"Life is the greatest teacher
Nature is the greatest preacher"
This paper is about faith; it's also about God and by extension it is about love, innocence, gratitude, forgiveness, creativity, optimism, freedom and wholeness.
These are not areas that are commonly addressed in psychoanalytical literature. Rightly so because as clinicians we have to focus mainly on the darker side of individual's mind and emotions, as it is in these areas where the energy gets condensed and blocked. This blocked energy is what we recognise as emotional and mental complexes. This is important because they are the barriers to our natural, mental and emotional evolution. As psychotherapists, we work in the area of chimney sweeping, unclogging clogged pipes, albeit of an emotional and mental nature. So naturally, the subject that we focus on, and that we know about most has to do with the different shapes of blockages and the different compositions of possible blockages.
Despite what I have just said, psychotherapy has a holy function; the ancient and sacred function of healing. In psychotherapy we attempt to help a person to come back to himself and we encourage the development of a more mature relation between a person and his inner core. Psychotherapy is an artificially devised aid to natural development. A psychotherapist never sees the final outcome of his or her intervention. In the ordinary course of events, when a patient feels sufficiently healed, the therapy will end and the person will take charge of steering his own ship on the sea of life. Of course he always had ultimate control, but for a while he delegated this function to an experienced skipper.
A psychotherapist cannot define the nature of reality for a patient or for anybody else. He can only do it for himself, as far as is possible, and this truth applies for every living human being on this planet.
An idea I like to contemplate is that human beings are explorers of reality. We each explore and interact with the world, according to what we have been taught and to what we have experienced. With whatever light we have we make for ourselves a picture of the world, the picture is not reality any more than a photograph is the real person. It is an imprint that we carry in our inner world.
The inner world is a concept much used amongst psychotherapists and patients alike. Its use has even extended to popular language, but I am not sure that it is always properly understood. For the purpose of clarity, I will explain how I see it. We all have an inner world and we all live in that inner world. The inner world is all that exists for us. It is all we know, all that we have experienced and all that we will ever know or ever experience. The inner world and the outer world are one and the same thing because there is only one world. It is simply a question of perspective, the problem lies in the fact that we are not aware of it. Though as human beings we may appear to be limited, the inner world that we inhabit is unlimited. The inner world encompasses everything, whether we are aware of it or not, it is beyond the limits of time and space. In this unlimited world that we live in, we have the freedom of focusing our attention on any part or any aspect of it, from the most mundane to the most exalted, from the most gross to the most subtle, from the most obvious to the less obvious.
As I said before, in this article I choose to focus on two subjects - Faith and God.
Let me start by sharing with you a personal story. Many years ago, when I was still a young man, I made a decision that was going to alter the course of my life. The decision was a straightforward one, the implications and the consequences of that decision were unpredictable, unforeseen and are still unravelling.
It was a radiant summer morning and I was walking in the beautiful English countryside. The skies were clear, the sun was shining and there was a gentle and refreshing breeze in the air. The birds were zooming all around me doing what they do best; singing, flying and giving me great joy. Flowers surrounded me and were bursting with colour; generous trees stood up at attention offering their shade and comfort. It was an ideal setting; the tranquillity in the air invited a man to think. I remember that morning well, I was preoccupied with a question that I had been pondering for a long time - Was there a God in this universe?, or were the world and myself a random phenomenon? Was there a plan, a purpose, a meaning to my existence, which lay beyond my immediate understanding? Or, should I settle for what I perceived with my senses and be content with just looking after number one? It seemed to me a very difficult judgement to make.
From where I stood at the time there didn't seem to be enough evidence to make up my mind. It was like six of one and half a dozen of the other. I knew this place well. I had been sitting on this uncomfortable fence of 'I don't know' for many years, with one foot on each camp of myself hopelessly divided and paralysed.
This day things were different. Out of the blue, I had a sudden insight, a flash of inspiration. I am not really sure how to call it because labels can be misleading. The fact is that I started looking at the question in a different way. I took stock of my situation and recognised the predicament that I was in. I didn't know whether there was a God or not and there was nothing I could do about it. I could choose to put the question out of my mind, like many good and sensible friends had advised, or I could continue flogging a dead horse that had evidently reached the end of the road.
