This essay is closely linked to and follows from two others. They are "What is Spiritual Growth?" (1) and "Finding Your Path" (2). In them I look at the notions of spiritual development and life paths respectively. Both of these topics can spark interesting and lively discussions. This is natural as they are interesting topics as well as highly personal, many feel passionate about it and, of course, there are a wide variety of views on and about them. It is no different with discussions about spiritual paths, which is what we will examine here.
In many ways questions about what life or spiritual path one should follow are equivalent to asking "What is the best way for me to walk?" And no, I'm not being facetious. If the end post is enlightenment then anything and everything we do that makes us more conscious is part of our path. The spiritual tool set that works for one may not work for another even though they have similar backgrounds. We are the one who has to decide the "best way for us to walk" as no one can walk it for us.
I am writing this essay for two reasons. First, questions related to spiritual paths are among the most common I get. In part, this is because understandings of spirituality are typically vague and come with a great deal of uncertainty. This is to be expected due to how broad the field is. Further, the notion of "spiritual paths" itself is expansive and clarification is often sought. This is not just so that we are not talking "apples and oranges", but that we also know what we mean by either an apple or an orange. The other is our spiritual journey significantly affects our progress.
When it comes to either life or spiritual paths you quickly find that you cannot separate the person from it anymore than you can separate the air from the wind. This is why the question essentially irrelevant. Everyone is on a spiritual path even if they are not actively pursuing one. After all, we are beings of consciousness, spiritual beings if you would like, so there is an inherent spiritual aspect to all our doings. This is the simple answer, alas answering it is not simple because we are all unique that includes our minds with their perceptions, perspective and understanding of terms and so forth.
A big part of how I approach speaking to their question is based on their level of interest in, commitment to and knowledge and understanding of spiritual growth. We can group them into a few groups as listed below.
- The Curious: Those curious about or interest in spirituality, but little knowledge about it
- The Hesitant: Those who have been reluctant to commit themselves to it, for various reasons
- The Dissatisfied: Those who are not happy with their path and/or progress so far
- The Committed: Those who are actively involved in it and who want to broaden their view, seek some confirmation, counsel or additional clarity and so on
The groups titles are of little consequence, they are only intended to illustrate the kinds of reasons people have for asking such questions. Of course, there are others who are quite knowledgeable and simply enjoy exploring ideas or looking to fine tune their understandings or approach. I rarely get asked about spiritual paths by those who are firmly committed to whatever "path" they may be on and who believe they know the best way to proceed.
The biggest challenge in speaking to people's questions on spiritual paths is the number of factors involved. Qualities such as level of knowledge, intent, background and degree of interest and so forth all come into play. Asking questions to develop awareness of them helps me get a feel for the appropriate approach, language and terminology. My intent is not to tell them anything, rather it is to help them answer their own questions.
A less obvious challenge is that many are convinced that life and spiritual paths are like roads. That is you get on a road and follow it until you arrive at your destination. However, this is not how it works. A more accurate way to refer to it is "We do not follow a path, we make it as we go." You cannot separate the person from the path as who and what we are carves it and where it goes is up to each of us.
Naturally, our belief system and other thoughts about it play a significant role. This can lead to thinking that one's belief system is singularly important. However, as we shall see, this is putting the cart before the horse. Belief systems are creations of mind, and so are by default limited. There are pluses and minuses with all belief systems and I have examined dozens. This is why I don't follow a particular spiritual path myself. This has not hampered me when asked the kinds of questions I have mentioned, in fact, it is a benefit. My greatest consideration in trying to assist others in this regard is recognizing the power of the spoken word. Being in a trusted position gives my words additional weight, which can affect them and how they go forward in life.
Obviously I cannot address every possibility consideration in this essay; however, I will try to share how I approach discussing this important question. What I will not do is tell them, or you in this essay, what choice(s), should be made. I would not do so even if I Know what is likely in someone's best interests. When answering this on an individual basis I can focus my attention on the person asking and use my intuition to guide me. I cannot do this in an essay meant to be ready by many. As a result what I will do is explore the notion of spiritual paths to give you ideas on how you can answer this question for yourself, or at least start to.
We cannot look at spiritual paths or tools without looking at the "bigger picture". When people consider spiritual paths they tend to focus on belief systems, elevating them in importance and both revere and defer to them. The fact is there are many ways to develop spiritually and no particular belief system is required despite claims by some that their system is the "one and only way". While the skills or awareness's we need to grow spiritually may be included in them they are independent of them and shared among many belief systems. This is why I do not look at the notion of spirituality through the framework of any particular system. This has not hindered my writings as people with all manner of beliefs systems have found commonality with and value in what I have shared. For this reason our look at spiritual paths here will not be focused or based on them.
I can only write about what I know from what I have learned through years of study and have come to understand or know from my experiences. My focus has been on developing an understanding of, as much as one can, the One Truth that exists. This is not at all dependent upon religious, spiritual or philosophical notions. You might say that what I write about is to spiritual beliefs systems as the wind is to a kite.
"We often mistake the wrapping for what is in the box. So it is with spirituality and religions. A religion is not a spiritual path, it is a belief system, a tool we employ along the way." ~Allan Beveridge
In my writings, where appropriate, I have occasionally mentioned or referenced various belief systems, including religions. What I do not do is discuss their validity or my thoughts about them. I endeavor to view things with as few filters, biases, as possible. What has helped the most, besides the "gifts" I was born with, are good reasoning skills and being objective, observant and unattached to any particular system. Further, doing so while questioning everything. This is not unlike a pure scientist. Such people make discoveries about "how things are/work", but leave it to others to apply what they discovered.
It does not matter if you follow one, more than one, none in particular or no religious belief systems at all. We will not be looking at spiritual paths in a way that is particular to any one of them. This also means that we will not look at their merits or shortcomings or compare them. The inevitable consequence of doing so is to make it a competition between belief systems. I know how fervent peoples beliefs can be, but the fact is any system we create is by nature subjective. Making it a contest between them serves no one.
That said, the main reason I remain outside of any religions or "schools of spirituality" is the fact that none perfect" nor unfailingly correct. While I believe there is value in most of them they remain creations of man and subjective. I made the decision that if I am going to pick one to live by it will be based my own understandings rather than unfailing embrace of any one particular perspective. That does not mean being ignorant of other views, quite the opposite, nor am I suggesting they are of no value. Each contains knowledge that can help us on our life's journey. The challenge is in sifting through them to find which one is most suitable for our spiritual growth and then, once within it, separate the wheat from the chaff.
