Monday, March 31, 2008

Socially Engaged Spirituality

I've been intending on writing about this for months now. When I returned to graduate school it was primarily to pursue my research interests in psycho-spiritual development. However, I found myself quite drawn to the certificate program in Socially Engaged Spirituality despite reservations about relevancy, time, and additional cost. Long story short, I followed my intuition and applied for the program. Since starting, I've gained a great deal of insight into spirituality and spiritual practice by approaching from this outer form of mysticism, directly connecting inner and outer transformation.

The program director is Donald Rothberg, who has recently written The Engaged Spiritual Life exploring engaged spirituality from a Buddhist perspective. You can also listen to a radio interview with Donald Rothberg on KPFA's Living Room. Interview begins about twenty minutes into the program.

In my coursework so far, I have not only made connections and gained insight into Gnostic practice, but in the process have developed a theory on psycho-spiritual transformation. So, the program has directly benefited what I had thought was an unrelated research interest. Score another one for intuition. And, yes, Engaged Gnosticism will have its place in the Gnostic Studies program at the Gnosis Institute.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Following the Path of Gnosis: The Spiritual Exercise of Attention

Gnosticism can be seen as flowing from the joining of three major streams of Western practice and thought: the philosophical traditions, particularly the practices of Platonism; the mystery traditions (aka “schools” or “cults”) of mythic and symbolic experiential religious transformative practices; and, the “apocalyptic” (in the sense of visionary) traditions, principally those within Judaism. Because of our modern understanding and modern practice of philosophy, we often view ancient philosophy through a modern lens, seeing it as an abstract, theoretical, or system-bound way of thinking. However, in the ancient world philosophy was primarily a way of life, a practice of self-transformation.
The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, and exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom. (Hadot, 1995, p. 83)
The means of achieving these goals of living out a philosophy were spiritual exercises. When there is mention of “spiritual exercises,” there is a strong association with the work by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (aka Jesuits). However, Ignatius is not the originator of the concept, but a later exemplar of a long tradition that predates Christianity.

Spiritual exercises are essentially intentional techniques for growth and transformation that include: modifying consciousness, training the mind, preparing/preempting reactions to experiences, developing mental and emotional capabilities, focusing attention, etc. Pierre Hadot (1995) has traced the use of spiritual exercises in the philosophical practices of antiquity at least as far back as Plato. And, similar types of practices are a hallmark of religious and spiritual practice.

Attention (prosoche) is named in both of Philo of Alexandria's lists of spiritual exercises. This is the focus on the present moment, a vigilance and readiness to act and react to what is present. This is a practical emancipation of ourselves from being caught up in past or future, or any other dissociated state, through applied attention. The present is the only situation in which we have the freedom to act, in considerations of the past and future we can only be reactive. We are more familiar with this exercise from the Buddhist tradition where it is called “mindfulness.”

As a meditation teacher instructed a group I was in, “We often say that it is very easy to be mindful. The difficulty is remembering to be mindful.” This points us to the core of the exercise: it is not simply having the capacity for attention or mindfulness, but applying attention that is the spiritual exercise and that application is were the difficulty lay and where some discipline is required. The description of this as an “exercise” is apt, for just like a physical exercise, one has to actually perform it to gain any benefit. Knowing how to exercise, being capable of exercise, and knowing that exercise is beneficial, isn't enough—it must be performed regularly. This failure to exercise is a particular danger in the case of spiritual exercises, as we may have a tendency to dismiss them as merely “mental” exercises. And in a sense think that thinking about them is somehow equivalent to doing them.

Attention is also like a physical exercise in that it is more difficult when beginning, and that one encounters resistance and may discontinue after trying it a few times when immediate dramatic results do not manifest. A number of strategies will help with this. One is making a commitment to a mindfulness meditation class or group. These can be found almost everywhere. An experienced and knowledgeable instructor can greatly aid in getting started and save you time in developing skill as you progress. However, the benefits of committing to a class or group can almost be replicated on your own by having a specific place, a specific time, and a conducive environment to work through the issues in beginning the practice of attention. The “technique” is simple yet there are a lot of skills that can help. The usual method of beginning is to focus your attention on your breathing for a set amount of time. There are many variations possible, such as different targets of the focus of your attention, the main thing is to find a focus that works for you. When you catch yourself having drifted in your focus, re-focus and continue. Over time you become capable of maintaining focus for longer, and catching your mind wandering more quickly. When you have performed this basic focusing exercise for long enough, you can begin the actual exercise of maintaining attention in more circumstances and for longer in your life.

The most frequent excuse or complaint concerning any exercise is that you don't have enough time. However, as you practice mindfulness you will realize that it is the only time when you are really living. So, it isn't that you don't have time in your life, but this is when you actually get to live your life. The indirect benefits also vastly outweigh the cost in time spent, as research shows that even a little mindfulness exercise improves focus and performance (University of Pennsylvania, 2007). Furthermore, as you progress you can exercise in more situations. Being mindful while washing dishes, for example, makes washing dishes a spiritual exercise. It is something of great value that can be added to many situations. Such as, enjoying the time spent waiting, instead of feeling frustration. Or, being able to give our full attention to someone as the precious gift that it is.

This exercise of attention is exercising and developing consciousness of awareness itself. And, every situation we can exercise attention in, it another situation where we are now free not only to act, but to be. This is not only a basic skill and a place to start on the path of Gnosis, it is a very powerful tool in its own right, for it is the ability to focus, to shine, the light within. As the Gospel of Thomas says, "within the person of light there is light. If it shines, the world is illumined. If it does not shine, there is darkness."

Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Cambridge: Blackwell.

University of Pennsylvania (2007, June 26). Meditate to concentrate. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Spirituality: Flat or Multi-level?

Two basic views of spirituality are developed as the fundamental framework for understanding individual spiritual experience in William James' classic the Varieties of Religious Experience. “The result is two different conceptions of the universe of our experience.” (James, 1902/1982, p. 166) James terms this difference as the difference between the “once-born” individual and the “twice-born” individual.
In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account. (p. 166)
The “once-born” understanding is a horizontal or “flat” understanding of spirituality. “Flat” meaning that in this view, spirituality is something understood within a single framework of meaning. For example, if one text or teacher says the opposite of another text or teacher, then by necessity there is a contradiction. As a single framework for meaning, literalism is an example of a flat understanding of spirituality, however, a flat understanding need not be literal. A flat understanding can be nuanced or complex, but that nuance or complexity is external and general. The framework doesn't change, from person to person, or as one learns or increases in understanding—everything makes sense within it, or makes no sense at all.

In contrast, in the “twice-born” understanding there is more than one framework. This does not mean that all the frameworks are understood, for that would be a flat understanding, though perhaps categorized or compartmentalized. Rather there is an awareness of at least one more framework, even if it is largely unknown.
In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. ... There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other. (p. 166)
From the “flat” understanding of the “once-born” that James uses to describe this to his audience, the multi-level view of the “twice-born” is the illness of a “sick soul” that requires an individual process of growth or transformation. Yet even after this process these individuals have “drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and their redemption is into a universe two stories deep.” (p. 187) This is an example of the incommensurability of these two frameworks for understanding spirituality.

James, W. (1902/1982). The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature. New York: Penguin.