Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kurt Barstow - Spiritual Guidance, Part III

Another installment in this on-going series by Kurt on Spiritual Guidance.

Spiritual guidance, part III

March 2

To doubt is to lack conviction or certainty. It is to be in a place of not knowing and is the opposite in some senses of faith, belief, or dogma, which are held to varying degrees with certitude. When you think about it doubt is an enormously important contribution to our cultural development. The skepticism of The Enlightenment was necessary to eradicate some of the unsound beliefs, prejudices, magical thought, and mythic creed of earlier centuries and to set the stage for the scientific rationalism that helped create vaccines, modern medicine, cell phones, computers, and air and space travel, all things that have greatly benefited us as a species. Likewise, the doubt in scientific materialism as something that can completely explain our human experience has led to new thinking that has re-examined the validity of pre-modern modalities of healing, sought to bring together science and religion in quantum physics, and questioned deeply the values of progress and greed that have brought the planet to its current crisis. On the level of the microcosm rather than the macrocosm, doubt is an important part of our individual development and plays a critical role in spiritual guidance. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are two kinds of doubt: the negative, disabling doubt that is based in fear and keeps us contracted--unable to speak, move forward, or see our way through a situation--and the positive, enabling doubt that is more closely related to curiosity and is expansive, the royal road to transformation, and central to living in our most spacious nature.

Chapters 5-7 of Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin's Your Soul's Compass: What is Spiritual Guidance? (Hay House, 2007) discuss this crucial aspect of guidance. The question posed in the beginning of this discussion of doubt is how can we tell the difference between the voice of guidance, or the true self, and that of ego? The answer is that it isn't always clear to us. Reb almanSchachter-Shalomi says, "It's too facile to construct a process that will always, or even often, yield the 'right' result. It's easy to go astray, since we all have our meshugas (a Yiddish word meaning 'idiosyncratic craziness or nonsense')." He then goes on to make an important point about doubt, despite its seeming contradiction to faith, as actually being complementary: "I must always have doubt where the guidance comes from. Doubt is not the enemy of faith. Doubt is the means by which we scrape off the barnacles from the ship of faith." One might think of archetypal images of this: Job on the dungheap or Thomas touching Christ's wound after the Resurrection. The human faculty of doubt is built into our stories of faith for a reason. The authors find consensus among their interviewees on the nature of this faculty that is the key to identifying how it plays a role in discernment. They point out, "There was universal understanding among the Sages that doubt has two faces: positive and negative--the face of inquiry and the face of anxiety. Inquiry, the love of truth, brings us into connection with our true nature and with the Source of Guidance within. The face of anxiety is the ego, the false self, which creates the kind of unhealthy doubt that blocks openness to either hearing or acting upon guidance."

The positive doubt is not a superego attack (the internalized critical voices of our parents), which must be separated from conscience. More importantly, it demands that we let go of our tenacious hold onto what we think we know. Sister Rose Mary Dougherty, who is also a Zen teacher, contrasts the pressure to know and to be right with the positive form of doubt. She says, "There's a constriction and a kind of manic effort to figure things out, to get it right for me--for you--to know the answers, to make them up if I don't know them. But the other kind of doubt, the not knowing, frees us to live into something so much bigger, so much more than we could ever ask for or imagine." As we were working with aspects of mindfulness in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course, one of my meditation teachers suggested that we allow ourselves to just be in that place of not knowing, which I didn't entirely understand at the time although it seemed like a liberating place to be. I now understand that it is a movement away from our conditioned mind to our beginner's mind, which is always going to be a place from which more possibilities will arise. When one's life is stuck, in fact, it becomes the only place to go, because otherwise, recognizing the failure of the repeated patterns of one's conditioning, one may end up tearing down the entire structure. Rather than do that, from this place of not knowing, we instead open up to our true nature, our authentic, spacious self. The authors point out the paradox of faith in relation to what we have discussed so far, citing Paul's famous definition that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." The authors point out that, "without being sure that there's a guiding wisdom greater than what we see from our limited perspective, then we might be overcome with cynicism and nihilism. Those attitudes are so painful that, with the piercing irony of paradox, they give rise to rabid fundamentalist beliefs, which permit no doubt at all. In contrast to no doubt, another kind of constriction, positive doubt, or not knowing, leads to spaciousness, which "means, most basically, staying open to the moment, rather than being attached to a particular belief or agenda." I think immediately here of the encouragement of my yoga teachers not to get something right but rather to investigate a pose and to soften. These are tools to help the bodymind learn about what spaciousness is.

