People often think that human beings are inherently good. And that personal development simply involves getting in touch with one’s true self. In addition, they see this true self as the potential within us all for being truly good. A life, filled with compassion, joy and peace, defines the true design of each individual.
However, there is a lot of unhappiness around – a far cry from this idea of our true self. We are a bit of a mix. We switch from being generous to being selfish, from being fair to dishonest, from being conscientious to careless. Consequently, I think that unhappiness comes when we follow some of our own negative inclinations.
“We want to be important; we enjoy running people down because it makes us feel superior; we are easily hurt and feel vengeful if we do not get our ‘rights’; we are pleased if we can win an advantage over someone by slightly twisting the truth. And so on.” (Brian Kingslake, spiritual writer)
If no one is perfect then we all need to make some sort of spiritual progress. To find a way of attaining our true self.
How can we do this? Students of comparative religion have discovered that very similar experiences may be subjected to different and incompatible explanations, according to the spiritual tradition one is familiar with.
Mindfulness meditation and the true self
Mindfulness meditation involves being aware of the various thoughts that enter consciousness. It also requires the person to stay in the observer role without emotionally engaging or identifying with these thoughts. A hard thing to do without much practice.
Initially, without realising it, the myriad concerns and pre-occupations of the unruly mind capture one’s attention . Uncomfortable feelings predominate as we become more self-aware and start to realise the frequency of our anxious and judgmental thoughts. As mindfulness practice becomes firmly embedded in one’s life, although difficult thoughts and feelings still arise, they possess us less often. One can now usually make the conscious choice not to let them overwhelm one.
Eventually, one meets situations, that would have once created anxiety, depression, anger or frustration, with acceptance and equanimity. One gets glimpses of deep peace and clarity that can occur during meditation or arise spontaneously during everyday life.
Confessional prayer and the true self.
Another spiritual practice is confessional prayer. By this I mean an inner conversation with one’s image of a loving Divine Being. It involves honestly acknowledging one’s shortcomings in terms of one’s inner conscience and having genuine remorse. Those who feel a sense of guilt say they experience a sense of forgiveness.
If asking for inner strength in prayer, one can feel greatly encouraged and uplifted in one’s spiritual struggle. I believe that for this spiritual practice to work, two things need to be present. Firstly, resisting the impulse to fall into the same old bad ways. Secondly, acknowledging that the power to do so comes from the Divine Being working in one.
Over-reliance on the head and the true self
Some adherents, of whatever spiritual practice followed, rely on their beliefs for producing spiritual progress. They value the understanding of the head to guide their way forward.
Things can go off-track however with this.
The Pharisees in the Palestine in Christ’s day believed in the Jewish teachings about spiritual living but nevertheless had little or no love for others in their hearts. Consequently, the ‘faith alone’ in their thinking was not enough.
In the Buddhist tradition, right thinking is not sufficient for the attainment of nirvana.
“No matter how much someone’s understanding advances, when it is not accompanied by feeling, it will hinder that person’s spiritual progress.” (D.T Suzuki Buddhist scholar)
Over-reliance on the hands and the true self
There are those who primarily rely on charitable deeds or spiritual rituals for their spiritual progress. People around them may see them as ‘do-gooders’. The trouble, with this practical hands-on approach to attaining one’s true self, is that all sorts of good actions can sometimes be due to un-spiritual motivations. Hidden desires for future rewards, wanting to look good, to feel superior, or to get one’s own way. One can pay lip service to ways of acting without any change in underlying attitude. The attitude change is a turning round. Facing towards self is being egotistical and prioritising pleasure. The opposite is turning around to look towards the needs of others. Prayer and meditation are no good without this changed attitude.
“Repentance of the lips, and not of the life is not repentance.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, theologian)
Over-reliance on the heart and the true self
There are also those who over-rely on their good feelings to attain spiritual progress. They may talk a lot about loving intentions and feel that human happiness results only from such feelings. However without regular application and wise thinking such an attitude is in danger of descending into sentimentality.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
In other words, when we procrastinate, our good intentions that lack practical application are of little use. It would be a bit like practicing mindfulness meditation without the rest of the time adopting a mindful attitude. Also, without the guidance of enlightened understanding, even with good intentions, one can be easily sidetracked into unwise actions and mistaken avenues with unforeseen consequences.
Head, hands and heart all needed for attaining the true self
I would say enlightened thoughts alone, good deeds alone or feelings alone don’t lead to the true self.
“Both (Mahayana Buddhism and Swedenborgianism) deny that salvation is effected by performing rituals, or faith alone, or deeds alone, or even by having mystical experiences.” (David Loy, scholar of comparative religion)
According to this view, how we inwardly live our life on a daily basis makes us what we are.
I conclude that whatever one’s spiritual tradition and spiritual practices, it is loving intentions put into practice and guided by right ways of thinking that lead to attaining the true self.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems