2016-06-30
From the book, "God and the Evolving Universe." Reprinted with permission of Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

The great Zen master Dogen famously said that Zen practice is more than a means to an end; it is

enlightenment. In the Christian life of virtue and prayer, it is said that "practice rewards nature, and is in turn rewarded by grace." In Taoism, one "guides the world where it most deeply want to go." Or, as the celebrated Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna put it, "The winds of grace are always blowing, but we must raise our sails." These various admonitions point to the same fundamental principles: first, that our present nature, if respected, will support our cultivation of as its latent capacities; and second, that we are assisted in this by a higher presence or power.

And these two principles involve a third: To nurture all of our emergent attributes, we can turn to practices that produce many positive changes at once.. Meditation, for example, can simultaneously calm the mind, promote hormonal balance, sharpen thought, release the imagination, lift the emotions, help strengthen volition, and open ways to greater states of consciousness.

With similar synergistic effect, fitness training can strengthen the heart, improve circulation, lover blood pressure, strengthen bone and skin, promote emotional stability, help clarify thought, and increase vitality. These and other practices do many good things for us, all at once. Like good business deals or scientific theories, they can yield great return on investment. Furthermore, they can be joined with other exercises to yield even greater results. Numerous studies have shown, for example, that physical fitness enhances meditation and, conversely, that meditative techniques promote fitness. The research physician Herbert Benson has found that most people can, by repeating a word such as "one" while exercising on a treadmill, automatically increase their muscular and cardio-respiratory capacity; and the sport psychologist Richard Suinn has demonstrated a similar effect by having subjects "run relaxed." This synergy of physical and mental training is appreciated now by meditation teachers and sportspeople around the world. The same principle holds for other practices. Psychotherapy is recommended now by Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist teachers for certain monks and lay students because the self-awareness it can provide facilitates the mindfulness and self-liberation that contemplative prayer and meditation are meant to promote; while conversely, many psychotherapists now advise their clients to practice meditation so that they might acquire greater detachment from their emotions, impulses, and thoughts.

Disciplines that stand the tests of time typically have this synergistic effect, producing several beneficial results at once, because all of our capacities are connected and therefore influenced, for better or worse, by significant changes in any part of our body or mind. The efficiency of practice, in other words, arises from the underlying unity of human nature and its emergent attributes. .{I}n spite of human nature's shortcomings and perversities, which are vividly apparent to us all, its many attributes can and eventually must participate in our further development because that is their destiny, their most basic intent. Human nature, we believe, is meant for integral transformation. The winds of grace are blowing for all of our attributes, but we must raise a sail large enough to catch them.

Basic Elements of Transformative Practice

In spite of differences that arise from their different origins and philosophies, transformative disciplines around the world share several basic elements. Contemplative prayer, for example, involves the same instinctive opening to the Transcendent in Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures.

Witness meditation, during which one observes thoughts, impulses, and emotions with liberating detachment, is practiced by Theravada Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, Indian yogis, Sufis, and contemporary psychologists. And though they are described in different ways and given different names, focused intention and affirmations are required in all such disciplines. Because these fundamental activities, moves, or modalities of practice take different forms, they are best thought of as a set, or families. Here we will emphasize five such "practice families" that, we believe, are especially important for the cultivation of our emergent attributes.

Focused Intention, Affirmations, and Vows

Without this family, or set, of activities, no transformative practice can succeed. Though our emergent attributes often appear spontaneously, they must be deliberately cultivated if we want them to last, and for this we need focused intention and a persistent will to actualize them. To reinforce such intention and perseverance, every sacred tradition requires vows from its members to pursue virtue, goodness, enlightenment, or oneness with God. That is why Alcoholic Anonymous and the various "twelve-step" programs require affirmations by their participants and why sportspeople practice "self-talk," visualization, and concentration exercises to improve their fitness and performance. "The Life We Are Given" by George Leonard and Michael Murphy outlines an integral transformative practice such as we are proposing here; it describes the use of affirmations which,

.are clear, straightforward statements of positive change in body, being, and performance. They represent a firm contact with ourselves. They focus our best conscious efforts on transformation while seeking to enlist powers beyond our conscious understanding. They are written in the present tense to describe conditions as you intend them to be at some specified time in the future.

To take an example: Say you're a person who is often too busy or preoccupied to consider other people's feelings. You want to develop more empathy. Your affirmation could be: "I enjoy a profound empathy for other people that sometimes appears to be telepathic." Present tense. It would not be, "I will develop my powers of empathy" or "I intend to be a more empathic person" or "To be more empathic."

By employing the present tense, the affirmation "I enjoy a profound empathy for other people that sometimes appears to be telepathic," might seem to deny reality. Yes, right now, in the life you lead, you are by no means an empathic person. But our affirmation is not a denial of that reality. Rather, it is an instrument for creating a parallel, present-day reality in your consciousness...

