The Common Ground of Inner Spiritual Practice
The world seems preoccupied in these uncertain times about the rise of radicalised Islamic youth as well as the related extremism of hate fuelled groups such as ISIS or Daesch as they are also known. The recent carnage in Paris has only underscored these concerns.
At the same time humanity has seen in its past history a number of religious wars. The co-existence of three of the world’s great religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) over the last 1500 years has shifted between accommodation and division.
Each of these religions share some common ground with interpretation being a thorn in the side of each belief system over the ages. It is true that each group also has a distinct body of belief and knowledge that is not shared and which is counter to other groups and their beliefs.
In the time of Christ it is known that Judaism and emerging Christianity were practiced in communities more or less as peaceful points of difference amongst the population. There was also a plethora of personal deity groups, messiahs with followers and other earlier pagan cult and animistic faiths that had arisen in the multicultural Middle East over thousands of years.
There is evidence that the Silk Road trading routes brought an infusion of Hindu and Buddhist thought into these communities and into this mix of spiritual debate. Whilst wars were common and disputes over gods well documented within all older religious texts, there was also a strong accommodation of others right to practice and to hold a belief at variance with another.
As well the majority of spiritual belief systems were pantheon or trinity deity based. This means there were multiple gods or at least multiple forms of the one godhead. This was important as it allowed for multiple images, expressions, deities, and tended to promote a deeper and more complex narrative that was less rigid and more symbolic and mystical in nature.
Islam became the main slightly later arriving religion that was premised on a Unitarian godhead which Allah was the only representation allowed in that model. The expressions of violence, subjugation and conversion against non-believers is the same in that all the old religions had God backed retribution against non-believers or oppressors of their faith and faithful, but Islam took that a step further and made it policy to see non-believers as infidel who could convert or be enslaved or killed.
For instance when the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt they did not think to kill their enslavers, and once freed they did not create a policy or retribution and aggression towards their enslaving non-believers or any other group. They as a community relied on godly providence to guide and protect them and only acted in defence or under situational circumstances as occasionally directed by prophets and oracles.
Judaism and Christianity are premised on co-existence and recognition that all humans are from god. If someone has not found god it does not negate their divinely inspired source or basis, and their state of ignorance can through free will and revelation be changed.
Islam also allows for conversion through revelation but has in its historical texts and unfolding a more rigid and less inclusive narrative when viewed literally from Koranic inspired texts and sermons. However offshoots like Sufism and more moderate forms of Islamic thought exist which emphasise that the Jihad which is the call to action, is far less than about the “out there” world of other people and objects such as culture, art and social forms, as it is about the inner life and thought forms of the believer.
This is the hope of the current world situation for all forms of religion and spirituality. Collectively we have as a race lived in the material world of objects and dualism for too long such that we have neglected the inner life we each are born with.
It is accepted by the religious systems that each one of us possesses an ego based psychological self which is separate to the co-existing spiritual self or consciousness.
Just like the muscles in our body we tend to develop that which we constantly use and evoke. The failure in religion and spirituality in the last 500 years has been the gradual drift away from working with our spiritual self muscles and instead working with our ego self instead.
We now find collectively that the inner world of most people is a wasted and atrophic aspect of the self. We have instead become addicted to the ego states of self and the fascination and identification with materialistic objects and experiences outside of ourself.
All authentic spiritual paths understand that we must work with the ego derived self at the same time as working with the spiritual inner self for someone to be truly on a spiritually evolving journey in life. Many people get stuck in over-identification of the ego self such that they live without a spiritual self at all, or they live in ritual, rules, and rigidity to some dry human evolved system of belief and practice that has the dualism supportive ego embedded in it.
When this occurs then we lose our compassion and empathy for others and we still see the world through a lens of ego, of me, me, me, and such that I am exclusive and saved, and you are less than me, bad or that to be persecuted under religious justification. This is where the world is at right now and has been for some time with the great middle eastern religions each having their eras of persecution based on this fault.