It was at that moment that a door seemed to open up in my mind. I said to myself: "It's alright not to know, but let us play a game, let us suppose". First let us suppose that there is no God - If that were the case, what would happen if I lived my life as if there was no God? and, what would it be like, if I lived my life as if there was one? - I soon came to the conclusion that regardless of whether there was or wasn't a God, I had complete freedom, I could choose to live my life any way I liked. I didn't see any harm in behaving as if the world had a design, a purpose and a meaning, even if it was in my own imagination. Even if God didn't exist His presence would make for a more interesting and meaningful life. The other side of the argument was what if God did exist? What would it mean for me to have spent a life ignoring Him? I think I would have felt as if I had missed out on something vitally important, I would have lost a great opportunity and if He did exist and I recognised Him, then I would be on to something good, something very good.
On the strength of this new reasoning, I felt able to make a rational decision, one that, as a reasonable man, I wouldn't be ashamed of owning - I was choosing freely to act in this world as if God existed - whether this was fact or fiction was irrelevant. My decision was my own and it had been taken on purely pragmatic lines. God existed for me, He had a place in my heart and in my mind. I had exercised my free will and I invited an idea that I called God into my life because I believed that this would enliven me and it would aid my development. It was a good decision for me and for those around me.
It is very different to make a statement with one's mind that says 'God does exist', than to live one's life in a way that is consonant with this statement. After deciding that I was going to live as if God did exist, I found myself at a loss. I was now carrying in my inner world or inner pantheon a God-idea. It took the struggle of many years for me to be able to establish a meaningful and comfortable relationship with this internal object that I called God and had willingly invited in to my world. The problem that I had to face along the way was how not to make God just a comforting, pleasant and uplifting idea inside me but how to transform His nature into something real. In my view to make God real is God realisation.
Ideas are very powerful; they become reality when enough attention or energy is focused on them. That is what creation is all about - There is however another type of creation, one that we are usually less aware of. We create our own world, our own reality, by the ideas that we entertain both consciously and unconsciously. These ideas constitute the emotional and mental climate within which we live. They are the constructors of our personal blueprint and they are the causative factor of our inner dialogue. Ideas form our own personal view of what we think reality is.
What happens when we incorporate a God-idea? - If we pause to think about it, we will notice that the God-idea is the deepest, most exalted idea our mind or our being can come up with. In order to engage truly with such a lofty idea, one has to engage with it from the deepest, the most profound, part of oneself that one can access. There is a wise Sufi teaching that I read a long time ago that explains what I have just said in a different way - 'You can only know God through yourself and you can only know yourself through God.' As with any other relation, to have a relationship with God one needs to dedicate space and time to it. A marriage or a friendship which is to work well, will need our attention in space and time - God is the same. If one wants to develop a good relation with God, one needs to focus on it and consciously make space for it, in ones days, in ones mind and in ones heart. This accounts for the three main traditional approaches to God: Service, Meditation and Prayer. They are also the main modalities in which one develops all living relationships.
Service means our actions in our days, how we behave in our life and how we treat others. This extends to how we treat our children, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, the strangers and the world. How we behave in the world and how we act towards others can be viewed in this light as our service. There is a very appropriate Jewish Midrash that says 'Be aware that one day you will have to give account of all your actions'. If we were capable of remembering, believing and living in the light of this statement, we would indeed be more careful, more discriminating and more sensitive. We would strive constantly to respond from the highest, the kindest, and the most loving part of ourselves. We would heed the words of the wise ones who counsel us to be careful and watchful in our journey through life. As our service grows, a natural outcome of this process will be a gradual refinement in all our actions; this includes our manners and our language. It will also account for a change of focus and a reordering of our ideals, values and priorities. A saying from the Hindu tradition illuminates this point with great simplicity "Hands that help are holier than lips that pray".
