From our childhood onwards our lives are filled with questions of one sort or another – some more pressing or even agonising than others. But where are we to look for valid answers and find the meaning of life?
Asking Big Questions
There are the really big questions and the smaller ones. Here are a few of the bigger ones. Does outer space beyond our solar system go on forever or does it have an edge – and if so what is on the other side? Where do we come from, why are we here, and what will become of us when we die? I can imagine some alien intelligence on a far distant planet asking exactly the same questions. These sort of universal questions have puzzled thinking people down the ages.
Children as well as adults ask questions. The play age stage of childhood is often characterised by developmental theorists as one of explorative activity and exuberant discovery. Consequently good educational practice encourages a child-centred approach to learning. This compares favourably with the old approach of rote learning. Modern teachers enhance children’s interest by providing knowledge building on what they already know. They relate their teaching to the child’s limited experiences stretching their understanding a bit further.
Young children’s concrete thinking and love of knowing things seems to go deeper than mere curiosity about the physical things they see. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, the then Superintendent of Education said his three year-old daughter asked all sorts of difficult questions. After watching groups of morose Argentine soldiers being led up into the hills, she would ask `Are they bad men, Daddy?”
He would say, “No, of course they’re not bad men. Some of them are probably very good men, but what they’re doing isn’t very nice.” To which she replied “So why doesn’t anybody like them, then?”
There may be naivety in their outlook but there is also a simple interest in asking for basic reasons for things. They can even ask astonishingly deep and perceptive questions albeit in their childlike way:
“Why can’t we see God?”
“Why does God let us get hurt when we are good?”
“Why did God make rats?”
Unfortunately they do not often get satisfactory answers.
When growing up we may have become frustrated trying to get answers – so much so that we gave up asking about anything really important. If you do not get a meaningful response to your query, then you tend to stop asking and the issue eventually disappears from your conscious mind. This can happen sometimes if parents give no reasons when responding to children e.g. saying “So and so is true because I say so”. Alternatively, they may more or less restate the question using different words e.g. “Why is that man acting so crazy?” “Because he’s insane.”
On the other hand there are helpful parents and teachers who may have heard what Albert Einstein once said:
“Don’t take no for an answer. The important thing is never to stop questioning.”
These days the age of religious dogma has begun to pass away and we expect to think about things in a rational way. We can grasp ideas according to what others tell us. For example, we can learn about ideas in philosophy and other fields of thought. Yet, mere knowledge is not enough for a proper understanding.
People who follow Einstein’s advice tend to encourage questioning. This could be by using brainstorming. For example, “Why are some people gay?” “Maybe it is inborn, maybe personal choice or maybe something to do with what happens to the individual.” When brainstorming, it is important to remember to put all ideas on the table. Decide later, which ones to toss into the rubbish bin. The enquiring mind can then be encouraged to consider alternative explanations and a means of evaluating them. “What are the arguments for and against each viewpoint?” “What sort of information will help us evaluate each one?” “Where would we find this information?”
The teacher can help younger school pupils to find things out using children’s love of knowledge. He or she can take advantage of their interest to provide straightforward facts and simple explanations that may be suited to those with a limited experience of life.
However, when they get older these children need their teacher to give them the ways and means of finding out answers for themselves – how to use a library, what books to consult or what considerations to bear in mind. In this way, they can form their own ideas and make their own conclusions.
It is the same for all of us. In the end, we will not find the answers to life’s quandaries just in what others tell us. Neither will the language of everyday conversation, soap opera scripts, newspaper news, business discussion, or scientific endeavour do more than tangentially touch what we need to understand. More meaningful answers to life’s big questions coming from inner experience can start to suggest themselves however during intimate conversation between close friends, in the lines of the poet and in the private prayers of the sincere at heart. In addition, the writing of spiritual teachers and sacred scriptures of the world’s religions directly address them.
