Applying Critical Thinking Skills to Spiritual Practice

While teaching a college level class a Philosophy course on Critical Thinking I am struck by how useful certain concepts of critical thinking can be if applied to one’s spiritual practice.  Among these are:

  1. Stop and think. Before making rash judgments about a person or situation:
    1. Step back and reflect on the “who, what and why” of a situation. Then use more complex thinking skills like comparison, evaluation and creativity to understand that situation and person more deeply.
    2. Check the facts and sources, especially on what most likely are rumors and misguided information.
  2. Be open to hearing the other person’s views and try to get in their shoes to see where they are coming from. This doesn’t mean you have to accept everything the person says.  It does mean you care enough about that person to respect them, their opinion and the right for everyone to express their views.
  3. Be aware that your own thinking processes keeping you from arriving at the truth. For some examples:
    1. In critical thinking the term “Self-serving Bias” refers our natural tendency to watch out for our own interests. While this is healthy to a certain degree, it can certainly go too far, not allowing us to see or understand the interests of other people in a situation.  It robs us of empathy.  We need to stop and be aware when that self-serving bias is kicking in too much.  We may see the self-serving bias at work in others but it is often very hard to spot in ourselves.
    2. Then there is “Ethical Fading,” a concept which means that when we are actively a member of a group, our personal values and morals may “fade” as we adopt the morals and values of the group to which we belong. This is fine if the group’s morals are more developed than our own, but it can be destructive if the opposite is true.  This means:
      1. We have to be aware of the values of the groups to which we belong. Are they lifting us up or are they bringing us down?
      2. We have to speak up when the group with a high standard starts to deviate from its moral compass.

The Widow’s Mite: Turning a Good Practice into a Spiritual Practice

What makes a good practice a spiritual practice? Is there a difference? Is the practice of doing good things for a charitable, non-religious organization the same as doing a spiritual practice? Conversely, can the practice doing good work for a church always be called a spiritual practice?

The answer lies not necessarily in the work itself but in the intention and integrity of the individual involved—and in the deepening way that person is changed by the practice. For some people, volunteering for the Rotary Club can be a spiritual practice. For others, donating food to the poor in a church drive can be no more than business transaction: giving something to get something in return.

True spirituality has the characteristics of being driven by a conscious intention, a shining integrity that encompasses the whole person with an ever deepening quality of bringing that person closer to God, other people, and nature itself.  If a person’s good works includes these things; it is definitely a spiritual practice.

A Spiritual Practice Starts with Intention

Spirituality starts with clear-eyed intention that asks questions like, “What am I doing, why am I doing it and for whom am I doing it?”

If the answer involves, “Me, me and me,” a good practice may be nothing more than making myself look good before the world. The practice may be a way of telling the world how rich or powerful I am. It may be a way to smooth relations so that I can gain something in the future. Or it may simply be “good for business.”

However, if the answer involves something like, “I don’t necessarily want to do this but I feel called to do it,” or “This is something that needs to happen to make the world a better place,” probably the answer is spiritually driven.

A Spiritual Practice Shines with Integrity

A true spiritual practice involves the whole person. It is a practice that asks the person not only go to the strong and sure places inside but also to go to the dark and hidden places: to see what’s there, make peace with it, and use this greater understanding to help others. Nothing is hidden or covered up. All is valued as part of an integrated whole. This why a good spiritual practice is one that gently calls us out of our comfort zone—not one that keeps us there.  It asks us to peek at the ultimate truth of vulnerability and powerless; and not blink.

A Spiritual Practice Transforms Us

The practice of repeatedly moving out of our comfort zone enlarges our spirits to the point it literally transforms us and our relationships. We are no longer the fear-driven people we were before. Instead of hiding and withdrawing; we are opening and deepening our relationships with God and the world. If need be, we are willing to give everything to help the world, like the widow who gave all she had, to do something that is important. It is not our power at work; but a spiritual power that speaks volumes.

The Buck Stops Here: Taking the Hypocrisy Out of Christianity

Taking responsibility

The Buck Stops Here: Pres. Truman was not afraid to say, “I take responsibility.”

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA, Michael Curry, was recently here in Hawaii and gave a couple of his resounding and inspiring talks.  He talked about Jackie Robinson, the black baseball player who integrated major league baseball, partly because this man was able to practice non-violence.  Jackie Robinson consciously tried not returning or passing on the heaps of abuse that were thrown at him as he walked out on the playing field.  And, as a result, he helped change the world around him.

