Spiritual Practice for a New Generation: Part Three

Finding our way home

Laniakea-galaxy-supercluster. Courtesy of Macmillan Science and Education

Laniakea-galaxy-supercluster. Courtesy of Macmillan Science and Education

On many levels spiritual work relates to coming home. As human beings we are meant to serve, and our work consists of realigning ourselves from following the dictates of the ego and lower self to serving something more essential and much higher — an order of energies on a cosmic scale — so that we may find our place within the immense heavens. When the image of the earthrise from the moon first appeared in 1969, I remember my astonishment with the photo and the sharp realization that my perspective could never be the same. Seeing the earth as a single round ball, unencumbered by boundaries or ideologies, quickened my heart and animated my perception.

Now the stakes are bigger. Gurdjieff teaches that the earth and organic life, including humanity, are part of a developing tip of a vast ray of creation. Somewhat like the branches on a tree, the earth is a tiny branch receiving life from the roots and trunk and giving life to the smaller branches and leaves, as well as receiving nourishment from these appendages in a reciprocal relationship. Plato and Aristotle gave indications that all living creatures, big and small, were part of a universal chain of being, a hierarchical relationship encompassing all of life. Quite frankly, until now, the concept of a living, evolving universe remained mostly on a theoretical level for me. I’m an artist, a visual person. I like to see things, whether in physical reality or in my mind’s eye. I need to know something in my mind, in my heart, and tied to the physical realities of the body if it is to truly come alive for me.

Last night, I saw a picture that electrified me. It took my breath away, opened my heart to the reality of an intelligent universe, and acted like a lightening bolt to my mind. Simply stated, the picture depicts our extended home and neighborhood within a visible ray of creation. It filled me simultaneously with the awe of unknowing along with a collective pride of human questioning and discovery. Astronomers in my own backyard at the University of Hawai‘i Manoa recently discovered a cluster of galaxies in a defined structure of which the Milky Way is a part. They named this supercluster of galaxies with the Hawaiian word, Laniakea, or “immense heaven.”

The red dot in the computer-generated photo is our home. No, it’s not just our planet or solar system; the red dot is the entirety of the Milky Way. This picture enlarges my perspective beyond what I could previously imagine. Spiritual work becomes necessary for me and for you as a means of aligning with and serving this unknowable reality of cosmic energies. And, as we can infer from the scale of this visual image, the inner quest to serve cosmic necessities is both timely and timeless, transcending eras, generations, social conditions, and fashions. Plato, Buddha, Christ, and Gurdjieff are but the blink of an eye in the cosmic time frame. Our ego is beyond nothing. The ego cannot serve this higher frame of reference. But what can? My intuition and limited experience can only point to one answer — consciousness, but it must exist on a scale way beyond the scope of my associations with that word.

The age-old question of whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe must now be reframed: What forms arise from consciousness in this cosmic scheme? I don’t know how to frame the question. But one thing is clear. Consciousness creates, or is created by, and is a manifestation of an intelligent, evolving universe within which we seek to find our place. Isn’t the core of the religious impulse to discover and cultivate our relationship to realities greater than ourselves?

I’m learning that we’ll never find that connection to the cosmos in ego-based spirituality. As seekers, we need to be mindful and give up our reliance on philosophies that feed the self and false prophets who promise a better life and instant enlightenment. The ego cannot enlighten. It simply cannot. The truth is that we are not just one man or one woman, we are pieces of humanity and particles of the divine reality. Our own personal success and even enlightenment may be secondary to the human need for consciousness, to be touched by grace, and to bring this condition of presence and conscious awareness back into our lives, into the world — and now into the cosmic scheme. These larger worlds need this from us. Self-development can bring transformation, where we hold the possibility of serving higher necessities beyond mere self-improvement on the same level.

I’m certainly not the purveyor of such things, but in my observations there are a few comprehensive teaching traditions available to Westerners today —  and they are not all equal. Do they contain theory and practice, cosmology and the personal challenge of transformation? Ken Wilber makes an acute division between teachings that are merely translative in that they reframe our worldview, offer nuggets in the search for meaning, and appeal mostly to the mind. Or, are they transformative, in that they radically transform the reluctant self into, quite literally, a higher level of being?

Wilber writes, “With translation, the self is simply given a new way to think or feel about reality. The self is given a new belief — perhaps holistic instead of atomistic, perhaps forgiveness instead of blame, perhaps relational instead of analytic. The self then learns to translate its world and its being in the terms of this new belief or new language or new paradigm, and this new and enchanting translation acts, at least temporarily, to alleviate or diminish the terror inherent in the heart of the separate self.

But with transformation, the very process of translation itself is challenged, witnessed, undermined. Transformative spirituality, authentic spirituality, is therefore revolutionary. It does not legitimate the world, it breaks the world; it does not console the world, it shatters it. And it does not render the self content, it renders it undone.

For those few individuals who are ready — that is, sick with the suffering of the separate self, and no longer able to embrace the legitimate worldview — then a transformative opening to true authenticity, true enlightenment, true liberation, calls more and more insistently.”