It is when we look within that we have a chance of illumination. We can be very knowledgeable for example about the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, C.G. Jung or Karl Marx or whatever system of thought that appeals. We do need to use our heads to make sense of things we hear and see around us. Genuine enlightenment, however, never came just from listening to a lecture or reading a book – even this one! It also comes from within and not just from without. It is holistic – not just a memory and intellectual understanding of what somebody else has written or said – but also from our feeling, and the effort in what we do. In other words, it is something involving our whole being – heart, head and hands.
Put another way our soul, mind and body are all involved. Many people may reject fundamentalist religious dogma but want to learn more about the spiritual side of life. They realise that there is more to life than the evidence of science. That one needs to look deep within the spirit of things to discover answers to our personal questions. Knowledge based on the world of nature and gained through our senses is limited.
“Are not all your ideas borrowed from your senses, which do not give you the reality but only its phenomena? … For absolute truth is not to be found in the phenomenal world”
(Eckartshausen. The Cloud upon the Sanctuary, i. – Roman Catholic mystic)
The talking therapies help us to focus on an inner realm of emotion and desire, imagination and intuition, and thought and belief, much of which we had not been clearly conscious. Spiritual exercises such as prayer, meditation and contemplation reveal even more depth of mind. They can pry us away from ordinary desires and connect us with a deeper will and purpose.
When we practice meditation, we try to focus our attention and suspend judgment whilst maintaining objectivity. This means passively observing thoughts and feelings simply as mental events without personal attachment to them. In this way with repeated practice, we still the mind and distance ourselves from our thoughts and feelings that we can then calmly examine. As a child, Swedenborg was able to intensely concentrate on an idea with a slowing of breathing. He later differentiated, on the one hand, this meditation from, on the other, thought of the body, imagination and daydreaming.
We can extend our experience of meditation exercises to a general mindfulness attitude throughout our daily life. Mindfulness is focusing our attention one thing at a time engaging our mind with what we see or hear. This would mean, for example, paying close attention to what a friend is saying, the tone of voice, the facial expression, the bodily posture and orientation and so on. Not allowing ourselves to be distracted by a hundred and one thoughts that flash into the mind but really listening to what is being said with no wandering attention.
This is an attitude of acknowledging and facing our experience of the friend instead of fighting the experience or trying to make it something else. In addition, it means dealing with the immediacy of the current situation, rather than a possible future or the past; what we might call focusing on the `eternal now’.
The soul of life is more than what can be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, or touched with the skin despite what those with a worldly orientation might claim. The spirit of the age may have been lost but perhaps we can find it again. Not all religion is fanatical or a banal theory without relevance to the real hardships of life. There are actually answers to our questions we could find within the deeper levels of our being that might possibly lead us out of our troubles.
“The Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”
Feelings of our Heart
We may voice a viewpoint to others around us because this is convenient for us rather than whether it is right. For example, we may take on board and give voice to the opinions of other people, whether realistic or mistaken, so that they can better like us and find us socially acceptable. Yet, as has been said:
“If a million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
(Jacques Anatole Thibault)
Conventional opinion that fails to address contradictions and lack of evidence does not put off those searching for the correct answer.
What is it that we want? Do we want the truth? Existential writers often speak of our search for meaning; the meaning to each of us of a shared calamity, a celebration or a milestone reached and passed. One person might be keen to find a comfortable understanding rather than finding out how things really are. Another may want to impose his or her own solutions based on a favourite hobbyhorse or particular prejudice.
The trouble is that self-interest and pride get in the way of light illuminating the human mind. I would say that part of the route to enlightenment is a heart-felt interest in what is true, for its own sake, rather than for any advantage it can give us.
We might want to find out an answer to a problem for the sake of what is good and useful in the answer. We are less likely to learn how to repair a punctured bicycle tyre until we become interested in cycling. We may not understand our child’s difficulty at school unless we really want to make his or her life happy. The answer to the question of what job to apply for may not appear until we have an inkling of what we want to do.
We also need to look deeply into our inner being if we want to find answers to the really weighty questions. Soulful music is full of deep feeling and profoundly moving. It expresses a self-reflection that reaches down beyond the superficialities of life and the sentiments that too easily arise from our moods, to a more considered feeling about the human predicament. Unless we engage our deeper emotions in our search, we cannot expect to arrive at meaningful answers to our questions.