Religions, and the beliefs they are wrapped in, are not required to find "the Truth". The same thing applies to any system of knowledge. Nor are they required to gain an understanding of the nature of our existence, reach "heaven", attain enlightenment, have a personal relationship with "God" or the "Cosmos" or whatever other "Truths" various belief systems may hold. People were reaching enlightenment long before any of the modern religions even existed.
Regardless of ones stance the fact is no man made system has a handle on "the Truth". All views of "IT", including mine, are subjective and at best second hand. Between us and what is perceived, including Truth, lie the thoughts and layers of programming in our minds. This includes our beliefs, assumptions, biases, preconceptions and mistaken notions and so on. Shutting them off is not possible; however, if we are aware of them we can change or compensate for them to various degrees.
We should not underestimate the influence our thoughts have over us and hence the path we carve. All that we think and feel are a direct result of the thoughts we have. What we are conscious of is not a direct and unaltered representation of "what is". The more our minds are involved the less reflective they are of the Truth. We already know the mind cannot know "IT" or even all of what we perceive directly. For one thing the mind is part of our lower aspect and cannot be aware of those above it and its perception is based on the constructs it has created and holds. The same applies to spiritual belief systems, albeit on a grander scale due to their influence within our minds, as we shall see in due course.
The degrees to which the beliefs within any given systems match the nature of "what is" vary, as do our understanding of their notions. We could spend or rather waste a great deal of time debating their relative merit, but it is irrelevant for it is not the beliefs themselves that help us develop spiritually. What they can do is help awaken understandings of the "Truth" within us. This is why no system is necessarily better to use as one's tool set for their spiritual growth than another.
Spiritual and religious belief systems are hard to compare. They differ in their definitions of terms, perspectives, and which aspects of "what is" they focus on (with overlaps of course) and so on. They were founded at different times with each influencing those that followed even as they are influenced by those that came before. They vary richly as they are influenced by such things as the awareness of people who founded them, historical and cultural differences and various orders of collective beliefs. Yet it remains that there is only ONE truth for everyone and so either only one is the complete and absolute true, which is impossible for the reason mentioned, or none are.
One's spiritual tool set has a huge influence on their spiritual growth. However, religions, spiritual and other belief systems are not spiritual paths, they are tools sets we employ along the way. Going by an earlier analogy, my examination of spiritual matters has always been focused on the wind and not a kite to ride it. In this case the wind can be likened to the underlying realities and Truths of the Cosmos and the kite is the belief structures we hold and apply. Be this as it may, the fact is a majority of people have been indoctrinated to various degrees in one belief system or another.
When it comes to considering a spiritual tool set it can be like wading into a quagmire. Anyone who has wandered into the "spiritual domain" knows how vast and deep it is. There are literally thousands of different belief systems including religions, various well known spiritual groups or organizations and many lesser ones. Further, there are enough differences between virtually all of them that no broad alignment or consensus exists.
An explosion of interest, one that began in earnest during the sixties, and the internet has led to a proliferation of systems, perspectives and philosophies around the nature of the Cosmos and our existence and just who and what we are. Many have similar foundations or share some aspects but vary significantly on the details. For a comparison the similarities could be likened to systems using numbers but different operators (such as one uses multiplication where another uses subtraction). You cannot map one to another, but even if we could this alone does not foster understanding and does not help us much.
I've been involved in this area for decades and have looked at or studied many belief systems, some quite deeply, and there are far more than I could ever examine, let alone grasp, in ten lifetimes. In addition, more spring up all the time. When you consider the plethora of systems and the variations between them it is should come as no surprise that many are confused about what to believe. Even those who hold to one or another have to deal with it because concepts and notions from various beliefs systems become mixed together even when they are not reconcilable.
I have encountered this confusion too many times to count. In looking back on my discussions, whether the person was new to the area or fairly knowledgeable, what stands out is how many expressed uncertainty as to the topic of spirituality itself let alone the details. By the former I mean what notions are relevant to spirituality and in the later I am referring to such ideas as what we are and the nature of our existence and the Cosmos itself. As would be expected the degree of uncertainly has been highest among those who do not follow a particular system or lack thereof. As a result I have been asked frequently to share my expertise in, thoughts about or provide guidance on spiritual matters including spiritual paths by people with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. In part the challenge in such discussions has been trying to make sure we are talking "apples to apples" and no "apples to disk brakes."
"Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise." ~Bertrand Russell
The biggest challenges are the gaps, contradictions and vagueness within systems and differing definitions for terms shared between them. For example, core definitions for such things as "God" and "soul" can vary dramatically. You will even find big differences in how people who follow the same system define them. This is in part due to the vagueness of definitions. Vagueness allows the mind to fill in the blanks as it so chooses, something it typically does poorly. This means that two people can be using the same words and think they are talking about the same thing(s) when they are not. Those who do not hold to any particular system share this challenge though they tend to have an advantage., namely by being unaligned can lead to their being less biased and more open minded.
The people I have spoken with over the years have held a wide variety of beliefs and certain topics have come up more frequently than others. The notion of spiritual paths has always been at the top of the list. There is great diversity in not only peoples thoughts about them, but also in how they go about their spiritual journey. There is also a great deal of variance in the degree of people's interests and knowledge. For example some are firmly committed, some seek confirmation, others are simply curious and yet others are searching for answers to their questions or guidance on how to proceed.
There are, as I have mentioned, a vast number of belief systems one could delve into. Certainly there are some that are very different but there are also many that are appear quite close, which is due to their having a common root. This latter kind yields systems that are just different enough to "be sold separately". When you put all of these together it is understandable that many seek some guidance. I also would have like to have had some guidance at more than one point on my journey.
Generic questions about "spiritual paths" are fairly easy to speak to. Personal questions about what a particular path a person should follow are not, for obvious reasons. We can speak about the topic and ideas related to it, as I am doing here, but we should never tell anyone how to proceed on their journey. This is easier to do when one is not attached to any particular tool set. I have always been of the believe that it is much better to try to get to know the wind and flow with it rather than trying to find or construct a kite to be pushed along by it.