This consciousness of yours is nothing you can touch or photograph or measure with any known instrument, but it is nonetheless real. It exists in the universe. It is organized. It produces results. Your job is to create the condition of being an empathic person in the realm of your consciousness. This may be accomplished through language (repeating the affirmation silently or aloud), imaging (creating a strong image of yourself as an empathic person), and emotion (feeling what another feels). In this example, some part of the change can be accomplished simply through practicing being empathic with loved ones, acquaintances, or strangers--even if that practice seems at first pro forma. It's also important to open ourselves to the magic of grace, that mysterious seemingly unearned mediation that often comes when least expected. But whether the mediation is practical and easily understandable or mysterious, the concentrated intentionality triggered by the affirmation process is central.

Such affirmations can be practiced through words, images, emotions, and deliberate acts. And they are real. If firmly held, they become more than "figments of the imagination" as they exert real energies for change. Indeed, they can become increasingly

real if reinforced through constant practice, and for that reason must be chosen with care. To paraphrase the ancient adage, be careful what you pray for because you may well get it...

Self-observation, witness meditation, and liberating detachment

To develop our emergent attributes, we need to move toward the greater awareness revealed by disciplined self-observation and witness meditation. This awareness, which both transcends and embraces our psychological and bodily functioning, grows as we deliberately detach ourselves from all images, thoughts, impulses, feelings, and sensations. It comes into its own, so to speak, through non-interfering self-observation that relinquishes attachment to both inner and outer events. As it grows, this witnessing awareness provides new freedom from mental, emotional, and physical habits, as well as brief moments of joy and recognitions of a deeper freedom still. With long-term cultivation, it opens onto larger vistas and becomes a boundless subjectivity that realizes unity everywhere. This fundamental awareness is its own reward and one of the supreme results of transformative practice, but it is also necessary for practical success in both the early and later stages of integral development. Its ever-renewing freedom cushions the shocks, readjustments, and restructurings required for high-level change. Its spaciousness, clarity, and constancy help us sustain deep and lasting change. As it develops through meditation and ongoing self-observation, it blossoms into transcendent knowing and identity, revealing our deepest being, in which we find the source of our synchronicities, emergent attributes, and premonitions of extraordinary life. This, of course, is the secret of the best modern therapy and the ancient practice of contemplative meditation. From the undivided, inclusive, ever-buoyant awareness we find in self-observing meditation, we can bring our various attributes into contact and eventual integration. Abiding in it, we discover new sources of creativity, spontaneous right action, and direct contact with our deepest source. Such awareness can be cultivated in all circumstances, including transitions between different states of consciousness. The Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo wrote:
It is even possible to become wholly conscious in sleep from beginning to end or over large stretches of our dream-experience; then we are aware of ourselves passing from state after state of consciousness to a brief period of dreamless rest, which is the true restorer of the energies of the waking nature, and then returning by the same way to the waking consciousness.
We can also develop such awareness during transitions to states other than sleep. A few Indian yoga schools have even permitted the use of alcohol as part of their discipline, encouraging their followers to maintain self-awareness while intoxicated. Some Sufi groups emphasize self-observation during manual labor, intense exercise, and other conditions where attention typically falters. And the Tibetan "Book of the Dead" as well as other manuals for dying, give instructions for the maintenance of consciousness through stages of death. By extending unbroken awareness through all of our activities, such practices open connections between--and help integrate--our dissociated parts. They give us more command of habitual behaviors, promote access to our spiritual depths, and begin to reveal our deepest self within all mental and physical events.

Contemplative Prayer

The fundamental awareness, or knowing, we have just described can be realized as well through the practice of spiritual devotion. Such devotion, called bhakti yoga

by Hindus is fundamental to Christian contemplative life, as well as to Jewish and Islamic mysticism. In her mystic text "The Seven Manners of Loving, " Beatrijs of Nazareth (c1230-68) wrote:

When love for God is awakened in the soul, it joyfully arises and stirs itself in the heart. The heart then is so tenderly touched in love, so powerfully assailed, so wholly encompassed and so lovingly embraced in love that the soul is altogether conquered by love. Then it feels a great closeness to God and a spiritual brightness and a wonderful richness and a noble freedom and a great compulsion of love, and an overflowing fullness of great delight.