Thoughts of our Head.
To use one’s intelligence does not mean one has to be academically intellectual. Coming from somewhere within is a light that illuminates. It enables us to think clearly, to see the ramifications, to weigh up the pros and cons and to understand the reasons for things. Unless we use the understanding in our heads, what we conclude may be irrational and unrealistic.
Effort of our Hands
Our hands also come into the picture; what we actually do. We need to make the effort to do things to find solutions. To find answers to their questions scientists do experiments. We also need to do things. If our question is the simple one about repairing a bicycle wheel then this would mean our removing the wheel, separating the inner tube from the tyre, locating the hole, sticking a patch and replacing everything properly. Only when we do it will we have the answer we need. Practice makes perfect.
However, to get answers to bigger questions we could go to the library, look on the internet, or telephone someone to ask a question. If the answer sought is to do with our child’s problem we could go to his or her school, find the right teacher, and initiate a conversation to discuss the child’s problem. We need to read the appropriate newspaper or journal, seek out a relevant job advert, and send off for details.
Psychological therapists can only comment on what a client chooses to reveal about him or herself. If the client does not share enough of the story about him or herself to work on, the therapist may be ineffective. Real self-insight comes only from the client actually disclosing information and inner feelings despite the discomfort this often causes; making the effort to get beyond the usual comfortable excuses and self-justifications. This is the therapeutic work necessary for personal improvement.
The more we put into something then the more we get out of it. We speak of creativity – for example producing a finished piece of music or sculpture – as involving one percent inspiration but ninety-nine percent perspiration. The effort the sculptor or musician makes to find answers to the artistic problem is crucial if the answers are to appear.
To conclude we cannot really get answers unless we have the relevant information concerning what is true, want to see what is good in it and actually do something to find out.
Illusion and Reality
Propaganda does not respect the truth and so it is said that the truth is the first victim in the fog of war. Pontius Pilate once asked Christ, “What is truth?” In considering the idea of truth, we can distinguish between illusion and reality. It appears that the sun revolves around the earth whereas actually the earth goes round the sun.
It appears that showing respect to friends and acquaintances and giving generously to charitable organisations is a sign of a true social conscience. However, this is an illusion in the case of those manipulating the good opinion of others by hypocritical pretence.
Some people fall for the illusions of time. As the saying goes: “Yesterday has gone; tomorrow is a post-dated cheque, today is cash.” By focusing on the present moment, we can be more fully involved with what is deeply true about life. Writers influenced by Eastern world spirituality describe ordinary consciousness in terms of an incessant mental noise arising from our entanglement with what has been going on for us in the world. This level of mind attaches itself to space and time and is said to hinder our awareness of a realm of stillness.
However we could find a deeper self and enlightened state of consciousness when we start to focus on the `eternal now’ instead of living in the past and worrying about the future – a state of consciousness, free of the burden of time.
Another example of an illusion is the idea that the happiest people are those who give priority to pleasure and personal gain. I believe actually the happiest of us are those whose main concern is the well-being of others. This is the true heavenly state. For the state of heaven can be within us.
“In the space within the heart are contained both heaven and earth”
(Chandogya Upanishad, viii, I, 3. – Hindu tradition)
“Nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
We can pretend we are in a heavenly state and we can deny and not face up to our failings. Then we are living a lie. Instead, we could start to resist our personal demons and work on our inner problems. Then we would more clearly see the reality within and around us rather than the illusions that were previously misleading us.
These examples show that the assumptions behind our questioning can be either illusory or realistic.
Inspiration of Illumination
When it comes down to it, I would suggest that only inspiration could illuminate our minds. But where does inspiration come from? In one sense, the word means the inhalation of air into the lungs; not that we can claim any credit for that as we usually breathe automatically without any conscious thought. However it is possible to learn to slow down one’s breathing and the resulting change in the oxygen / carbon dioxide balance in the blood is thought to affect the brain and allow into awareness inner thoughts.
