Love, kindness, compassion, liberation from suffering and health are core human concerns religions and spiritual traditions all over the world have focused on since the beginning of human civilization.
We have always known that those themes ‘are good for us’, that they are good medicine for a humanity in pain. What is utterly new in our present times, is the fact that we now have a new and powerful ally in humanity’s road towards wisdom. The mindfulness disciplines of subjective experience (meditation, psychotherapy) have converged and shaken hands with the mindfulness discipline of the objective world – science. We now live in an extraordinary time, where the neurosciences, genetics, modern psychology, anthropology, physics and mathematics have converged to shed new light on spiritual insights. The neurosciences can now back up the claim that compassion and kindness are at the heart of health and wellbeing, which in turn are at the heart of spiritual fulfillment. To meet the challenge of finding effective ways of deeply living and embodying the principles that afford us health and wellbeing, modern neuroscience and spiritual traditions have converged to offer systematic ways of analyzing what gets in the way of such liberation. Although depending on cultural, historical and geographical contexts different words and metaphors are used to engage in that analysis, its core structure is always and everywhere fundamentally the same, consisting of diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and prescription.
We first begin with a diagnosis, which tells us what is wrong with us. The diagnosis is a simple, though penetrating one: ‘Misalignment’, ‘imbalance’ or ‘lack of integration’. Modern neuroscience has opened an enormous door for us to harness the power of the mind to rewire the brain by approaching our organism very differently than we are commonly used to. Instead of seeing it as if it was ‘a thing’, we look more deeply at its energetic nature – the fact that we are energy flow. This leads to a different way of diagnosing: Instead of diagnosing entities we label as illnesses or defects, we notice how these energies flow. They may flow harmoniously, in which case we are healthy, or they may flow in chaotic or rigid patterns, in which case we are ill and suffer. All suffering comes down to energy flows not being integrated, either chaotically or rigidly. This makes us feel like we are off center, always in a wrong space, or as the French like to say, ‘nous ne sommes pas dans nos assiettes’, meaning literally ‘we are not in our plates’, or ‘we are out of sorts’. In neuroscience we speak of energy flow integration or lack thereof; in psychology we speak of relaxation and tension on the somatic level, emotional attunement or lack thereof on the emotional level and autobiographical meaning on the cognitive level; spiritually we speak of being in sink or not in sink with ‘the source’, ‘ultimate reality’ or ‘spirit’; and in religion the same thing is expressed as being out of sink with God. When we suffer, something is wrong with the way we live and the way we relate to each other and the environment that sustains us. In short, we suffer, and most importantly, we often don’t know, don’t recognize and deny that we suffer. The clear recognition of this simple, yet profound diagnosis of suffering as being out of balance, is the first step towards an improvement of our individual lives and the human condition at large. This entails a curious, open and accepting acknowledgement of all the elements of suffering by not masking it, pushing it away, or distracting from it. We need to accept our suffering kindly and without aggression, so that we can open ourselves to being with it, honoring it and healing it.
Second, there is an etiology to be understood, meaning that there are reasons and causes for this suffering; our suffering has origins we need to clearly get to know and recognize. How can you treat a disease if you don’t know its origins and mechanisms? To put it simply, the cause of our suffering is the fact that we oversimplify reality in general, and the way our organism works in particular. When we oversimplify, we distort and fall into ignorance. Our organism is very complex, and we have the unique ability to be aware of being aware, to think about thinking. This means that we have the brain power to create and destroy, to be in truth or in lie, to see clearly or distort, and to be in tune with nature and our bodies or go against it. Our minds ‘play tricks on us’, because (as is not widely known) our brains play amazing tricks on us. The organism’s fundamental drive is to ensure homeostasis and survival – you don’t have to do anything for that as it just happens on its own, automatically. Most people have not the faintest clue about how pervasively this automatism controls all functions of the organism, from the body to thinking and action. Having the kind of power to create and destroy as I described above while being on autopilot mode as we usually are creates a clouded view of reality, with distortions of truth, illusions and a false sense of what freedom really is. A much used metaphor for this state of being tells us that we are asleep, zombies who are unaware of being on autopilot. What’s more, our ignorance about our brain’s and mind’s clever distortions is really no different from suffering itself suffering is this kind of ignorance. In seeing our suffering clearly, in recognizing the mechanisms by which it is caused, we start to be able to understand possible ways out this dilemma, a process that strengthens our intention to let go of the causes of suffering. This letting go is the beginning of an awakening. Being awake is the core concern of health, spirituality and religion, because we can only love, have compassion, heal, and liberate our world from suffering, when we do not allow our mind’s secretions to cloud and distort our view. With awareness, our actions start to become liberating and creative. This awareness, as we are going to have to discover, reveals the most unexpected reality, which is that the mind’s tricks prevent us from living the fully pregnant emptiness of existence.
