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

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Tavern of the Soul

In Sufism, the most mystic branch of Islam (and perhaps a wisdom school that predates Islam's greatest Prophet), 'wine', 'alcohol' and 'the tavern' are symbolic of the highest spiritual and/or religious experiences. Perhaps, not unrelatedly, the renowned Swiss psychologist noted that the Latin for the "highest religious experience," spiritus, was the same as the Latin word for alcohol.

Paradoxically, the English word "alcohol" is derived from the Arabic name for the "kohl" tree, the bark of which was ground up and then distilled to produce collyrium, a fine metallic powder that was used as an eye shadow and made the wearer's eyes glisten. Islam, of course, prohibits the consumption of alcohol (as does Buddhism, which says we should refrain from intoxicants that dull the perceptive qualities of the mind). And turning "water into wine" was, of course, the first "miracle" that Jesus performed.

Jalalludin Rumi (1207-1273)
One of the first of Jalludin Rumi's mystic poems that Coleman Barks includes in his anthology of "The Essential Rumi" is the great Sufi poet's ode to the power of "wine" to transport the imbiber to this 'tavern of the soul.' In his poem, "The Many Wines," Rumi, the 14th century Afghani poet and Sufi teacher who has become one of the West's most popular poets in the past several decades, describes the transcendental power of "spirit" or "wine" in the following way:
"God has given us a dark wine so potent that,
drinking it, we leave the two worlds.
God has put into the form of hashish a power
to deliver the taster from self-consciousness.

God has made sleep so
that it erases every thought.

God made Majnun love Layla so much that
just her dog would cause confusion in him.

There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.

Don't think all ecstasies
are the same!

Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley.

Drink from the presence of saints,
not from those other jars.

Every object, every being,
is a jar full of delight.

Be a connoisseur,
and taste with caution.

Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,

the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about "what's needed."

Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it;s been untied,
and is just ambling about.
". . . a power to deliver the taster from self-consciousness." Is that not the power that every wisdom tradition points to in 'the tavern of the soul' which exists within us all? Perhaps the most essential message from Rumi is that the human thirst for truth and meaning - for what "glistens" - can only be quenched in the 'tavern of the soul' and not in lesser taverns or in ordinary wines and spirits.

We must recall that it was the alchemists who determined that "all that glistens is not gold." And, that the greatest of alchemists were the Sufis, who were concerned only with the "alchemy of the soul."

"Self" vs. "self"

"Self" vs. "self"
Paul Brunton called our higher consciousness the "Overself," Jesus called it "the Kingdom of Heaven" (see Luke 17:21), members of the 12 Step movement call it "a Power greater than ourselves," Vedantists call it the Atman and,  in perhaps the most poetic language, Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor and neo-Platonic philosopher) called it "the helmsman of the Soul." But, in many - perhaps most - instances, wisdom schools and teachers refer to it simply as the "Self," as opposed to the smaller "self" which is none other than the ordinary self-consciousness of the human "ego."

When asked why he used the term "Self" (in "I: Reality and Subjectivity" at pp. 128-129), David Hawkins, a powerful and enlightened spiritual teacher, medical doctor and philosopher explained his choice of terms in the following manner:
"The experience of the Presence is radically and profoundly subjective. It is commonly presumed that God is 'elsewhere', namely, above, beyond. transcendent, in heaven, or somewhere back in history or in the future. Traditionally, however, God is described as both transcendent and immanent. The term "Self" emphasizes that God is discovered as the ultimate reality that underlies one's actual experience in the 'here and now' (e.g., "Heaven is within you.").

The Buddha is said to have avoided using the term "God" because of the prevalence of misconceptions surrounding it. He wanted to avoid all the limitations that that conceptualization confounds. The Self as Awareness is often referred to in literature as Light. As recounted in Genesis, the Unmanifest became Manifest first as Light, which was the radiance of the energy of God that took form as the universe.