Eastern yogis practise breath control to facilitate a state of deep absorption and concentration during meditation. Likewise as pointed out before, Swedenborg himself reported since childhood being better able to keep his mind fixed on a central thought by hardly breathing.
The word `inspiration’ also means stimulation of the mind inducing a high level of activity. The bored and apathetic individual uninvolved with life lacks stimulation of mind and consequently cannot clearly see the way forward. He or she is groping around in the dark.
However, the mystic has often said if we wish to see the way forward we can listen to an Inner Teacher to inspire our understanding and illuminate our path. This is to do with a further aspect of inspiration i.e. what many regard as divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the mind.
The novelist Leo Tolstoy grappled with his quest for a meaningful truth about life.1 He remembered one day in early spring when alone in the forest, listening to its mysterious noises. His thought went back to what he had always been busy with – looking for answers about the spirit of the divine within the universe. He was wondering how he ever came by the idea of God.
There then arose within him a something that he called a `glad aspiration towards life’. Everything in him woke up and received a meaning. A silent voice within him asked why he was looking any further for `God is here, without whom one cannot live’. After realising that there is no existence without God, he says things cleared up both within and around him and the light never wholly died away. It saved him from suicide. His energy for living returned. His sole purpose became one of being a better person. He gave up the ways of the conventional world with its superfluities embracing instead the life of the peasants and felt relatively right and happy after this.
Like Tolstoy, when we search for true meaning we may also become aware of an inner light. It is amazing what some busy people can achieve. The more effort they put into what they do then the more understanding and inspiration they seem to have.
In considering our search for answers to questions I have stated several factors. However, I believe it boils down to whether we think from a worldly or from a spiritual perspective. Scientists and many others in the academic world would be the first to say that they are not approaching their questions from a spiritual perspective.
These thinkers believe nothing without facts of scholarship or research findings as evidence. They insist on answers that appear logical to them. They are constantly coming up with arguments against any ideas of a spiritual nature.
On the other hand spiritual thinkers trust in the divine. They say that what rational considerations they hear and what things of nature they see, all combine to confirm their basic attitude. One example of this is the idea that hearing conversation does not belong to the ears but to the spirit that hears the meaning of what people say. Actually, Swedenborg’s spiritual teachings tend to appeal to my rational thinking. I do not find his works to be illogical as many suppose the writings of mysticism and religion to be.
Those of us searching for answers to the big questions, who have had a love of spiritual truth, have recognised the underlying order around us – shown for example in the laws of physics. We have realised that no one can explain away the amazing universe of planets and stars or the pattern of evolution on earth as a series of accidents. We have seen the ideas we had remembered from what others have said or written in a clearer light and thus in a deeper way. The upshot often has been more and more seeing life as essentially spiritual created by a purposeful intelligence.
We had always been aware that the human body can give meaningful expression to inner thoughts and feelings; for example a welcoming standpoint through a beckoning gesture of the hands, a feeling of delight by a smiling facial expression, and an attitude of kindness by a soothing tone of voice.
However, once we adopt a mental set of seeing the world in psycho-spiritual terms we more clearly perceive how outward things around us reflect inward human qualities. We become more sensitive to what nature can teach us. Now we begin to see how the things in the natural world reflect so many emotions and activities of our minds.
We gain from nature the impressions that give us distinct appreciation of spiritual things.
Wanting to find out what is true and good, we have more often understood in an inward manner. We have followed the advice offered by Jesus:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Our hands, heart and head have worked in unison. We find out things without easily being put off. We value the good in what has been offered. We do not blindly accept what we have been told but rather ponder over it in a reasonable way. Finally, we have become more sensitive to what nature can teach us about the reality of the psycho-spiritual side of life.
Spiritual illumination comes from loving what is good in the truth about some human situation and living it.
“When a person is governed by what is good, it is from that good that he sees truths, perceives them, and so believes that they are indeed truths … what is good is like a little flame which sheds light and provides illumination, and so enables a person to see, perceive, and believe truths.”
(Swedenborg. Arcana Coelestia section 5816 2)
Copyright 2008 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Extracted from the book Heart, Head & Hands