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Archive for the ‘Spiritual Practice’ Category

What is the relationship between matter and spirit? What is the relation between the will to self-preservation and the will toward sacred atonement? Here’s an answer, where you may or may not expect it.

Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Here we have one of the best known and most frequently cited anecdotes from the New Testament. Typically, the story is read as a lesson in discernment, in distinguishing the righteous from the unrighteous, the holy from the impious. But the passage is not without controversy, and interpretations vary widely. For the line that separates the wicked from the virtuous is hardly as clear as the distinction between Martha and Mary. Indeed, the very subtlety of that distinction is the crux around which this fable revolves.

It should come as no surprise that Mary, who stoops down low, by Jesus’ feet, should be exalted higher and presented as the sister with greater virtue and sublimity. Variations on this theme recur throughout the Gospels, most notably in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.

What fewer interpretations appreciate however, in their need to draw a strict line between right and wrong, between heaven and earth, is the importance of Martha and Mary being sisters and living together. Like the sets of brothers who star in so many ancient legends and myths, the housemates here do not represent separate and distinct characters, but the divergent aspects of a single individual.

Differentiating between good people and bad people is one thing, but the more important task is to recognize and acknowledge the sacred and the vulgar impulses within ourselves. Martha and Mary occupy the same house, just as their characteristics co-exist in a single personality. Maintaining a healthy household and a harmonious family, allegorically speaking, means tending a healthy psyche and balancing the circle of inner forces.

Martha tries to shame Mary for neglecting the cooking and cleaning, the daily duties of earthly living. Meanwhile, Jesus criticizes Martha for failing to attend to the “one thing needed,” the eternal matters of singular importance. In fact, genuine health requires both; we must be mindful of our material needs, but we must also remember the questions of ultimate importance.

For Jesus, the paragon of holy perfection, it’s easy to look down on those who bother themselves with the mundane duties and household chores. But for the rest of us, we would wallow in filth and starve if we simply ignored the housework and shrugged off our basic material needs. All too often though, we end up getting lost in the daily routine, consumed by worldly matters. And once our earthly pursuits have crowded out and supplanted our spiritual endeavors, then we have gone astray. As it’s been said, we cannot serve two masters.

What then is the genuine master? What is that “one thing needed,” which Mary looks after and Martha neglects, the one thing which cannot be named? That of course is the great question, and it must remain forever the question, because every time we name it, we think we own it. But we we do not. And so it slips a bit further from our grasp.

For one, that article of singular importance may be wisdom, or love. For another it may be justice, or motherhood. For the Greeks, these ideals had titles, like Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. These were their gods, which is another way of saying that these were the things that gave meaning and depth to their otherwise ordinary lives. These ideals were portrayed as  living and dynamic, capricious and ephemeral. And I think the Greeks were on to something here.

But Jesus was emphatic on this point, that Mary had made the right choice by directing her attention to the holy and the eternal, as personified in this text by Jesus himself. By the same token, he insisted that Martha, distracted by so many menial things, was missing out on the one thing she could not lose. And in order to understand and identify that singular thing, we must look deeply within ourselves.

Unless we take time to nourish the soul, the daily duties become mere motions, sterile and meaningless. Still, if we try to dwell exclusively in the astral and the eternal, we cannot expect to thrive or even survive in this world of objects. We can model ourselves after the great sages, but ultimately we cannot live like Alyosha Karamazov, always on that higher plain but never without a clean shirt and a fresh bite to eat in his hand. Concerning ourselves exclusively with the otherworldly, we are more likely to suffer the tragic fate of Prince Myshkin, to borrow another page from Dostoyevsky.

It’s not that Martha is up to no good. She’s not dabbling in witchcraft, she’s not obsessing over monetary gain or collecting trophies, and she’s certainly not acting out of selfishness or malice. She’s simply seeing that the kitchen is in good order and that a good lunch is properly prepared. These are hardly the actions of an audacious sinner. But these material concerns are respectfully inferior to Mary’s interest in the kingdom of god, in entering that realm where all things are connected as one.

To lead a healthy life, Mary and Martha each have their roles to play. We should invoke the spirit of both sisters, so that the two aspects can function together. But in order to be effective, we must render unto Martha what is Martha’s and render unto Mary what is Mary’s. When we are working in practical areas, we need to focus on doing that work properly. And when we strive to reach a higher plane of spiritual connectivity, our attention must be concentrated like Mary’s, and our minds must be free from the clutter and those ongoing to-do lists, the many things diverting Martha’s attention.

