Tag Archives: meaning

Is Reality Trying to Tell You Something?

A photo by Kayla Gibson. unsplash.com/photos/7KHYZ4eqSIw

One of the greatest puzzles facing each of us is whether the events in our lives form a pattern, and if so, what does the pattern mean. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” Some people say it in passing, others take it more seriously. But officially, if we accept the basic scientific principle that the physical world operates essentially through random chance, it’s not credible to believe that we live in a universe that has purpose and meaning. We can ask when the big bang occurred but not why. We can investigate how sodium and chlorine combine to form salt, but it makes no sense, scientifically, to ask the purpose of salt. Salt and the big bang just are.

Since the question of meaning and purpose are deeply embedded in religion, let’s set those claims aside. If God or the gods control human life, this is a matter of faith, not science. Humans have constructed faith-based systems for many centuries, of course. Placing an invisible higher power at the center of reality, a power who judges right from wrong, who punishes and rewards according to divine morality, is simply outside the rules developed by science and secular society. There are enough glitches in those rules without hauling God into the argument.

Those glitches center around a simple observation. Human life has meaning and purpose. The physical world, absent humans, doesn’t. When we are motivated by love or fear, when we make moral choices or create a vision of a better life, there is no doubt that human beings not only value meaning and purpose, we have evolved, along with the higher brain, to support meaning and purpose. Since Darwinian evolution allows for only genetic mutations, how did DNA, which is built from completely ordinary atoms and molecules, acquire any more meaning than salt? Or if DNA isn’t linked to the meaning of life, how can there be meaning and purpose outside our genes? Continue reading

Why Do We Search For More in Our Lives?

shutterstock_69910780What is my purpose?

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say this, to me or other people recently.

People often come to see me when they are in their 30s or 40s and say, I have done what was expected of me and had a career doing the right thing, now I want to do something else. Something that makes me feel whole/complete. Something that brings me joy and fulfilment and helps me fulfil a personal quest. But, I’m not sure what my purpose is.

Is there a shift in the energy of the universe that is making people question this more than before? Is there a shift in me that I am hearing it more that I did? These are questions I have been pondering for a while.

 My question is why is there such a quest now for understanding this age old adage? When I ask people to tell me more about what they mean, they explain that they want more out of their lives. They seem to want to dig deeper, feel more intensely, taste more flavorfully, see and really observe more clearly. Maybe we are listening with more intention?

Surely then our purpose is to do just that, be in the moment and experience the moment for what it is? Eckhart Tolle says, “Listen to people’s stories, and you’ll find that they could all be entitled “Why I Cannot Be at Peace Now” The ego doesn’t know that your only opportunity for being at peace is now.” Is my purpose to be right here, right now?  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have goals or ambitions in place. I am simply saying that if I just concentrate on this moment I might find that it is full of opportunities that I might miss if I focus on the tomorrows.

I have come to understand that there are some “action steps” that help us make light of that question, “what is my purpose?” Action step one, I have to acknowledge that I am a creative being. We all have creativity within us no matter what we do or how. The second action step is to recognize it and develop it further. The third action step is to follow what feels right in your heart. To stop pleasing other people or doing what is expected of you. Now it is time for you to do what it is that you want. The fourth action step is to enjoy who you have chosen to be.

Paulo Coelho sums it up beautifully when he says:

People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of

– The Alchemist.

Deepak Chopra: The Mystery of 3 Small Words – “I Love You”

I♥youBy Deepak Chopra, MD, and  Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi

Current brain research is hot on the trail of mysteries that need solving. Current imaging techniques can show, with remarkable precision, what happens in specific parts of the brain when we feel an emotion, for example. Eventually neuroscientists may be able to pinpoint the exact process that leads to the emotion of love; indeed they already feel that they are close, since there’s a map for tracing the hormones that make falling in love feel ecstatic, along with the areas of the brain responsible for emotions.

But close does you no good if your model has a serious flaw. In this case, the flaw is to assume that the physical mechanisms associated with love are the same as love itself. What if love takes place in the mind rather than the brain?

To many, that’s a distinction without a difference. The mind is invisible, yet everything it thinks or feels requires a physical response in the brain. If you know what the brain is doing, you know what the mind is doing, or so the scientific method, based on materialism, holds to be true. But a huge mystery, known as the mind-body problem, is being begged. As long as we ignore the mind, we may be making profound mistakes about the brain.