The other extreme is the over-identification of the inner spiritual life without adequate care and work on the ego self. This is a common fault of spiritual adherents who may even have jumped into spiritual communities to avoid and escape from psychological traumas and suffering.
In this world we find those who become spiritual slaves and addicts to a faith based spiritual or even cult system and cease to use their adult critical thinking anymore. They tend to just follow the rules, give over their power and free will to that movement or group, and become blindly loyal in the process.
There are two problems here. The person ceases to grow psychologically and spiritually as they regress to a child state that is magical and devoid of all adult responsibility.
They can justify anything through the lens of that belief system and also they addictively need constant renewal, community and attention in their new dependency. In this state they are liable to be abused or become an abuser, or be enslaved or an enslaver, but always remain ignorant and lazy as they cease to think independently, and their mind closes to new or discordant information that would challenge their blind faith.
This opiate for the masses is where Islam finds itself now. The symptom of this is the vacuum in the public debate but the general Islamic communities who are showing little engagement and little thought leadership in the global debate on extremism.
The majority are not exercising adult free will critical thinking. They are passive and silent which can only foster segregation and suspicion in the minds of others who easily interpret this passive stance as quiet acceptance and support for the extremist actions.
This stuckness then becomes part of the current problem. The problem arises as the ego self based approach to religious adherence can create a devotion that is simple and repetitious but which ultimately is not advancing the essential spiritual discernment and wisdom principles of the mind of that well intentioned person.
This is why spirituality, religion and ignorance can become common ground friends. The warning is that an authentic spiritual path must include the ability to critically think, challenge, test and let experience based realisation inform the reality of the practitioner.
Too many religious and spiritual adherents spin their wheels within a tight rigid framework of basis beliefs that are not subject to being questioned, compared, evaluated, or debated. The leaders are often controller types who demand blind loyalty and complete obedience, lest a follower be shamed as impure, evil, sinful and subject to sanction such as expulsion, punishment, discrimination, or even death.
When someone claims to speak for the godhead then they can from their ego self become grandiose, distorted, assume the godhead as themselves, and generally fall victim to power and control delusions and avarices. Spiritual leadership is a burden few can carry and the few who can are best resourced from a highly mature psychologically evolved ego self, which is underpinning the divine inner spiritual self.
This is well seen when we look at the example of defrocked pastor Dawid Volmer who has recently been sentenced in Perth to 10 years jail for his part in a paedophile ring that knowingly preyed on the young teenage daughter of one of the abusers in that ring. He had a depraved childhood and instead of sorting out his own issues he dived addictively into religion.
He describes his own wife Lee as a “Christian extremist” and attempted to replace his sordid addictions via spiritual addiction instead, but failed. Instead whilst preaching to prisoners in jail and to his own flock in the ACTS Church in Carramar, he was hunting for sexual partners online on Craiglist and Tinder.
Everyone has a shadow part of themself that needs some form of attention but in many cases that will not affect anyone else as many of us do not assume leadership roles in life that involve engagement with others under those official titles and roles. However may religious institutions blindly place people in leadership roles without any formal assessment of that person’s psychological health and the risk of acting out their shadow that would come from placing that person in a role of power and position.
The Australian Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in religious, charitable, penal and school institutions has shown the systemic abuse across all these societal institutions from people placed in leadership roles. The consistent pattern of outcome was sexual and abusive acting out by these powerful figures who often had religious camouflage to hide their true natures, against innocent and powerless victims.
The other great problem with over-identification with the inner spiritual self is abandonment of the ego self and a retreat into a spiritual inner world at the expense of living in and working with the outer world in all its suffering and problems. This ascetic lifestyle can be a subtle form of avoidance of suffering and facing the spiritual challenge of suffering in the real world and sharing the suffering of others.
In a sense it can breed a form of spiritual narcissism where the ego subtly pervades spiritual life and the person starts to be vested in me.me.me and my enlightenment and spiritual progress. The selfish nature is cloaked with the garb of a higher self pursuit that is still ego based at the end of the day.