In Judaism, for example, the concept of service is fundamental. The whole structure of this particular religion is based on what the insiders would call mizvot and those on the outside would recognise as a complex set of religious rituals, rules, regulations around which religious Jews organise their lives and that of their families. The reason why people go to such extreme lengths to uphold their religion is because they believe that this is what their God wants them to do. It says so in the Holy Bible, which is viewed by the tradition as God's word and God's will. The purpose behind each mitzvah is to tie a knot between heaven and earth. It is an act of connection, of remembrance and continuity expressed in a physical action. By extension, these actions radiate from a central relationship with God - to the periphery. From the relation with God to the relations with other people (Jewish and Gentile and with the world as a whole). The popular idea that the non-Jewish people have about how well Jews look after each other stems from this philosophy. In my opinion the support in the community is real, but I think it is grossly exaggerated in the popular mind. The level of support is adequate but it could hardly be described as lavish.
The ideal of service permeates all religions. We find it is central to the thinking of the Christians, the Muslims, the Hindus and the Buddhists. This powerful idea also has an important place in the secular society in which we live. The enormous number of charities involved in good causes are a case in point and a living testimony of the altruistic part of the nature of man.
Meditation is the second modality of approach to God. Meditation is fundamentally about mind observation. Its main purpose lies in developing and establishing an area of quiet tranquillity inside one's being and from this place of calmness contemplate what is going on inside oneself, in one's mind, in one's feelings and in one's bodily sensations. You see, the mind by its very nature is elusive. With what can we get hold of our mind if mind is all we have? The trick of meditation is for the mind to do the job of mastering the mind. Thoughts and feelings are like the clouds in the sky, they are not permanent, they are just passing by. We can't get hold of a sensation in the same way that we can't get hold of a cloud. We can only observe them as they pass and in this way we can gradually get to know them.
If a person decides to meditate he is putting in a new program for the mind to accommodate. This new program is about developing a constant, a point of reference in the moving sea of the psyche. An inner space in which a person can rest and be. Firstly it is interesting to note that what any meditative approach stresses is the importance of constancy of space and time. It is recommended that people who start meditating should do so for a fixed period of time, usually anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes, twice a day. In addition, it is suggested that the meditator should find a place of quietness where he won't be distracted. Preferably the same place because it gets enhanced with associations that further the process. The aspirant should try to maintain the same times as far as possible. These recommendations make up what can be seen as the setting for the meditation. The setting is very important because it is the way in which the process gets grounded.
One may well wonder, what is meditation for? What is its great value? I think that this is another question that one can look at in two ways - a bit like my question about the existence of God. We can look at it from a secular and pragmatic perspective or from the point of view of a hopeful spiritual seeker. Before attempting to answer this question, let us first take a quick glance at the world that we inhabit, the world of our senses.
When I close my eyes, I see a world in flux. I see that the currents of time seem to have speeded up more and more. Things appear to get compacted into shorter and shorter periods of time. The world we live in is now changing at a breathtaking speed. It is no wonder that one can't keep up with it. Modem western man is subjected to more stimulation of a mental and emotional kind than at any other time since recorded history. The stresses and the strains of the modem world make for a rather hectic life. It reminds me of an old Chinese curse that says, "May you live in interesting times". The times are interesting indeed and these interesting times have a price tag attached to them - it reads anxiety. Another name for anxiety is restlessness. I think that the average level of anxiety in western man has increased enormously in the past century and has become a source of disturbance and confusion in the life of millions and millions of people. Anxiety is a potent fuel but it causes much environmental damage. The main effect of anxiety is that the individual affected doesn't feel at peace and at home inside himself. He is always running towards something or away from something. This robs a person of something precious, the ability to relax and enjoy the pleasure of his own company.
It is interesting to note that many years ago, a great psychoanalyst, Dr Eric Fromm, wrote a very good book called "To Have or To Be" where he dealt with this difficult problem of man's growing alienation. The question of alienation is still a very important one, specially for us, contemporary minds in an urban environment. We are constantly lured away from ourselves. We live immersed in a sea of complexity where there seems to be greater and greater expertise in smaller and smaller areas. Everything is getting atomised and micro-atomised. As in the story of the Tower of Babel, we seem to be reaching a stage in our history in which we can hardly understand each other anymore and it goes without saying that we are progressively losing touch with ourselves, with our inner core. We are pulled away from our centre by a bombardment of stimulation that is vying for our attention and seems to come mostly in the shape of sound bytes because; 'there isn't time for anything more'. The pace and the pressures are relentless. As a consequence, man is rapidly losing his capacity to be alone and this makes a man become a stranger unto himself. As a person loses touch with himself, he soon starts fearing and avoiding his own company.