The words “I love you” give us a perfect example. Imagine that you are sitting close to someone who has not made clear what he or she feels. The moment is right; the mood is intimate. In your ear you hear the words “I love you.” Stop action. If we ask a neuroscientist what happens next, he will unfold a trail of physical events. Air molecules vibrate when those words are spoken, and in turn they vibrate the ear drum. Tiny bones in the middle ear transmit the signal, which gets turned into electrochemical reactions in the inner ear. As soon as electricity and chemicals are involved, we are in the precinct of the brain, which goes to work rapidly. Various areas light up, involving a complex interaction between those areas that process sound, meaning, memory, and emotions. Even if it takes years or decades for neuroscience to trace this pattern exactly, the result is the same: your heart jumps for joy, you flush, and the delight of hearing “I love you” overtakes your body.

Or does it? What if you don’t welcome those words? Instead, this was the moment, perhaps, when you were going to end the relationship. The physical trail remains the same, but something is drastically different. The meaning of the words as they apply to you. The dictionary definition of “I love you” isn’t in doubt. Yet if you think about it, every response imaginable is available to us when we hear “I love you,” from horror (if a serial killer says them) to indifference (if you’ve heard it too many times) to joy. As for the body, it, too, is capable of any response – you might feel nothing or you might faint dead away. How is this possible?

Of course, we each hear the words “I love you” in a personal context, involving our own associations and memories. A gentle “I love you” might invoke memories of your mother’s arms when you were a child. Individual meaning gets shaped in the brain’s memory centers. But memory has its own baffling mysteries. One of us (Rudy), a Harvard neuroscientist, asked dozens of colleagues at a scientific conference, “Where are memories stored”? Instantly every one replied, “In the brain, of course.” He pressed the point. “Where exactly in the brain? In neurons? If so, where in the cellular structure?” After hemming and hawing, most had to concede that no one really knows. We know that synapses fire to retrieve a memory, but we do not actually understand how or where memories are physically stored in the brain, or, for that matter, whether they can be physically located at all.

Meaning occurs in the mind, and the brain obeys the mind. They are not the same thing. A radio plays music, but it doesn’t create music. A radio is dependent on the station you tune it to. Meaning is like tuning in but more subtle. You don’t turn a dial; you automatically know what the meaning is, and if you don’t, what happens? Your mind tries to straighten out the meaning. Your brain doesn’t accomplish this task. Maybe the person whispered “I love U2.”  There’s a huge difference between loving a rock band and loving a person who might love you back.

Can we really claim that brain tissue, which is made up of organic chemicals and water, can tell that “I love you” leads to joy while “I love U2” leads to a mild “that’s nice. I do, too”? No, we can’t. It’s a mistake to attribute to physical things — cells, molecules, atoms, and so on – what really belongs to the mind.

We aren’t talking metaphysics, although science often takes that escape route when its faith in materialism is challenged. So let’s leave aside the mind. There is no physical explanation for why the body reacts as it does to words. Consider that you hear any of the following sentences:

It’s bedtime.
Your life savings are gone.
Look out, a rattlesnake!

Everyone agrees that each of these causes a terrifically different reaction in the body. Yet if you hear them spoken, each sentence begins with the tiniest vibration of the ear drum, and the brain signals that come next are also barely measurable in microvolts of electricity and a few hundred of thousand molecules of messenger molecules. Yet these tiny, tiny events get amplified enormously. The adrenaline rush that sends you running in panic from a rattlesnake represents millions of times more energy than the words that caused them. The words “It’s bedtime” cause an equally massive amplification but in the opposite direction, toward relaxation and shutdown of the body for sleep.

It’s well known that the human body depends upon homeostasis, the ability to keep very complex systems in balance and to return to a state of balance when it is disturbed. Yet words cause us to deliberately go out of balance, and there’s no physical mechanism to explain it. Meaning explains everything, since “It’s bedtime” and seeing a rattlesnake of course hold totally opposite meanings. But if you say that the brain creates the meaning of words in the cerebral cortex – the standard textbook explanation – you have no way of escaping a dead end. The physical world is ruled by cause and effect. We cannot say that a feather can dust the table one minute and push over a boulder the next. Yet these same tiny molecules of brain chemicals manage to do just that. One minute you hear some words and decide to go to sleep; the next minute you hear other words and instantly run away on high alert.

