Monday, March 1, 2010

Precepts of the Spiritual Path

When I was a teenager my perception of the spiritual path was heavily influenced by three books: “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse, “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda, and “How to Know God—the Aphorisms of Patanjali”. All three of these books seemed to advocate for a path of asceticism and deep meditation, denial of the ego, and complete, unquestioning devotion and obedience to one’s Guru, or spiritual teacher—at least that is how I understood it. I was na├»ve and gullible, and anxious to believe in miracles. Thus it was that my first real yoga class at the age of 20, capped by an out of body experience during the meditation practice, plunged me headfirst into a 17-year odyssey with the Sikh Religion.

During that time I maintained a 2-1/2 hour daily practice of early morning mediation and prayer. I became an ordained minister, traveled extensively in India, learned to read, write and speak Punjabi (and Gurmukhi—the language of the Sikh scriptures). I studied the sacred music of the Sikhs and learned to accompany it on both the sitar and the tablas (those fantastic hand drums that accompany nearly all Indian music). I traveled extensively, performing for Sikh congregations from Bombay, to Fiji, to Washington DC, and scores of cities in between. I wore long white robes, grew a beard, kept my long hair wrapped in a turban, and maintained all the traditional symbols prescribed by the Sikh Gurus. And, in keeping with that early concept of the spiritual path, I devoted myself to serving my spiritual teacher, subordinating my own ego to his “mission”, even acting as an extension of his persona.

At 37, after a gradual and painful disillusionment about the integrity and purpose of the spiritual teacher I had served all those years, I finally took off my turban and white robes, and set forth in a new direction. Actually, it was hardly a direction at all. I was floundering about, shell-shocked, trying to make sense of who I was and what my life’s purpose was. It was during that time that I came across a short video clip of a wizened old artist / philosopher from New Zealand, whose name I cannot even remember. He said, in essence, that all humans have within them the pure light of God Consciousness, but the light is blurred, dimmed, and distorted by the layers of personality we assume from the environments in which we grow up. The influences of our parents, siblings, friends, schools, and the traumatic experiences of our childhoods form our personalities into what he called “ill-fitting suits of clothes.” The purpose of the spiritual path, as he expressed it, was to realign the ill-fitting traits of our personalities so that they could serve as a vehicle for the expression of the pure light of God within us.

This concept was nearly opposite of everything I had been taught and had believed up to that time, for it implied not crushing and denying the ego in pursuit of an inward sanctuary of peace and enlightenment, but healing and redirecting it for the use of an outward expression and experience of soul through service to humanity and the world in which we live. The same concept had been touched upon inversely in the biblical expression “through a glass darkly.” The common understanding of this expression is that our vision of reality is obscured—but after hearing the “suit of clothes” analogy I realized it could also mean that the expression of our own souls is obscured and distorted by those layers of personality we have inherited as children, or which we have assumed as adults.

It had long been obvious to me that without a powerful ego, very little can be accomplished by a human being. The greatest men and women throughout history—those whom we admire for changing the course of human events in a positive way—were people with enormous egos; for it was through the force of personality that their vision, talent, and energy manifested in greatness and service. Yet, the greatest of these luminaries were also humble before God, before their peers, and before those whom they served. This great dichotomy--that a person could be humble and yet have a huge ego at the same time—had perplexed me until I realized the ego has many aspects and many dimensions, and a single word cannot possibly define them all.

I was raised and taught to think of ego as a kind of narcissism, in which people are so absorbed with themselves that they are insensitive to the needs and feelings of others. This is a normal state for babies, but we expect that as people mature they will gain an expanded sense of self that includes the needs of others. I eventually came to envision the ego as having many aspects and circles of influence: from self, to family, to friends and colleagues, to neighbors, and on out to a regional, national, and even a universal sense of identity. The more spiritually evolved a person was, I reasoned, the more encompassing their sense of self would become of the entire human race (and beyond to all forms of life and even the inanimate universe). As neat as this intellectual concept appeared, however, I knew it could not manifest through intellect alone. It can only manifest when a person’s emotions and personality traits do not interfere.

