The following article was published in March 2016 as both a warning and a guide to the two greatest problems that have befallen contemporary spirituality: (1) failure to grasp what the real meaning of spirituality is and (2) the substitution of spiritual practice with social and political concerns, and at times its wholesale replacement by them.
In previous articles I have pointed out the degree to which politics has increasingly co-opted spiritual practices in the esoteric, magickal, Neo-Pagan, New Age, and Western Buddhist communities and how this has made them ineffective in carrying out their intended purpose of being valuable tools for personal self-awareness and self-actualization. In many instances this movement away from personal awakening and emphasis on collective mundane action has degenerated into little more than “genital politics” as the rule of the day. This is often a surprise to many, but it should not be. As we have pointed out repeatedly, philosophy is ruled by Jupiter, and politics is defined as “philosophy in action.” However, if one finds that they are more focused on fixing others than fixing themselves, on problems rather than solutions (including acceptance of the “inevitable,” when that is the case), then they have strayed far from anything that can be called spiritual.
This powerfully seductive opiate of political utopianism and the manipulation of ideals was clearly demonstrated in this year’s election cycle, complete with the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” of its aftermath from many in the spiritual communities mentioned above. If we look carefully at the problem what we see is not the weeping for a lost candidate, or even a lost cause, but weeping for the loss of a failed, false identity and the terror of apparent reality in their own reflection. It is easy to get sucked into the dream of “the big vision.” As we pointed out in our discussion of egregores, all movements not only require it, they depend on it. Getting you sucked in is their “bread and butter.” Without your life force, they cease to exist; in this way, you and your life consists of nothing more than “food for the gods.”
This last point is particularly important and needs to be firmly grasped, otherwise the cycle of personal suffering will only continue – and remember, it is our own personal suffering and illumination that we have any real control over. Along with this comes the hard reality: each of us must be a living example of the ideals we profess rather than talking heads telling other people how to think, feel, and live…while our own life is a failed experiment in magical thinking. Positive thinking (or rather feeling) does work, but only if we are honest with ourselves about what we are working to achieve. That goal must first and foremost be the creation of a life for ourselves that is an example of health, happiness, and success. A life like this is rarely found inside of the political arena, or by those who see politics (little more than veiled violence in many instances) as the solution to their individual or collective problems, whether those problems are real or imagined.
To transcend suffering we need to transcend our narrow, limited sense of self. This has always been – and can only be – an individual experience. Yet we can come together to help each other on the Path. To do this we must dedicate ourselves to the principles discussed in the following paragraphs. We must learn renunciation, or how to “be in the world, but not of the world.” This means initially making ourselves useful, then doing good when we can – but not expecting the world to conform to our ideals, no matter how noble they are. If you want people to listen to your ideals, demonstrate to them that they are worth following because your life is a successful example of their vitality and practicality. In short, as we are told so often, “be the change you want in the world.” To do this, you need to focus on opportunities and goals that are actionable and within your reach – and there is no better place to start on this than in your own mind.
Why Smart People Fail…and Can Succeed, Too!
As I sit here writing this note, astronomical Spring has arrived. It arrives every year, like clockwork, because it is clockwork so to speak. Each year it comes and goes just as it has done since the Earth started having something that resembles four seasons in the Northern Hemisphere, and we started tracking it with the stars. It comes, it goes – and yet no one expects it to be gone forever.
I am also reading a book that arrived a few days ago: Superconsciousness: The Quest for Peak Experiences by Colin Wilson. He wrote it when he was seventy-five years of age as a distillation of his own work and “do-it-yourself manual” on the topic.
Now this is important.
You see, esotericism – or at least a large part of it – is really all about having and utilizing peak experiences. So anything that gets us into a peak frame of mind is a good thing, and supports in some way our personal and spiritual awareness. Anything that takes us away from peak experiences is counterproductive to our path or indicates something that we need to be aware of and pay attention to, so as to overcome it and get back into or onto the “peak.”
In his Foreword, Wilson summarizes a theme that I have addressed in various ways for several years now. It is the notion of the cultural zeitgeist of the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century: the “defeat bias” or “you can’t win” attitude in popular culture, the mass consciousness of people. Wilson calls this the “fallacy of insignificance,” or the idea that life is one long, drawn-out defeat.