In one way of another, all of us have been abused or treated unfairly, or have been coerced to “play the game,” to do something when our conscience says no.  We all have been hit with negative energy.

Energy is energy.  It has to go somewhere.  And to varying degrees, all of us have been caught up in this entanglement of abuse to the point where we have continued to pass on this negative energy.

At some point, the serious Christian has to ask the questions, “When does this transmission of negative energy stop?  Where does it stop?  How does it stop?”  The answer is simple:  It stops here, with me.  If every Christian decided like Jackie Robinson to consciously take on this challenge, I am sure the hypocrisy would be taken out of the word Christian.  It is not enough to simply say, “Jesus is my lord and savior,” and then live as if nothing depended upon me.  It happens all the time but it is not true spirituality.  The irony of Christianity is that there is a profound paradox at play: It all depends on Jesus, and at the same time, it all depends on me, and you, and you.

Spirituality’s shining star is deep integrity that talks the talk AND walks the walk.  It will not happen until I decide that the buck stops here, and I better start doing something about it in how I change the way I treat people.  I cannot let my fears from having been victimized victimize other people; because, at the core that is what is happening when I turn around and pass on negative energy.

Most of us are so blind to this process of passing negative energy; we don’t even know when we engage in the practice or deny it vehemently when we are challenged for doing so.  Some of us even blame the victim.  Ironically, again, however, we can only rely on the cries of those we victimize to wake us up.  Let us pray that we don’t squelch those cries, that we can see ourselves in them and let them convert us to truer path by choosing non-violence.  The buck stops here. It ends with me–so help me God.

Dreamwork: Applying Critical Thinking to Get to the Heart of the Dream

Critical thinking involves stepping back and asking questions.

Image via Pinterest .

Critical thinking is an important tool in approaching dreamwork.  Critical thinking is not criticizing something, but rather stepping back from immediate assumptions, interpretations, conclusions and letting a situation be so that a variety of interesting things may happen, so that whole new ways of viewing and subsequent reflective thinking that involves asking questions may emerge.  This helps us avoid some common misleading approaches to working with dreams such as literally interpreting a dream or avoiding looking at a dream because it may be frightening or emotionally overwhelming.  That is not to say dreams can’t be literally true.  Sometimes, they are but in most cases dreams have many rich levels of meaning that are often in spiritual in content, making it hazardous to interpret literally—much like reading the Bible.

The act of stepping back prevents us from forcing a premature meaning on the dream.  It makes space for the dream to speak to us, often by drawing in, feeling and savoring any emotions that are associated with the dream.  We are then able to think about and leisurely reflect on the dream in a broader manner which includes more of the dream such as feelings, images and later reflection on this content.

Dreams and Spirituality: The Usefulness of Dreamwork as a Spiritual Method

Recording dreams regularly will provide many insights not otherwise available to the waking mind.

Recording Dreams

Dreams have a lot to do with spirituality.  From ancient times, dreams were seen as the visual expression of the soul and the means through which divine beings communicated with humans.  Even today, Jungian psychologists note the great importance and help that dreams can provide in revealing the concerns of the soul.

Edgar Cayce, a great intuitive seer of the 2oth century and so-called Father of Holistic Medicine, considered dreams to be a true source of information above and beyond what our waking mind could comprehend.  He considered dreams to have different levels of meaning but all dreams had a spiritual meaning.  Therefore, it is important to see dreams as a spiritual expression of one’s deepest self.

Three Benefits of Dreamwork for Spiritual Growth

For these reasons, a personal program of spiritual development can greatly be enhanced by the ongoing practice of dreamwork, where a person makes an intention to remember, record, and reflect on their dreams in a conscientious manner in order to learn from them.  Among the many benefits that dreamwork can bring to spiritual growth are:

  1. You are giving your soul a voice—an often ignored cry in those who ignore their dreams. Since dreams convey the concerns of the soul, listening to and taking dreams seriously is the equivalent of taking the soul seriously!  Give that Inner Voice a platform for expression!
  2. Getting to know your soul’s voice and its special language and symbols as expressed in dreams is really an act of getting to know yourself better. By listening to the Inner Voice through dreams, the dreamer gets more deeply in touch with themselves.  True spirituality is all about deepening relationships, especially the one with yourself!
  3. Dreams are also vehicles for one’s higher power to speak. They are a great way to receive contact from a spiritual guide.  The Bible is full of stories of how God spoke to humans.  It can happen to you, too!  Ask for a dream from your spiritual guide to help in a time of crisis.  What a way to boost your spiritual development when you receive wisdom beyond the waking mind’s ability to comprehend.