Said the River to the seeker, "Does one really have to fret about enlightenment? No matter which way I turn, I'm homeward bound" ~Anthony De Mello
So what is a spiritual path? Interestingly enough, at the core level the question is easily answered. Anthony De Mello is correct, our spiritual path is whatever path we are on at the moment. Nothing more nothing less. Whether we know it or not we are all on a path to what is commonly referred to as enlightenment. Enlightenment corresponds to one being in a state whereby they are consciously aware of every aspect of self. By accomplishing this one dispels the illusions of mind that keep us separate from "the Truth". We get there by learning and do so through by leaning from every experience we have and the reactions we have to them. Sure, some are further along the road than others; however, it is not a race. We are all on the same journey and will get to the end of it when we do.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience." ~Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Is there some point in or portion of our journey that is spiritual and others that are not? The above quote indicates that our entire journey is a spiritual one. This is because everything we learn helps us develop and awaken spiritually. Even those who appear to not be learning anything, or even going in reverse, are learning. A fair measure of personal growth is needed before our journey begins to have more spiritual elements to it. The reality is that there is a lot to learn and it typically takes a number of "mistakes" to learn a particular lesson.
When we consider spiritual paths we must be careful to differentiate between them, us and our journey. The "us" I am referring to is our collective self, which includes our physical body and non-physical aspects of which we have a few. Our non-physical aspects are often considered in terms of triads. The first triad is comprised of our etheric, emotional and mental bodies, the second and third are harder to describe but are often referred to as our higher and divine self respectively. In Christianity this is referred to as, in reverse order, "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" though this understanding has long been purged from Christianity.
Our "journey" is the experiences we have and our "path" is how we navigate life as a result of them. In the essay on spiritual growth (1) I differentiated between personal and spiritual growth. I described these two aspects of growth as follows:
"...I refer to activities directly related to working on our mental and emotional aspects as personal growth and those related to the higher aspects of self, our individuality, as spiritual growth." ~ from the essay "What is Spiritual Growth?" (1)
This is much the same as has been described by author Lee Bladon in both his books and on his site Esoteric Science (3). My terms of personal and spiritual growth are synonymous with his terms of "Becoming Self" and "Being Self". His definitions of these two terms are quoted below.
- Becoming Self: This is the psychological/personal aspect of the path. It involves dissolving the psychological material (exiles, holes and ego structures) that block the unfoldment and expression of our true nature.
- Being Self: This is the spiritual/transpersonal aspect of the path. It involves aligning with our true-Self and actively expressing our true nature. This develops our association with our true-Self, so that someday we will come to realise that this is who we truly are.
All roads to "Being Self" lie through the land of "Becoming Self". There are many techniques one can employ to "Become Self" and I have written at length about this. Fortunately, doing this also prepares us for our work on "Being Self". To do this we have to to work on dissolving the illusions of mind and taking more conscious control over it. The illusions that keep us from knowing "the Truth" are the result of thoughts, beliefs and mental processes and so on that we come to hold. They are what block our higher awareness or as Lee puts it "block the unfolding and expression of our true nature". Our mind is very much like a dam that holds back the waters behind it, our higher awareness, and allow only a trick to flow through and out of it. The belief system we use can strengthen or weaken the dam that are our minds.
We should always bear in mind that there is a great deal to learn and arguably even more to unlearn. The path to enlightenment is not the journey of a single lifetime, it is one of many. We should not get ahead of ourselves by trying to become enlightened during a given life. Such desire alone shows we are a ways off from it. Instead our focus should be on the pieces of the puzzle that are presented to us in the experiences we have within a given life.
What makes it interesting is that we cannot use our minds to just "figure out" what pieces we are working on. As a result, figuring out which spiritual tool set to employ is non-trivial. Our best guide is our own lives. By this I mean that in order to really know what is in our best interests we have to work on getting to know our self first. It is our experiences and reactions to them are that our key, which is why paying attention to our reactions, our thoughts and emotions, is so important. Practicing both mindfulness and meditation are immensely helpful for this as only in these states can we transcend the stranglehold our minds have over us.
In our desire to grow we must be mindful that a desire to be enlightened is a product of mind and an impediment that makes it harder to achieve. Further, just as one does not pursue power directly as this leads one to becoming a vain egotist, instead one pursues the qualities that infer power, namely strength foresight and wisdom (4). So too is it with enlightenment. We want to pursues the qualities that lead to it. To do this brings us back to the same place ... knowing ourselves.
Meditation and mindfulness are, as mentioned, the best way to consider our experiences and examine the thoughts we have and hold and the feelings they manifest. Doing so is relevant regardless of what tool set or belief system one follows or their level of development. By practicing them we become more aware of and in tune with ourselves. This brings us more in tune and connected with the world around us as well as the Cosmos itself. In the process we come to know that we make our path as we experience and learn and that we are always on it. What varies among us is our conscious awareness of it and, as a result, our ability to be more actively involved.
Increasing awareness of self leads to a better understanding of what is needed for growth. Obviously a significant part of this understanding is relevant in terms of which tool set we choose to use. Why? The reason is different systems, be they philosophical, religious or spiritual, take different approaches and involve different beliefs. They do have commonalities, but there are often very significant differences. These differences can and should affect our choice.
"Each of these belief systems has its value ... The value does not lie in the prescribed exercises as ends in themselves, but in the powers that will be developed if they are persevered with" ~The Mystical Qabalah by Dion Fortune (5)
The fact that no belief system is of the "one size fits all" or "the one and only way" variety does not mean one should avoid them. There is great wisdom to be found in them; however, we are best served by choosing a tool set that is suitable for us. What is suitable for each of us, as we shall look at shortly, depends on a few key factors. I will add that if one does not follow any particular system there are different considerations and we will look at this as well.
There are many different tool sets to choose from, even if our history has already given us one. Coming to know which one to focus on, if any, can be daunting and should not be rushed. At the same time, generally speaking, living too long with uncertainty does not help us. I cannot and do not tell anyone what tool set to use and will not do so here. The decision is completely personal and not one to be taken lightly. The wrong choice can lead to more challenges not less. What I can do is give you ideas to consider and will do so by looking at the key factors to consider. It's a short list.
