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Practical Spirituality


    Volker Brendel:  Independent of cultural upbringing, everyone everywhere has likely been exposed to a sense of something larger than themselves. Sometimes, such an awareness originates in fear. For example, in what might be called primitive societies, the forces of nature may seem unintelligible, beyond human understanding and control. A thunderstorm with a mighty display of lightning and threatening noises could be understood as superhuman forces coming from the sky. But fear is not the only catalyst. One may also look up at the night sky, or toward the sun during the day, or at all the bountiful life forms all around, and be simply in awe of creation—all somehow ruled by forces or beings beyond ourselves and invisible to us.

    Over the ages, these forces and beings have often been referred to as gods. Sometimes people hold the notion of a multitude of gods with distinct characteristics, powers, and responsibilities. Sometimes they embrace the concept of a single, almighty, all-knowing God.

    An interesting question arises whether this God created the natural world and created us, or, conversely, did we create God? This is not a new question, and it is well beyond our interest and expertise to have a scholarly debate about this. But there are a number of points of interest that are immediately accessible.

    In the Judeo-Christian world that most of us are familiar with, the matter is taken up in the book of Genesis (1:26-27):

    " 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ... 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. "

    Here is one answer to my question: God created man. Yet. in these few sentences are already a number of puzzling statements. The initial phrase says let us make man in our image, after our likeness. The plural pronoun is used, indicating, at a minimum, diversity in this one God. But in the following sentence the reference is singular: we read God created man in his own image, and that he created him male and female. How are we to think about this apparent contradiction?

    Even in a non-scholarly sense we will easily conclude that both directions are possible: God created us, and we created gods, or rather images of gods. Let's take a look at the first direction. It is self-evident that we as human beings have not created ourselves. We can participate in the creation of a new human being, but within definite limits. In fact, at a large scale we are doing it rather frequently, and too frequently if you will; the human population is growing out of bounds. We know the mechanics involved, how a man and woman come together and initiate what results in the birth of a child, some nine months later.

    So, we certainly have a role to play in procreation, but I doubt anyone would say that beyond this minor role, we originally created a human being. No, a child is a miraculous outcome of the magical process of Life. The beginning point is miniscule: a fertilized female egg cell, and then, with the right nurturing, a cascade of development ensues and, all going well, after much maturing, another human being will have joined us.

    Now we can use the word Life and say Life created the human being. Life created everything we see around us: the universe, our solar system, our earth, the environment, the seasons, and so forth. Or we can use the word God, within the confines of our limited understanding, in order to speak about the creative process.

    Obviously, we have to use some words. But we ought to be careful with that, lest we confuse reality with images of gods based in our own mental creation. For example, in the Judeo-Christian world, quite often the image of God is closely associated with an older white male; God as a father figure. Yet, even in that cultural and religious context, we have the statement of, "Let us create man in our image ... male and female." So, male and female are part of the characteristics of God. I would suggest that rather than being caught in this dilemma—creating images of multiple gods, be that in the Hindu tradition, or the Greek tradition, or any other tradition, or alternatively creating images of a monotheistic God—we would be much better off focusing on the characteristics of Life, the characteristics of God, and expressing those.

    For instance, we might ask, well, how do we find out about these characteristics? Who can tell us about them? The answer is obvious: we just acknowledged that we didn't create ourselves; Life created us, and Life. or God, created us in the image and likeness of itself. And, therefore the characteristics of God, of Life, are immediately accessible to us. The key is that we need to express them to know them. In fact, there is no one else to tell us. Why is that so? Because Life creates in the image and likeness of Life, and one of the obvious characteristics of Life with respect to human beings is that Life doesn't impose. Love does not impose. Here we are, with the facilities of feeling: touching awe, sensing the wonder of the universe and experiencing the wonders of thinking, of speaking, of expressing ourselves. In these experiences we discover there are choices to be made and insights that we need to receive for ourselves.

    Now obviously these processes have been commandeered many times by some human beings who sought to take them over by creating gods in their image and then looking for others to pray to such images, for their benefit, and typically more so for the benefit of the creators of such false gods.

    You might say well this is a harsh assessment. Obviously, there are many noble teachers, spiritual teachers, religious teachers, mentors, who convey what God is all about. But how do they do it? When they do it well, they do it by example, by expressing the characteristics of God, of Life. Thus, in reality, mindful living is rather simple. You don't have to subscribe to a particular religious tradition, you don't have to subscribe to a particular spiritual discipline, and you don't have to engage in some long process of study. In fact, experience shows that all of those approaches are rather limited.