The term "Self" also overcomes the dualistic notion that one is separated from God. Historically, the picture that there is a sinner down here on Earth and there is a God up there somewhere in heaven is the viewpoint of the ego. Thus, to most people, the term "God" implies "otherness." However, there is no separation in the Allness of Creation, so it is impossible for the created to be separate from the Creator. Enlightenment is therefore the revelation of the Self when the illusioin of the reality of a separate self is removed."
"The Divine Nature . . . of the same or like nature with the spirit"
Hawkins then describes the problem that we all face, the problem that is the timeless challenge  humankind faces, in the words of Aldous Huxley, the challenge "for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit." Hawkins concludes:
"The constant awareness of one's existence as 'I' is the ever present expression of the innate divinity of the Self. This is a universal, constant experience that is purely subjective and of which no proof is possible or necessary. The 'I' of the Self is the expression of Divinity as Awareness which is therefore beyond time and form. The truth of this identity is obscured by the duality created by perception and disappears when all positionalities are relinquished."
 This constant awareness is, of course, our challenge. It is what Orthodox Christianity traditionally called "the Watch of the Heart," a process explained in this related video by the progressive and profound Protestant minister, Ted Nottingham.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Condensed "Perrenial Philosophy"

Spiritual Teacher Ram Das (aka Richard Alpert)
In The Harvard Psychedelic Club, author Don Lattin traced the story of how Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (soon to become Ram Das) and Huston Smith (soon to be the "dean" of Comparative Religions studies) clashed with Andrew Weil (soon to be America's health food and integrative medicine guru) and the"powers-that-be" over the now infamous psilocybin and LSD trials conducted at Harvard University, clinical and non-clinical trials which "ushered in" the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. (A video of Lattin, at a book reading for the The Harvard Psychedelic Club is available here.)

Lattin is a chronicler of the ongoing spiritual revolution that was sparked in the 1960s. He is now working on  a group biography of English polymath philosophers Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, together with American social pioneer, Bill Wilson. Huxley's 1954 book, The Doors of Perception, sparked the interest of Leary, Alpert and Weil in the possibilities of using psychedelic drugs to create a mystic experience. With his friends Gerald Heard and Bill Wilson (one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, although definitively not acting in that capacity), Huxley conducted further experiments with LSD as a method of gaining the enlightenment experience described by saints and mystics of all the world's wisdom traditions. (Wilson reportedly thought an LSD trip might potentially spark the vital spiritual experience that the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, had identified as a possible curative for the disease of alcoholism.)

Bill Wilson was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential men of the 20th century, while Heard was a particularly well-known BBC commentator whose book, Pain, Sex and Time, Huston Smith credited with sparking his interest in religious studies. Nonetheless, it was Huxley, author of the immensely popular science fiction novel,  A Brave New World, who was the most recognizable and notable of the three.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
Huxley's most influential work may have been The Perennial Philosophy rather than A Brave New World, however. A study of how mystics, saints and sages from all the world's wisdom traditions describe their journey and attainment of mystic enlightenment, The Perennial Philosophy is in a very real sense an updated and cross-cultural version of William James' groundbreaking work, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

The Perennial Philosophy
has remained in-print and is still widely available, while Heard's Pain, Sex and Time has only recently been reprinted. However, the most succinct statement of what all three would have called "the Perennial Philosophy," is found in Huxley's introduction to a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, The Song of God, by their friend and compatriot Christopher Isherwood together with Swami Prabhavananda, a Vedantist monk. (The Song of God is still available through the Vedanta Society of Southern California, of which Isherwood, Prabhavananda and Huxley were all members.)

In the following briefest of words, Huxley describes the underlying message and findings of all the world's great religious and wisdom traditions:
"At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines.

First: the phenomenal world of matter and individualized consciousness - the world of things and animals and men and even gods - is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their beginning, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground."
It is these four ideas - known by most cultures, but forgotten by many - that were at the heart of the Western spiritual renewal that was kickstarted in the 1960s, and which continues (minus the reliance on LSD and other psychedelics, which turned out to be a bit of a dead end) with us today. While Huxley died in 1963, before he was able to see the revolutions (religious and otherwise) spawned in the crucible of the 1960s, the ideas of the "Perennial Philosophy" continue on in the various non-dual teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, Andrew Cohen and so many others.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Higher Consciousness May Alter Genetic Structures: Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra, M.D.
In a fascinating, progressive and optimistic article in the San Fransisco Chronicle, Deepak Chopra - a spiritual icon who is by training a medical doctor - commented on the results of a recent study that showed as little as eight weeks of meditative practice alters brainwave patterns and, most likely, the structure of the brain itself.

The notion that the brain is "plastic" and continues to grow and evolve through the lifetime of an individual is a relatively recent finding. It is only in the past several decades that biologists, like Rupert Sheldrake, have examined how consciousness itself (or, perhaps, the quality of consciousness) shapes the brain. The so-called 'mind/body problem' is whether consciousness itself gives rise to the brain as the organ of consciousness, or whether the brain gives rise to consciousness.