The factors I am referring to are related to us and us alone. Anyone who wants or feels they have to make this decision based on the advice of, to go along with or not offend others needs to examine their readiness for and dedication to spiritual growth. Serious spiritual growth is not a path for the timid and being non-committal is an impediment.
Below is a list of some of the main factors that should be considered when we choose our tool set. When you look at the list you will notice the factors are grouped into the categories of personal qualities and thoughts. I have done this to separate the two as the difference is not unlike looking at a container separate from its contents. They are related to each other yet remain independent. This allows us to examine them separately.
- Personal Qualities
- Temperament and personality
- Mental capabilities
- Degree of focus on growth (will)
- Thoughts/beliefs held
- Culture, religious and/or spiritual background
- Strength of beliefs
- Level of knowledge of any single belief system
Our personal qualities affect our choices in a different way than the thoughts and beliefs we hold. Their influence on our our choice is less obvious than that of our thoughts and beliefs. People rarely consider that systems vary in how demanding they are on us and the nature of the demands. For example, they vary in how authoritarian they are, the degree of commitments or deep thinking or contemplation required and they vary in requirements of study, practices or rituals. When you consider this you can see how temperament plays a big role in this choice.
To properly factor this in to our decision making we must have an understanding of the system we are looking at. Even more fundamentally, we need a good understanding of ourselves. If we choose a path that requires serious study or perhaps hours of meditations and we are not so inclined then we may be setting ourselves up for failure, unless our intent is also to work on developing such qualities. We also need to bear in mind that picking one that does not suit our temperament or abilities is not better than going without.
In saying this I do not mean that there is no way we can use a particular tool set simply because it may not seem to be a match for us as we are now. What we call our personality is not written in stone. We are capable of adapting and changing ourselves if we choose to However, our "qualities" become firmly entrenched in our minds, which means that doing so takes a major commitment and a great deal of effort. If we are going to do this we better be absolutely certain that it's in our best interest and highest good, that we believe we can attain it and want and are willing to do the work.
The influence of our personal qualities is less significant than our thoughts and beliefs; however, they still matter. For example, if you really do not like physical labour taking a job that requires it would be problematic. You could come to enjoy it, but it is unlikely if you are not aware of your preference or unwilling to change. The same thing can be said of traits such as whether one is inclined towards being devotional, which lends one to being faithful and to self-sacrifice in the name of that which we are devoted to. Not all people are of this type. Some may believe that one has no need to change and/or grow to suite use a particular religious or spiritual tool set, but this is not unlike putting someone who is not a "detail person" and highly artistic to do well in accounting position.
In terms of our choice of spiritual tool sets, as mentioned, this means being aware of what different systems require of adherents and knowing our own temperament. Further, we all have different levels of knowledge and awareness and a system that relies on generalities or acceptance of precepts and beliefs without question is not suitable for everyone. One can also say the same thing for those that require more attention to details and allow people more mental and spiritual freedom.
"Whoever has any practical experience of the different methods of spiritual development knows that the method must fit the temperament, and that it must also be adapted to the grade of development of the student." ~The Mystical Qabalah (5)
This statement refers to the both aspect we are looking at. The first part to our personal qualities and the latter to our level of knowledge, understanding and mental development. It is beneficial to recognize and understand the differences between our personal qualities or inherent nature and our thoughts and beliefs. We are not born as blank slates as we come into each incarnation with our both a temperament and various tendencies. However, our nature is not the same as our personality. Our personality arises out of the thoughts we manifest and beliefs we come to hold as we go about our lives reacting to experiences. While these are greatly affected by "our nature" they are separate from it. The thoughts and beliefs one holds are a significant component of what Dion Fortune refers to as one's "grade of development".
It is not easy to separate our inherent qualities from those we take on over time. We are not born with a functional mind and by the time we have built much of ours we have already changed enough that our inherent qualities are typically cloaked and overshadowed by our developing personality. For instance, our naturally tendency may be outgoing, caring and giving but if we are hurt when being this way our minds may come to manifest thoughts that lead us to withdraw, perhaps becoming cold or even selfish. Hence, if we go by our thoughts alone, it is unlikely that we will be acting in a manner that matches our true nature. This is why knowing ourselves is so critical.
We looked at archetypal influences and temperament in the essay Finding Your Path (2). Seven were listed there as below:
- The person of will who seeks freedom by mastering self and environment (ruler)
- The person of love who seeks unity through sympathy (philanthropist)
- The person of thought who seeks to comprehend through the study of life (philosopher)
- The person of imagination who seeks harmony in a three-fold way through unifying the internal and external worlds (magician, actor, symbolic artist or poet)
- The person of thought who seeks truth in the world (scientist)
- The person of love who seeks God as goodness in the world (devotee)
- The person of will who is seeking the beauty that is God manifest in the world (craftsman or artist)
If you were wondering our temperament is related to our choice of spiritual tool sets the above list should help. The most beneficial tool set for us is one that somewhat aligned with our inherent nature. A person who is strong in will and who seeks truth would not do as well using a spiritual tool set or belief system that stresses acceptance of doctrine. The first step here, as before, is knowing ourselves so we can clearly see which of of the seven reflect our nature. They are not as obvious as you might think as they are frequently cloaked by our minds. We find out who we really are by paying attention, being mindful and through meditation. I will not be examined these topics here as I have done so in a number of essays.
Knowing more about our inherent qualities helps us know which approach and tools are most suitable. I will reiterate that our inherent qualities are not related to or based on our beliefs, if anything it is the other way around. In addition, we should not assume that the one(s) we have been using is suitable for us or not. This is something we discover in the process of getting to know ourselves. Progress is far easier when we we are using tools that are in alignment with our base qualities. However, our thoughts and beliefs along with how strongly they are held and entangled have a more significant affect on how well we grow and progress by using a particular tool set.
We have seen how our temperament factors into our choice of spiritual tool set. As significant as it is our thoughts and beliefs are far more important. This is because the beliefs we hold affect why, what and how we understand things and even our ability to change and grow. Few grasp the significance of this as most see themselves as mentally capable and flexible and do not realize the degree to which the thoughts we hold define our reality. Most believe their minds are capable of grasping any ideas or belief system and making use of it. Few get the extent or degree to which our thought and the structures they form can inhibit us.
