“The mystic and the contemplative know that as the oppressor is to the world, ego is to the field of one’s own being.”
– James O’Dea, The Conscious Activist, p. 160
“Every spiritual tradition that holds a vision of human transformation at its heart also claims that a practice of intentional silence is a non-negotiable. Period. You just have to do it . . . . There is a universal affirmation that this form of spiritual practice is essential to spiritual awakening.”
– Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 17
“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”
– William James, Psychology: A Briefer Course
How does one serve the world? In Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, Senge et.al, suggest that three areas need to be cultivated to develop the capacity to serve others:
- Devotion to a spiritual practice.
- Study in order to gain a theoretical understanding of the way the moral universe works.
- Commitment of service to others (p. 226).
Through my research on social conscience education as well as reading of spiritual literature, especially in my home faith of Christianity, cultivating the second point has come quite naturally. Regarding the third point, I consider my teaching and human care work to be a service to others.
By contrast, the essential first point, commitment to a regular spiritual practice, has always been my weak area. (By spiritual practice, I mean more than attending church or saying grace, but rather taking up a habit of intentional silence.) However, since attending a spiritual retreat on Centering Prayer in Assisi, Italy, in May 2012 with Cynthia Bourgeault, I have for the first time begun committing myself to a daily practice. Slowly, spiritual practices have been working their way into my social conscience teaching. In recent months I have come to better understand the necessity of incorporating some type of spiritual practice into my social conscience teaching in order to help students learn to serve the world.
Metaphor of Reconciling Two Worlds
The starting point for the journey of social conscience, according to my research, was students’ recognition that two worlds exist. Coming from affluent backgrounds, HKIS students lead vastly different lives than most Asian people. Due to their wealth and resources, they have far more than others, and do not experience suffering in the same way as less affluent others. As they frequently explained, they live in a “bubble.” However, there is a psychic price to pay for this split; guilt, fear, and hopelessness were prominent themes in student essays and interviews.
The goal of social conscience education, then, is to burst students’ bubbles and connect them to social reality. Their growing consciousness of how others live begins to attenuate their self-centeredness and disconnectedness from others. Thus, the journey of social conscience moves students from an ego-centered consciousness to an other-centered understanding. Joining separate social worlds is the first quest for wholeness in students’ social conscience education.
While this is a most obvious and certainly vital area of social conscience growth, taking into account the advice of the authors of Presence reveals that focusing only on study and service in our classes is insufficient to enable students to effectively serve society in the long-term, for the first key of spiritual practice has been neglected.
Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopalian priest and advocate of Centering Prayer, is in full agreement with the authors of Presence that spiritual practice is essential to the living out of one’s ideals. In reference to Eckhart Tolle, she writes:
“What makes the ego the ego, he feels, is precisely its incapacity to separate from itself, its tendency to get completely lost in its inner psychodramas . . . . Rather than getting lost in the contents of consciousness (those “reactions, desires, and adversions” Tolle speaks of), you learn to pay attention to the field of consciousness as well – not just the boats floating down the river, but the river itself. Out of this simultaneous awareness, a whole new sense of “I” emerges: no longer identified with each passing impulse or emotional reaction, but deeply planted in Being itself. The inner observer carries this new sense of “I” and is thus the bridge between egoic awareness and deeper Selfhood” (pp. 125-126).
Then she explains further:
“Once you’ve learned where to place your inner observer, you automatically discover what its real purpose is. It’s there to connect the two worlds in you“ (p. 130, her emphasis).
Reading this last sentence was an “aha” moment for me. The metaphor of connecting two worlds helped me to see for the first time the link between two processes: social conscience development and inner spiritual growth traverse analogous paths. Just as students have an ontological need, as expressed in my research, to break down the social separation between their lives of affluence and the lives of others, so too do they have an inner drive to overcome their exclusive psychic self-focus and experience a deeper Self within. Just as students seem fairly unaware of the “other” social world before they begin their journey of social conscience, even more so are students (and teachers) unconscious that there is a split in the self itself between egoic consciousness and a Larger Self.
This analogy can be extended to include a solution in healing an individual’s bifurcated perception of reality. Just as students need to leave their bubble world and experience the lives of others outside their normal social sphere, so too do students need to leave their ordinary self-awareness and experience the Larger Self within. In both cases, boundaries need to be crossed beyond ordinary experience into a different mode of perception. The most effective method of the former is through service experiences, whereas the most useful method of the latter is intentional silence.
The common animating energy of both journeys is the quest for wholeness. Just as students need and want to live without guilt and fear, and be a contributor in making the lives of others better, so too do students need and want to live lives of personal wholeness in which their conscious thoughts and feelings are in relational harmony with Being itself. Both require dethroning the self, and living with a reality that may be less immediately tangible, but is nonetheless real and ultimately more satisfying to the self and others.
The Greater Self
The key understanding upon which this analogy rises or falls is the existence of something that Cynthia calls the “greater Self.” While it’s easy to point out society’s wealth disparity, it’s much harder to reveal to students the intrapsychic gap between the small self and the greater Self.
