Saturday, 13 February 2016

How religions tend to hold back spiritual growth

Lent 2016: Day Four

Organised religions are essentially about social control, using fear of God. "Do thus, and you shall escape punishment." Indeed, you will be rewarded with an eternity in Paradise for merely obeying the precepts of the religion you follow for one short lifetime.

And don't ask questions. Accept. This is rather stultifying.

Existence, conscious existence demands of us inquiry, which leads to far more meaningful spiritual growth than mere unquestioning obedience. As long as your inquiry is conducted genuinely, in good faith. It is better to spend a lifetime seeking answers to the eternal mysteries of the Universe than to be told what to believe and go along with that dogma. Surely God, the Universal Singularity, the Purpose, the One, would rather that we sought than just accepted?

I was once (or twice) told that like a good soldier follows orders without question, so a good Catholic follows the precepts of the faith in the same way.

But I believe in growth, in the endless journey of improvement (a view known as the Whig interpretation of history), in which Mankind is slowly moving away from the brutish towards the angelic. The road out of darkness towards light is long and often painful, but it is a road, an upward slope, it is a journey, we are all upon it. So for a religious leader to hold up a text written millennia ago and say: "this is it - the ultimate answer" denies us the journey. This approach enervates and removes the stimulus for growth. Growth comes from discovery of the new, within ourselves, within the Universe.

Poverty, suffering and disease should not be the default human condition, rather things from which we are moving away from. Thus should it be with ignorance.

Science has moved forward since the days of the mediaeval alchemists because of the questing nature of the human mind. The boundaries of scientific knowledge are being pushed ever forward. And yet the Dawkinsite orthodoxy of "the Universe just happened - there is no God (so don't bother looking)" is just debilitating to personal growth as any fundamentalist tied to the literal word of God as in their Holy Book.

It is hard for me to believe that there are people who believe that the world was created in seven days. Over 40% of Americans believe that the world was created less than 10,000 years ago. This is the result of accepting a text as holy truth and refusing to move on.

As a youth who spent seven years in a Roman Catholic grammar school, there was plentiful occasion to ask the tough questions. The stock answer for the toughest was 'it's a matter of faith'. Or - when I'd push the boat out too far - "the Devil makes you ask those questions". Constructing a massively complex theology around four Gospels leaves much room for questions. The Vatican's crack theologians are no doubt better prepared for them than the average parish priest, but even so, one knows where to draw the line, how far one can question, and when the questioning should stop in the interest of polite society.

Today, I would certainly not - out of basic human respect - take up the matters that I have been writing about under the 'human spirituality' label [see below] with any priest. Nor indeed with any other mediatory agents that place themselves as anointed intermediaries between God and Man.

But to someone else who genuinely seeks a higher understanding and spiritual growth, I am willing to discuss; with an open mind I am ready to learn from and share insights with those who are also on the same journey. This brings more benefit and enlightenment.

Tomorrow: prayer, meditation and human biology

This time two years ago:
When trams break down

This time four years ago:
Who are the thickies of Europe?

This time five years ago:
Oldschool Photochallenge: Response No. 2

This time six years ago:
Oligocene water from Jeziorki

Friday, 12 February 2016

Consciousness outside the body

Belief is belief; but when it comes to science, empirical evidence is a must. Repeatable proof. Now, the matters of which I write are, to us, in the infancy of spiritual evolution, difficult to pin down or examine in a lab bench. They belong to the philosopher and the poet - and the theologian.

Our sensitivity to the spiritual is weak, it varies from human to human (indeed from living being to living being). It comes in flashes; if we were to be subject to the fullness of Knowing in one go, it would literally blow our minds. But I believe it will grow, with each coming lifetime. Orthodox church teaching suggests one life, one shot at redemption - and if successful, eternity with God.

I tend to disagree. We can grow but a fraction of the way from zero to one; why should an eternity in Paradise await us for behaving ourselves in the short space of one life time? [The answer is, of course, social control, but that's for another post.]