When we look at other systems we do so based on our constructs and not on those the other systems are based on. In order to grasp and make use of another belief system our thoughts must be either compatible with it or we must be very aware of what we believe as this helps us "translate" between them. This latter point is important because spiritual beliefs and notions are not about physical objects. As a result definitions of them are more fluid, less clearly defined and often quite vague. As a result, if we do not understand our beliefs, and know them very well, adequately compensating for differences between systems is near impossible.
To more fully grasp the significance of our thoughts and beliefs in relation to spiritual tool sets we need to consider our minds. The possible combinations of temperament types is minuscule compared to variance in minds. Our minds are not like arms, legs or eyes, which are essentially the same for all of us. They are created by our reactions to our experiences and every one is unique.
Awareness is the ability to react to a stimulus. We are aware hence we react to stimuli, or experiences. Consciousness is awareness plus memory and what we remember is our reactions. Our memory of a reaction is a vibration in energy of a certain type and is what we call a thought. A thought is not a word, words come later. Collectively all of our thoughts, and their interactions, form what I refer to as our mental house (6).
Our minds contain all our notions and beliefs about everything. This includes every kind from the more mundane descriptors such as red, warm, pen and so on and to the conceptual and abstract such as space and time and the nature of existence . Over time they become the walls, floors, wiring, ventilation, plumbing and furnishings of our mental house. It is from within this house that we "look out" in order to perceive reality. Think of how the lens on a camera (ex. normal, telephoto or wide angle and so on) affects the image it captures. We perceive the world around us based on our minds and their constructs.
All minds work the same in terms of the way thoughts form and interact. These are based on laws inherent in the matter they are comprised of just as there are laws that govern physics and chemistry. Where our minds differ is in the thoughts we hold and the relationships between them. While they are obviously different there are a lot of similarities as well. These are due to our interactions and collective history. This gives rise to commonalities within a community be it a family, club, organization, peer group, city, state or province or country or even people holding common beliefs such as political or religious ones.
Generally speaking, we do not think about the commonalities between us and assume most around us are like us. We see this in the various "standards and norms" that exist within different groups. We only tend to notice when we interact with people of a different community or group. Even still, we tend to get used to some "local" differences though the further we go from "home" we go the more different things and people are. These differences reflect in attitudes, how people act, dress, their beliefs, the foods they eat, the sports they like and the music they listen and so forth.
It can take time to become accustomed to the differences we encounter. We may struggle understanding people, find ourselves comparing our current situation to what we are used to or always be longing for home if the differences are significant enough. The differences I have mentioned are fairly obvious, but they go far deeper than that. We do not notice them because we live in our own little mental bubbles. We do not realize how significant the differences can be and that they also affect the way people perceive and react to things and how they think.
One result of staying mostly within familiar territory is that we come to assume that when we speak to others that they understand what we say as we intended and vice versa. Often this is not the case between people in the same community or group let alone with people in far away places or who hold a different "world view", cultural background and so on. There are enough similarities in the languages and thought constructs we use or we would struggle interacting and communicating with each other at all. At the same time this lulls us into a false sense of security in that we can come to assume others understand us. We should also be mindful that even with common things and terms there can be significant difference in our understandings of and relation to them.
As mentioned, we can learn each others definitions so we can interact and get by. This is relatively easy when it comes to physical objects or common notions, but less so with conceptual and abstract ones. After all a car, a number, addition and so on are well and commonly defined, though even then there can be big differences. A good example being Eskimos having 50 different words for snow because they relate to it in a completely different way than most others do. Such differences are far more significant and influential when it comes to spiritual belief systems.
There can be significant differences even among common religious and spiritual notions. We see them between Eastern, Western religions or pagan and other natural based belief systems. This is seen clearly in the definitions of words like God, soul and spirit and and our understandings of concepts such as the nature of things and what we are. Such thoughts tend to be fundamental ones and become woven into the very fabric of our minds.
Fundamental thoughts are highly connected to other thoughts. The consequence of this is that we cannot gain an understanding of others merely by translating words. This becomes much harder with the abstract and subjective notions of spiritual beliefs as they are complex and not readily translatable without deep understanding. Further, they are generally poorly defined to begin with. We need to be mindful of such variances when considering tool set we will employ.
Belief systems do not just pop up on their own independent of previous ones or thoughts inherent in the culture in which they evolved. They all have well springs or fountain heads of thoughts and belief and become woven into the fabric of the mental houses of those born into or raised under them. These are further influenced by life experiences. I say this as it is important to recognize that streams join together or are assimilated by others, hence no system is pure and independent of those that came before .
For instance, most are aware of that Christianity's roots lie in Judaism, but there are also elements of Greek, Egyptian, Tyrian and even nomadic starworshippers of Chaldea beliefs within it. Just as Judaism itself was affected by other belief systems in the Middle and Far East prior to Christianity. Continuing the analogy, the mental houses of within a community, culture, country or belief system tend to have a lot of similarities. We expect differences between those of disparate communities, but need to be mindful that we can find still find dramatically differences within one.
We "inherit" thought forms based on the belief system we are born and raised in just as we genetically inherit physical traits. Few realize the full impact of this and nowhere is it more relevant than in spiritual belief systems. For instance, there is little of the mystic in Western religions nor a tradition of understanding or working with higher aspects of consciousness. As a result ideas and beliefs that support a "mystical state of mind/being" are not present, which means they are not passed on. There is a big difference in the mind of someone used to a system that includes mysticism, the esoteric side of things from those are only acquainted with exoteric matters. Further, there is a great deal of vagueness in exoteric type belief systems and if we are only familiar with one we will struggle with grasping one that is more esoterically based.
This is a challenge for modern Christians. Christianity originally included the esotericism of the Gnosis, one that was influenced by Greek and Egyptian thought. One can see the adaption of Qabalistic principles to Greek mysticism in the system of Pythagoras. The converse has been true with Christianity where over time it moved away from its esoteric roots due to the exoteric, state-organized section of the Christian Church persecuting and attempting to stamp out the esoteric section. In the process it destroyed all the literature it could get its hands on and even tried to eradicate the memory of gnosis from human history.