There is no doubt that your body can amplify signals; there’s no doubt that different words have different meanings. Yet if you try to put these two facts together using just the brain, you can’t. A tiny virus can enter the body and cause every system to break down, leading to death. It’s as if a baseball broke a window in a skyscraper and the whole building fell down. But that’s not really a mystery, because the virus divides, and by a simple train of cause-and-effect, its toxins are amplified until the immune system is overwhelmed. But there is no explanation for how a few words can create such a powerful effect that it gets repeated, day after day, for years. The things we worry and obsess over, the grief that lingers on and on, the game-winning touchdown, and the girl who got away – all can be amplified into bodily reactions from a state of near zero, since memory requires no expenditure of energy.

Some mysteries are worth pondering because they fascinate us. Others are worth pondering because they can shake our whole worldview. The mystery of “I love you,” we believe, is the second kind.

Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP
deepakchopra.com
Follow Deepak on Twitter

Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi
Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy
Professor of Neurology,
Harvard Medical School
Director, Genetics and Aging Research Unit,
MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease
Massachusetts General Hospital

Originally published September 2011

You Matter

you-matter

 “Don’t think about me. Don’t think about how I will respond or what I want you to be. Just be what you are. You have to find yourself.”

This is what my husband told me today and I must tell you, I squirmed. For a few reasons.

First and foremost — because he was right, damn him! He said it when it should have been me. Me, the terribly wise and present person who thought herself oh so … whatever … ah, in short – I was ashamed of myself. My pride smarted because I could not deny the fact that he was right and I was thoroughly messed up.

Which was another reason for squirming? I am not supposed to be getting messed up anymore. I am supposed to have outgrown it.

And then there was the fact that I knew he was right because I saw it before we had this conversation, and my seeing it made no difference at all. I collapsed nonetheless. Back into my messiness, back into the uncertainty and fear, back into the endless “what am I going to do with myself” questions, the “why am I here?”, the “what is being done to me?” questions.

Questions, questions, questions that plagued me and worried me and hurt me. Questions that made me scared of life, scared of the world, scared of myself.

I’ve been lost in them for a very long time, and then I looked up for just a moment and then I was myself again. Myself. Here. I could feel myself and there were no more questions. Instead there were my choices. Nothing was being done to me anymore – I was doing. I was choosing. I was creating. What? Oh, that mattered not at all. Answers mattered not at all because I was back and I did not need to look for answers anymore.

What mattered was that I was back, me — the creator of answers. And I was safe.

Why Love is the Answer to Living a Life with Meaning

Don't Let Go.While at dinner night one night, I had a discussion with an accomplished and influential man who has touched the lives of many millions of people in a very positive way. He was sharing how at the ripe old age of 10 he first realized that he was conscious. It led him to the conclusion that “there must be some meaning or purpose as to why I am here.” He became determined to live his life from that vantage point.

Now that he is quite a bit older, he is considering whether there is still a purpose for him and even if what he had done had been useful. I, of course, seeing the value in his work, chimed in with a resounding “Yes!” I could clearly see there was still plenty of purpose and meaning to be found in the years that lay ahead, no matter how many or few.

Another man I know is 15 years younger than the first and also looking back on his life trying to make sense of it all. He can’t seem to understand that there are still plenty of moments left for him in which meaning can and will be found, even if his past wasn’t all he wanted it to be. Instead, he is running laps in the playground of his mind, which from my perspective is different than gaining awareness and altitude. But hey, it’s his playground.

In my early twenties, I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, the author introduces what he calls an existential vacuum, a condition that exists when one’s life is empty of meaning. When this vacuum is present, it is as if existence has a large hole in it that cannot be filled. A friend of mine at that time was a psychiatrist interested in levels of consciousness and why people felt this vacuum inside. In his quest for awakening and awareness, he introduced his friends to a veritable garden of spiritual teachers, each with a different take on the subject.

From that point on, I was fascinated by the existential, the spiritual practices of all religions, the experiences of mysticism, and the many ways people look for meaning and purpose in their life. Like my friend, I found my spiritual teacher and my spiritual practice. The sense of isolation I hadn’t previously understood shifted almost immediately. The emptiness related to my food addiction was more complicated and took many years to overcome.

As for my meaning and purpose, I spent decades searching for the answers. In the end, it all boiled down to “Whatever the question, love is the answer.” I discovered that the greatest gift I could give someone was to really listen to them and let them know that they mattered. To let them know that they were not alone – that someone cared about them. That in fact, all of us are part of a grand whole in which we are all interconnected.

