Final class with my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” students as we shared our stories of our growth throughout the semester.
“We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.”
Whereas in past years (such as 2017 or 2016), it was not difficult for me to spot a specific spiritual highlight, it took me some time to identify this year’s big event, which was a slow dawning rather than a bolt from the blue. Upon further reflection, however, this year’s insight bubbled up. into my consciousness.
The realization is this: mainstream Christianity has got the wrong message for today’s students. While this has been a gradual process over several decades, only recently have I become confident enough to call out the problem and replace it with something better. Put simply, the message I grew up with – we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God; God sent Jesus as a sacrificial lamb to die for our sins; we believe this story of God’s love for us, and in faith serve people out of gratitude – has little appeal to my students.
This narrative has worked for millions over the centuries, as Christians receive the gift of God’s forgiveness and live a life of love out of this story. It is unquestionably the foundational teaching of most Christian churches around the world, so it is with some trepidation that I write this entry.
However, this message does not resonate with my mostly disenchanted and increasingly unchurched students that I teach at HKIS. We are evil and worthy of damnation from birth? An angry God would willingly sacrifice his own son? God up in heaven (but isn’t God everywhere) is bound to follow some cosmic rule about sacrifice that he didn’t create? A perfect loving God condemns people to hell in the first place? My main responsibility is to believe these hard-to-swallow metaphysical truths with blind faith, and that makes me pleasing to God? While I’m not denying it is an utterly transformative message for some, at the same time my experience at HKIS convinces me it is unattractive for the vast majority of my students.
In its place I have been teaching the Wisdom Tradition, which argues that the problem is that we are spiritually asleep, living primarily in the mind center. We are self-focused, celebrating (or mourning) our past achievements (or lack of achievements), and worrying about our future. We are not living moment-by-moment in the divine presence, nor attentively serving the needs of others or ourselves. The solution is to awaken the body to its sensations and the heart to its potential goodness, and entrain these newly sensitized dimensions of the self with the mind center. This allow us to live an enlivening existence at the intersection of the horizontal (material) and vertical (spiritual) dimensions.
In contrast to their skeptical reception of the traditional Christian message, students across my religion classes unquestioningly and happily accept the general diagnosis and solution presented by the Wisdom Tradition. They can immediately relate to the problem, and many of them enthusiastically get to work on waking up their body-mind-heart selves. Most importantly, they get to test it out; it’s not something they have to take on faith. Students in my SSS class, for example, do three 2-week assignments – a nutrition project, a spiritual practices project, and a DIY final project – in which they pay attention to aspects of their selves that need improvement and experiment with change. The results have been so successful for so many students (see the end of this blog entry for student testimonials) that I enthusiastically share this good news with students whenever I can.
The traditional Christian response would be to condemn my message as “works righteousness,” which means that these students are arrogantly seeking to earn God’s favor through good works instead of receiving the free gift of salvation by faith. Here my common sense protests against doctrinal formulation: no, my students are not striving to earn God’s favor. In fact, for most, God or salvation plays no role in their thinking as they do these projects; rather, they are simply trying to become better versions of themselves.
On the other hand, through their self-exploration many of them do open up to the spiritual dimension of life. Students who would have no interest in religion are spending 10 days on their own (and many more in class) doing spiritual practices! So many students are surprised that these ancient practices actually work – whether they are conscious walking, chanting, prayer or meditation – that their skepticism to religion and spirituality is substantially reduced. Most importantly, their lives are significantly improved on physical, mental, emotional, and sometimes spiritual levels. For example, I have had several girls with eating disorders who have made significant and even visible progress as they use the Wisdom Tradition’s teachings to work with imbalances in their body-mind-heart selves.
While it’s difficult for me to challenge the beliefs of my upbringing and conventional Christianity in general, I am duty-bound first to relieve the suffering of my students and bring them the “good news” that they can become more whole people. I trust that their foray into the Wisdom Tradition will lead some to continue on this path – where they will realize in time that spiritual growth is a combination of human effort and divine grace, as teachers of the cross-cultural Wisdom Tradition attest.
The first four books below are related to this topic of the Wisdom Tradition’s emphasis on bringing the body-mind-heart into harmony.
And with this introduction, I enthusiastically share my best reads of 2018.
With gratitude for growth in 2018 and for new lessons in the new year!