The soul feels that all its senses and its will have become love, that it has sunk so deeply and been engulfed so completely in love that it has itself entirely become love. Love's beauty has adorned the soul, love's power has consumed it, love's sweetness has submerged it, love's righteousness has engulfed it, love's excellence has embraced it, love's purity has enhanced it, love's exaltedness has drawn it up and enclosed it, so that the soul must be nothing else but love and do nothing else. The great Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi wrote: "I, you, he, she, we--in the garden of mystic lovers, these are not true distinctions" In the realization produced by spiritual devotion, everything begins to be seen as God's glory and goodness. Praising God in song and prayer, meditating on God's magnificence, repeating God's name, leads to a purification that can remove all barriers between lover and Beloved, and the two become One. In this oneness, this joy, the great Indian mystic Ramakrishna discovered the same essential identity, the same fundamental and eternal ground, that he had experienced through contemplative meditation. He was not alone in equating the two kinds of realizations. According to spiritual adepts such as Rumi and the poet Kabir, the God we know through loving prayer is the same as the One we know through self-observation. "For ages I knocked at God's door," Rumi wrote. "But when it opened at last, I saw I was knocking from inside." Frederic Myers, the pioneering psychical researcher, viewed prayer from the perspective of his research with paranormal phenomena and the subliminal mind. Prayer, he wrote, resembles deep hypnosis and other self-suggestive techniques in that it makes "a draft upon the Unseen."
I have urged [he wrote] that while our life is maintained by continual inflow from the World-soul, that inflow may vary in abundance or energy in correspondence with variations in the attitude of our own minds. [The] supplication of the Lourdes pilgrims, the adoring contemplation of the Christian Scientists, the inward concentration of the self-suggesters, the trustful anticipation of the hypnotized subject--all these are mere shades of the same mood of mind--of the mountain-moving faith which can in actual fact draw fresh life from the Infinite.

Like Myers, William James wrote about prayer in non-sectarian language. The further limits of human nature, he wrote:

plunge into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely "understandable" world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose. So far as our ideal impulses originate in this region (and most of them do originate in it, for we find them possessing us in a way for which we cannot articulately account), we belong to it in a more intimate sense than that in which we belong to the visible world, for we belong in the most intimate sense wherever our ideals belong. Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in this world.

When we commune with it, work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men, and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural world upon our regenerative change. But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had not philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal. God is real since he produces real effects.

If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God's existence come in, I should have to say that, in general, I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of "prayerful communion".immediately suggests. The appearance is that in this phenomenon something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our center of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways.

If, then, there be a wider world of being than that of our everyday consciousness, if in it there be forces whose effects on us are intermittent, if one facilitating condition of the effects be the openness of the "subliminal" door, we have the elements of a theory to which the phenomena of religious life lend plausibility. I am so impressed by the importance of these phenomena that I adopt the hypothesis which they so naturally suggest. At these places at least, I say, it would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world to which the rest of our experiences belongs. We have noted many kinds of experience that suggest, as James put it, that something beyond the ordinary self "actually exerts an influence, raises our center of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways." In our most inspired moments, we typically feel as if something greater-call it God, Buddha Mind, or the Tao--is moving through us, and we are naturally called to the "prayerful communion" with it that James described. Such prayer is instinctive in us and can empower all transformative practice.

Catharsis

The word "catharsis," which comes into English and other modern languages from ancient Greek, means a purification or cleansing of the mind and emotions that relieves both psychic and physical tension. In the healing temples of ancient Greece, the cathartic power of drama was so esteemed that it was regularly prescribed as a cure for disease. Indeed Aristotle saw catharsis as a central function of drama, and his view has influenced many thinkers since. In modern psychology, catharsis has been used since Freud to relieve emotional conflicts and gain access to unconscious content of the mind. It is an active component of political rallies, sports events, movies, and humor. And it is a basic element of much transformative practice, including therapeutic dialogue, intense meditation and prayer, strenuous athletic training, and role-playing in various kinds of therapy.

Mental Imagery

As we are using the term here, "mental imagery" refers to quasi-sensory experience that occurs in the absence of physical stimuli. On a cold winter night, for example, while imagining a summer day at a beach, you can view inward pictures of surf accompanied by sensations of warmth on your skin, the sounds of gently rolling waves, smells of the sea, and tastes of beer or lemonade. You can do this because mental imagery can produce effects that resemble those of ordinary vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

Many scientific studies have shown that all people have some capacity for it, though to varying degrees and that all of us have a night-and-day stream of it to which we may or may not attend. For better or worse, imagery inhabits our reveries, our dreams, and our deliberate thought. It has a constant influence on our body, emotions, intentions, and reason."As a man thinketh," said Jesus, "so is he."

We constantly communicate with mental images, which is why we are sometimes advised to "lighten up," "come down," or "see the light." Recognition of imagery's power is embedded in our common language. Knowing this, shamans, yogis, Zen masters, Christian spiritual directors, counselors, coaches, and other teachers have long employed it in their disciplines.

They have done so because like other elements of practice that have stood the tests of time, it can alter many aspects of human nature at once. It can facilitate powers of will, enrich emotions, help improve sensorimotor skills, and promote access to greater states of mind by the enlistment of countless psychological and bodily processes all at once, even when most such processes operate outside of ordinary consciousness. Like the other basic elements of practice we have noted, it can be highly efficient, which is why athletes and actors employ it to enhance performance, why clients in therapy use it to picture desired behaviors, and why many contemplatives imagine the higher presence or power with which they want to unite.

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