I found new meaning when I shared my authentic experiences by helping others to understand that while we are different, we are the same. That each of us is ordinary, doing the best we can with what we have been given, and with what we have chosen to develop. And when I am communing in that way with others, I am in touch with what I have come to know as Spirit.

By loving and offering support wherever I can, in whatever small way I can, I find meaning in the moment. And since life is made up of moments, I can focus on those, and not have to ponder the imponderable or drive myself nuts with how many angels can actually dance on the head of a pin. Rather than get stuck in that place of no return, I return to the spiritual experiences, the transcendence of this level that I can have in the quiet when the peace descends and love enfolds.

We live in stressful times with people searching for significance in the chaos and peace in the turmoil. I think it can be helpful to look at the ways in which each of us finds meaning and then share that not only with everyone we know, but also with anyone who is looking. To that end, my daily questions to myself are, “Did I partake in the opportunities for loving that were presented to me today?” “Was I grateful?” and “Did I listen to and act upon the wisdom of my heart?” This wisdom tells me to always be open to the possibilities of new meanings, awareness, and new awakenings.

 

Originally published July 2010

Does “Truth” Matter in Spirituality?

In conversations about spirituality, I often encounter the perspective that truth is entirely relative and that there is no such thing as “reality,” because everything is perception. Some people also like to talk about certain proposed “absolute truths” that are beyond the mind or the material plane and have to either be accepted on faith or experienced directly during say, meditation.

While there is of course something valid and important in recognizing subjective perception and persepctive, and while I value contemplative experience very deeply, I have a different perspective on “truth.”

Truth matters. It is not only of central importance in how we think and act in the world, but also a principle to strive for in our spiritual lives. But we forget this —and it is easy to see why.

Truth exists in different ways in different domains of human knowledge and experience, and this can sometimes be confusing. We can tease these domains apart, but it is important to remember that they are always aspects of an integrated whole.

For example, if I said that water was made of two parts sulfur and one part helium, anyone with a middle school science education would know that this was not true. But not all truths are reducible to the domain of scientific evidence.

Many people stop there, saying that some things are scientifically demonstrable (like the composition of water) and everything else (like the meaning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what happens after we die) is just belief, opinion and mystery. But let’s slow that down and look more carefully.

One step removed from scientific evidence, there is also logical reasoning.

If I said:

All men are mortal. Hillary Clinton is mortal. Therefore Hillary Clinton is a man.

It should be obvious that my conclusion was not true. Now we are in the domain of reason and logic — and whether we are aware of it or not, we all practice using our capacity to reason as a way of evaluating truth.

So we have discovered that one kind of truth has to do with established scientific knowledge and another (which may rely upon, but does not require scientific evidence) has to do with reason. If a statement or belief is contrary to evidence and reason, then we should be comfortable saying it is false.

To continue: If I told you that I was writing this article from the stable of my pet unicorn, you would be quite entitled not to believe me unless I provided evidence of this highly unlikely claim.

We enter now a related domain, which has to do with how we think about what is most likely to be true. Based on what we know about the world we live in, it is unlikely enough to be almost impossible for me to have a pet unicorn. If I claimed a pet of any species that was known to exist, no matter how exotic, this would be more likely by an order of magnitude to be true. If I said I had a pet tiger you might still demand to see a photo or video of me with it, but your level of incredulity would not even come close to that for the claim of a pet unicorn.

A common mistake here would be to think that unless someone could prove that I didn’t have a pet unicorn, that we should on principle be open to the possibility. But this is impractical, and none of us actually live our lives this way. It also goes against the famous observation credited to Carl Sagan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In other words, if you claim something highly unusual, the burden of proof is on you to show that your claim is true, otherwise why should anyone believe that you could walk on the ceiling?

But what about art or philosophy, surely these are entirely subjective, right?

If I told you that Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” was about a family outing to the beach in the south of Spain it would not take much research to find out that this was factually incorrect. If I told you the play dealt with issues of race and power, you might read the play, as well as some respected analysis of it and come to the conclusion that this too was an incorrect interpretation.

So even with regard to something that seems ultra subjective like “meaning,” we have ways of ascertaining truth. In fact millions of people spend many years qualifying for doctorate degrees in interpreting meaning in philosophy, literature and other fields. They may not be able to agree with one another very often —but their opinions are generally more interesting, well-informed, and contain more truth than those of high school students who have barely read the text at hand.