“. . . [A]ll the great spiritual traditions of the world share the conviction that humanity is the victim of a tragic case of mistaken identity. There is a ‘self’ and a Self, and our fatal mistake lies in confusing the two. The egoic self . . . is in virtually every spiritual tradition immediately dispatched to the realm of the illusory, or at best, transitory. It is the imposter who claims to be the whole . . . . Awakening . . . is a matter of piercing through the charade of the smaller self to develop a stable connection to the greater Self . . . . The role of meditation in service of the gospel becomes clear: it creates a bridge between these two levels of awareness within us, offering a consistent and reliable way of practicing the passage from the small self to the greater Self” (82).
The greater Self is something beyond our
“self-talk, our interior dialogue, our fears, wants, needs, preferences, daydreams and fantasies. These are all just ‘thoughts,’ and we learn to let them go. We simply entrust ourselves to a deeper aliveness, gently pulling the plug on the tendency of the mind to want to check in with itself all the time. In this sense, meditation is a mini-rehearsal for the hour of our own death” (81).
Ultimately, Cynthia explains, the goal is not to destroy the small self, but to use its strengths in service of something greater:
” It is commonly thought that the goal is to override or destroy the lower, or egoic, self and replace it with the higher self. But this is really not what is intended. What is intended is a marriage of the two, so that the lower with its essential uniqueness and the higher with its transpersonal brilliance come together as a true individuality. . . . [This means to observe] compassionately in both directions, allowing us to see the whole picture and be the whole picture . . . . Its purpose is to bring you into a state of unconditional presence, so that you not only believe but know that no physical or emotional state has the power to knock you out of presence (pp. 130-131).”
The mind, Cynthia asserts, does not have the power to maintain this presence; it is only when one is rooted in the greater Self, which she also calls “magnetic center”(121), do we have the capacity to truly serve others. The location of this rootedness is not in the conscious mind, but rather in the eye of heart, which can be thought of to exist in the region of the heart or solar plexus.
A Personal Example
These concepts become clearest when grounded in our own life experiences. Here are two recent examples that have challenged me to live out of a greater social and psychic awareness.
Social awareness: Over Christmas a group of students and myself went to China to teach English. During a lunch break, I had the chance to visit the dorm rooms of the girls we were teaching. I was taken aback by their living conditions at school: 12 girls in a room; boards rather than mattresses on their beds; one toilet; lack of heat; and the dusk-like gloom of the rooms at mid-day. Since that time, when I shower at night, I often think of how much more difficult their lives are. This decentering experience, as part of my daily routine, reminds me of values that I lose sight of – purpose, gratitude, and compassion – and encourages me to do what I can to raise both awareness and funds on behalf of the girls.
Psychic awareness: Not long ago, I was teaching in a volunteer teaching situation in which I was, from my egoic perspective, unjustly criticized, and strategically considered how to quit in order to highlight the injustice I had suffered. However, some hours later after this personal scheme had been hatched, I took a walk to “work it all out” in my mind, but to no avail. I was physically tired and psychically restless. Then, out of simple obedience to my commitment, I sat down and had a particularly unfocused Centering Prayer session. However, immediately when I arose from my meditation, I sensed that everything had changed. Suddenly, I had the clear intuition that withdrawing my teaching would impact others. In my previous egoic protest against injustice, I had reduced this situation to a win-lose confrontation between my critic and myself, forgetting about the other 40 people in the room. I quickly retired my previously righteous plan of protest, and re-committed myself to teaching the class. The next two weeks of teaching turned out well, and, to my great surprise, even my critic expressed gratitude for the class.
Just as I need to be reminded that taking a hot shower in the privacy of my own home is a luxury much of the world does not enjoy, so too do I need a regular spiritual practice of overcoming my mind’s natural self-preoccupation and self-preservation. The writers of Presence would concur with Cynthia that we simply cannot serve others with an untrained egoic consciousness, for it “always eventually betrays itself and returns to its usual postures of self-defense and self-justification” (p. 17).
Many of my students intuit that ultimately personal wholeness only comes through service to others; this is perhaps the key to a meaningful life. My research found that finding wholeness on the societal level means developing a permanent state of socially-conscious “double visioning:” students live their affluent lives ever mindful of the lives of others. However, I know both personally and from conversations with my students that we also yearn for a more subtle psychic wholeness that moves one’s center of gravity from an exclusively self-focused perception to that of a greater Self. This also involves a “double visioning” – holding the small self and the greater Self together in one’s consciousness. Thus, as indispensable as service learning is to the shifting of students’ social awareness, a second quest for wholeness seems just as necessary. Teachers of social conscience should consider adopting and teaching spiritual practices which develop the capacity for an inner-directed double vision which connects, and even marries, the small self to the Beyond Within.
Bourgeault, C. (2004). Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD: Crowley.
James, W. (1961). Psychology: Briefer course. Harper Torchbooks.
Senge, P., Scharmer, O., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. S. (2004). Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. Cambridge, MA: SoL.