This process led to the deliberate suppression of paganism, the Dark Ages as well witch burning's and the persecution of mystics whose practitioners were labeling as evil and servants of the Devil or Satan. This view has persisted and so the exoteric side became and remains the common basis of Christianity. It has become so ingrained that many Christians take the Bible literally, as a result most have no knowledge of the deeper mysteries of things within their own faith. I am referring to having any understanding of deeper the truths buried in its symbols, analogies and metaphors and so on. This also applies to those within the clergy.
I say this to illustrate the nature of Western spiritual belief systems and not to belittle Christianity. All religions have their histories. For example, some include caste structures that artificially separate people. Regardless, the fact remains that Western and Eastern religions take different approaches. The active discouragement of developing the higher aspects of consciousness Westerners stands in stark contrast to Eastern religions and most natural ones where the opposite is the case. This becomes embedded in people born and raised there.
Some use the term "in my reality tunnel" (IMRT) to describe their mental houses and the bubbles our thoughts create. All bubbles are not all created equal. They vary in breadth, depth and rigidity and so on. We see this rigidity in adherents of various belief systems who refuse to be open to other ideas let alone accept them. We all have our own version of the beliefs of any given system we hold and, regardless of their qualities, it is challenging to notice let alone step outside our bubbles.
Our mental houses affect perception, which means they affect our view of reality. This, in turn, affects how we relate to other, ideas, and beliefs and so on. We can hear the words or ideas others share with us, believe we understand them yet not do so as they were intended. This is why the thoughts and beliefs we hold are the most important factor when looking at deciding what spiritual tool set to use.
"No student will ever make any progress in spiritual development who flits from system to system; first using some New Thought affirmations, then some Yoga breathing exercises and meditative-postures, and following these by an attempt at the mystical methods of prayer. Each of the systems has its value, but that value can only be realised if the system is carried out in its entirety. They are the calisthenics of consciousness, and aim at gradually developing the powers of the mind. The value does not lie in the prescribed exercises as ends in themselves, but in the powers that will be developed if they are persevered with. If we intent to take our occult studies seriously and make of them anything more than desultory light reading, we must choose our system and carry it out faithfully until we arrive, if not at its ultimate goat, at any rate at definite practical results and a permanent enhancement of consciousness. After this had been achieved we may, not without advantage, experiment with the methods that have been developed upon other Paths, and build up an eclectic technique and philosophy therefrom; but the student who sets out to be an eclectic before he has made himself an expert will never be anything more than a dabbler." ~Dion Fortune; The Mytical Qabalah (5) Chapter 2 page)
Note: Her use of the occult refers to something of or related to systems of knowledge that apply "beyond or above" the physical plane. It is also used in relation to magic, astrology or any system claiming use of knowledge of secrets or "supernatural powers" or agencies.
The above passage highlights what I have been referring to. In order to take advantage of a particular tool set or belief system we must understand it. Further, if we are looking at another one the thoughts we hold affect our ability to understand and take advantage of it. The reason can be found in how our minds develop. I will touch on this very briefly here as it is relevant; however, if you want a better understanding of this topic I recommend you read the referenced essays.
Our minds start to develop from the day we are born and continue to grow and change throughout life. Thoughts are created from our reactions to experiences. Our mind arise out of the interactions between our thoughts and the structures they form as a result. Arguably, early experiences have the largest influence on our minds as they become the foundation, framework and infrastructure of our mental house. This is where the full measure of the power of our beliefs comes into play as these thoughts have the greatest influence over us.
The reason such our beliefs are so influential is our thoughts form "hierarchies of authority" and spiritual beliefs are almost almost always highly placed. come into play By their nature thoughts related to self and the nature of our existence they have a significant range of influence and power. We will look at a couple examples to illustrate the nature of a thoughts influence and power.
The range of influence of a thought grows based on how many thoughts it is connected to. There are other factors, but this is the main one. For example, take the thought "I like broccoli." This thought mostly comes into play when I am thinking about food or eating. On the other hand, the thought or belief "People are basically honest" comes into play every time I interact with or think about people or even things I associate strongly with people. You can see from these two thoughts how the range of influence of thoughts vary dramatically. Thoughts related to religious or spiritual belief systems become linked to many thoughts, which gives them significant influence within our minds.
Thoughts become empowered primarily in two ways. The first is a result of the nature of our reactions when we create or use them. The stronger our reactions are the more powerful the thoughts become. A strong reaction can even modify a thought, for example turning one of "I like or prefer X" into "I need or must have X". This turns something optional into an imperative. Our reactions also further empower any thoughts that are strongly or closely connected to it, likely in an inverse square type of relationship (7). The other way is by the thought being reinforced due to how long it has been held and how frequently we have thought it, whether consciously or otherwise.
How is all of this relevant to spiritual paths? Well, the combination of a thoughts range of influence and power determines its overall influence on us. We can refer to those with the most influence as core thoughts or beliefs. As I mentioned earlier, thoughts form a hierarchy of influence. Abraham Maslow attempted to represent this by his "Hierarchy of Needs" (8). While research has shown his notion to to be invalid his paper brought out the notion of thought hierarchies. We do not share a common hierarchy as each of has one based on what I mentioned above. Research backs this up. The mental framework our hierarchy forms affects how we relate to everything including our understanding of new or different ideas. It is not easily overridden.
Thoughts about things are but a part of the kinds of thoughts within our minds. Among the most prominent within our pool of thoughts are those related to how we think, observe and reason. You could call them skills and they act differently than thoughts about things such as our beliefs about the nature of our existence and reality. You could say that thoughts related to how we think, observe and reason are active thoughts while those about "things" are mostly passive, though in truth no thought is exclusively active or passive. Figuratively, active thoughts are the kind that determine or affect "how we think" and passive ones are more about "what we think".
In terms of spiritual tool sets both are relevant though in different ways. Our ability to think, observe and reason affect how we process what we perceive and the thoughts and beliefs we come to hold about things are the result of this. Our thinking, and related skills, affect our ability to understand concepts as well as our acceptance of them. Our minds are not logically by nature, this is a learned skill (9). As a result, the better our thinking and reasoning skills are the easier it is to grasp abstract and conceptual notions as well as different views and perspectives. They also lead to thoughts that are clearer and more accurately defined.
The consequence of having vague or poor definitions and hence understandings of words and terms is that we really don't know what we mean by what we say. Having thoughts that are unclear or ambiguous leads to conflicts between them. The consequence of this is that when we are raised in one belief system then try to embrace another, we find ourselves dealing with conflicts in beliefs, terminology and meaning with our belief system let alone the differences with the other.
Our minds integrate our experiences. They do so based on thoughts and notions we already hold, which we created integrating past experiences. Hence our understandings of new ideas are based on associations, comparisons and so on with familiar ones. It will do so even if it is invalid and notions do not even relate "one to one". By thoughts not relating "one to one" in this context I am referring to how various beliefs systems may use the same words but the meanings differ. Further, some terms we use may not even be ones used or defined in another system and vice versa.
Another difference that is significant is the focus of belief systems and cultures. This is most easily seen in the differences between eastern and western religions, but is also seen between nature based systems and the more traditional ones. In the west the focus is on domination over the physical world while in the east it is the opposite. Such beliefs are core ones and foundation structural elements of our minds. We will struggle to understand and taking advantage of the knowledge and wisdom of another system if our thoughts are poorly defined and "constructed". This is what Dion Fortune was referring to in the above quote, as well as in the one below (also from her book The Mystical Qabalah, Chapter 2, page 11, (5)).
"The dharma of the West differs from that of the East; it is therefore desirable to try and and implant Eastern ideals in a Westerner? Withdrawal from the earth-plane is not his line of progress. The normal, healthy Westerner has no desire to escape from life, his urge is to conquer it and reduce it to order and harmony. It is only the pathological types who long to "cease upon the midnight with no pain," to be free from the wheel of birth and death; the normal Western temperament demands "life, more life." ~The Mystical Qabalah by Dion Fortune (5)
There is a way to elevate oneself so that such concerns are reduced and even minimized. We do this is by becoming fully versed in the belief system we hold now. By fully versed I do not mean having read the books, such as the Bible, Q'ran, Talmud or the Bhagavad Gita and so on. I am referring to being aware of a religion or belief system at an esoteric level, which includes knowledge of their deeper mysteries and the origins of notions and concepts.
The clearer and more defined our thoughts about our "base system" are the better we are able to look at and take advantage of other systems. I think most have heard the statement "I will believe it when I see it". The result of this belief, one most hold to some extent, is that belief in something only comes with our irrefutable "facts" that one is willing to accept. However, the mind is in control of our perception so it can and does block acceptance of notions that run contrary to its core beliefs. We do not realize it because the majority of us are not consciously aware of most of the beliefs we hold. Bertrand Russell spoke to this quite succinctly when he stated:
“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.” ~Bertrand Russell
If we do not believe something is true or exists not only can it be hard to grasp it we may not even be able to see it at all. This is to say we may not even be able to perceive something if we hold the belief it does not exist. You may be inclined to think that "something" exists to be "seen" we cannot help but perceive it; however, this only applies to the physical aspect things and not their other aspects. Those that think so underestimate the power of our minds to pull the wool over our eyes. Even at the physical level we have all had moments when we were looking for something that was right in front of us and just do not consciously see or perceive it. As hard as it may be accept this fact the reality is we can re-write this statement as "I will see it when I believe it".
If we want to get the most out of our spiritual journey we must vest ourselves in it. We must be willing to step outside of our comfort zones, to transcend what we think is the case because no understanding of the truth is an end in itself. This will not happen if our pursuit is casual for this makes us but dabblers. Progress will be also quite slow if we make our beliefs sacrosanct and accept them as The Truth perhaps even "the One and Only Truth" as this belief is a great inhibitor.
The only thing that is flexible about truths are our understandings of them.
We need to understand our beliefs and the systems we get them from to the point where they are not merely vaguely held or blindly accepted notions in our minds. If we dedicate a significant portion of our attention to this we will make great strides. The same concepts apply to those who hold no particular spiritual belief system or who are not deeply vested in one. We do not have to fully accept every aspect of a particular belief system; however, we need an understanding of their terms and concepts and so on. Without this we will struggle.
The lack of terminology and concepts is something I encountered when I began my spiritual journey. I did have natural "spiritual gifts", but lacked an understanding them as no one I knew had similar experiences and I had no knowledge of the "world of spirituality". This also made it harder develop and take advantage them. I did talk to people who seemed to have some knowledge I could benefit though I found everyone gave me different explanations. This clearly showed they did not understand the nature of things and that if I wanted to know I would have to find things out for myself.
In my late teens I finally got my hands on a few of books, including Dion Fortune's "The Mystical Qabalah", and the passages I have referenced above influenced my approach. The result was my spending years first grasping one system and then expanded my examination to others. I did this for three main reasons: I did not believe that any system of man would be flawless, I did not find what I believed to be valid explanations for my all gifts in any one of them and foremost, I needed to thoroughly grasp the playing field.
Bear in mind I had an advantage over many. That advantage was having many experiences to help me evaluate the validity of others ideas. That said, my experiences are not unique as most people have had experiences they could examine in a similar fashion. All that is needed is an open mind and some digging. One thing I did not do was discard reason. This is because good reasoning skills, along with being as objective and observant as possible can also be applied to noumenal or "non-objective" reality (what lies outside of what can be perceived by our physical senses or tools).
Fundamental to all of this is that all our understandings are personal and thoughts subjective. That is to say they are not Absolute Truths nor even necessarily reflective of reality. Further, our words are not even our perception of it, they are the terms our brains assign to represent our perceptions. Ajahn Anan sums this up quite well when he stated:
"What does it mean to see the Dhamma? It means you truly break through and understand everything that arises as merely a convention: this knowledge is liberation. The more you understand all things as conventions the clearer your understanding becomes. Greed, hatred, and delusions are gradually reduced to the point where they disappear from the mind." ~from "REFLECTIONS on Emptiness" Dhamma Quotes on the Path to Liberation by Ajahn Anan Akincano
To grasp any belief system, be it religious, spiritual or another other, we must hold thoughts that give us a high degree of understand about it. I say this not to discourage you from pursuing them, only something to be mindful of. We must always consider such things when we think or talk about belief systems or any for that matter. For example, when one looks at Buddhism from a Christian perspective it seems to share common notions such as sin and karma. On the surface they seem similar, but are far more different than they are the alike.