While not objective in the strict sense, we can all agree that there are better and worse, superficial and profound, correct and incorrect ways of interpreting art and philosophy.

So much for claims about what is true in the outside world, in logical reasoning, or when interpreting language and images – spirituality focuses to a large extent on our inner worlds, and surely here there is no such thing as objective truth, right?

Sure. But we are still on the continuum of truth. The claims are becoming less objective, but this does not mean that absolutely anything goes! It also does not mean that our interior experiences are not still related to both the objective outer world and our capacity to reason and interpret meaning – in fact I suggest healthy, sustainable spirituality requires this level of integration.

Psychology is the study of the mind and feelings. It doesn’t get any more subjective. We know from basic psychology that all of us have ways of distorting reality in order to protect ourselves from feelings with which we would rather not deal. These defenses include denial, rationalization, dissociation, compensation -all of which are ways of not being truthful with ourselves.

We all know the phenomenon of someone who is scared but pretending to be brave. Or of someone smiling through the tears, or hardening their face and body in resistance to letting their vulnerability be visible to others and perhaps even conscious to themselves.

A good counselor can guide us into being more truthful with ourselves about how we actually feel emotionally, and help us to gain insight into what those feelings mean. A good friend can listen and empathize and reflect back what may be true within a confused tangle of events, interpretations and feelings. Feelings have meaning and have to do with our relationships and our experiences in the outside world.

Of course a good psychiatrist can also diagnose the very extreme distortions of reality or wildly inappropriate feelings that are symptoms of severe mental illness. In fact, I would suggest that the complex and nuanced relationship between our inner truths and the truths of outer reality defines the continuum we all exist along with regard to relative levels of mental health.

When it comes to psychiatry, we are also talking about the intersection of the objective science of brain function and neurochemistry with the subjective domain of consciousness, sense of self, and interpretation of meaning. Remember, it is all connected…

Now what about something even more to do with the interior domain of spirituality – say, meditation? Aren’t the experiences that individuals have while in meditation, yoga or prayer, on vision quest or under the influence of psychedelic sacraments exempt from any of the more ordinary ways of ascertaining truth?

Well, what if I told you that while meditating I realized that all of external reality was actually my dream — that you who are reading this in fact do not exist except as a figment of my imagination, and that I in fact am an immortal being who has forgotten how to wake up out of my sleep?

What if I said I was going to sell all my possessions, stop working and meditate all day long sitting in the middle of the street earnestly seeking to wake up to my true identity beyond the dream?

Would the fact that I claimed this was true based on my experience in meditation somehow make you take it more seriously than my claim to be writing this from my unicorn’s stable?

If we are being grounded, surely we should consider all claims about external reality in the same way, and test them using the same methods.

Consider that I told you the following:

While meditating I realized that the tension I often feel in my shoulder area relaxed when I got in touch with how afraid I had been about my financial situation, and that as I sat with that fear, imagining breathing compassion into it, I remembered being a small boy and feeling afraid that my parents were going to get divorced, and that after shedding a few tears I felt ready to try some new business strategies that I had been procrastinating.

Then my mind shifted into a place of extraordinary peace and self-acceptance, I felt at one with all things and it seemed I sat there for a great while, even though I saw that the whole meditation had lasted just 20 minutes when I opened my eyes.

This account of an experience in meditation not only sounds basically sane and beneficial, it also makes no extraordinary claims about external reality. Rather, it expresses an integrated relationship between my external financial struggles, some underlying emotions, and how those are held as tension in my body. It also describes a brain state of meditative absorption that in fact correlates nicely with findings from neuroscience.

Many people who have never meditated would be skeptical about these claims, but there is nothing about them that sounds crazy or out of step with everyday accounts of both objective and subjective reality.

In short, you probably would have no reason to doubt the truth of this account.

When we hold ourselves to a standard of truth across all domains of reality, spirituality can be integrated, sane and beneficial. I think we run into trouble when we buy into the idea that spiritual experiences and beliefs are beyond evidence, reason, logic, or inter-subjective analysis.

Claims of an “ultimate truth”  beyond the mind and beyond material reality are a staple of many forms of spirituality. By definition, these claims are impossible to evaluate – a feature that for many would make them meaningless. But let’s say we remain open to the possibility of these kinds of ultimate metaphysical truths existing. We would still have to be honest about the fact that if they affect anything about the world we actually live in, those effects could be evaluated.