Solitude in our society is very often confused with loneliness. This erroneous view is reinforced by the mass culture of our time. Solitude and loneliness are radically different things, almost the opposite. In solitude, a man is accompanied by himself, he finds rest and solace in his own company. It is his natural state. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a feeling of discomfort; it is the result of a state in which a person doesn't feel comfortable and at peace just being. This is the predicament of man in our contemporary world. Where there is a vacuum it has to be filled immediately, if not it gives rise to restless impatience, which as we know is a very uncomfortable feeling. Uncomfortable feelings create what I call 'discomfort barriers'. If a person is not prepared to face the discomfort barriers in himself, he won't be able to cross them. As a consequence, he condemns himself to isolation from himself. A locked out man is a sad sight and unfortunately, many people suffer from this problem.
With this background in mind, one can see meditation as an effective way of helping people to become more centred. In the discipline of meditation a person is confronting his or her discomfort barriers. That which one can confront, one can hopefully resolve. That which one never confronts, one will never resolve. For this reason and specially in this day and age, I think it is of paramount importance to encourage ways of helping people to re-acquaint themselves with themselves. Meditation from a psychological point of view makes sense to me because it reduces stress and brings order and calmness to the mind and to the feelings.
Let us now look at meditation from the perspective of a spiritual aspirant. What I have just said still applies, and there is also an extra dimension. This dimension has to do with something that could be called 'layers of consciousness'. If you will excuse the simile, I often think that man's consciousness is like an onion; as one layer is removed, another layer, a deeper layer, is exposed. The first thing that happens in meditation is that a person gradually starts establishing a solid and constant point of observation in his psyche. This is a by-product of the consistency of the setting and the constancy of the focus of his attention. The focus of the meditation can be anything, a mantra, the breath, a holy figure, a mandala or any other point of reference that the meditator might choose. What is important is that it should remain constant, at least in the initial stages. For the purpose of this discussion, let us say that the focus is a mantra. Mantra is a Sanskrit word and in essence it is just a holy word or a sound that the meditator repeats to himself and uses as something to pay attention to during the meditation. In time, as the mantra is fed by the focused attention of the meditator, it starts getting charged, it acquires a meaning and a significance for him. This gives the mantra power in a person's inner world. It becomes like an instrument, a vehicle that he can use to explore his own psyche, in this way a man penetrates deeper into the nature of his own consciousness and, by extension, he penetrates deeper into the 'Consciousness of the Whole'. We have heard it said repeatedly: "At the deepest level, ultimately all is One".
Through disciplined and constant practice, a person learns to be still and in silence with himself. He gets to know the stillness and the silence and what transpires in it. He soon discovers that it is not just a blank wall, as it appeared to be in the initial stages. There is something subtle and very much alive in that primordial stillness and silence. Soon the silence itself starts communicating with the heart of the aspirant and a relation gets established with that still, alive and silent centre. As the meditation progresses, the practitioner starts developing what can well be described as a subtler vision. What I mean by this is that a different, more refined way of seeing and understanding starts to develop. The reason for this lies in the fact that in meditation, the thoughts slow down and the feelings become calmer. In this way a person has an opportunity of getting in touch with deeper parts of himself, of reaching out to a reality that lies behind and beyond the thoughts and the feelings. This is a deeper and a clearer part of man's being; a more primary dimension. The universal stillness and silence out of which all emanates. The province of mystics, saints and visionaries. A great meditation teacher, Swami Yogananda, once gave an example in which he contrasted meditation with going to the cinema. When one goes to the cinema one usually gets caught up with the film that is being shown and one soon forgets that in reality what one is witnessing is just an illusion, a movement of light playing on a white screen. Meditation is about remembering this and being aware of the light, of the movement and also of the screen.
Let me now turn our attention to the third modality of religious approach - prayer. Prayer is a conversation with God in the heart. Prayer is about communicating and also about remembering. It is a way in which a person can reconnect with his innermost core. Prayer can take many forms. There is individual prayer and there is communal prayer. There is also formal prayer and informal prayer and in my opinion, there is also conscious prayer and unconscious prayer. The main difference with meditation is that it is on the more active side of the spectrum.