The eastern perspective of dualism and embodiment offer all the world’s great religions a perspective and practice that can promote the co-existence along peaceful lines as was the case in Israel 200 years ago. It can also work to take a person away from both extremes mentioned above and shift a person towards a middle common ground perspective that honours “me” and “we” as either/and choice.
The idea over time is to work from this dualistic place till the “we” effectively replaces the “me” and universal compassion spontaneously arises from within. At the same time it is also a process of taking the “out there” concept of a godhead closer and closer to oneself till one is identified with the godhead and the ego self dissolves and we are a unique embodiment of the godhead.
As we each have a body and a mind then this bodymind filter becomes a unique translation of the divine in its messages and examples in how to be and do. This is why every spiritual tradition has its “golden thread” as Bede Griffiths would call it, or common ground, but yet each tradition is still unique in its approach, symbolism, ritual and process.
We each spend our lives in search of meaning and belonging. It is a base impulse in humans and leads to questions along the lines of who we are, what is the universe, and what is the point of it all, and the truth about life and the universe.
These impulses may be that part of our inherent spiritual nature trying to take root and grow. In some of us the seed falls on barren ground and it simply does not emerge or grow.
However most of us have some sense of spiritual or higher power/intelligence that is inherently in the soup or mix of life and the universe. What form that takes and what expression or name we give that is many-faced and explains the inherent diversity in spiritual expression and rationale.
Because authentic spiritual paths emanate from this source or base spiritual impulse we can say that inclusiveness of spiritual traditions outside our own are a valid approach to approaching a basis of “we” consciousness. We can recognise in the different ways of approaching godhead that each authentic spiritual path or modality is targeting the same end or outcome, regardless of whether we see that as a single life or a reincarnating pathway.
We can look at a rainbow and see the various colours on display as emanations of a common source, that being light waves. Each has its unique spectrum or wavelength that produces a colour that is a valid form of light.
When we cease to separate out the colours we understand how they all collapse into the oneness that is white light, or just light. Human consciousness conceived spiritual paths and religions are just colours but ultimately collapse back into the framework of spirit in its base context.
Just as colours in the rainbow co-exist so should adherents to the world’s great religions and spiritual paths. The ego will focus on the differences and logical points of debate, whilst the heart can assume and contain the differences in a wider wisdom of inclusion and integration.
So our progression is to work gradually away from the head and its egoic based reliance and understanding on ritual, fact, logic and conceptual belief. The target is in our embodiment and so that is the heart where presence, realisation, experience and faith foster universal compassion and wisdom of “we” consciousness.
The head comes along on the journey and arrival is partly announced by the dissolution of head or brain consciousness as the primary container of understanding and expression. In the mystery of approaching the godhead we can access the heart to access the soul or godhead expressed or seeded within us, but we cannot approach the godhead directly for reasons that theologians endlessly debate.
It is enough that we just start from head and approach the heart, and the rest will emerge in some divine way that is unfolding according to dynamics we experience and witness but do not control. In this head/heart dynamic we find our dualistic natures whereby we are at once both human and both divine and our life task is to master and navigate in our embodiment this sometimes contradictory looking aspects of self.
The Christian tradition and the eastern traditions place an emphasis on love as the energy and emotion that serves to resolve the duality. Christian thought emphasises that the grace of the godhead which is a direct experience of love from the godhead will show up and galvanise us in that unifying direction.
In eastern thought we find that the self-generation of love and compassion as a state of being starts in the head as a conceptual mind, and with practices such as meditation we come to directly realise that state through the heart. Again the paths may differ but the end result is the same.
The dualistic nature of our minds means that we may adopt whichever spiritual path at varying levels of dual or non-dualistic stances. For instance the greatest dualism is that which wees the godhead as that entity which resides out there somewhere totally and completely separate from ourself.
The approach that devotees tend to have from this view is to worship based on rituals, laws, rules, and towards that godhead entity as some aloof god. Invariably there will be a degree of fear in this form of worship as there is no real personal relationship involved in the devotion by the follower.