I hope this exploration of truth as it shows up in our inner and outer lives has been thought provoking and useful. Please let me know your thoughts on the subject!

There’s more to our reality than our physical senses can perceive …

What are we most afraid of? Death … being alone … being without our loved ones … being forgotten, hoping that our lives have meaning — that life has meaning in world filled with every reason to believe that it’s all a chaotic accident?

I grew up feeling I had no power to change the world or myself and my circumstances. I now know that to be false. We have more power to create our realities than we realize. Only now, after all these years, am I beginning to have the courage to embrace it. It’s comforting to know that others are on this journey with me. I wish you all success on your own paths.

David

Nostalgia The Very Good Way And The Pathological Way.

I learned that Nostalgia comes from Latin which means house or home. I forget the exact meaning which it really means. It is the meaning of looking for a Home for me. I wanted to always look for the home of the past. You always remember the happiest moments of the best times. You never remember the bad times too much. Except for me who tends to dwell on the negative so very much. I am so very focused on that crap it is ridiculous. That is all part of letting go here too. To realize the past was never ever as good as it was remembered. It was crappy at that point in time in time too. It had it’s very bad moments too. Their is the right way though. To just kick back and just be in conversation this was really good stuff. Reminsence and just be move on. The other way to hold on to it all is pathological. It is time to move on. To live life to the fullest.

The Spiritual Wisdom of Simplicity

The wisdom of simplicity is a theme with deep roots. The great value and benefits of living simply are found in all the world’s major wisdom traditions.

Christian Views

Jesus embodied a life of compassionate simplicity. He taught by word and example that we should not make the acquisition of material possessions our primary aim; instead, we should develop our capacity for loving participation in life. The Bible speaks frequently about the need to find a balance between the material and the spiritual side of life:

  • "Give me neither poverty nor wealth." (Proverbs 30:8)
  • "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth … Store up treasure in heaven … For wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Matthew 6:19-21)
  • "If a man has enough to live on, and yet when he sees his brother in need shuts up his heart against him, how can it be said that the divine love dwells in him?" (John 3:17)

Eastern Views

Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism have also encouraged a life of material moderation and spiritual abundance. From the Taoist tradition we have this saying from Lao-tzu: "He who knows he has enough is rich."

From the Hindu tradition, Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader who was instrumental in gaining India’s independence, wrote: "Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment." Gandhi felt the moderation of our wants increases our capacity to be of service to others and, in being of loving service to others, true civilization emerges. Also found in the Hindu tradition is the idea of "non-possessiveness," or taking only what we need and finding satisfaction in balanced living.

Perhaps the most developed expression of a middle way between material excess and deprivation comes from the Buddhist tradition. While Buddhism recognizes that basic material needs must be met in order to realize our potentials, it does not consider our material welfare as an end in itself; rather, it is a means to the end of awakening to our deeper nature as spiritual beings. The middle way of Buddhism moves between mindless materialism on the one hand and needless poverty on the other. The result is a balanced approach to living that harmonizes both inner and outer development.

Greek Views

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle recognized the importance of the "golden mean," or a middle path through life characterized by neither excess nor deficit, but by sufficiency. They did not view the material world as primary but as instrumental — as serving our learning about the more expansive world of thought and spirit. Aristotle favored a balanced life that involved moderation on the material side and exertion on the intellectual side. He said that "temperance and courage" were destroyed by either excess or deficiency and could only be preserved by following the golden mean.

Puritan Views

Paradoxically, although the United States is the world’s most notoriously consumerist nation, the simple life has strong roots in American history. The early Puritan settlers brought to America their "puritan ethic," which stressed hard work, temperate living, participation in the life of the community and a steadfast devotion to things spiritual. Puritans also stressed the golden mean by saying we should not desire more material things than we can use effectively. It is from the New England Puritans that we get the adage, "Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without."

Quaker Views

The Quakers also had a strong influence on the American character, particularly with their belief that material simplicity was an important aid in evolving toward spiritual perfection. Unlike the Puritans, their strong sense of equality among people fostered religious tolerance. Quakers emphasized the virtues of hard work at one’s calling, sobriety and frugality. Although they thought it only natural for one to enjoy the fruits of their labors, they also recognized that our stay on Earth is brief and that people should place much of their love and attention on things eternal.