I am aware that prayer has had rather a bad press in our western society in the past century. Many people regard prayer as superstitious wishful thinking, a weakness, a sign of a person who is afraid and cannot cope with his problems and with his life. By this way of thinking, prayer is reduced to the size of a psychological crutch. I am not saying that prayer cannot be used as a psychological crutch, of course it can, and it is used in this way many times. But this is not all that prayer is, in the same way that psychoanalysis is not just about sex. But sadly, for a lot of people who are on the outside, these stereotypical ideas create a discomfort barrier which will inhibit them from entering the world of prayer and exploring its ways.
When it comes to the subject of God, I have observed that most people appear to be what I can only describe as God-shy. I remember, when I was a little boy, I was taught that there were three subjects that one didn't discuss in polite conversation, God, Politics and Sex. Nowadays, it seems to me that the inhibitions around politics and sexuality have been overcome and only God remains. The taboo that surrounds God, religion and spirituality is an indication of the fact that many people feel that this whole area is one that makes them feel fragile and defensive. People feel unsafe because it is scary to confront the unknown. It is easier to ignore the subject altogether and to shy away from difficult questions. Throughout recorded history, the idea of God the Creator has occupied the mind and the imagination of mankind. In spite of all our concerted efforts at the heart of our endeavours the Supreme mystery has remained untouched. For this reason I think that a good alternative name for God could be the Immense-Unknown. In this Immense-Unknown we are born, we live, we die and we have our being. In prayer a man addresses the Immense-Unknown. At a conscious level, prayer is an intentional act - a person chooses to address the Immense-Unknown and is aware of the fact that he is doing so. If we look at prayer from a different perspective, from the perspective of an unconscious level, it could be argued that every word, every thought, every feeling, every action, every breath that a man takes is a prayer because man is always interacting with the Immense-Unknown, whether he is consciously aware of it or not.
In prayer a man is intending to establish a relationship with God. Once the relationship has been established the person tries to use his prayers to consolidate and deepen the bond. The work of prayer is inner work. It takes place in the sanctuary of a person's inner world and its effects are first and foremost internal. Prayer has a subtle transformational power in a man because the power of prayer opens in a person the closed doors of his heart and his imagination. At the highest, most exalted level, love for the Creator has to be accompanied by love for His creation. This includes not only an appreciation of the universe, the world and other fellow beings, it includes first and foremost love for oneself. Love for oneself necessarily means self acceptance, self regard and self respect. Love is the kernel, the centre point from which all follows, because we can only give from what we have. The question of self-love is the connecting link between the spiritual dimension that I have been discussing thus far and the psychological dimension - it is also a shared objective.
When I was a child, my late grandmother had a wonderful phrase that she often liked to say: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" As I grew up, I learned that this wasn't the complete story. This was just the opening line of a popular Jewish saying which states: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself; who am I? - If not now, when?" I like this saying because it is simple and so true. It speaks to me about the interelatedness of everything, and points to the realisation that this is a unique moment of time in the universe. But let's just stay with my grandmother's phrase for a moment longer. "If I am not for myself who will be for me?" These words point to the importance of supporting and loving oneself. One may well wonder, what is the use of repeating a saying like this if what it states is self-evident? Most people if asked, would agree that it is a good thing to support and to love themselves - but as I have said before 'easier said than done'! Quite often, there is a chasm between what a person says he believes in and how a person lives his life. This is an area with great inconsistencies.
To illuminate this point let us compare a human being to a town at night and let us imagine that his self-love and self-support is the electric light of the town. What I have invariably found is that certain areas of the city are very well lit, while other areas are much dimmer and certain parts remain in complete darkness. The problem that arises out of this situation has to do with wholeness. How can we light up the totality of the city? How do we support and love the totality of ourselves and not just the parts that we like, approve of, agree with and value? What about all the rest? To light up the whole city what is needed is an expansion of love. For this expansion to take place, we need to remove our blocks; - our self imposed barriers - because this is what will allow the currents to flow freely once again. Loving the whole Self is a matter of great importance for a man because it is man's destiny to strive to be whole.