For the seeker, I would encourage you heed the inner call, to nourish your search with books, people, teachings until you are magnetized in such a way that the teacher appears, and to sincerely seek a tradition that resonates with your temperament and being. In an excellent article in the current issue of Parabola by Lillian Firestone on Finding a Teacher, she cogently outlines several conditions to look for in genuine teachers and teachings, which include impartiality, provisional trust, lack of self-serving exploitation and humility.

The lineage holders and the groups themselves that are part of spiritual teachings also need to carefully guard against merely translative spirituality. I see the danger in myself in relying on translation. The fact that we might know something about a teaching isn’t enough — not anywhere near enough to serve the higher realities. We need to work together to transcend literal, worldly thinking and be touched by the fire of conscious awareness, which alone can liberate us. In lieu of a master, moments of consciousness — and nothing else— can guide our way and bring us to the threshold of a subtle joy, born of suffering and growing into a longing for infinity. And these moments are more readily available within a teaching tradition and in collaboration with other seekers. The ego games of maneuvering for position, divisive thinking, and grasping for imagined power in the name of god are not enough, yet they happen all the time today even within the highly legitimate teaching traditions. We are all human.

Unfortunately, here has been way too much public conflict and acrimony between those who carry the torch of spiritual teachings. In many traditions, the master is gone and the traditions have splintered into differing and sometimes opposing camps. We need to work together with no clear leader, like the path of the Ronin outlined in the previous essay. In Laura’s class on interreligious dialogue at Naropa, the coursework brought to light that conflict within a sect is at least as dangerous and widespread as conflict between religions. How can we hope to attract young people, when they perceive dissent, or even the subtle vibes of conflict, between primary lineage holders and within a group? Spiritual work necessitates finding a way to work together in groups and gracefully with each other, in spite of the difficulties or indeed graced by the difficulties. I sincerely doubt if god wants us battling over the spread of his/her/its name.

Honoring the difficult helps us in numerous ways: to transcend the ego and conditioned personality, to assist us in creating the fire of a burning quest that will not be quenched by ordinary means, and to help us gather force and discover a collective intelligence that, over time, has the power and force to link us to this newly immense view of the cosmos, to Laniakea.

In the academic environment where I spend my days there is only one striving that is strong enough to unseat our ego and usurp our numerous personal agendas, and that is attending to the genuine welfare and learning potential of the student. It is, after all, other people we are affecting with our words and deeds. The same condition exists in spiritual work. Other people are touched by our own quest and developing presence, or brought down by our self-centeredness. We must take care.

What is the responsibility of the seeker, student, or teacher to help keep a teaching alive and its transmission pure and unsullied?  As I touch, even for a moment, a hint of greater consciousness, it moves through me, nourishes me, heals me, unifies me, and informs me. Yet it is not only for me. It is larger than my normal mind and organic nature. I need to serve it, as it serves me — but not the smaller me. Rather, a conscious moment can serve the larger self that is entwined in a collective reality. It touches others, and the nourishing, balancing, and transmission of that influence serves the earth and presumably beyond. When Soetsu Yanagi, Japanese philosopher and founder of the folk art movement in Japan, stood for a while in front of Chartres cathedral, he said “This is what you have lost,” implying that Chartres was built for every man and every woman by craftspeople devoted to understanding the “totality of belief in all mankind.” We have a place in this immense heaven that we have forgotten. All aspects of group work in spiritual traditions need to be touched by, informed by, and subservient to the search for consciousness. What do we serve? What serves what?

This image shows Laniakea with some of its neighboring clusters. Courtesy of Macmillan Science and Education

This image shows Laniakea with some of its neighboring clusters. Courtesy of Macmillan Science and Education

We need to think bigger, see farther, and feel more. Can we see and feel what and where we are? The act of seeing the truth, of bearing witness to our false idols of ego and the conditioned self, opens to a momentary hint of conscience, where we can intuit wonder and feel the sheer poverty of our usual, self-absorbed isolation. We are cut off from cosmic influences in the dark night of ego and materialism. When Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov was asked if he was surprised by anything in life, Nabakov replied, “The marvel of consciousness — that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amid the night of non-being.” Seeing itself becomes the praxis for inward evolution.

When the body is still and the mind settles, becoming silent, the song of the world can peek through the cracks of our ego and programmed thought. Ego based boundaries dissolve into awe, compassion, and deeper service.

My former teacher D.M. Dooling writes: “Gurdjieff taught that there is another quality of mind, a real vision, that is accessible to us — but not without effort. … It cannot be attained without the participation of real feeling and real presence. Then understanding appears that is of a different nature, and attitudes and perceptions change and widen. This new understanding accepts the question, accepts its own unknowing and inability to know, accepts that it is not the place of the part to comprehend the whole. It rejoices in the hugeness of what it can never reach at the same time that it weeps because it can never reach it. Gurdjieff’s teaching is for those who can truly face this paradox.”

What might it mean to take our place in the larger scheme and serve something of this magnitude? Echoes of a cosmic order can be found here on earth and within our own nature. As above, so below. This stunning view of Laniakea, which can awaken us to a greater reality of which we are a part and serve a necessary role, reminds me of Einstein’s quote on spiritual emotion:

“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”