Have a Blessed Holiday Season

Merry Christmas & All the Best in the New Year

May the spirit of the season be upon you and those you love. May the New Year bring dreams fulfilled and resolutions to old problems.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. 

–Luke 1:78

Some Indicators of Genuine Spirituality

These days, there is a lot of talk in the media about lies, falsehoods, sham investigations, fake news and phony Christianity. It’s almost as if the nation is undergoing a national dialogue to determine what is true and not true—what is integral to being an American. Organized religion itself is being challenged because of hypocrisy or a failure in moral leadership. More and more people are seeing a lack of spirituality in Christianity, often referring to an adage that religion is about authority and spirituality is about integrity. Perhaps in organized religion people see a lot of emphasis put on following rules or scripture but a lot less on practices that lead to a life of integrity. Again, there seems to a cry for something genuine, something true; not just in the faith and teachings but also in the living out of those faiths and beliefs. There is a call for genuine spirituality that begs the question, “What is genuine spirituality?” Spirituality, like good food, certainly has its indicators. If spirituality is about integrity, let’s look at the word integrity. The word integrity is etymologically related to the word integration and refers to the quality of wholeness. (See https://www.quora.com/Are-the-words-integral-and-integrity-related.) The key to understanding integrity and its role in spirituality is the idea of integration. Indeed, one of the indicators of genuine spirituality is the ability to integrate the profound negatives of life such as suffering, evil and ignorance with the deepest positives of life such as joy, love and enlightenment. This ability comes from intimately knowing through personal experience the highs and lows of life. Hence, another old adage: “Religion is for those who believe in heaven and hell; spirituality is for those that have been there.” Another indicator of genuine spirituality is the ability to tell one’s whole story; the good and the bad–and own it without glossing over the bad or bragging about the good. The telling of the story frees the storyteller from the grips of the negative of that story and challenges that person to put suffering into some sort of meaningful context. In other words, telling one’s story integrates the whole of his or her experience, making the storyteller whole. In spirituality, this integration literally takes in the whole of the person: body, mind and spirit. A spiritual person is deeply tuned into the messages of his or her body, emotions and soul. Likewise, the spiritual person is empathetic and tuned into these kinds of messages from other people, nature and the spiritual world. If you want to be spiritual, be integrated, be integral and you will not lack integrity.

OK, So You’re Born Again; Now What?

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

In Western Christianity, especially in Protestantism, there has been an emphasis put on a “born again experience,” that defining and often exhilarating experience when one feels touched by the Spirit or has found Jesus.  In the experience one may feel deeply loved, and temporarily released from fear, guilt or shame.  It is often the topic of many testimonials at church gatherings.  Retelling the experience also rekindles dwindling religious fervor.  Therefore promoting this experience is often the goal for many preachers and evangelists:  do all one can so that the new believers will have this experience and the old believers all feel rejuvenated in their faith.

Perhaps this stress on a peak experience comes from St. Paul and his conversion, providing a religious model that has gotten a lot of miles and is celebrated whenever it happens; and rightly so.  This initial conversion experience is an important component of religious and spiritual development. 

The problem arises when the honeymoon of this Christian experience wanes in the rough and tumble of real life, and the believer then substitutes the increasingly barren, hard path for a variety of panaceas like the secure comfort in joylessly adhering to religious rules, fake enthusiastic religiosity or active participation in the enjoyable social activities of a church.

However, religious and spiritual maturity involves two aspects and the barren, hard path is one of them.  Just as a good marriage has its honeymoon experience and the long years often marked by fidelity and mutual support in times of dryness, sickness and financial difficulties, the truly spiritual religious life also has the same.  Genuine religious faith based on a deep spirituality has learned to thrive in the hard times.  However, how this awareness has been learned and what has been learned is often not talked about in mainstream Christian religions, yet this is the understanding that gives life to genuine religion. 

As John Welwood says in his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, we need the realization experience that starts us on our religious journey, yet we also need to actualize the experience in the very fabric of our being through daily practices and life disciplines like prayer, dreamwork, meditation and a willingness to look at psychological issues which cause us to stumble.  This is what makes the religious life real and alive.  Otherwise, we are just trying to live off of a high by bypassing the nitty-gritty of life.