A number of years ago I was deeply struck that many members of the Green Party—a political ideology whose precepts seem so humanistic, generous, and fair—behaved in ways that I saw as narrowly egotistical. I witnessed in-fighting and petty personal vendettas that seemed completely at odds with the ideals outlined in the party’s platform. But my experience with the Green Party was just the tip of the iceberg. There are millions of people engaged in what they consider “virtuous” work encompassing a vast range of social, religious, political, and environmental causes, for whom devotion to their particular ideology appears to be a substitute for the more difficult internal work of becoming emotionally healthy and “loving one’s neighbor as oneself.” It was as if they were so busy “saving the world” that they forgot to save themselves. In fact, ideological commitment too often leads to a dehumanizing rationale in which the end justifies the means. From radical environmentalists who burn logging trucks, to Islamic fundamentalists who would kill innocent strangers, the world is full of people whose egos are trapped in a narrow sphere of self-identification that is rooted in ideological beliefs instead of an expanded sense of god-consciousness that identifies with all of creation as an integral part of one’s self.

How, then, can one change from an “ill-fitting suit of clothes” into one that serves, rather than obstructs the soul? The keys to such change are intention, self-awareness and disciplined practice. “Intention” sounds easier than it is. You have to be clear about what the intention actually is, and you have to be prepared for the many challenges and disappointments you will face in trying to hold to it along the way. We are, by nature, creatures of habit, and the “habits” of our personality are not easy to change. Therefore, your intention should be something you can easily state, hold on to, and reflect upon—something like a mantra or a prayer.

The best known statement of intention along these lines was by St. Francis of Assisi, who said it so well in the opening line of his famous prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” This simple statement has been used or paraphrased by millions of people. Mother Theresa recited it daily and made it a focal point of devotions at her convent. There is a British hymn version that reads: “Make me a Channel of your Peace.” My own statement of intention, which I have held to for many years, is “Give me guidance and support, that I may do your work.” There are innumerable ways to state intentions like this, and I recommend that you find one that fits you well. The most important thing is to be consistent in repeating and holding to it.

A deeply rewarding spiritual practice can be built around something as simple as repetition of a clearly stated intention. There are numerous ways to structure a practice like this: you can repeat the statement out loud, you can sing it, you can whisper it, or just repeat it mentally. Mental repetition is not easy, for the mind is very prone to stray. Linking mental repetition to the breath is a really good way to stay focused. It is also helpful to maintain a rhythmical cycle, as if there were a drum beat keeping time—so you might want to choose a statement that has a natural rhythm to it (which may explain why the author of the British hymn cited above took out “Lord” and changed “instrument” to “channel”). The statement of intention that I use is particularly adaptable to this approach. During a short inhale I mentally repeat “Give me…” Then, on the word “guidance…” I begin a long slow exhale during which I complete the statement (“…and support, that I may do your work.”) The whole cycle is 8 beats: one beat on the inhale, and seven on the exhale. You can do this in a formal way, sitting in a meditation posture such as “easy pose”, or informally when out walking, or even lying in bed (which is my personal preference).

You may be surprised and frustrated at first at how difficult it is to keep mental focus, but with practice you will improve quickly. The beneficial side effects of this are quite extraordinary, for the ability to focus one’s mental powers this way can have a big impact on your efficiency at work or your ability to learn new disciplines. But it is most beneficial in that it helps raise awareness of your own mental process, and, as an affirmation, can enormously impact the attitude with which you approach life. As much as a meditation practice like this can help increase self-awareness, calm a worried mind and troubled heart, improve mental focus, and work miracles with one’s attitude toward life, it does not hold all the answers for a happy life. There is another, complementary practice that can help ensure you are surrounded by loving relationships and smiling faces (isn’t this a pretty good definition of heaven?).

When I left the American Sikh community after 17 years of intensive discipline that focused on “spiritual” development pretty much to the exclusion of emotional honesty (we were taught to “channel emotion into devotion”), I came to a\the startling realization that I was emotionally quite immature. On reflection, I felt that my emotional development had been arrested at about age 18—and it’s possible I’m being too generous in this assessment. It was a painful revelation. But I made a conscious commitment to evolve, to find emotional clarity and honesty, and to be accountable for any harm I might cause—even inadvertently. Once again I found myself stating a high-minded intention, but not really having the awareness or the tools I needed to follow through. Those habits of personality are really hard to break. In frustration at my continued failures (feedback from friends and family was impossible to ignore) I challenged God to “bring it on.” “Let’s get it over with,” I shouted “Give me all my karma at once!” This was not a very smart thing to do, and in retrospect I strongly recommend against such impetuous behavior towards the Almighty.