We can either say - it's a spiritual thing, and the spiritual is no part of the physical universe, it is something entirely separate. This is Dualism. Or we can say - the universe is holistic, the One, spiritual and physical intertwined. This is Monism, and it is what I tend to believe in. [I say 'tend', for should experience, should things I find going forth on this lifelong quest suggest otherwise, I am open to fine-tune or even change fundamentally my belief. But it must be genuine.]

We live, we learn, we die - then what? Has that spiritual evolution - that tiny increment of distance closer to universal understanding - been lost forever with our deaths? I believe not. And I believe this on the basis of being open to signals that have been telling my consciousness over the years that this life is but a part of a continuum, witnessed in the here-and-now through our individual eyes. What we have witnessed and what we have learnt will roll forward.

But what are the mechanisms for transmission? Scientific ones? Here is gets flaky. Here I'm on shifting sands, on dodgy ground. Endless scientific discoveries push forward the boundaries and close off that which hitherto Mankind had been happy to ascribe to the existence of God. This is the concept of 'the God of the gaps'.  Once upon a time thunder and lightning were clear proof that God exists. And that a flat Earth, under the dome of the heavens, likewise.

So any attempt to explain a phenomenon that I believe to be as real as your ability to imagine the smell of an orange must be sound enough for both science and for me.

Right now, I have identified some putative ways in which our consciousness can free itself of our physical, living bodies.

The human microbiome - the trillions of bacteria we slough off daily. They live within us and on us, we excrete them, we exhale them, when we walk we shed clouds of them. Bacteria can lie dormant for 250 million years. What have they learnt of us while we hosted them?

Brain waves - science is closing in on this one: see this new research about electrical brain waves in mice here. But can those waves be detected outside the mouse's skull? Or our own ones? If so, how far away? For how long? As a teenager, this was my favoured theory. "I'm picking up transmissions from some dead guy's brain". And - er - why not gravitational waves, first detected yesterday?

Atoms as a repository of consciousness, memory, will? Atoms are around forever. The electron shells whiz round the nuclei for eternity. The hydrogen atoms of which we are made (8% of our body weight) have been around since shortly after the Big Bang. Wow! Do they carry property other than just electric charge? What will they have learned during their short time as part of us?

Dark matter. This stuff makes up 84.5% of the total mass of the Universe. And science hasn't the foggiest idea what it is, other than it exists and is pushing the Universe apart. Or if not dark matter, then dark energy, which constitutes 68.3% of all the energy in the Universe. It would be a big 'God of the gaps' for me to posit that until science does discover its nature, dark matter and/or dark matter is the will, the purpose and the intelligence of the Universe.

Now look, dear reader - I'm open about all this. I hold no view one way or another, save that one day Mankind may have a better insight into these mysteries than it does right now. In the meantime, I intend to read, to seek, to experience, to synthesise, to speculate - but above all, remain open to the mysteries of the infinite.

Tomorrow: organised religions - holding back spiritual growth with orthodoxy.

This time two years ago:
Sustainability and the feminisation of business

This time three years ago:
Lent kicks off (somewhat earlier than this year)

This time four years ago:
Feeling at home on the ice

This time seven years ago:
Wetlands in (a milder) winter

This time eight years ago:
Railway miscellany

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Defining the human experience

Poets often have our human life more precisely measured than any scientist. Insights offered by Mankind's greatest poems often precede scientific validation by hundreds or thousands of years.

This is Poem XXXII from A.E. Housman's cycle of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896.
From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I. 
Now - for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart -
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart. 
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
Long before Joni Mitchell sang that we are "stardust/Billion year-old carbon", Housman intuitively felt that the matter of which we are composed comes together to form us - and then disperses. He notes that life is but a brief moment in time; our priorities are to communicate sincerely with one another - and to help one another, before the time passes. But the last verse suggests rebirth, constant rebirth.

