"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, December 24, 2010

Spiritual But Not . . . 'Outwardly' . . . Relgious

In a Psych 101 text - long ago, when I knew nothing of life, nor of its depth - I learned that the two 'Fathers of American Psychology' were the humanist, William James, and the early behaviorist, John Watson. As in most instances, I did not know when this tidbit of seeming trivia would rise again, nor what its later significance would mean to me.

John Watson left academia to apply the principles of behaviorism to the world of advertising. On Madison Avenue, his application of scientific methodologies to marketing ushered in the era of focus groups, consumer surveys, metrics and polling that we all are now so familiar with. He taught corporate America how to create the 'desires' that fuel our consumer society. Watson was figuratively the original dreamweaver who spun and wove the "American Dream."

William James, on the other hand, stayed on as a professor at Harvard. In one of his  seminal books, the Varieties of Religious Experience, he outlined the various higher religious states of consciousness that have been documented throughout the ages. Although he exhibited little exposure to Eastern religions, his work served as a bridge uniting both the earlier American Transcendentalist tradition to the late 19th-early 20th century's New Thought Movement, and the new Thought Movement to the mid-20th century spread of Eastern wisdom traditions and the blossoming of interest in higher consciousness which flowered in the 1960's.

If James were to describe his personal beliefs and experience in one-sentence, he could probably do no better than the ever-more popular and pervasive description: "spiritual, but not religious." In the Varieties (which are, in essence, the notes James used in delivering the prestigious Gifford Lectures at St. Andrew's College), he made it clear that the subject matter of his interest was the 'inner religious' experience of the individual, rather than the 'outer religious' worlds of doctrines, creeds, temples, churches, steeples, priests and incense.
"Churches, he wrote,"when once established, live at second-hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine. . . .
"Religion, therefore . . . shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude. So far as they apprehend to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."
When I had once glimpsed or "apprehended" this "divine" a course was set. Most of humankind, I believe, have consciously experienced one or two such glimpses in their lives; although, even then, they may not appreciate the nature of what it is they  experienced. I was very fortunate. My first such experience in adulthood was sudden, powerful and enlightening; albeit, however brief. Thereafter, I spent many hours and days - which have since turned into years - trying to understand what this 'mystery of consciousness' (or 'mystery of the divine,' if you prefer) is, and how it interrelates with the physical world, the psyche and the metaphysical 'divine.'

Several times, I have again experienced this state in its full power and intensity; and, once, this lasted for several days. It is these times which spark my resolve to attain to this consciousness once again; and perhaps, some time, maintain my being there. 'To die before dying,' as the yogis and reishis would say; or "to die to self," in the manner of St. Francis is an aspiration I was unaware of and/or did not understand in the flower of my youth and manhood. Only on passing middle age did I learn that there is a far more important timeless quest that underlies what can be both a carnival of delight and a dirge of despair.

I did not realize, of course, that this is the selfsame quest that has always ultimately underpinned all of humankind's knowledge and accomplishments, and that humankind has always sought a greater knowledge and experience of this ultimate 'divine' since we first walked forth upright through the mists of time. As Einstein, a professed atheist (in the most strictly limited sense of this word) reportedly observed: "I want to know the thoughts of God. The rest are all just details."

Shortly after the spiritual experience that propelled me on this most perpetual of quests, I began to learn that I, too, like so many I had labeled superstitious cranks, was innately religious, as well as spiritual.  Although this was in a very limited and narrow sense.

In a book one of my spiritual mentors affectionately called his "Book of Soul Realization" (How to Know God: Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms, with commentary by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabavananda) I learned that "yoga," the word denoting religion in India, has the same Sanskrit root as the English word "yoke" - as in a 'yoke of oxen,' or the device that attaches a horse to the plough. Yoga, therefore, means 'to yoke,' bind, or unite; and the practice of any one of the 'branches' of yoga is a methodology to reunite the consciousness of the individual with the universal consciousness that is the godhead or the 'divine.'

A month or two later, my newfound 'teacher' (for want of a better word) took me to a lunchtime meditation at the parish hall of the local Catholic church. There, an acquaintance led a meditation that started with a reading and appreciation by Eckhart Tolle, a modern sage and best-selling author. The acquaintance (who, unbeknownst to me then, was both a PhD and a 'retired' nun) later explained the origin of the much-misunderstood word "religion" to me.

"Religion," she explained, "is from the Latin re ligare." The meaning of ligare, she told me, quite coincidentally, is to tie, bind or unite; as a 'ligament' ties a muscle to a bone, or a 'ligature' (or stitch) is used to sew up or bind a wound. Thus re ligare is to retie or unite, the limited consciousness of the egoic self with the limitless consciousness of the whole, with consciousness itself, or (if one is truly open-minded, perhaps) the consciousness of God.

Years later, when studying A Course in Miracles, and in light of the the further spiritual awakenings I had undergone and the deeper state of my limited consciousness, I was able to put together some of the lessons that  I had learned (and been shown). It was then that I began to understand the true import of a New Testament passage I had always instinctively dismissed, since first hearing it as a boy, in one of the few instances that I was coerced into attending Sunday school.

In Matthew 11:30 (which I had to look up using Google), Jesus reportedly said, "My yoke is easy, my burden light." In thinking of this, I had always pictured Jesus having to drag a heavy cross he balanced on his shoulder - like Atlas shouldering the world - and dismissing the heaviness and pain he was experiencing. But then later, having experienced (however briefly) that ineffable state of higher consciousness, which can best be described as a certain 'lightness of being' achieved through meditation, I understood a deeper meaning in this seemingly improbable passage.

Jesus was saying his 'yoga' or 'religion' - i.e., how he united his consciousness with the All, with Consciousness itself, with the Godhead - was 'simple' if, perhaps, at first difficult to achieve. The 'burden' of his yogic or religious efforts, meanwhile, (the message he was bearing for those who hadn't experienced or had not understood the import of his or her religious glimpses) was 'light' itself - i.e., the "lightness" of the extraordinary higher consciousness, or God-consciousness which exists within us all, as thoroughly masked as it may be by the 'mind-chatter' of the egoic, self-consciousness we gradually assume as growing children, and which becomes (for the vastest majority of us) who we are as adults.

The Varieties of Religious Experiences (and one of its source books, Richard M. Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness) describes the experiences of those fortunate few who have experienced, understood and described in detail this higher consciousness which exists within each of us. Or perhaps, more aptly put, they described that higher-consciousness or God-consciousness "within which we live and move, and have our being."

While I can attest that fundamentally I am spiritual, it is a misstatement to say that I am "spiritual but not religious." For 'yogic' or religious, meditation is the methodology through which we can go beneath the 'mind-chatter' of the ego to forge a connection in consciousness with the 'spirit'  that is the 'essence' (or being) of who and what we are, and of that within which we exist.

'Spirit' and 'light' are, of course, mere descriptions of the higher 'desireless states' that the humanist William James sought to explore and understand, as opposed to the instinctive, near-animalistic appetite of 'desires' which Watson sought create and whet through modern Madison Avenue-style advertising. Of necessity, as a wanderer on the path to a greater understanding of what and who we are, I must be at least 'inwardly religious' to appreciate the spirituality of this life and the consciousness which is a fundamental unitive principle of this universe.

Spiritual, but not 'outwardly' religious? Yes, by choice. Spiritual, yet 'inwardly' religious? Yes, of necessity.

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