Thirdly, we can now pose a prognosis: Freedom from suffering is completely possible. This is not a flaky idea or wishful thinking, but we now have the science to prove it – we are able to use the mind to rewire the brain! This insight challenges us to embark on the path of liberation, to take the medicine needed to treat the disease of imbalance and suffering. When we start working with this prognosis, with the good news so to speak, we come to realize something even more fundamental than suffering and its causes. We discover that cessation or containment of suffering in the form of health, wellbeing and ease is already available to us, if we know how to see it when it is present, and enjoy its precious gifts we already have. As we develop a deep understanding of this fact, we recognize that suffering is not as fundamental as we thought. By looking deeply at our present situation, we can see that the conditions for health, integration and happiness are already there, and then we can nourish these conditions. We thus come full circle: In facing our suffering and accepting it in a loving way (resisting it would only intensify it), we come to the realization that this acceptance itself is an aspect of health, ease and wellbeing, and that all the conditions for ease are already there to be lived. In other words, suffering and happiness are not separate, but one and the same.
The fourth step is to now fill the prescription and take the medicine. We now have to start practicing in a pragmatic and creative manner. This practice is not like a musician practicing the instrument, although there are elements of this image in it, but more like a vocation or an orientation, a doctor practicing medicine – heal thyself. It is being in the moment on purpose, as if our lives depended on it. As the word ‘vocation’ (from Latin ‘vox’ = ‘voice’) implies, to commit to this practice of being alive is to put forth our voice into the world, to declare in no uncertain terms how deeply committed we are to alleviate suffering in ourselves and everywhere around us. This prescription to practice entails a number of precise instructions that are all encompassed by the discipline of mindfulness meditation. This ‘spiritual’ discipline is deeply grounded in science with its most advanced knowledge about the way the brain and the body work. We are facing enormous complexity in the organisms that we are, which requires equally complex, refined and skillful means to address the problems created by who we are.
Religion, as its etymology implies (Latin ‘re-ligio’ = ‘reconnection’), brings us back full circle ‘to where we started, in order for us to see the place for the first time (T.S. Elliot)’. As we follow the path of our investigations into the organism that we are, I am reminded of a beautiful passage I once read, jotted down and modified with a few of my own words – a passage whose author I unfortunately forgot: “…….we have to tackle ever more difficult issues, culminating in the lofty realms of consciousness and the sense of a knowing self. But as we get ‘up there’, we discover that the air becomes thinner and thinner, increasingly depleted of its life sustaining oxygen. The highest peaks of consciousness cannot be climbed or understood outside the foundations of nature, which rest in the story of the survival of life forms. Once we climb the peak, and we had to do that to get the full bird’s eye view of the horizon, we have to climb back down to what nourishes our existence, namely survival. It is in the ordinariness of life and the organism that we are that we discover how extraordinary nature is. But that climbing effort, like Moses’ effort of climbing the mountain to get God’s Ten Commandments, leaves us with gifts we are now responsible to pass on. These are the gifts of wisdom, responsibility and concern, gifts that are characteristic of a minded organism such as human beings.”
Humans are a potentially terrible invention of evolution – a cancerous scourge destroying what sustains it! Our planet has never seen anything like it! Interestingly, though, embedded in the anatomy of the human brain is a unique structure not found in any other living creature on this planet, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC). This MPC not only gives us the gift of consciousness, but also a whole collection of abilities such as mindfulness, morality, insight, empathy, intuition, compassion and more, which can move us from a destructive species to one able to live in harmony with our earth. The problem is that we live as ‘homo sapiens ignorans’ – powerful, conscious beings on autopilot destroying the branch they live on, and that to fully mine our potential as ‘homo sapiens sapiens’, it takes attention and effort. Consciousness is a necessary prerequisite for humans to climb the pinnacle of their evolution, but by far not sufficient. Awareness itself will not lead us anywhere but to self-destruction. What we need is mindful awareness, and that requires training.
In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words, “perhaps ‘spiritual’ means simply experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous, and that everything is spiritual in the deepest sense, as long as we are there for it.” We may add, that spiritual surrender means to return to the roots of survival with the gifts acquired on the journey through consciousness; to exercise concern towards all existence with the humility that comes from realizing that all we need is the love and compassion necessary to overcome suffering. We became knowing organisms in the course of evolution, and acquired a knowing sense of self, which allows us to discover and understand the world we live in. However, it is our task to learn from the journey of initiation, as the mindfulness journey could be called, that all this knowledge is only worth the extent to which it is put in the service of one of the greatest of God’s gifts, concern. It follows, that the highest form of knowledge is love.