Eastern traditions dating back to the mists of time clearly expound the consciousness-birthing-brain view, while Western science (at least until recently) implicitly and explicitly embraced the brain-birthing-consciousness model. In most instances, Western science ignored questions of what consciousness "is" because it is inherently a subjective phenomenon which lies beyond the purview of science's objective methodology. Consciousness studies were therefore confined as a branch of metaphysics, philosophy or theology, rather than a part of the 'hard sciences.' It is only very recently that vastly improved technologies have allowed researchers to study the quality of consciousness objectively.

The study reviewed by Chopra followed up years of research which showed that the brainwaves of Buddhist monks steeped in years of meditative practice differed significantly from the brainwaves of non-meditators. The recent study at the Massachusetts General Hospital is profoundly optimistic and novel in that it shows how rapidly adoption of a meditative practice alters an individual's brain functions. Implicitly, it demonstrates that the potential for higher consciousness is a universal, built-in human trait. It infers that the level of consciousness changes the brain's physiology - which would support the consciousness-birthing-brain view - and begs the question of just "how" higher consciousness and awareness alters both functionality and brain structure.

Chopra's comments embrace the rather radical notion (from a Western scientific viewpoint) that consciousness is an evolutionary force that operates not only across generations, but during the lifetime of the individual him or herself. Chopra specifically comments on how the experience of higher states of consciousness may change an individual's genetic structures over the lifetime of the meditator. He writes:
"I imagine the next step will be the discovery that meditation changes the expression of your genes. Dr. Dean Ornish, who has championed meditation, along with diet and exercise, as a proven way to reverse heart disease, recently discovered changes to the expression of more than 400 genes among those who followed his program of positive lifestyle habits. The link between the brain and genes does come as something new, and it shows promise of overturning the most basic ideas about both. For decades it was taken as gospel in medical school that neither the brain nor our genes could be altered in any significant way (except negatively, through aging and disease), but now we know that the brain is far more dynamic and susceptible to change than anyone ever supposed. Moreover, any change inside the brain must be mediated by genetic expression. That is, a brain cell does things like grow new connections and heal itself only through the production of proteins and enzymes, and these require genetic signals — they don't happen on their own"
Chopra calls the implications of the recent study's findings "startling." He asserts that "(t)here is a direct path that begins in the mind — with meditation, mindfulness, or more basic things like beliefs and emotions — and then the path leads to the genes, where signals are sent that modify the brain cell, which in turn sends its own signals in the form of neurotransmitters to every cell in the body."

"The old phrase, "biology is destiny," will have to be seriously re-examined," he writes. He suggests that "(a) good replacement would be "consciousness is destiny," which is the guiding reason that meditation arose in the first place," and foresees "enormous opportunities for personal freedom."

"Instead of being dictated to by your genes and (the) chemical processes in the brain," Chopra suggests that "it may turn out that you are the author of your own life, capable of change, healing, creativity, and personal transformation." It is a fascinating, progressive and optimistic view that embraces and seeks to explain the findings of thousands of years of Eastern meditative teachings.

Knowledge That Suffocates Bewilderment

"Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment," urges Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet

I once read an anecdote about Rumi's first encounter with his spiritual muse, Shams of Tabriz. The story goes that Rumi is walking while reading a hand-copied book of his father's teachings (Rumi's father, Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, was a theologian, Sufi sheikh and mystic of the first order, himself.) Rumi runs into Tams, who promptly snatches up Rumi's most treasured book and throws it into a fountain, thereby destroying it. There is no doubt that an astonished Rumi must have at first been bewildered by Shams' actions.

But here I am again, clinging to all my suffocating cleverness which encases the bewilderment within. "But just let me explain," cries my smaller self, "I know what it all means." Knowledge and experience are not synonomous and may, in fact, be mutually exclusive. Do you know what it is you see, by its similarities, differences, qualities and classifications? Or, do you openly experience what your senses present to you?

Rumi eventually realized how nonsensical it was to be engrossed in the knowledge within the book that was destroyed, when Shams was already there as an exemplar. He realized that the moon reflected in a pool of water was not the moon, in fact, and that the puddle could not after all hold the moon. (This is the Sufi version of the Buddha's distinction between the moon and the finger pointing at the moon.) And, yet, the moon required the puddle, and the puddle the moon, in order to bewilder Rumi.

