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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Evening Contemplation for Spiritual Awakening

"Each worldly person, moralist, spiritual aspirant and yogi - like a devotee - should every night before retiring ask his intuition whether his spiritual faculties or his physical inclination of temptation won the day's battles between good and bad habits; between temperance and greed; between self-control and lust; between honest desire for necessary money and inordinate craving for gold; between forgiveness and anger; between joy and grief; between moroseness and pleasantness; between kindness and cruelty; between selfishness and unselfishness; between understanding and jealousy; between confidence and fear; between faith and doubt; between humbleness and pride; between desire to commune with God in meditation and the restless urge for worldly activities; between spiritual and material desires; between divine ecstasy and sensory perceptions; between soul consciousness and egoity."

Paramahansa Yogananda,God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, Volume I, p. 48.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Morning Contemplation for Spiritual Awakening

Marcus Aurelius, one of the founding fathers of Neo-Platonism, a philosophical school that would have a profound impact on the early Christian Church, and the Emperor of Rome, recommended the following contemplation as a morning meditation:

"Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will and selfishness - all of them due to the offender's ignorance of what is good and evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of Good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with Reason and a share of the Divine); therefore none of these things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him, for he and I were born to work together, like a man's two hands, feet or eyelids, or like the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature's law - and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction?"
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2:1

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Spiritual Awakening from the Addiction of Consumer Culture?

Maybe its time for a global intervention, suggests Charles Shaw in a powerful article in The Huffington Post which examines whether Western consumer culture has become the ultimate addiction. Surely all our desires can be fulfilled and our fears allayed if only we can somehow manage to purchase the "new look" for the fall, live in the latest and toniest loft or McMansion, and . . . please God . . . invest in the right retirement funds and investment portfolio which will see us flying our glider over our own Napa Valley winery free of all mundane cares and financial worries by age 55.

The article is much more substantive than the usual critique one sees on the madness of Western society's conviction that happiness and security can be packaged, marketed and purchased, or that mere materialism will fill the vacuum of the soul that exists, perhaps unrecognized, in the being of every woman and man that has turned outward in a vain attempt to wrest security and happiness from the world. Mr. Shaw's insightful article takes a hard look at what the values of Western society have degenerated into, as well as a brutally and honestly examining whether, in fact, as a global society we are not suffering a malaise of the spirit that is not in and of itself an addiction.

This should come as no surprise to anyone with any length of recovery from their own personal addiction who has seen others fall prey to the ravages of workaholism, economic, consumer or sexual addiction only to have that related dysfunction bring the whole house of cards down upon themselves and/or their families. Too many have crashed from these related addictions to go back to the bottle or the bag - or whatever their particular vice or "drug of choice" was - or worse, for it to come as a shock to anyone with eyes to see. Now it appears that we, as a society, have kicked the individual's penchant for addiction up to a whole new, global level.

Mr. Shaw cites social philosopher Morris Berman's prescient observation that, "Addiction in one form or another characterizes every aspect of industrial society." He notes that an addict's dependence on substances or divergent corporeal pleasures is no different from our general dependency on "prestige, career achievement, world influence, wealth, the need to build more ingenious bombs or the need to exercise control over everything." (Renowned spiritual teacher and enlightened philosopher Eckhart Tolle has noted the fallacy of such simplistic wish fulfillment, albeit that it is the wishes and unquenhable desires of the out-of-control human ego, when he plainly states "mastery of life is the opposite of control.")

"Addiction," Mr. Shaw writes, "is really a hallmark of our era, and I think it reflects that we don't have culturally promoted kinds of other deeper forms of meaning and purpose in our lives. So we make up for it by consuming more. But the evidence is overwhelming that people who are characterized by materialistic attitudes and values actually experience lower well-being, lower happiness, more depression and anxiety and anger than people who aren't materialistic."

Mr. Shaw points to the social, economic and political systems of our modern cultural milieu as having wittingly and complicitly created a consumer society that is frankly addicted to more of anything in a vain attempt to fill that vacuum of the soul that is produced when we lack sufficiently deep ties to others - the condition of anomie identified by French philosopher and father of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim, that is the driving force behind most suicides. And what is an addiction if not an oh-so-slow suicide?

"Designing and marketing secondary sources of satisfaction," according to Mr. Shaw's analysis, "falls to the complimenting social, political and economic systems that reinforce addictive behavior in order to drive the consumer machine. Consumption becomes 'naturalized' through corporate advertising and marketing, government tax breaks, and officially sanctioned religio-consumer holidays like Christmas, Hanukah and Valentine's Day."

Enough already! More and more disaffected consumers are beginning to question the basis of this widespread consumer addiction. It turns out that the Beatles were in fact right: "Money Can't Buy (Me) Love," we are finding out at the last moment, and hopefully not too late. Perhaps it is time for a wide-scale intervention, but surely that is what we are in the midst of as we face the spiraling costs to buy the energy that is ruining our environment while our political masters dither and prevaricate. But do any of us want to really put down the needle and the spoon afforded by the so-called "comforts" of our affluent society?