Housman, being a classical scholar (he taught Enoch Powell at Oxford), refers to the 'twelve-winded sky', the 'wind's twelve quarters', as used in antiquity, rather than the eight/16/32 wind directions that have evolved since the Middle Ages. His references to 'the Roman' in Poem XXXI, On Wenlock Edge suggest that Housman felt a strong familiarity with those times. He has seen before. And is certain that he will do so until Eternity.

Six of the poems from A Shropshire Lad were set to music in 1909 by Ralph Vaughan Williams, my favourite British composer. On Wenlock Edge and From Far, from Eve and Morning are the first two songs from this YouTube clip (click below).

By way of coincidence, this is a quote from Warsaw-born Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, featured this very morning as Quote of the Day on the Moscow Times' Twitter feed:
All was before
All will be repeated again,
And only the moment of recognition
Brings us delight.
Yes. That 'moment of recognition'. So perfectly, succinctly put.

Written on this very day that Mankind first announced the first detection of gravitational waves.

Tomorrow: spiritual or physical? Transmission of consciousness.

This time two years ago:
The City of Warsaw wants you to complain

This time three years ago:
Czachówek's wild woods in winter

This time four years ago:
Vistula freezes over downstream of Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Twilight of the Ikars

This time six year ago:
Polish TV adverts for parapharmaceuticals

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki wetlands in winter

This time eight years ago:
A week into Lent

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Sensitivity to spiritual evolution


Just as there is biological evolution, so the spiritual nature of all around us evolves too. We grow in awareness, our consciousness becomes more fine-tuned to all that surrounds us. Much as we strive for those spiritual goals, reaching towards the sublime infinite, we are but human, easily distracted. Builders of religious buildings have striven to create spaces in which we can focus on the numinous, but often things get in the way. Other worshipers, incongruous objects, bad architecture, uninspiring music. We know we should pray, meditate, contemplate - but do it all too rarely.

Hence those times in the spiritual calendar that impose upon us an obligation to turn towards the infinite.

And then what?

My principal belief is that human spirituality is a lifelong quest for ever-greater awareness. It should not be mere acceptance of nostrums handed down over the centuries - "there, quest no more, for all the answers are here." That approach dullens our spiritual evolution. The quest is imposed upon us by our own motivation to fulfil our human potential. To make the very most of that with which we were born.

The story of Adam and Eve is, in a way, a warning by ancient forefathers in the Middle East not to question too much, nor to seek knowledge. Refusal to heed this warning resulted in the Fall of Man. Now, I don't subscribe to the notion of a fall from grace, a past state of perfection in which all that was expected of Man was obedience. Rather, I see history, progress, being a slow journey from Imperfection towards Perfection, as a wrote last year, a long journey from zero to one.

To be open to the evolution of our spirituality, we must strive to be more sensitive to the calling. And here, I find myself on the one hand disagreeing with religious fundamentalists as much as I disagree with scientific rationalists. The voice of the infinite calls to us - you may wish to call this 'God' - but the voice is neither shrill nor obvious.

And - here I base my beliefs on observations made throughout my life - the presence of the infinite in our lives is there, but we can tap into this presence only if we seek, and listen.

It is necessary to take a balanced approach to the way we interpret that which is around us. We should neither obsessively seek out coincidences and then contrive to find meaning in them - nor should we ignore those flashes of numinous insight which befall us from time to time.

The rationalist would not stray into a world so intangible, full of that which cannot be empirically recorded and explained. Yet if we are open to a universe of possibility, our spirit - can indeed feel a heightened degree of awareness and understanding. But, for now, these moments are few and far between and their intensity limited. Enough to be noticed, and built on.