Can you not see what a clever little trickster the ego is? Where can one buy bewilderment these days?

Osho (1931-1990)
A recent issue of The Times of India featured an excerpt from Osho's book, Walking In Zen, Sitting In Zen, highlighting why he was against knowledge, but rather urged people to respond to the moment.
"Knowledge destroys wonder, destroys the capacity to feel awe," Osho observes. "It makes you capable of explaining away everything. It takes away all poetry from life. It takes away all meaning from life. The knowledgeable person is never surprised by anything because he can explain everything. But no explanation is true for they don't explain anything at all. The mystery remains. The mystery is infinite."
Knowledge "takes away all poetry." How true. It was only after embracing Sham's bewilderment that Rumi became a poet for the ages. All his considerable learning and knowledge were an impediment to the bewilderment that wanted to burst forth from his chest.

"The knowledgeable person," writes Osho, "becomes so burdened by his knowledge that he loses the mirror-like quality of reflecting the beauty, the benediction, the dance, the ecstasy of existence." This is Osho's poetics flowing from beyond knowledge.

 "Knowledge is not going to help as far as life is concerned," he concludes. "The knowledgeable person is almost a dead person; he lives in his grave." Rumi says, "Take tiny sips of breath all day long, before death comes and closes your throat." Knowledge can too easily suffocate, I say, smothering the flames of bewilderment with the ego's rote rememberings and constant analysis.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Christianity's Teachings of 'Higher Consciousness' Largely Lost in the West

"Through our awakened presence, or higher consciousness, the universe becomes conscious of itself."

When was the last time that you heard a message like this at your church, temple, synagogue or mosque? Have you ever heard anything like this from a televangelist, from a "Christian fundamentalist"? 

Traditionalists, who may be skeptical of what sounds like a New Age mantra, may be surprised that this basic truth of all of the world's wisdom traditions comes from a mainstream Protestant minister, based in the mid-west heartland of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Ted Nottingham, an author, publisher, television and video producer, and the Disciples of Christ pastor at Indianapolis' Northwood Christian Church, may be one of the most unheralded, yet most progressive theologians of our day. His message of the pressing need for each of us to awaken consciously to the Divine at the core of our being, and the Divinity which pervades and underlies the entirety of the universe, is based not on the surge of interest in higher states of consciousness and the synthesis of physics and spirituality, but on a deep and profound understanding of scripture and early (particularly, Orthodox) Christianity.

The above quote, from Nottingham's YouTube video on "Theosis" - or, the process of' God-realization that was at the heart of the early Church's teaching, and which remains at the heart of Orthodox traditions - is, in fact, a message which is ubiquitous across the world's great wisdom traditions; a point acknowledged by Nottingham.

With an extensive knowledge of varied spiritual traditions - from ancient Judaism, to the Desert Fathers, to G.I. Gurdjieff - Nottingham proposes an engaged, deeply personal and transformative practice of Christianity, one designed to tap the transcendental potential of each of us in a world where spiritual realities are too often overlooked or absent.

Theodore (Ted) Nottingham on YouTube
One of his most recent videos, "Rediscovering Christianity," is a well-reasoned and persuasive appeal to re-examine the basic tenets and message of the world's largest religion; to look at how and where its essential tenets have been lost or obscured; to go beyond the historical "baggage," "bloodshed," and "modern misrepresentations" of Christianity, and to look at it anew for its relevance in the 21st century.

Nottingham's basic message throughout his writings, sermons and videos is that there is "a new quality of consciousness" available to each of us, a message that has been lost in most instances. (Other must-see videos by Nottingham on Christianity, include "The Inner Teaching," and "The Watch of the Heart," an essential Eastern Orthodox methodology and discipline  for overcoming the ego.

"We have made impotent that which is the very source of our life, within us and around us, Nottingham says. "We've lost sight of the invisible within the visible."

He urges the viewer to get over the Darwinism versus Creationism debate, and the modern controversies over science versus faith, to move beyond the "absurd levels" of Christian fundamentalism, in order to rediscover the potentiality of Christianity's "holistic dimension" that has been largely lost in the Western Christian tradition.