Mr. Shaw notes that the field of public relations and mass marketing was pioneered by the progeny and prodigies of psychology, noting in particular the pivotal role played by Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays who brought the fledgling p.r. industry to politics at the time of the First World War. But he points, with good effect, to the solution to all addictions proposed by Freud's one-time student who has, in actuality long since passed Freud in terms of influence. For it was C.J. Jung who famously observed that a vital spiritual experience, and only such a profound experience which reforges our personality and remaps our motivations and conceptions, is what ultimately can arrest and reverse addiction. He clearly saw that addiction like virtually all kinds of psychoses and mental illness represented a deep spiritual thirst in our collective being.

"Asking society to go into a global recovery program is not nearly as Dr. Phil-crazy as it sounds," Shaw writes. "It's become the new mantra of the green movement, who are now calling for a spiritual solution to the planetary crisis. It was Freud's student and eventual rival Carl Jung who first dissented against Freud's 'irrational desires' theory and put forth the idea that addictions address a spiritual loss or deficiency. Because the addictive experience is mimetic of the spiritual experience, you can have an imitation of bliss or oneness, but it doesn't last. Jung believed only a true spiritual awakening will end an addiction. Likewise, the eco-ilk believe only a global spiritual awakening will end the consumer addiction that is ravaging the planet."

Many believe that is correct, as I do. Perhaps its best that we work to forward the spiritual/philosophical discussion that is the intervention we all collectively need - before Mother Nature, or the G_d of whatever your understanding is, forces the issue for us.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fear and Desire Create the "Bondage of Self"

In A.A.'s Third Step Prayer, there is a line where the alcoholic addict asks whatever G_d he or she has an understanding of to, "Relieve me of the bondage of self." What is "self"? And what is it that constitutes "the bondage of self" from which relief is sought? How and where is relief from this "bondage of self" that lies at the root of the alcoholic's addiction to be found?

It is the thoughts of fear and of desire (or craving) that create the "bondage of self". But to understand this it is perhaps necessary to understand that "self" in this context is not what we consider that word to mean in its ordinary sense - "self" as in our sense of "me" or the person that "I" am. Rather, in the sense that Bill W. writes of in the basic texts of recovery (the books Alcoholics Anonymous and Bill's later volume of essays, The Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions) "self" is the human "ego" - "ego" not in the way it is commonly used as a synonym for pride or one's sense of self-esteem, but rather "ego" in its original meaning as "the part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality", according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary.

The use of the word "ego" to denote pride or one's "sense of self-esteem" is a later use of the word that came into popular usage after Bill wrote the Alcoholics Anonymous text. ( Bill was trained as a lawyer though he never practiced law, and as a former - or recovered - lawyer, I can attest that he demonstrates a lawyer's precision in the way he writes and chooses his words.)

At p. 63 in the Big Book, describing the real dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic as an "actor", Bill writing in 1939 observes, "Our actor is self-centered - ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays." And, there is the basic problem, the part of the alcoholic's mind that reacts to reality and gives the alcoholic his or her sense of individuality has as its frame of reference what has been described as "the lonely universe of individual consciousness". The alcoholic's thinking mind is stuck in "the bondage of self". Thus, it makes sense when Bill declares that "the problem of the alcoholic centers in the mind," more so than the body. To arrest and treat our alcoholism or other addiction, we therefore need to address the problematic thought patterns that lurk within and can takeover our minds and, thus, our means of relating to this world.

To find relief from the suffering of our addiction- be it active or inactive, yet untreated addiction - it is necessary to move away from self, from identification with and bondage or attachment to our sense of individual consciousness, to a deeper part of the mind. We must tap into that "unsuspected inner resource", described in Appendix II of Alcoholics Anonymous, that many of the early, more religiously-minded persons who found recovery from addiction through the Twelve Steps referred to as "God-consciousness".

To shift one's consciousness from a sense of individuality based in the human ego, to a conscious contact with what Bill describes as "the Great Reality" within each of us is the purpose of the 12 Steps. They give us the methodology to access within the depths of our own being "a power greater than our (seemingly individual) 'selves' that will restore us to sanity." But to do so, it is first necessary to face, face down and be rid of the two strains of thought that create and sustain the human ego, the two conditioned drives that create our sense of helpless individuality and causes us suffering: fear and craving. Or to "uncover, discover and discard" that which blocks us from the deeper unitive consciousness beyond ego, as Chuck C. so famously described the process of recovery from addiction in his talks and wonderful book, A New Pair of Glasses.

Overcoming the desires (or cravings) and fears that fuel and foster the unquenchable thirst of our human ego is the essence of Steps 6 and 7. However, to better understand how our desires or cravings foster our fears and trap us in the suffering of our lonely egos, it is helpful to first turn to the lists in the "moral inventory" that we asked to write down in Step 4 in order to get a good handle on what our cravings and desires are really for.