The house of Martha and Mary serves as the model for right mindfulness, right action, and proper balance. It’s critical to remain mindful of Martha, to tend the hearth, take out the garbage, and file your taxes. Grand ideas give us meaning and purpose, but they rarely put food on the table or shoes on your feet. At the same time, we ought to remember Maslov’s pyramid of needs. Once the basics have been provided for, we can—and should—move onward and upward. To give our lives real meaning, we must embark on that spiritual journey, humble ourselves before the vast and mysterious, and devote our attention to the highest ideals, that which cannot be touched or taken away.

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If you’d like to be an opera singer, you need to learn Italian. If you want to learn gourmet cooking, it might help to speak French. And if you want to study philosophy, theology and metaphysics, it would be useful to know some German. There’s no doubt, these fields of study were dominated by Germans for a good solid three or four centuries, from Luther to Leibniz, Hegel to Heidegger, Schopenhauer to Schleiermacher.

I recently spent a week in the central German city of Erfurt, where Martin Luther enjoys the status of a superhero, and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a church. I can attest this second fact from personal experience, as I toured the city with my two feisty youngsters.

Over the course of our ongoing walking tours of the east German city, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to track down one particular house of worship known as the Predigerkirche, or the preacher’s church. For days, I circumambulated the historic Altstadt, longing to locate this semi-obscure monument, the Eckhart Door.

Long before Luther, the region’s best known church father was a country preacher by the name of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). Or at least that’s the name by which we remember him some 700 years later. Eckhart’s reputation waxed and waned over the centuries, but around the turn of the 20th century, he enjoyed something of a revival, and today we recognize him as one of the premier religious mystics of the western tradition, alongside the likes of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. You might think of him as Christianity’s equivalent of Rumi.

Among the countless statues and historic monuments in Germany however, there is hardly a mention of this 13th century sage. So when I discovered that there was Meister Eckhart door on the Predigerkirche, I headed straight over. Or at least I tried to head straight over.

Erfurt’s old city center, like any other European city center, consists of a tight network of short, narrow and circuitous alleys and passages. So it’s nigh impossible to move anywhere in a straight line. But move and meander I did, strolling past church after church. I worked my way around the Luther church, admired the partial remains of the Barefoot church, noted the unusually sparse architecture of a certain evangelical church, but the Eckhart door still eluded me.

After a couple days of this mild frustration, I was forced to consult my maze-like map in excruciating detail. Gradually I honed my search, until finally I zeroed in on the neatly concealed Predigerkirche. With both my children in tow, I began to circle the sprawling structure. Approaching from the back of the church, we made our way through the cloister and found ourselves in the courtyard of the seminary school. Stone walls and irons gates partitioned the chapel and the divinity school, but no sign of a door with any allusion of the illustrious medieval mystic.

Finally, on the opposite side, we found the main entrance to the church. But still no mention of the Meister. We looked to the left, we looked to the right, we looked up, we looked inside, but only the narrow foyer was open to visitors. The children were growing restless. I stood at the door and doubted the entire undertaking. Perhaps we should simply cut our losses and find ourselves some fresh baked pretzels instead. Always delicious, never elusive.

Then we rounded the other side, and lo and behold, the last possible door of the church, the absolute furthest corner from where our circumnavigation began: we had arrived. No fanfare, no throngs of foreign tourists waiting to take a picture, just me and my two kids, and a very heavy door engraved with a bible verse and the dates of Meister Eckhart’s life.

My daughter was so relieved. “Ok, let’s go in already,” she groaned.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s just a door. We can’t open it. The church is locked. It’s just a door.”

She was incredulous. I tried to point out the nice big bronze letters on the door. She was not impressed. And so we headed back, slightly fulfilled, slightly disappointed, and mostly just relieved that we could stop searching and get on with our lives.

But later that day we passed a tourist information office, and I found a very small booklet about Eckhart, with a cover photo of the Bodendenkmal, the floor monument. Really? Was there yet another Eckhart monument to go and find?

As it turns out, a newer and even more meaningful memorial to Meister Eckhart covers the ground at the front door of the Predigerkirche. I had just stood on that exact spot, looking left and right of the church and upwards towards the steeple. I’d looked everywhere but down. Had I not been so obsessed with that door, I might have easily noticed the words of Meister Eckhart himself, etched into the very floor, right below my feet.

While the door includes a verse from the book of John, the floor memorial features seven distinct quotes from Eckhart, who for several years had delivered weekly sermons to his congregation in Erfurt. On one of those floor plaques reads the memorable message, “Man kann Gott nicht besser finden als dort, wo man ihn lässt”, which I would translate as: “Nowhere can you better discover God than where you let Him go.”