Nottingham's voice and message is one that is needed in the public discussions on faith, higher consciousness, and human potential. He is, at once, a welcome antidote to both the narrow fundamentalism and the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins et. al., as well a passionate advocate of humankind's potentiality.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Andrew Cohen Speaks Out on Huffington Post

For those not acquainted with the teachings of Andrew Cohen, of the teaching he has dubbed "Evolutionary Enlightenment" - an enlightenment methodology discussed here in a previous post - Cohen discusses his approach to spiritual awakening in an article on the highly visible and influential Huffington Post. The piece is undoubtedly a follow-up to his recent panel with Deepak Chopra at the Urban Zen Institute, which was moderated by Arianna Huffington (and is available on Fora.tv).

In describing his personal spiritual awakening, Cohen attributes credit to the non-dualist Advaida Vedanta lineage of his teacher (H.W.L. Poonja), which stretches back to the great self-realized Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). While his personal enlightenment experience is the continuance of an unbroken line of liberation (or moksha) that stretches back to the mists of time in the Indian subcontinent, Cohen has taken his own experience and teaches a variant of cutting edge spiritual awakening that is at once urgent, universal and immediately relevant to our times, and which embraces rather than challenges the scientific understandings that have revolutionized our modern and wired-in world. (Cohen lists Liebniz, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenauer, Emerson and the Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, amongst the list of  forerunners to this emerging transcendental epiphenomena.)

Ramana Maharshi                         
"Traditional enlightenment is what I learned from my teacher," Cohen explains, "but Evolutionary Enlightenment is what I have discovered and created in my own work over the last almost quarter of a century." Cohen and his co-creators explore the depths of the world's varied wisdom traditions and the potential of humankind's ongoing and transformative noetic evolution in the pages and on the website of EnlightenNext.

"It was only after many years of deep introspection, dialogue with masters and thinkers from all traditions and committed work with thousands of spiritual seekers throughout the world," Cohen writes, "that I began to understand what this new enlightenment is all about, why it is so different from what has come before, and why, as I believe, it holds the key not only to our personal development but to our cultural evolution."

 In his latest article on the Huffington Post (his other posts are here, here and here) he differentiates traditional notions of enightenment - that the world is an illurory realm, or maya, and that is sufficient to overcome the world by the self-realization of transcendental liberation, or moksha - with a perspective informed by a scientific and evolutionary world view. "(E)nlightenment is evolving," Cohen notes. "It is no longer found only in the bliss of timeless Being; it is found also in the ecstatic urgency of evolutionary Becoming."

Cohen stresses that in this age, where we may have reached the edge of our physical evolution, there is an urgent imperative for humanity to further the limits of its consciousness in order for the evolutionary impulse to continue its 14 billion-odd years of unfolding. In a cry from the metaphysical barricades, he writes:
"Traditional enlightenment points us beyond the world, beyond time and space, toward what has been, at least until now, the perennial source of spiritual freedom and mystical liberation: the Ground of Being. But those of us in the 21st century who are looking toward the future urgently need a mystical spirituality and source of soul liberation that points us not away from the world but to that big next step we need to take in our world. That next step will not emerge by itself -- it must be consciously created by human beings who have awakened to the same impulse that is driving the process. As we awaken to this vast perspective, an overwhelming and profound truth becomes clear: At this point in evolution, the process is dependent upon us. The evolutionary process desperately needs our conscious and committed participation."

This is heady stuff. There is a real moral imperative, largely unstressed in traditional enlightenment, for individuals to commit themselves to their own personal transcendence "for the sake of the Whole." His message is that, if we wish to continue to live and evolve on our increasingly interconnected planet, we must become the equivalent of 21st-century bodhisattvas, and his experience is that this is possible.

"This liberating spiritual perspective on the human experience is contemporary and inherently creative," he stresses. "It's a spiritual teaching for our own time because its central tenet is that a more enlightened future for our world depends on one thing and one thing alone -- our higher development."

"The world around us changes for the better as much as we are willing to change ourselves, he concludes. "The world we occupy and cocreate begins to transform as we do. The old model of enlightenment was one in which the individual was liberated but the world remained the same. In the new enlightenment, the point is no longer merely the liberation of the individual; it's the evolution of self, culture and cosmos through the individual. That's Evolutionary Enlightenment."

To read more about the "essential elements" of  Cohen's "Evolutionary Enlightenment" teachings, and to understand his "five tenets" of leading an awakened life, visit his website at www.andrewcohen.org. Alternatively, purchase a copy of, or subscribe to EnlightenNext magazine and its companion website.