The part of the Fourth Step inventory that always seems to get the most attention are the columns in which we list the resentments we carry that "block us off from the sunlight of the Spirit." And of those columns, it is perhaps the column that lists what the actions of others have affected - our personal relationships, sex relations, reputation financial and emotional security etc. - that receives the least attention, at least initially. Likely that is because we have been prone to going over these stories we tell about others - whether to our "selves" or anyone who will listen - over and over, ad nauseum. That is, until they sicken us so badly that we must stop doing so.

It is necessary, of course, for us to see what part we played in bringing these hurtful actions seemingly down on our heads, but it is absolutely essential to see how our desires for relationships, security and money etc. have truly warped our minds. We need to see that while still practicing our addictive behaviours, the only recourse we had to alleviate the suffering caused by these desires was to drown them in a vat of alcohol, the haze of drugs or the fast-fading and fleeting ecstacies of other addictive behaviours. Examining how the desire to fill these longings affected us can be an often long drawn out process. Yet the key to understanding this, for me, is found in Step Six, through which we become, "Entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character."

Step Six as it is set out in the Alcoholics Anonymous text is absolutely essential, yet it receives short shrift, being conducted in a mere hour of contemplation after having confronted our "selves" and shared our moral inventory with God and another for the first time and before taking the vital Seventh Step in the meditative state of prayer. The reason for this, I believe, is that Bill wrote the Big Book when he had only three years of experience on this spiritual journey, and he had yet to wrestle down his own 'demons' of fear, desire and depression through the often-time years of spiritual discipline that the Steps require to fully work their ever-deepening miracle.

In his essay on Step Six in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, written when Bill was about fifteen years sober and after he had emerged from a near-decade long bout with depression (a residual after-effect of active addiction for many an alcoholic and/or addict), Bill closely examines how our desires can separate us from wholeness and lock us in the "bondage of self". Studying the list of our desires and the patterns of actions they have fueled, we can begin to see how acting on these desires has increasingly separated us from others and the whole world in a lonely individual consciousness that is far removed from the underlying God-consciousness that is so freely available to all, though largely unknown, unperfected or simply not experienced by many.

At page 65 in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill examines the crippling effect that desires can have on our consciousness, affecting our minds and the state of our being with which we approach life. He writes:

"Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires, it isn't strange that we often let them exceed their intended purposes. When they drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due to us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God would have for us here on earth. That is the measure of our defects of character.
I emphasize those last words, as they seem to point to the operative mechanism of "the bondage of self". My desire to have something or someone - a relationship, a job, money, a position in society or whatever - that it is not practical or due for me to possess because of circumstances or life itself will creates internal within my mind for the ego to manifest and operate. Equally, my desire to avoid someone, something or some situation that is either unavoidable or not practical for me to avoid due, again, to circumstances, life itself - or God, if you will - will also lock me in the suffering of bondage or enslavement to my sense of individuality and uniqueness. I will add a new chapter to the same old story that will go on endlessly repeating itself within the not-so-quite airy confines of my mind, creating all forms of anger, pride, lust, greed and/or envy etc.

So much for Step Six. Through my propensity to foster all manner of undue and impractical desires I have laid the groundwork and created the "measure" or made internal room for my ego to take hold and drag me back into self-consciousness, or ego-consciousness, breaking all conscious contact with the G_d of my understanding. I have created the basis for my own suffering. What then activates and perpetuates this suffering?

Desires for what are impractical, impossible or not due to us at any given moment will quickly morph into fear we are told in Bill's essay on the Seventh Step. That, in turn, will energize and set in motion the patterns of thought, speech and action that cause our suffering. "The chief activator of our defects," Bill writes, "has been self-centered fear - primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or fail to get something we demanded. Living upon a basis of unsatisfied demands, we were in a state of continual disturbance and frustration. Therefore, no peace was to be had unless we could find a means of reducing these demands."

Fortuntately, we have been shown a means of reducing and possibly eliminating, at least temporarily, these unsatisfied and unsatisfiable demands - unsatisfiable demands, in the sense that what we are demanding is not practical or due to us. That means is the logically interrelated process of self-examination, meditation and prayer that Bill writes of in Step 11. I was told by my greatest spiritual mentor, a man that sought an ever-deepening consciousness of the divine order of this universe until his dying day, that we are or should be constantly in the process of doing Steps 3, 7 and 11: affirming and invoking that deeper God-consciousness that forms the basic fabric of our being, recognizing when we hav reattached to our desire-fueled fears that strip us us of conscious contact withG_d's grace and seeking a return to that grace through the process of self-forgetting in contemplative meditation.

This is the only method that I have learned or been shown - and I have achieved some great material and financial successes and successes in my personal, social and familial relationships through my own efforts and other methodologies- that has brought me any degree of deep or lasting peace of mind. I know that recourse to the eternal within brings me to a consciousness of serenity in both my mind and my surroundings. It brings me to an inner place where I lack nothing and want for nothing, where fear and desire subside, wane and are gone so long as I remain there.