The issue that I am discussing is not new; it has been called by different names. Some people talk about it as integration, others as maturity and there are others that even call it holiness. These are only labels, hut they are referring to something very important. They point to the existence of One underlying reality that sustains everything, which is reached through a process of self-acceptance and self- respect.
Before one can really love oneself, one has to really know oneself. The great Socrates has often been quoted as saying, "An unexamined life is not worth living". I am not sure that I go along fully with such a stark statement because I find it too dogmatic and too extreme. I do believe, however, that Self-examination is imperative for the development of a wholesome and loving relation towards oneself. This question of loving oneself is so important because of the effect that the unloved parts of the Self have on a person and on his life. The dark parts of the city will haunt a person like ghosts clamouring for attention and those ghosts will spook and distort his perception and his world. The way to emotional maturity passes through de-spooking and ghost busting.
Earlier on I mentioned that each of us inhabits an unlimited inner world. This is true and yet it is not true. It is true because it is a fact that the inner world that we inhabit is unlimited. But it is not true in practice, because of the way that we experience it. According to my perception, I only inhabit a little part - a fraction of a vast unlimited world. My horizon is limited by my vision and my vision is limited by my opinions and my beliefs; my prejudices and my fears. These constitute the barriers to my awareness. The barriers to my awareness are my discomfort barriers and it is not easy to go beyond them.
As an example, let's imagine what could have happened to Moses and to the Jewish people had they not been prepared to cross the discomfort barrier of the desert. To begin with, there would have been no exodus of the Jewish people and for all we know, we could still, to this day, have remained as slaves in Egypt. Or what would have happened if Jesus of Nazareth had been unwilling to face the discomfort barrier of the cross? Christianity in all probability wouldn't exist. If Prince Gautama hadn't had the patience to endure the discomfort barrier of the bodhi tree, we wouldn't have known the Buddha and last but not least, if Dr Sigmund Freud hadn't had the courage to face the discomfort barrier created by the prejudices of his time, he would not have discovered psychoanalysis. We and the world grow by transcending our barriers.
The journey to Self is an inner journey. It is a return journey to our centre and it is achieved by overcoming all of our doubts, our fears and our negative thoughts. Every time we confront and transcend one of our discomfort barriers, we are making gains in the struggle for self expression; it is a journey that requires will, courage and patience. This is a fundamental struggle for man because the ultimate goal of self expression is self mastery.
Life is an opportunity that we have been given to express ourselves in this world. How we express ourselves, what parts of ourselves get expressed in our life and which ones will never see the light of day is a fundamental question. A question that every person will have to decide for himself. As a patient said to me one day: "We all think we know who we are but it will depend on how deep we go." He was right of course. The outcome of the journey will depend on one main factor, the degree of conscious awareness of an individual.
The approach to Self can prove difficult because it is an abstract concept. It requires something more from us than our ordinary rational thinking. It requires an imaginative leap, a change of perspective. If we try to explain the Self from the outside, we are reducing it to a concept - we are flattening it. A concept is not the real thing. The nature of the Self can't be explained but it can be experienced and understood.
I will end this paper with a brief summary of some views I hold on the Self.
The Self is the sum total of my consciousness. I am an individualised expression of the Self. I am the point of consciousness of the Self. The Self I am referring to cannot be encapsulated by thoughts; it can only be experienced. The Self fills my being and shines through me. It appears to be transpersonal and transpatial. There is a point in which the Self and God seem to fuse into an Undifferentiated Oneness, somewhere in the Immense-Unknown.
We can block out the light of the Self through fear and through our inability to forgive. Fear inhibits the expression of love and constructs our discomfort barriers. These barriers are like thick walls that block the flow of the light of life. The basis for love is true self-respect.
Love of the Self also depends on the ability to forgive. We have the freedom to bless or to curse. To bless is to accept and to shelter in one's heart. To curse is to reject and to banish out into the darkness. Like poor Adam, when he was expelled from Eden, our rejected parts will wander in exile until we reverse our decision and bless what we once cursed.
This process of making whole my identity, by bringing it's exiled parts home, is what I call 'Realisation of the Self'.
The further claim that the Self - once it is made whole - in effect transcends It-Self is not an argument that can be resolved by discussion. Perhaps it is a truth that can only be understood through experience.
I dedicate this paper to Warren and Glyn, companions of the common way.