeon of ourselves.
As children, we were told not to lie, not to steal, not to be selfish. But what child doesn’t, so we were punished or ostracized when those “bad qualities” emerged. Even now as adults, when these qualities climb up from the psychic basement like an unloved relative, we lock the door and ignore the knocking.
We project those aspects onto other people. The jealousy, anger, greed, fear, envy, sloth, lust, laziness we don’t like and/or don’t acknowledge in ourselves we see in other people.
The show-off in the weight room, the know-it-all in the classroom, the inconsiderate driver on the highway, the nosy neighbour wouldn’t annoy or upset us if they weren’t exhibiting repressed parts of ourselves. When we react, over-react, to something our children or co-worker did, we’re responding to some unheeded part of ourselves.
The world really is a reflection of us. We look in a mirror darkly and see the monsters and then project them onto other people. That which we fear will, like Job, come upon us unless we bring it into consciousness.
“If one sees only unloveliness in others, it is because unloveliness is a strong element in himself,” Ernest Holmes wrote in Science of Mind. “The light he throws on others is generated in his own soul and he sees them as he chooses to see them, He holds constantly in his mind a mental equivalent of unloveliness and creates unlovely reactions toward himself.”
If we are to fuse our splinter parts, we have to acknowledge that they exist. Pretending they aren’t there causes us problems and embarrassment because they’ll show up like a broke brother-in-law or a tiresome school mate.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves,” Jung said.
Poet Robert Bly wrote that we all drag a long, black bag behind us into which we stuffed the aspects of ourselves our friends and family didn’t like. By the time we reach middle age, the bag is long and heavy and some people start thinking about lightening the load.
“Your shadow self includes emotional and psychological patterns that come from repressed feelings that you do not wish to deal with consciously for the fear of the consequences.” Caroline Myss writes in Sacred Contracts.
“Your shadow also contains the secret reasons why you would sabotage the opportunities that come your way.”
It requires great fortitude and resolve to admit that we are what we vilified and abhorred, but now’s the time to reclaim our rejected majesty. If we don’t, we stay in the wasteland, adhering to the dictates of the tribe, forever reciting the mantra of don’t.
It isn’t just the negative trait we deny and project onto others. When we tell people what we think about them, when we think they are bright and funny we’re seeing positive aspects of ourselves in them.
“If you admire greatness in another human being, it is your own greatness you are seeing,” Debbie Ford writes in The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. “You may manifest it in a different way, but if you didn’t have greatness within you, you wouldn’t be able to recognize that quality in another person.”
Yet if we own our positive traits, we don’t have any more excuses for not realizing our potential, for being as good as the people we admire. So we prefer to exercise what Abraham Maslow called the Jonah Complex, setting low standards and evading our potential growth with an ah-shucks mentality. Oddly, it’s much less fearful than aspiring to greatness.
“It is your birthright to be whole: to have it all,” Ford writes. "It only takes a shift in your perception, an opening of your heart.”
The shadow knows.
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Photo: National Geographic
Our soul is calling us to the barricades to launch a revolution, an inner revolution.
Revolutions change the world. Seven thousand years ago, the Agricultural Revolution overthrew the nomadic way of life and allowed civilization to prosper; 150 years ago, the Industrial Revolution overthrew the agricultural and civilization changed directions again.
There have been a host of others, of course: The Renaissance, the Reformation…. The revolution of physics seems obscure and abstruse even now, but just about everything in modern life flows from quantum mechanics and the Theory of Relativity: TVs, computers, the remote control.
The Sexual Revolution also changed the world, and without it there might never have been Sex and the City, and Desperate Housewives on TV, but fortunately the remote helps there.
Although our inner revolution isn’t an armed struggle, we can take heart from one slogan: workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. Unlike the Russian serfs, we aren’t enslaved by the czar, the nobility and the custom of centuries.
Our chains are the thought patterns that enslave us in our own misery. Either we don’t see it or we love it too much to change.