Transcendentalist Views

Transcendentalist thought flourished in the early to mid-1800s in America and are best exemplified by the lives and writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The Transcendentalists believed that a spiritual presence infuses the world, and that by living simply we can more easily encounter this vital life force. For Emerson, the Transcendental path began with self-discovery and then led to "an organic synthesis of that self with the natural world surrounding it."

The Transcendentalists had a reverential attitude toward nature and saw the natural world as the doorway to the divine. By communing with nature, Emerson felt that people could become "part and parcel with God," thereby realizing the ultimate simplicity of oneness with the divine. Thoreau also viewed simplicity as a means to a higher end. Although he said that a person "is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone," he was not particularly concerned with the specific manner in which someone lived a simpler life. Instead, he was more interested in the rich inner life that could be gained through undistracted contemplation. For both Emerson and Thoreau, simplicity had more to do with one’s intentions than with one’s particular possessions.

 

 

Consciously Recognizing Ourselves Before We Die

When our physical body dies, will we recognize ourselves as a subtle body of light, love, music, and knowing? Will we recognize the unique orchestration of our being, the distinct way we light up the world? If we fail to recognize ourselves in this way — if we require the assistance of a physical body to anchor our self-recognition — then we are profoundly limiting ourselves. The afterlife is unknown; however, our invisible body of music, light and love that lives in eternity is knowable. In fact, every person that we encounter can instantly recognize these unique and invisible qualities within us. Our responsibility is not to be concerned with the afterlife, but to be so fully present in this life that we recognize the familiar resonance of who we are, wherever we might be.

Many spiritual traditions tell us how important it is to be awake to our soulful nature at the time of death. What happens after we die seems likely to forever remain a mystery. However, if we do not become familiar with our subtle self while we have the precious vehicle of a physical body, we can fail to recognize ourselves when our physical body dies. Because we are created from an invisible life force, we may die and not see that this life force is who and what we are. Our physical body is an anchor for light illuminating light, knowing recognizing knowing, and love appreciating love. If, in freedom, we have not made friends with ourselves during this lifetime, our physical bodies can die and the animating life energy of our being may dissipate and lose its coherence. We may then require the constraint of a material world to enable us to encounter ourselves once again.

Why should we be concerned with recognizing the eternal being within ourselves while we are alive in this physical realm? Jesus gives an important answer when he says, "In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you." (John 14:2). I believe Jesus is saying that, in the vast ecology of the living universe, there are spaces suitable for all beings.

Buddhists also believe we must discover our subtle, inner nature so we can recognize ourselves when we die as pure awareness or as the "ground luminosity." Because the essence of who we are is so subtle, when we die we can become confused, disoriented, and unable to sustain self-recognition. To keep from becoming overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, colors, and visions that arise in the passage through bodily death, Buddhists teach that we must attain some degree of stability in self-recognition in the here and now. If we pay attention to the natural wakefulness and feeling presence at the core of our everyday consciousness, we will be familiar with ourselves at the time of death. The Dalai Lama counsels that, because we don’t know when we will die, it is of great importance to be prepared as, at the time of death, the total responsibility for awareness falls upon us. He writes, "The body is compared to a guest house; it is a place to stay for just a short time… When the day comes for consciousness to leave, the guest house of the body must be left behind."

If the universe were non-living at its foundations, it would take a miracle to save us from extinction at the time of death, and then to take us from here to a heaven (or promised land) of continuing aliveness. However, if the universe is alive, then we are already nested and growing within its aliveness. When our physical body dies, the life-stream that we are will move into the larger aliveness of the living universe. We don’t need a miracle to save us — we are already inside the miracle of sustaining aliveness. Instead of being saved from death, our job is to bring mindful attention to our enduring aliveness in the here and now.

Our awakening is not the end of our spiritual journey, but rather, the barest beginning. As we learn the skills of consciously recognizing ourselves as beings of light, love, music, and knowing, we are meeting the basic requirement for our journey through eternity. Once knowingness knows itself directly, then that knowingness can live and learn forever as a luminous stream of being in the deep ecology of the universe. Awakening is never finished: We will forever be "enlightening" ourselves — becoming lighter — so that we have the ability to participate in ever more free, subtle, open, delicate and expressive ecologies of being and becoming.

When we die, we will not need to remember the material details of our lives because the knowing-resonance that we are already embodies the essential wisdom of our lifetime of experience. In the words of the spiritual teacher Thomas Merton, "Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul." As we cultivate our capacity for mindful living, we lessen the need for a material world and a physical body to awaken the knowing process to itself.

 

 

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