Fruits of the Spirit

There are, however, some tried and true guidelines to discerning whether it is ego or God that is driving the buggy. To be involved in the process of guidance in any form can only make one more sympathetic to other human beings, for it becomes obvious to anyone working with discernment that it is a life's work and can never put one in the position of being perfect, right, or infallible. Mistakes, limitations, and incorrect views will always play their part in the process. However, as the authors point out, "While the experience of making a poor choice can be a valuable part of the journey, without reflection or inquiry--the keys to the discernment process--the decision isn't spiritual. It's just an unconscious reaction that's likely to be repeated. Over time, the practice of discernment leads to choices that are more conscious and loving...that lead to less karma and drama and more clarity and peace. Because our primary identification is with ego, what Christian mystics Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, among others, call the false self, the process of learning to attend to the true Self is bound to take both time and serious commitment." We all suffer from distortions that make up this false self. "Buddhists call these sistortions poisons; Hindus call them kleshas; Jews invoke the yetzer ha-ra', or evil urge; and Christians enumerate seven deadly sins. We think of them as the basic sources of magnetic deviance that throw the Soul's Compass off True North."

One of the positive guidelines is The Golden Rule, to do to others only what you would have them do to you. Another is distinguishing between Good and Evil by the felt sense of either Consolation or Desolation. In that pairing "Consolation is a feeling of inner warmth, of being loved by and loving the Creator. A state of interior joy, consolation is characterized by a quiet mind and an open heart. One feels inspired, confident, courageous... held and supported by unseen but beneficent forces." On the other hand, "Desolation is a state of interior disturbance that Ignatius [of Loyola] called 'darkness of the soul.' Sadness, sloth, and separation from God are its hallmarks. Today's common maladies of burnout, depression, despondency, addiction, and hopelessness are all symptoms of desolation." Of course, these terms represent somewhat complicated phenomena and are not all equal. Take addiction, or specifically the highs and lows of amphetamine addiction, for example. The highs can be representative of biochemical changes that allow for feelings of consolation, of optimism, of belonging, and during those phases the world seems and reflects itself back to you in a positive way. In distinction to this, the lows foster a biochemical reaction that promote depression, lack of drive, and hopelessness; one feels separated from life source energy and the world to some extent reflects itself back to you based on this subjectivity. It is a horrible, vicious, uneven cycle in which it is entirely understandable that, just trying to cope with daily life, one would search out the part that is more representative of Consolation. And, of course, the answer lies somewhere in the fact that going up and coming down are temporary states that depend on something outside oneself, that the cycle itself is a manifestation of dis-ease, of imbalance. But one can see what an extremely difficult issue it is precisely as it is viewed within this spiritual context of Consolation and Desolation, for addiction contains both felt senses within its purview, driven perhaps by the bodymind's short-term delusions and dependency but with more than a smidgen of reality nevertheless.

Another way to orient toward true nature is through the nine Christian Fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control. Love in this sense "is a radiant aspect of true nature that's projected unconditionally toward all people and things, rather than a program run by the false self to get its needs met." Joy is the "bliss that arises from within--without dependence on anything external." Like love, it "is a state of internal freedom." Peace is also independent of external circumstances. Patience is "the capacity to wait while the mud of confusion settles, with curious interest in what's being revealed." Kindness is revealed in the various invocations to love your neighbor as yourself. Generosity is the most important aspect of a bodhisattva. It could be defined as "clear communication that's not for your own benefit, but to further the liberation of another" or "the intention to see people through the eyes of the heart," "being with another person in the spacious, open fullness of the moment, without any agenda," allowing "the space for that individual's true nature to show up." Faithfulness is described by Yogi Mukunda in terms of yoga: "Success in yoga is attained by two things: first, consistent, earnest practice over a long period of time; and second, dispassionate nonattachment from what happens in that practice." One can imagine those words applying equally well to a marriage, friendship, or any other relationship. To cultivate Gentleness is to cultivate "spaciousness--the attitude of curiosity that is more interested in loving the truth than in controlling another person's behavior." Self-Control is not denial or holding back from doing what you want but "knowing when to brake, when to shift, and when to accelerate." All the Fruits of the Spirit derive from our spacious selves, endow us with an interior sense of freedom, and allow us to relate to others as their true natures.


The last chapter on doubt and discernment offer six distinct types of wisdom that can help us in terms of guidance. They are:

First Wisdom: Common Sense
-which by its very nature requires no definition

Second Wisdom: The Head--logic, a more careful accounting and thought through response

Third Wisdom: The Heart-which asks "Is my response to this situation loving? Patient? Generous? Kind?"

Fourth Wisdom: The Body
-what is the stress level? where are the tensions, the restrictions? The unevenness in breath? What is the felt sense?

Fifth Wisdom: Self-Reflection-This involves actually developing a practice: a daily review, an examen de conscience, or Naikan (gratitude) reflection. It brings our behavior and the gifts we receive into focus.

Sixth Wisdom: Transcending the Opposites
-Since the world is composed of opposites, how can we "make choices that take both poles of a situation into account while allowing a new perspective to emerge?' Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis. Getting out of the repeated patterns of action and reaction.

With these tools, we have a great deal to work with in the process of discernment.

(To be cont'd)

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