Experiencing the Sacred in Dreams

Jacob’s Ladder: A Connection Between Heaven and Earth

One of the special gifts that come with dreams is an experience of the sacred.  We may have a dream of a holy person, a deity, a ray of golden light, or a physician that is healing us.  These sacred dreams often have a numinous quality about them; that is, through the images and feelings in the dream we somehow know this dream is coming from a divine source.  Once a person has a dream like this, they need no convincing that there is a greater power beyond them.  These dreams are humbling, yet they can evoke profound gratitude and sense of joy in the dreamer.

Sacred dreams can come at any time but they often tend to come when the dreamer needs them, such as at the start of a major life change, or in the midst of a difficult transition.  In these cases, there seems to be the purposes of inspiring and encouraging the dreamer make it through a difficult challenge, or to take on the challenge.

The Story of Jacob’s Ladder

When thinking of sacred dreams, the Bible story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28: 1-19) comes to mind.  Jacob is in serious conflict with his brother whom he just cheated out of his birthright.  He has run off to the desert, no doubt wondering what will happen to him.  Instead of disaster, in a dream he sees a ladder on which angels descend from and ascend to heaven. The Lord appears to him and tells him that he will have many descendants and be given the land on which he rests.

The ladder is the connection between heaven and earth, just as the dream connects the dreamer to divine inspiration.  Our dreams can be a ladder connecting us to our spiritual guides and higher truth.  Have you seen a ladder in your dreams?  Where was it leading to?  It is definitely leading you to somewhere beyond where you are now.  Are you willing to go there?

Jacob was so in awe of his ladder dream he named the place where he had the dream Bethel, the House of God.  If we see our dreams as the place where divinity can come to visit us, we would take them much more seriously.

When Fear Rules the Day—and How Dreams of Animals Can Help

Look for your dream animals.

Animals in dreams are a source of insight.

One of the classic signs of fear showing up in our lives is the overriding attempt control it.  Our lives can literally get bent out of shape by fear as the flight or fight response kicks in—flight in our trying to run away from what we fear, fight in our desperate attempt to alleviate it, suppress it or shut it down completely.   The flight/fight response was a coping method that worked well for our ancestors in the jungle for whom the main objects of fear were usually readily identifiable animals larger or more deadly than themselves.

Nowadays, few of us have to contend with actual alligators and lions just to get food on the table—but that is not to say we don’t have things to fear.  The things we fear are now less tangible and as a result, often beyond our understanding and grasp, and therefore less easier to deal with, like a racial prejudice, unjust laws, people and cultures we are not familiar with, fake news that is difficult to verify, etc.  This makes it harder to determine if what we fear is really worth fearing!  The fear often cannot be tested immediately by just taking a quick look at the “beast” from a safe distance.

As a result, there are many fears that just hang in there or get bigger and more believable, and eventually rule our lives.  When others fear the same things, a community of fear builds up which reinforces one’s own fears and often it happens that the one who challenges those fears is victimized and shut up.  In this scenario, the individual and the community may never know they are dealing with fears based on an illusion, misinformation, etc.  What is worse, because very few people are willing to challenge their own fears or even address the need to have those fears, fear becomes a solid foundation for their lives, informing all of their decisions.

One of the benefits of dreamwork is that it shows you when fear has some validity and must be taken seriously, and when fears are nothing but a colony of ants—a huge nuisance that can be easily managed.  The way to tell is to look at the animals that appear in your dreams during a time of fear.  The bigger or more deadly the animal, the more genuinely threatening the fear.  And vice versa, the smaller, the less threatening.  It seems our dreams remember when animals provoked fear and use those symbols to instruct us today.

I am thinking of a recent dream I had at a time when I felt overwhelmed by a variety of fears.   It would have been really easy to fall into a desperate state of mind.  In the dream I walked into my closet and found many ants scurrying out of a drawer.  On waking, I reflected on what the ants meant and and how they reminded me of the many little fears I was experiencing, brought on by scam phone calls, a billing mistake by a company, hassles of straightening out paper work, etc., came to mind.  As soon as I saw the connection, I felt relief and knew my dreams were telling me to put my fears in perspective.  These fears were based on petty things and I should not take them so seriously.  I could handle them.