Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mind over matter

One of the teacher candidates I supervise teaches biology and life science. He handed me a science magazine for youth with an article that fits right into my theme of spiritual power over physical reality. Wim Hof, a 50-year-old athlete from the Netherlands, climbs into a tank wearing only a pair of shorts and is buried up to his neck in ice. This would kill me and you in about an hour. Not Hof, who emerges healthy and comfortable.
And not Tibetan Buddhist monks, who achieve the same.
The monks, wearing only loincloths, meditate in below-freezing temperatures at high altitudes. By visualizing fire and heat, they are said to be able to control the flow of blood in their bodies and stay warm, resisting frostbite and hypothermia. In one amazing feat, the near-naked monks are draped in wet sheets while they sit on glacial ice. Within minutes, their bodies dry the cold sheets. The ice around them melts too.
I don’t know what physicalists would say about this—maybe that it shows “God” is physical. This weird claim came from an atheist who told Barbara Bradley Hagarty he had the experience of being connected to everything around him—the classic mystical experience—but he interpreted this as meaning “God” is physical.
"God" only physical!

I enclose “God” in quotation marks because for many people the word refers to a humanlike individual. For me it means spiritual reality. My first experience with an atheist subordinating spiritual reality to physical reality came in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, wherein atheist André Comte-Sponville also describes a mystical experience, and he admits humans can have a spiritual life but does so reluctantly and with difficulty.
Then he makes an assertion amazing to me. He says that spirit does not create nature but is created by nature. Translated, this says that "God" didn’t create the world; the world created "God." A reasonable statement if "God" means an external deity, but ridiculous if "God" refers to spiritual reality.
Comte-Sponville says spirit comes from nature. I believe the reverse—I believe nature is a manifestation of spirit. He says,
It is likely that without the brain, [thinking, imagining, laughter, and so on] . . . would not even exist. On the other hand, without this ability, the brain would be an organ like any other.
I’ve read that science is finding evidence that our thoughts are not limited to brain power only, but arise in our whole body. It seems to me, this destroys his argument.

But wait. I see where his weird claim comes from. Elsewhere he marshals “arguments against the belief in his existence.” Readers, did the word “his” jump out at you? It should have. It’s the entire, total, whole, complete (my thesaurus doesn’t supply any more synonyms) reason atheists declare atheism. It’s our ridiculous language referring to God—the damaging He-His-Him syndrome that reduces the Absolute, the Infinite, to an idol with merely human mind and will. As I read Comte-Sponville’s arguments against believing in God, I shout, “I don’t believe in this god either!” And this god IS created by the world.

So we Christians should learn this lesson from atheists, who rank among the most deeply spiritual people I know. Exhilarating discussions about spirituality are conducted by atheists . . . who deny that spirituality exists! My nearly twenty-year association with atheists impresses this fact on me.

Now for the mind-over-matter question raised by the popular book The Secret AND by Wim Hof and the Buddhist monks. As I reflect on my own history, I see the truth of Job 3:25: “What I feared has come upon me.” Did my fears bring on the bad things that happened? That’s the perplexing question.

William James, a psychologist/philosopher, was a pioneer in melding secular knowledge with religious insight. Writing around the turn to the twentieth century, he urged people to realize that our beliefs create our facts. Some statements of James:
• Belief creates the actual fact.
• Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.
• If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.
• It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.

• We can alter our lives by altering our thinking (I liberated this one from its original sexist “man” language).
• The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.
No one can argue against the common sense in these statements or the need to remind ourselves of their message or the difficulty of actually putting them into practice. It has been taught by great wisdom teachers in many traditions and many eras.
Eric Butterworth, now deceased, is a modern one:
If you have ever had a desire to do something but have held back or stopped short for some reason, then you need to know this fundamental truth: "If you want to, you can! Because you couldn't want to if you couldn't. Your desire is proof-positive of your ability."

It is the fear of failure that postpones your initial effort. How can you develop the faith you need to keep on? By keeping on! Simply refuse to give in to the negative thoughts that tend to harass you. Know that your power to see a goal at all is also the power to see it through to achievement. Believe this and act as if it were impossible to fail!
So I believe that our thoughts create our circumstances and I see my life improve as I alter my thoughts. Here’s the rub—I do not believe that we can (or should) fulfill our wishes by believing they will come true. It’s my understanding that The Secret encourages people to do this—I confess I haven’t read the book and ask to be corrected if I’m wrong.

My reservation was strengthened when I read an interview of Eckhart Tolle in Unity magazine. Because I no longer have the magazine, I have to use my own words to state the sense of his. He said we sometimes have a conviction that something will happen if it is indeed on the way. And he did not support the notion that we can direct the course of history by focusing on our wishes. Our inner Self knows what will happen, and working with it is the key.

My problem with believing in wish fulfillment stems from my acceptance of Carl Jung’s insight that the human psyche “reaches so far beyond the boundaries of consciousness that the latter could easily be compared to an island in the ocean.” We don’t know what will truly bring happiness. My ego, my thinking I, might want fame, but my inner Self may know that I’d hate it if it happened or that it would harm me or harm others. Recent newsmakers sadly illustrate this.

I agree with religious people that what we call God knows best what’s best for us, and the eternal Mystery always produces more than we can fathom. I have wishes, of course, but taking a lesson from Buddhism, I try to release attachment to specific results and trust in a larger Wisdom than my own. I try to improve the quality of my thoughts.

The Institute of HeartMath can help us do that. It studies how the earth’s magnetic fields affect human activity and, conversely, how the feelings and brain activity of many people influence the earth’s fields. It developed the Global Coherence Initiative to teach us how to achieve coherence or harmony and minimize conflict. Here is its mission:
The Global Coherence Initiative is a science-based initiative to unite millions of people in heart-focused care and intention—to shift global consciousness from instability and discord to balance, cooperation and enduring peace.
This reading of mind over matter excites me.
Let’s explore some more this idea of our lives being the consequence of our thoughts and beliefs. Here are some deep-seated beliefs that control lives today or did so in the past:
• Women should not work outside the home.
• Gays are intrinsically disordered deviants with psychic disturbances (language used by Vatican officials). Sharp observers note that a statistically disproportionate number of religious have a homosexual orientation, leading to the conclusion that many Catholic officials who denounce gays are themselves gay.
• Muslims are a threat to us.
• We have to fight to defend ourselves against enemies.
• I will always be bested by people who don’t like me.

We can easily see the consequences of these beliefs—personal, religious, national, and global. Here are affirmations to counter ingrained beliefs that cause trouble:
• All people have a divine center.
• A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a gallon of vinegar.
• With spiritual help we can overcome our difficulties.
• Life flows easily and joyfully.
• The money I need will come to me.
• When people practice peace, more peace happens. This last reflects the belief of the Global Coherence Initiative .

3 comments:

Dave60 said...

I have read Comt-Sponville book also and found his take on spirituality very interesting. The question which arises for me is; does it make any difference which came first, spirit or nature? As humans trapped in time we think in a linear or one direction manner looking for cause and effect, things may not really work that way. Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading physicists, in his book “The Fabric of The Cosmos” states that there is no physical law requiring time to flow in one direction. It just so happens that in our part of the universe time flows from pass to future, but no one know why. Therefore the question become like the one of the chicken and the egg, which came first?

Jeanette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeanette said...

I just sent my previous reply to the trash because I want to express myself more clearly.

I think you raise a valid point. Maybe material reality and immaterial reality--what we call "God"--maybe the two aspects are just two aspects of the same reality and neither is prior to the other. As you say, maybe there's no flow in any direction.
Gosh, it's hard to talk about these abstractions.