I can’t say for certain that my challenge to God had any real consequences, but I do know that the next seven years were the hardest in my life. It wasn’t quite as bad as the biblical story of Job, but it was a time full of challenges (like losing everything I owned in a California wildfire) and tests of my integrity that left me seriously questioning my own value as a human being. The common thread through those years—and even to the present time—was the search for emotional honesty and transparency, and commitment to the idea that I could change my “ill-fitting suit of clothes” and, over time, become an “instrument of peace.”

I should define a few things before moving on. When I speak of “emotional honesty” I don’t mean to suggest that acting impulsively on one’s emotions is a virtue. (When the world of email communications began taking a prominent role in our culture, it didn’t take me long to learn that pushing “send” while in a state of anger is really not a good idea.) What I mean by honesty in this context is more about self-awareness, integrity, and accountability: being able to recognize when a negative emotion is influencing a behavior, and to acknowledge it (and to apologize or even make amends when appropriate) to those who are affected by it. When I say “transparency” I am referring to that clarity of being that allows the light of the soul to shine through all one’s words and actions—that one’s words and actions are imbued with forgiveness, gratitude, happiness, and love. In that state, a person loves him or herself in the same way as one would aspire to love and honor one’s neighbor.

The path of emotional honesty and transparency of soul is rooted in the search for self-awareness. There are many ways to arrive at self-awareness, but the one thing all paths have in common is that they depend on getting a reflected view of oneself through the eyes and experience of others. One-on-one counseling is the most formal and traditional form of this discipline, whether in the company of a priest, a psychologist, or a trusted friend. The most important factor is the intention one brings to these counseling relationships. In fact, intention is the key factor in every relationship, especially an intimate one. People commonly enter into an intimate relationship because of mutual physical and emotional attraction, and over time they commonly start “pushing each other’s buttons” as the darker aspects of their personalities begin to interact. How different the dynamic is, however, when they share an intention of mutual reflection in a spirit of love and respect. Then, instead of spiraling down into dysfunction, disrespect, anger, blame, and eventual separation, they can rise together in self-awareness and mutual support on the path of love and fulfillment of purpose. (All relationships can benefit from a similar commitment to a stated intention.)

There are scores of other structured formats for peer reflection, from the encounter groups made popular in the 1970’s, to “affinity groups,” men’s and women’s groups, even Alcoholics Anonymous and its many spin-offs. Participation in any of these can be tremendously helpful because they provide (or are supposed to provide) a safe and supportive environment in which to practice probing the depths of one’s self in the eyes of others. There is some risk attached to these structured formats, however. Sometimes they can become insular and turn into cliques. The participants may find a new norm in which they are no longer challenging each other or reflecting useful information. Instead, over time they can start providing mutual support for each other’s aspects that really are not healthy. In couples we often call this co-dependency, but it is equally a phenomenon in larger groups, including political parties, ethnic groups, and whole civilizations. To avoid this form of stagnation, it is good to mix and match a great deal—essentially cross-pollinating the reflective experience to incorporate the broadest possible range of viewpoints.

Formally structured formats are not the only way to access useful reflective information. Every relationship provides an opportunity to see one’s self through the eyes of another. We do this automatically and unconsciously, in any event, as we gravitate towards those who tend to validate our own viewpoint. Yet, it is extremely important to pay attention to viewpoints that are not validating, because they usually hold at least some grains of truth. The trick is interpolating the information correctly, giving the proper weight and importance to each point of view. Very few humans on the planet can claim to be perfect mirrors, for each of us has his or her own distortions of perception that need to be taken into account. But over time, and from an abundance of data gathered from the reflections of many people, it is possible to get a functionally accurate view of one’s self, and to identify those traits that damage relationships, cause fear and anxiety, erode happiness, and block the soul from its pure expression.

Seeing one’s self clearly is an essential first step, but it is only the beginning. Unfortunately, many people give up, saying defensively “That’s just the way I am.” This is hardly a desirable outcome for anyone on a sincere spiritual path! What is required is conviction, a lot of hard work, and willingness to face defeat again and again—because changing old habits is really hard. In yogic terms the discipline of change is called “prathahaad”, which loosely translates to mean “substitution.” The idea is that armed with self-awareness, one can learn to catch one’s self in the millisecond prior to a habitual reaction and substitute a consciously chosen alternative. Over time (in yogic disciplines 40 days is often cited as the magic number to change a habit) the substitution itself becomes habitual and the problem is solved. Even when mistakes happen, which they do all the time, it is a lot easier to mitigate them when one’s habit and intention is to be sensitive to the responses of others, accountable and acknowledging of one’s own errors, and gracious in apologizing or making amends for any harm that might have been caused.

Finally, the power of gratitude as a spiritual practice cannot be overestimated. In the journey of the soul, everything that happens along the way—no matter how painful or joyful it may be—has a purpose (it is incredibly helpful to believe this). It is not always easy to perceive challenges, losses, and difficulties as blessings, but if they can be understood in the context of the soul’s path to clarity and purpose, they can all be regarded with a sense of gratitude. What a shift this makes in one’s life! A person who lives with an attitude of gratitude for all that comes his or her way is a person whose spirit bubbles with love and joy, a person who has a smile for everyone, and lives, therefore, in a self-made world surrounded by smiling faces. It does also help to have a sense of humor, and it is monumentally helpful—in fact, it is essential—to avoid taking one’s self too seriously!

This essay is meant as a brief overview, and leaves out much detail and process. It is intended to provide a bird’s eye view of what I consider to be a healthy spiritual path: one that does not lead to a belief system or ideology, but rather to behaviors and attitudes that allow God’s love to imbue one’s words and action. The disciplines outlined here are best learned in small groups under the direction of an experienced teacher until the individuals have developed proficiency, confidence, and an established routine of daily personal practice. It should be noted that this work is never really done, for the negative ego is an insidious creature that loves nothing better than a person who is spiritually mature.
--Peter Alexander March 1, 2010

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fear and Faith

Thoughts on Fear and Faith

I have known fear in many of its forms. When I was a very small child I had a recurring nightmare of being pursued across mountain ridges by a huge bear. I never did get caught but I woke up terrified night after night. I usually found comfort in the flyleaf of one of my children’s books that was illustrated with a row of beautiful angels. I had picked out one of them as my own special friend and guardian. Maybe she was watching over me in 1993 when a wildfire devoured my California home. For some inexplicable reason, the terror I experienced seeing the wind-driven flames approach across the canyon morphed into a cool-headed response that saved my life, though with nothing but the clothes I was wearing and the family pets.

Two of my close friends would not heed my warnings and tried to race against time in an effort to save some of their earthly goods. They did not fare so well. Both were caught in the fast moving flames and were horribly burned. I had to help evacuate them in a military helicopter, only to watch one of them die a day later and the other suffer through an agonizing years-long recovery that was worse than death many times over. I experienced a whole new kind of fear and pain when, out of despair at his disfigurement and the unending and unendurable agony of his treatments, my surviving friend, to whose hospital bedside I had devoted six full months of my life, twice tried to commit suicide.

These experiences may pale in comparison to what has recently transpired in Haiti, and, in fact, to what is happening to millions of people around the world every day. Yet nothing I have experienced in my life was more difficult for me than the persistent and gnawing fear of impending foreclosure and financial ruin that followed on the heels of that 1993 wildfire.

I was lucky to survive the fire and its catastrophic aftermath, but even luckier that my mind and my heart escaped untainted by those terrible experiences. I have known many people for whom fear is a constant and ongoing impediment to their happiness. Some of them, at times of stress, actually become stupid, immobilized by their fear and anxiety like a deer caught in the headlights. Others have suffered the destruction of every one of their loving relationships because they could not stem the toxic influences of fear, doubt, and suspicion. Still others even now live boring, unfulfilled, and unhappy lives because they have been too afraid to take the calculated risks that accompany nearly every opportunity in life.

I was lucky, because in that time of my darkest hour I found an antidote to the destructive power of fear: a reasoned faith that, for me, even today makes order from the chaos of life’s ups and downs. My faith is certainly not of the religious or dogmatic kind. In fact, it might just be an invented mythology or a psychological trick. But it has worked for me. In the midst of that terrible time, I made a conscious decision to believe that everything happens for a purpose, and that everything happening to me was specifically and intentionally designed to facilitate the advancement of my soul, the strengthening of my character, and the sharpening of the tools with which I felt I was meant to do good works in the world. This may all sound very narcissistically high-minded, but for me it was a matter of survival. Without that powerful belief in my own life’s purpose I would almost certainly have succumbed to fear, despair, and depression.

Very rarely now does a day go by without some inkling of fear triggering those memories of harder times, reminding me that I’ve actually got it pretty easy. So I say that I am lucky, because for me, fear has been a pathway to faith that everything, no matter how difficult, will always work out for the best. And, in my experience, it has—and does.

And for that I am grateful.

--Peter Alexander (1/21/10)