For the key question that all of us - every single human being ponders on - is the existence of our consciousness after our bodies' physical demise. My personal belief - but it is Most certainly one I can challenge, question or even reject, should new insight arise - is that from lifetime to lifetime, that consciousness does indeed move on from being to being, each time rising in spiritual awareness, evolving away from the animal and towards the angelic.

How do I know this? Sensitivity to those moments that I've been recalling and reporting for many years, those flashbacks, those moments of anomalous familiarity, which I firmly believe are from beyond my lifetime, from before my birth. Was that 'me' in a life before? Don't know. Will there be a future 'me'? Doubt it. I am assuming spiritual evolution, and greater sensitivity to such phenomena.

As I wrote last year, the Universal Singularity is that to which I believe everything is tending towards. Billions of galaxies, billions of stars. More universes than just one? Who knows. As a species we will know more. But only if we genuinely seek, strive, and grow in spirit as we live and experience life - consciously.

This time last year:
'Peak car' - in Western Europe, at least

This time three years ago:
Pavement for Karczunkowska NOW!
[We still don't have one... I walk home in fear of my life.]

This time four years ago:
Until the Vistula freezes over

This time five year:
Of sunshine, birdsong and wet socks

This time eight years ago:
Dziadzio Tadeusz at 90

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Lent, a time to cleanse and reflect


Well, this is it! Once again - for me, the 25th Lent in a row when I deny myself the pleasure of drink. And also meat, fast food, added salt, sugar, soft drinks, cakes, biscuits, confectionery, salt snacks... What's left? Fish, dairy, fruit, veg, bread, rice, pasta. And water.

This is the time of year to eschew the physical presence and focus on the Infinite, to ask the Big Questions regarding the human condition, the spirit, the consciousness. Why we live, what it's all for. To put under scrutiny that infinitesimally tiny chance that we exist at all. That we are aware of it as it passes.

Why? Time to step back, for 46 days, one eighth of the time it takes for our planet to orbit its star - time to contemplate. In awe, and in mystery. And to consider the how and why of our existence. Here we all are - busying away at our lives, getting on with it, facing the challenges of bank account and dentist and washing up and shopping - but what's it all for?

Over the next six and half weeks, between now and Easter Sunday, I intend, as I've done over the past years, to get serious about the nature of existence and the Universe. From the subatomic to the pangalactic. Here we all are, worrying about Brexit and Zika and Putin and Isis - and yet, out there, and in here, there is a Universe that we need to get to grips with.

Will it keep expanding for ever? Or will its expansion slow, will it begin to contract in upon itself? What is Dark Matter, that makes up the bulk of the Universe? Mere mathematics?

And - Most importantly - what is the purpose of it all? Why does the Universe exist at all? Does it have an aim? A goal? And what part in all of this does our own consciousness play?

There is a quest. A purpose. We strive to discover. And for me - brought up as a Catholic - the period of Lent is as good as any to concentrate on these questions, while at the same time going on a fast, a time of self-denial, that is linked to deeper focus on what matters most.

Touching the spiritual - if genuine, not a going-through-the-motions ritual, but a real experience of being in the presence of the Eternal - is not an everyday experience for most of us.

To do so requires a sensitivity, a yearning, an awareness that there is a quest going on; the aim is to make those moments more frequent in our lives, and that from them, we may learn and grow.

And that really big question is - what next. What happens after we die. We can only have an inkling, but what we feel, what we believe, does, I think, play a part in the outcome.

Join me then, in another 46-day pilgrimage in which I try to get a step or two nearer the Infinite, the Universal Singularity, a step further on the journey from Zero to One, a step closer (though we are far, far, away) to an understanding of God.

Click on the Human Spirituality and Lent labels for a rich back-catalogue of musings upon our condition.

This time last year:
It was 50 years ago today... Beatles arrive in New York

This time three years ago:
Adventures in the Screen Trade - the truth about Hollywood

This time four years ago:
Drifting home

This time six years ago:
Today's dose of wintery gorgeousness

This time eight years ago:
First intimations of spring