In the book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, recounts an experiment on dogs that were penned in an enclosure with an electrified floor. No matter how much they howled, prowled and scratched at the walls, they couldn’t get out and they eventually accepted their lot. Later, even when could get out, they didn’t; they sat in the security of their pain.
There is also the story of a young man who could have been in a Tums commercial. He grew up with spicy food and as a result, always had heartburn. He joined the army and soon the bland food allowed his body to heal. When the heartburn stopped, he ran to the infirmary.
“Doc! Doc!” he yelled. “My fire has gone out.”
We become resigned, like the dogs, to our misery or, like the soldier, learn to love it.
We talk about our ill health, getting old, our lousy job and even worse boss, about our children who won’t leave home, and if they do, they never call. The pain is the common bond we have with everyone, whether a friend or someone we meet at ICBC or the dentist’s office.
We talk about the weather, about the snow in March, which provides a nice segue into a conversation about our arthritis. Before you know it, 45 minutes have zipped by and it’s our turn in the dental chair or to have our picture taken for a new licence, which means we’re five years older, and more fuel for our next conversation.
Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem:
The birds they sing at the start of the day
Start again I heard them say
don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.
What would we be like if we hummed along with the primal song Life sings to the butterfly and the buttercup, to everything, even to us:
grow, be all you can be?
What would we be like if we stopped playing songs that are the spiritual equivalent of she-done-me-wrong? Would that help us remember we are Life incarnate? Just as a quantum particle is a product of its field, we are a product of the field of all possibilities.
The field has many names, but the name is irrelevant.
“You are the mirror in which God recognizes itself,” says a Sufi proverb.
Even after our inner revolution, growth means struggle: the butterfly, the chick, the cicada are born of their own efforts. While the metaphor isn’t seamless, it applies to the birth of a human baby. The mother must, no matter how much support and coaching she has, breathe and push on her own.
In our re-genesis, we give birth to ourselves. We are our own parents; we choose how we will grow, who we will become.
“To put it simply, be who you are. Encourage others to be who they are. Be authentic, responsible, and empowered. Empower others to be authentic and responsible.” Paul Ferrini writes in The Ecstatic Moment.
“Don’t lead. Don’t blame. Go alone when you have to. Go hand in hand when others want to join you. Either way, be an equal. See your inherent equality with all beings. That way your gifts will be offered in a way that helps others and you will receive the gifts of others in a way that helps you.”
Oddly enough, no matter how much time we spend fighting for our misery, it’s a fight most are destined to lose. Two University of Chicago studies suggest older people are happier than younger ones — except for baby boomers who are the least happy.
“Life gets better in one’s perception as one ages,” said sociologist Yang Yang, author of one of the studies.
His study found that the odds are happiness improves by five per cent every 10 years.
Ilse Siegler, an 84-year-old widowed, former nurse, said these aren’t her happiest years, but she is content. “Contentment as far as I’m concerned comes with old age because you accept things the way they are. You know that nothing is perfect.”
But in a counter-intuitive sort of way, everything is perfect, because life is the way it is. We might not see it, we might not appreciate it, we might not like it, but when we accept it, life flows and we recognize the perfection.
In an old movie, actor Burgess Meredith, who later played Rocky’s trainer, said something was a miracle, to which his companion said there is no such thing as miracles.
“I know,” Meredith’s character replied with his twisted smile. “That’s what so miraculous.”
It, as always, comes down to a choice — about life and every-day miracles.
We can choose to see the grandeur in a sunset and a traffic jam, or we can choose to ignore the first and complain about the second. But in the end, one will still be beautiful and we will still be in the traffic jam. Nothing changes except our perception.
And that changes everything.
We can get past the regrets about yesterday and ignore the fears about tomorrow and live right now, since it’s all we have. We can choose to remember this Navajo prayer:
“Beauty above me, beauty below me, beauty in front of me, beauty behind me, all around me beauty.”