I can hardly think of a better phrase to sum up the lesson I learned in my long and winding quest to locate that glorious door. Sometimes the greatest discoveries are waiting right at our finger tips, if only we can let go of our tenacious attachment to the search.

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Some people refer to it as “the days when God still spoke to people.” German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) called it the Axial Age. It was the time of humanity’s most prolific religious and spiritual output, roughly 2500 years ago.

In India, the Buddha was achieving enlightenment. In China, Lao Tzu was grappling with non-duality, and Confucius was articulating morality. In Athens, Greece, Socrates was questioning everything and formulating the bedrock of western philosophy. And in the near East, Hebrew sages, under Babylonian Captivity, were using a revolutionary alphabet to compose the literary foundations of Judeo-Christianity.

These were heady times indeed. And some have drawn comparisons with our current era. The proliferation of what have come to be known as “New Age” ideologies suggests to some that we are currently moving through a second Axial Age. Of course, there are other factors at play, the ability of modern technology to spread ideas with unimaginable ease and quickness, and a response to the relatively recent Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason.

Extenuating circumstances aside, it’s hard to deny the outburst of spiritual ideas that we have witnessed in the last hundred years. Maybe it started with Carl Jung, sometimes called the father of the new age movement. Perhaps we can trace it back even further to the prophetic writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. At the turn of the twentieth century, religion effectively meant Christianity; now it includes everything from from reptile idolatry to past-life clairvoyance. And today we have entire bookstores devoted to new age spirituality, this in a time when bookstores are disappearing faster than Manischevitz at a Jewish wedding.

Deepak Choprah, Eckhart Tolle and Jane Roberts have all become household names, among a sea of others like Ken Wilber, Matthew Fox, Michael Talbot, and hundreds of others. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in a long line of Tibetan Buddhist visionaries, but has there ever been another Dalai Lama even a fraction as popular and influential as the incarnation who has held this venerable position since 1950?

Ordinary people from all walks of life turn to these alternative ideas and ideologies to escape the meaninglessness and absurdity which has plagued our species for the last century or so. For significant segments of society, traditional religion has grown inadequate, while the basic need for some sort of spiritual outlet or connection still looms large. For others however, attachment to the old religion has grown stronger than ever.

Perceiving an existential threat from these novel spiritual schools, the most traditional Christians (as well as Muslims and others) have responded by clinging more tightly than ever to their old beliefs. This resurgence of fundamentalism has been all too obvious in the last couple decades, coming to a boiling point in what we so casually refer to now as the Culture Wars.

The failures of neo-liberalism notwithstanding, progressive movements have advanced with great strides in terms of racial integration, LGBT rights, gender equality and more compassionate social. It should come as no surprise then that we should see a pushback against this progress. Under Donald Trump’s flag of making America what it used to be, xenophobia, patriarchy, traditional religion and intolerance are soaring to new heights. Terrifying as this all might be to any forward-thinking individuals, it also confirms the fact that we have accomplished some great changes in the last 50 years.

In the spiritual sphere, we have witnessed a coming together of ideas, old and new, from East and West, like never before. Major swaths of the population are undergoing a shift in consciousness, growing increasingly aware of the universality and interconnectedness that tie us together. The teachings date back to the first Axial Age, but today, those ideas are embraced on a whole different level, in an entirely new context.

The quantum leap of consciousness is something worth celebrating, but, as tremendous as it is, it will not take place without a violent wave of resistance from those still attached to the traditional and archaic. In fact, the collision of traditional and new age belief systems, as we see, is only pushing them further back, to the point where they literally refuse to look at the facts. The sense of tribalism has grown so tenacious, that they will follow their strongman leader blindly. So intolerant have they become to the flow of progress, that they willfully ignore any message, however valid or reliable, when it goes against the ethos of their own narrow and regressive worldview.

People speak now of resisting, and organizing resistance, against the reign of Trump and this resurgence of bullying and ethnocentrism. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this new regime is the resistance. It is a reactionary resistance against an undeniable movement forward. We are witnessing the death throes of a belief system on the verge of collapse. It might happen slowly, and will almost certainly get ugly, but ultimately, the forward momentum will always prevail over the backward resistance.

This is happening now, and it is happening daily. It is nothing less than a war of ideas. But as we see their movement scurry forth, and watch them sink lower and lower into the depths of anger, denial and willful ignorance, what’s most important is that we not allow them to drag us down with them. Like the young Luke Skywalker when confronted by the wrath of Darth Vader (the Dark Father, the symbol of a passing generation), we must not give in to anger.