Both Wilson and Abraham Maslow, founder of the modern theory of peak experiences, discussed this idea and its implications at length. Maslow found that when he discussed peak experiences with his students they felt better. They accessed more of themselves, performed better, and were happier, successful, and optimistic. This feedback loop continued and had actual concrete effects on their lives. The inverse of this is that when people complain, focus on negative outcomes (rather than problem solving and solutions), and past defeats, they become depressed (anger expressed inwardly), aggressive (anger expressed outwardly), and life then becomes a meaningless experience. Disease, self-destruction, and death follow in its wake.
Over the decades I have had the opportunity to know many people, most of them well-educated. What makes the successful ones different from those who are not successful is very often the ability to adapt to circumstances (we call that evolution) and optimism (a positive view of the future or the outcomes of their actions), united by self-confidence (a healthy self-image). Now, some of you will dismiss this as self-serving pop sales psychology, but I assure you it is not. It is the foundational basis of all occult practices, as well as yoga, Vajrayana Buddhism, and anything of value requiring that we get out of bed in the morning.
On the other hand, I have met many highly educated individuals who keep telling me how the world works, yet despite their myriad academic degrees, honors, publications, or membership in high-IQ societies, their overall accomplishments are relatively nominal – and above all, they are not very happy.
The reason? They recognize problems, but not solutions – or at least not solutions that actively involve their time, talent, and treasure. They are good at saying what others “should” or “ought” to do, but stop short of doing anything themselves – at least on a sustained level involving themselves as the active player. They also share a common habit: they complain, criticize, and point out the actual or perceived failings of others without pointing out anything good that the other party may be doing. Instead of building something for themselves and others, they spend their time attempting to cut others down.
I see and read this a lot in contemporary occultism. Authors telling us of great possibilities…but in their own lives barely able to pay the light bill. Now, we all have ups and downs in life. We all experience the range from highs (or peaks if you will) to the depths of despair. Learning to navigate these extremes is a function of any worthwhile life philosophy. However, what I am talking about is something different: a basic failure to let the negative go, to focus on the positive and find solutions that start and maybe even end with yourself as both the source of your own suffering and the solution to its elimination.
You see, your life is the only thing you are ultimately responsible for; your attitude and self-concept are the only things you can really control. When you are able to adapt to circumstances, it means that you are relaxed and flexible, one of the key expressions of the enlightened state. When you are optimistic, you are also expressing another foundational state of enlightenment; when you are self-confident, you are also expressing a foundational state of the enlightened mind – the basic nature of our very Self. This combination form the “holy trinity” that convey what an enlightened being is like. If we want to be enlightened, we need act in accordance with our ideal. For this we have several methods, of which Assumption of the Godform is the most common; however, without the inner confidence that enlivens the practice, it is little more than fantasy or a dead visualization. The same applies to any other ritual or practice we may undertake. It all begins and ends with us and our heartfelt self-image, along with how we nurture it daily.
So for this year, I would like each of you to think, feel, and act only from a state of adaptability, optimism, and self-confidence – to remove limiting self-concepts from your thinking, speaking, and writing. If these things “must” be expressed, do so in a manner that couples them with a solution or some means of using them as a benchmark for progress and unfoldment. Sarcasm, cynicism, competitive comparisons, and general criticisms are to be wholly and completely eliminated. If this means completely eliminating all media input from television, movies, and music, and maintaining silence in the company of friends and colleagues, then so be it.
In addition, I want each of you to focus on those things you did well and the positive feeling it brought you. Speak about this with others. Make it the focal point of your interactions, and weave it into any professional or group work you are doing. When possible, get others to focus on their peak experiences as well and see how it adds to the success of the endeavor. Remind yourself as often as you can of those “peak” times and rest in the joyful experience of the memory. Carry it forward, and let it carry you.
Each night, as the old Pythagoreans did, reflect and take stock of your day. Acknowledge your successes and act accordingly.
Sounds easy right? Great! That means that by this time next year, each of you will be sending me an email of your experiences and progress. I look forward to hearing from you. If you need some additional support, see our work The Inner Way: The Power of Prayer and Belief in Spiritual Practice.
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