A sin is an act of offence against God. One commits a sin by despising his persons and Christian Biblical law or by hurting or injuring others. It is also viewed as an evil human act that violates not only our rational nature, but also God's nature and eternal laws. The consequences of sin, if one does not repent and accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, is eternal death. On the other hand, in eastern belief systems karma is based on the Law of Action-Reaction, and "the influence of all things on all things'. There is no God involved in Buddhism and the notion of evil is contrary to it. In Buddhism there is no eternal death for anyone as they believe we all reincarnate until we are free from the "flaws" within us that lead to our getting karma and, in turn, our suffering. And we are speaking of both sin and karma at the mundane level, the differences go far deeper. This illustrates how even a good understanding of a belief system is not necessarily sufficient to grasp another.
The challenges are the same regardless of the beliefs systems involved. We should understand at least one belief system thoroughly before looking to grasp or subscribing to another. We can have a preference for or interest in a particular system(s) for various reasons. It is typical that we find ourselves attracted to one and treat others casually or perhaps even ignore or reject them. This is merely a product of our subjectivity, our lack of equanimity. In doing so we miss the most important point, one we have looked at here. That point being a belief system is not what gets us to enlightenment, it is not the answer. It is merely a tool we employ.
Regardless of what spiritual path you carve keep your intent firmly in your awareness and remember that awakening has little to do with the tool set you use and everything to do with your actions and choices. If strict adherence to the "rules and regulations", rituals and beliefs of a particular religion or spiritual belief system were the road to enlightenment then you would expect those who lead or studied them all their lives would be enlightened, but you know this not the case. In addition, the world would be a much nicer place.
In all that I have written here there is no suggestion to stick with or change your tool set. That was never my intent as this is a personal choice. Our spiritual path is a reflection of us, no one can know us like we can. What we are includes the thoughts and beliefs we hold. To deny this is a fools errand. They greatly affect how we proceed whether our interest is mostly the result of curiosity or we are devoted to spiritual growth. Regardless of how you choose to proceed, save for the idly curious, start by exploring and getting to know your current beliefs and also your intent and goals.
I have covered enough to give you some ideas to consider as you go about your way. The only loose end is adding suggestions in regard to the four categories of "seekers" I mentioned near the beginning. To refresh your memory they are the curious, hesitant, dissatisfied and committed. While I did say that the titles were of little consequence they do illustrate differences that we should be mindful of when looking at what belief system we will follow, the one that will be spiritual growth tool set. There is one thing they all share and that is the underlying task of getting to know ourselves, fully.
The casual seeker or dabbler should probably spend their time getting to know the playing field and be careful to not attach to particular notions. The reason is words and terms of various systems may roll off the tongue easily, but understanding them is another matter. Hence, unless you are going to dig into them this is the best approach. It is worth noting that unless one is mostly a "channel surfer" there is likely something within that is empowering the curiosity. Being unattached to particular ideas and beliefs can lead to more "mental freedom" and improved clarity and intuition. This can make it easier to notice when something "clicks" and turns on the switch of deeper interest and commitment.
The hesitant seeker is actually a curious seeker who is reluctant for one reason or another. Such a seeker should do as the casual seeker does, with one difference. The a hesitant but determined seeker should only consider a tool set once the reason for hesitating is understood and resolved. We hesitate when we are uncertain and see risks. Uncertainty and risks lead to fear and this is not a good basis for a choice, especially one as important as this. There are many ways to find out why we are hesitant though my recommendation is meditation of some form (10).
The dissatisfied seeker is in a similar situation to the hesitant one. The source of the dissatisfaction should be found and cleared before looking at tool sets. Dissatisfaction can become a hunger and I have known a number of people who fall into this group. If it is not cleared there is a strong tendency to either grab onto a different one quickly or to go the "flavour of the day" route or even give up on finding one. Take your time to identify what you have come to need of a spiritual nature that that your current belief system, or lack thereof, is not providing.
There is little I can for the committed seeker that I have not already covered. All I will add is that such seekers remain mindful of a couple things. One is being careful of not getting so attached to a tool set that we cease to question it and lose our flexibility and curiosity. Our understanding of our truths should never be taken as final. Our understandings of them evolve and deepen as we learn and grow.
The other point to be mindful of relates to not allowing ourselves to become completely immersed in one system that we exclude of all others, especially once we understand it very well. This can lead to our seeing it as the only way resulting in our becoming stuck in its bubble. We already know that no system is flawless and such immersion can lead to our overlooking gaps or flaws and so on with the obvious consequences. In addition, we would also miss the opportunity to expand our awareness and understanding of the nature of things and the wisdom that other views and perspectives can provide.
Spiritual tool sets are not something to be treated casually. However, if you are going to do something you might as well give it your full attention. Fluttering from one to another or trying to merge two or more belief systems together without sufficient knowledge almost invariably does more harm than good. As we have seen, our thoughts and beliefs not only frame but also establish our relationship with reality. Going this way invariably leads to our taking on conflicting, contradictory and even false thoughts. This can lead to confusion and uncertainty so that instead of growing and reducing our challenges we add to them. This certainly does not mean that it is all doom and gloom.
Giving our journey as much of our attention as possible does not mean we ought not enjoy our journey. If we are not enjoying it we can become disenchanted, narrow minded, cut off from the world around us or struggle to stay motivated and so on. None of these help us. Take everything with a grain of salt, work on becoming more equanimous and appreciative. Further, try to ensure your goal and commitment are a match and while it is fine to push oneself do not take on more than you can handle. Life is challenging enough without adding to our burden. Besides, joy is empowering, beneficial and feels good.
Don't seek truth, seek you. When you find yourself, you will find "IT" ~Allan Beveridge
© 2017 Allan Beveridge
- What Is Spiritual Growth?
- Finding Your Path
- Esoteric Science (by Lee Bladon), The Two-Fold Path of Awakening: http://www.esotericscience.org/articlec.htm
- Who Pulling the Plug Part 1
- Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah, San Francisco, CA, Redwheel/Weiser-LLC 2000
- Our Mental House Series (link is to Part 1)
- Inverse square law; Wikipedia reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverse-square_law
- Maslow Hierarchy of Needs; Wikipedia reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs
- Awakening Our Gifts Part 2: The Makings of Mind
- Relaxation and Meditation