This form of devotion often becomes rigid and rule based, and is head based as it is conceptual rather than experiential, and the “word of god” as put into bibles, religious books, dharma or commandments becomes the guiding force. The extremism in religion today can often be found to be propagated by faithful who operate in this simplistic and un-thinking way that offers little than blind devotion to laws and rules.
As we have seen in the Middle East in recent times this form of devotion allows for any atrocity to be justified under the ignorant non-thinking application of laws and rules based on interpretations of men and women who may have their own agendas. Misguided belief can easily flourish under this approach.
This approach is also the first step or phase in religious and spiritual practice as the devotee has not had any deeper experiences or realisations of the precepts, laws, rules and dogmas that make up the beliefs. As a person works experientially with these constructs and develops a deeper understanding of such ideas they may then move toward a new intermediate stage of belief and applied understanding.
In this second stage the devotee might start to take the various dogmas, rules, laws and precepts and try to adopt them within the wider experience of their own personal life. In this form of practice one seeks to apply the ideas to the day to day dynamics, relationships, decisions and experiences one encounters.
The ideas then become a sort of rudder that guides the person in their choices of being, doing and thinking. The approach taken might be to bring the godhead closer to oneself and say what did the avatar or human embodied form of the godhead do in these situations.
This line of thought presupposes that there was a prophet or incarnation of the godhead as a man or person in the history of mankind. These holy people are then looked upon as examples to worship but again they are still out there entities who we gain a better understanding of faith through how they interpreted the precepts, rules, laws and dogmas.
This introduces adult critical thinking into the way the follower worships as now they must apply the basic ideas and principles through the way the holy people mirrored to them how to be and do in that context, or around that idea. At this stage we are getting closer to a more personal relationship with the godhead through these examples.
The next stage may then be a subtle shift of trying to shift the personal ego of the follower out of the way and say “If I was the Buddha, Jesus or whichever godhead figure then what would I do here?”. Here I am starting the process of internalising the godhead and cease to see the godhead as some entity out there.
In this intermediate phase of spiritual development the follower is cultivating a direct personal experience with the godhead through assuming their mindset or way of being and doing by guessing what they would do and be. Over time this remembrance of the follower trying to mimic the godhead figure becomes more regular and more constant moment to moment or day to day.
The idea here is the personal self weakens and dissolves whilst the spiritual self emerges and develops. The spiritual self is not yet a continuous mind stream and the person shifts between identifying with the ordinary ego self and the spiritual self.
This process of embodiment of the godhead is normally a long process as the dissolution of the ordinary ego self is not an event but an incremental shift. The eastern traditions have various guru yogas, meditations, visualisations and practices which deepen the identification with the godhead over time.
The Western view shows more intervention from the godhead into the person via both crisis and grace which breakdown the ordinary self and create the spiritual self. The Great Cloud of Unknowing is a famous treatise which well describes this dissolution and the onset of the psychological and spiritual shadow self that must be faced in the journey of spiritual transformation.
In the final stages there is a nondual appearance of the self as one now primarily exists as a spiritual self but with the memories and characteristics of the ordinary ego self still present. The ordinary ego self does not run the show however but is a container through which transmission of the spiritual consciousness occurs.
The human body and the ordinary ego consciousness are still present as the container for the new spiritual self but the ordinary ego self of the head is a servant of the heart based spiritual self. Heart and head are unified and bring a unity of self into action.
The above description is but one way of describing a process of transformation. Some rare persons have had instant transformations in grace or crisis and so the process is not apparent but this is not common or likely to be the way we will advance.
Spiritual practice is a long term venture. Today we find too many people trapped in religious or spiritual extremes or stuck in early stages of the spiritual growth path. The religious persecutions and violence that exist within cultures and communities speak to us of the struggle between ego and spirit, head and heart, and the masculine and feminine aspects of ego and spirit. It will ever be a process of unfolding.