1. The Work: Esotericism and Christian Psychology (2018) by Rebecca Nottingham
As I have learned from Cynthia about the Wisdom Tradition over the last 7 years, Gurdjieff’s “Work” teachings have always been woven into her message, but nowhere have I found a clearer, more exciting, and more quick-moving summary than Nottingham’s account. While Gurdjieff’s teachings may mystify neophytes with an array of new concepts – three-centered awareness, the horizontal and vertical dimensions, magnetic center, presence – Nottingham has done practitioners a great service by providing a clear-eyed summary that also always keeps in mind application to the reader’s life and practice. I am thrilled to have come across this cogent summary, and I look forward to sharing what I learn from this book with others as well as applying Gurdjieff’s teachings on mindfulness to my own life.
2. The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (2017) by Paula Pryce.
Paula Pryce’s book is a great gift to those of us with an ongoing desire to lead a contemplative life in society. Based on her doctoral dissertation, Paula asks a most basic question: how do monastics and non-monastics grow in their spiritual lives? She takes readers not only inside monasteries and wisdom schools, but even allows us to read the e-journals of practitioners in order to answer her question. While the answers are perhaps what we have heard before – a regular spiritual practice to cultivate attention, humility, compassion, hospitality, and acts of service – the genius of this study is in its specificity, as Paula describes in often poetic detail specific practitioners in their own context, what they do as a practice, and the outcome. Although not a simple read, she addresses the subject of her study with intelligence, beauty, and sensitivity, explaining how serious practitioners foster intimacy with God over time. While the short answer is that they do their spiritual practice, laugh at themselves, and serve people in their community, reading Paula’s writing is a spiritual practice in itself, imprinting upon her audience the joy and the solemnity of the search with unusual intelligence.
3. Participation and the Mystery: Transpersonal Essays in Psychology, Education, and Religion (2017) by Jorge N. Ferrer.
Several years ago I was overtaken by Philip Shepherd’s article, “Out of Our Heads,” which convincingly makes the case that civilization has erred since moving its center from the gut to the head. I was physically energized simply by reading Shepherd’s interview, and ever since have sought out books on embodiment. This came to mind when I read Ferrer’s book, the unusual scholarly work that I couldn’t put down, taking themes commented on by Shepherd and exploring them at the level of scholarship. The essays provide a full range of exploration – from the philosophical to the pedagogical – of what a participatory approach to transpersonal psychology means. I had the feeling as I was reading Ferrer’s book that I had perhaps found my epistemological home: openness to the horizontal and vertical dimensions of life; balanced acceptance and critique of religious traditions; serious consideration of mysticism, while asking to what degree are these experiences mediated by language and culture; the importance of actively co-creating the world in all its visible and invisible dimensions; and, most importantly, inclusion of all types of knowing, including bodily intelligence. I appreciate how Ferrer critiques two other authors I am well-acquainted with, Ken Wilber and A.H. Almaas, commentaries that should move the conversation forward in the future.
4. The Power of Eight: Harnessing Miraculous Energies of a Small Group to Heal Others, Your Life and Your World (2017) by Lynn McTaggert.
Lynn McTaggert is a former journalist who writes, teaches, and does research on health, spirituality, and the postmaterialist worldview, easily mixing critical intelligence with openness to the invisible dimensions of life. In this book, she shares how she developed her “power of 8” groups through slowly coming to accept through scientific and anecdotal research that gathered small group attention can effect healing in people’s lives. The book reads easily with the right mix of science, explanation, and personal reflection. I later then participated for some months in an online power of 8 group out of Australia where we focused healing attention upon participants for 10 minutes per person on a skype-like call once a week. Bringing focused attention to a person’s deep needs certainly can be a powerful way to serve and be served by others.
5. Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind (2015) by Marjorie Woollacott
This highly engaging, award-winning book is the best introduction for non-specialists that I’ve come across that offers an intelligent alternative to the existential meaningless implicit in the materialist paradigm. Woollacott, a recently retired neuroscientist, takes readers on her quest to reconcile the objective world of her scientific study with the meditation experiences of her personal life. For most of her career, Woollacott kept her subjective experiences separated from scientific work. Having now retired from active scientific research, she now explains in this book how she came to construct a coherent worldview which synthesizes quantum physics, Hindu philosophy, and her own meditation practice. Having read numerous books in this genre, I most appreciated her intelligent exposition of scientific studies for the non-specialist, explaining how she came to favor panpsychism over materialism, all framed within her own life-long journey towards answering life’s biggest questions. I will gladly return to this book frequently as I try to help students consider an alternative to the materialist paradigm.
6. Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and a Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe (2018) by Dean Radin.
I have followed Dean Radin’s work as the chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) for some years, believing that in the future he will be remembered as a seminal trailblazer challenging society to accept that mind and matter are “entangled.” Author of six books over the last 20 years in which he shares his research, I highly recommend Real Magic for its simplicity and audience appeal. Radin begins by showing how Western culture has never given up its belief in magic, even if it has become unfashionable in modern thought to espouse such views in public discourse. Then he takes us on a tour of scientific research done at IONS that makes a strong case that the mind does demonstrably interact with the material universe. Succinct and readable, this is an excellent introduction to the cutting edge of post-materialist science and its potential impact on the yet-to-be-formed postmodern worldview.