Anger leads to the Dark Side. And we all know this. They have already dragged us into their post-fact world. If it comes down to a battle of bullshit, the Dark Side wins. If we reduce ourselves to a rivalry of name-calling and finger pointing, again, the Dark Side will prevail. When they take the low road, we must take the high road. If they insist that Jesus entitles them to the moral high ground, and they do, then we must remain vigilant.

Such flagrant hypocrisy and hyperbolic dishonesty cannot last long. In time, they will be their own undoing. But it could still get worse before it gets better. Our leaders are teachers and mystics, not generals and politicians, so the struggle might not be an easy one, and for a time it may look like they are ahead. We must stick together and steel ourselves for some nasty displays of darkness. But their desperate extremism only proves that the forces of progress and tolerance are winning.

Finally, remember the words of Dr. King, for he too withstood a few beatings and proved his own moral supremacy while resisting the temptations of anger and violence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Another year has come and gone. A new one has just begun. It’s a time of transition, an opportunity for deep reflections, for goal setting and dream weaving. This year, why not do something really different?  Try to make some real changes in your life. What better way than to elevate your consciousness and initiate yourself in the mysteries of higher worlds and esoteric knowledge?

I’m not here to say it’s easy, but here are seven relatively straightforward steps to start you on a profound journey into the horizon of the eternal. On the spiritual plane, linear time melts into a nebulous singularity, but here on the concrete pages of the internet, time moves forward like an arrow. So I’m listing the steps of spiritual advancement from one through seven, not an entirely arbitrary order, but most of the steps can happen simultaneously.

1) Study the mystics.
Read the written wisdom of the greatest mystics of east and west: Meister Eckhardt, Teresa of Avila, Dalai Lama; there are dozens to look for. Before embarking on your spiritual journey, become familiar with the fruits of the deep and pious labors of history’s most successful seers.

2) Open your heart to respect and reverence.
Spiritual practice has a history as old as humanity. In primitive times it was a more common pursuit, back before the age of reason and enlightenment, when the mind of man was more open to the immense powers of the irrational. That side of the brain is now overdue for a rekindling.

Spirituality has always been bound to the worship of a higher deity, an idea which has grown increasingly untenable in the modern age. But this ideal of divinity remains crucial to the elevation of the soul. It’s not so much the presence of god that is required, but the belief in something greater than ourselves.

Evolving to a higher level requires a belief in—and a devotion to—something on that higher level. By cultivating a childlike reverence, to something greater, the spirit becomes more receptive to those energies emanating from the upper echelon. This reverence does not mean subservience, but openness, gratitude and humility. It’s an attitude worth adopting in all areas of life.

3) Tend your soil.
Esoteric knowledge is available only to those prepared to receive it. Develop your own spirit in order to accept the gifts from the highest spiritual circles. Invoke reverence, devotion and awe, to release yourself, even briefly, from the mundane material conditions.

4) Let your higher self prevail.
This is not the “I”, but the voice that sometimes speaks to the “I”, the “I am” that witnesses and observes the “ego-I”. This is the self that is rooted deep in the common soil, in the fertile ground of all awareness. This is not the “I” that must separate from everything in order to define and distinguish itself as individual. This is the self that has already been individuated, but accentuates its participation in the larger whole. This is the self that can see into the face of another person and recognize the light that shines equally in both of them.

5) Let go of the dark side.
Free yourself from criticism, judgment and cynicism, and let your spirit rise. Feelings like this, if we let them run unchecked, only hold us back and keep our spirits down. Instead, make room for the higher self. Let the light in. Strive to be positive. When goodness is silent, evil enters. With every action, we can tilt the scales toward the darkness or towards the light. And every action begins with words and thoughts.

6) Create moments of inner peace.
Make moments of inner peace to distinguish the essential from the inessential. Take a few minutes each day for contemplative reflection. Learn to see the conditions of the material life of the individual as something remote, but without neglecting the daily duties and responsibilities. Free yourself from the outer impressions and develop a rich inner life. This does not mean denying yourself the pleasures of life. It means escaping the vicious cycle of leaping from one sensory gratification to another, to another, always wanting more.

7) Follow the path quietly.
There is no need for outward displays of spirituality. Seek insights quietly, and not simply to enrich your own stores of knowledge, but for the broader benefit of humanity. And as you do so, stop comparing your inside to other people’s outsides.

Special thanks to Rudolf Steiner, from whose works I’ve been reading and deriving great inspiration. If you have additional tips for enhancing your spiritual practice on the path to higher knowledge, please share them in the comments.

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