    Take the example of teaching. At my level of professional teaching, I interact with undergraduate and graduate students, and they will often ask me to tell them what to do, how to solve a particular problem step by step, how to study, and how to prepare for the next exam. So, I tell them: this is the way to solve the problem, this is what you should learn, and here is a good way to study. And then the students will go and not do it.

    This is a rather general experience. If you are a medical doctor, you have patients come to your practice and ask how their physical problems can be fixed. So, you tell them: drink less coffee; exercise more; get more sleep; wash your hands often. And, on average, the patient will go and not do it. The deeper reason for this is that every man and woman, and even the children, must own the experience of Life, the characteristics of Life, for themselves. It has to come from within. There is valuable external guidance of course, medical advice, and teaching, but ultimately, we must own our own experience, knowledge and understanding of Life.

    There are some fanciful ideas along the line of people saying to themselves, "okay I get this, from now on I'll get hold of my life and I'll do the right thing, and that's that. After all, all spiritual disciplines tell us to live in the present moment. That's what we have; I will change my habits right now and be done with it." It's true, we must live in the present moment. But we also know that life is a process. In the northern hemisphere, we are approaching the winter season; there's nothing we can do about it. There is a cycle: only after winter, will spring come, and it will be a different season. And so it is with our expression. It is offered in the moment, and yet each moment is in the context of something large with which we must learn to become aligned. Superficial affirmations have little or no bearing on any of this.

    For example, if we've kept a bad diet for a few years and we have not exercised, can we snap our fingers, say now we recognize that this has not been good, do the right thing now, and instantly find the ill effects from the prior years of neglect are gone? The answer is of course not. We reap what we have sown. What is true is that we are planting new seeds in every moment for future harvests. Everything emerges from our rightful expression now, which will in season bring a resulting harvest.

    It comes down to the individual. If we examine the larger human situation, it applies there as well, because this picture is comprised of individuals. The effects of overpopulation, the effects of our destruction of the environment, all of this—results from seeds sown by human beings, and there will be a harvest. There is no way around it. And yet what could we do differently now? Express the character of Life, of God, of the Creator, in this present moment. This is all we can do. It is sufficient, and it will produce a different harvest. It may take a while, and we may suffer the consequences of prior behavior, individually and collectively, but nonetheless there is fulfillment in doing the right thing in each moment. That's all we can do, and we delightedly do it.

    These are not new words. While there is always is the temptation to become infatuated with words, none of this has any importance whatsoever, unless it's made real in our living experience.

    Of the many words spoken over the years it is often thought that some of them are very special, conveying very deep insight. People can tend to revere such words, feeling they hold significance something of cosmic proportions, revealing a deep understanding of the powers involved and of our tremendous responsibilities and role in the world. I, for myself, often feel blessed by having a relative lack of understanding of such words. Why do I say that? I think, in the end, it's not the words, it's our living expression of the character of Life moment by moment that makes the difference. These characteristics are immediately accessible from within. And thus I call my spirituality "practical spirituality." It is in the doing, moment by moment, that the larger work gets done. If as part of the larger work, we need to access larger insights, deeper understandings, it will happen. We might say Life works on the principle of "need to know." Do I need to know how all these different galaxies in the universe operate and fit together? Do I need to know how Life will proceed in a creative cycle over the next 50, 100, or 5000 years?

    I doubt it. I do need to know what I should be doing now, and in the next moment, and I need to know that in each of these moments I sow a seed for the future. As that is taken care of moment by moment, then whatever the next level of understanding is that I need in order to continue will be there. In fact, it has been so in my experience over now roughly 50 years of consciously thinking about Life and what Life is all about. So we pursue deeper understanding, and we pursue paths to making greater contributions, and yet that pursuit of greater understanding is gained and proved by our moment by moment daily living.

    Life's design is ingenious. When God created man in their likeness and image, the outcome was not a mechanical doll, something run by a wind-up spring or batteries, but living beings, with the capabilities of choice, of thinking, of feeling, of acting. Let us never excuse ourselves for not doing that. On the contrary, we do it to the fullest: Let's feel, let's think, and let's do, moment by moment individually, and in agreement as a group of people. The outcome is glorious life, from the quiet gestation of the winter to burgeoning spring to come; no judgment of which is better, just practically following the path.

December 8, 2019


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