7. The Jeweled Path: The Biography of the Diamond Approach to Inner Realization (2018) by Karen Johnson.
In the 1970’s A.H. Almaas and his student-cum-partner Karen Johnson created a religious movement called the Diamond Approach, which I had read about in several of Almaas’ books. However, it wasn’t until I read Karen’s biography describing how this movement came about that I began to understand that Almaas’ luminous descriptions of the spiritual life were based on personal experience rather than emanating from his poetic writing style. The highpoint for me of the Jeweled Path occurs when Karen describes how in October, 1977 Hameed (as he is called) shared his experience of “presence” with Karen in a direct transmission of energy into her hand that eventually awakened her whole body to the spiritual power. (Listen here at 15:00 to hear her description of this event.) From this point on, the two began sharing unusual mystical downloads that defy logic, but are described in simple and yet dramatic ways: “My head felt like someone had unscrewed the top and let the sky in. The love of discovery and freedom sang in my heart. Just then, a blue/green jewel emerged as a sense, lucid presence in my torso. A natural ease filled my heart as a presence of precision and kindness unified and set my heart free…The diamond vehicle sometimes appeared as an inner spaceship that moved around and inside our physical bodies, unimpeded by the usual material obstructions because it flew through another kind of space” (135, 136). They began to share this power with others, eventually creating the Ridwan School, enabling their students to participate in the same sense of presence. This is an intriguing first-hand account how the Diamond Approach was born as a new religious movement through the deep explorations of Hameed and the author.
8. How I Found God in Everyone and Everywhere: An Anthology of Spiritual Memoirs (2018) by Andrew M. Davis and Philip Clayton
“God in the sky” supernatural theism is not very satisfying to many modern people, including larger numbers of my students. However, rather than jettisoning God altogether, is it possible to redefine our understanding of God anew? This collection of essays does just that, re-envisioning God in terms of panentheism, which re-balances divine transcendence and immanence in more intellectually palatable and experientially useful ways. While the essays are of uneven quality, I particularly enjoyed those from authors that I have read previously: Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, Rupert Sheldrake, and Matthew Fox.
9. Dada Vaswani: A Life in Spirituality (2017) by Shobha Nihalani
Hong Kong Indian writer Shobha Nihalani shares the life of powerful Indian teacher Dada Vaswani, who passed away in July, 2018 at the age of 99. While mostly written as a biography, at points Shobha takes on the persona of a Tinkerbell-like character, peppering the famed teacher who has centers around the world with gently probing questions about how he lived a life of faith and service so authentically. The answer we receive over and over again was that Dada J, as he was called, was deeply in love with God, people, and the natural world. Although Dada J was the author of more than 150 books, it was his light-hearted and compassionate demeanor that his followers found so disarming. While not a hagiography, Shobah in no way hides her deep affection for this man who spread joy everywhere he went. It’s clear that her search for the essence of Dada J was at the same time a testimony to her own attempts to grow her spiritual life.
10. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018) by Stephen Pinker.
Like he did with his Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker challenges many of our conceptions of the global present by revealing our collective “negativity bias.” Would one know by watching the news that deaths by terrorism are far less than in the 1970’s, or that American murder rates continue to be at near-record all-time lows? Pinker inundates us with mostly good news, while facing head on those areas, such as the environment, where enthusiastic problem-solving is necessary. The end result is a clear-eyed, optimistic view of the state of the planet that is both encouraging and challenging, but gives us good reason to believe that year-by-year, decade-by-decade we are making substantial progress. We used excerpts from this book in Humanities I in Action as an antidote to the stark challenges posed in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.
11. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015) by Yuval Noah Hariri
A thoughtful counterpoint to Pinker’s optimism, Homo Deus by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari is a sobering read, positing that humans may become redundant in the future. He argues that far from being at the end of history where liberal democracy and capitalism have ended all the big political and economic questions, the whole progressive Western ideal of the sanctity of the individual will be under threat as bots take on more of the work of society and humans are devalued. While the conclusion is grim, the writing is insightful on every page. I also read his book Sapiens in 2018, which is written in the same lucid and insightful style, and plan to read his 21 Questions in 2019.
To see my favorite books of 2017, hit here.
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To see my favorite books of 2015, hit here.
To see my favorite books of 2014, hit here.
To see my favorite books of 2013, hit here.