Wishing all the best.
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:
- Stop and think. Before making rash judgments about a person or situation:
- 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.
- Check the facts and sources, especially on what most likely are rumors and misguided information.
- 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.
- Be aware that your own thinking processes keeping you from arriving at the truth. For some examples:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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?
- We have to speak up when the group with a high standard starts to deviate from its moral compass.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
This quote by Emerson has perhaps encouraged many people to pursue their dreams. In America, it is quite the fad to do so, the idea being that pursuing one’s dream is what will give your life purpose and direction. Often, to most Americans, this approach means pursuing some idea or ideal job that is a product of fantasy or a daydream. This daydream is often fed by other desirable things that may come along with the perfect job such as a great salary, benefits and real power. One imagines the perfect job, gets trained to prepare for that job, and then goes about looking for such a job.
However, few people actually pursue a job, not to mention a career, they have literally dreamed about at night. Whenever I tell people I have had seven major careers based on night dreams I have dreamed about at night raises people’s highbrows, as if to say, “Who would ever do such a thing?” Or, “That makes for a lot of change in life!” or “That’s not practical!”
It also raises the question of what we mean by following a dream. On one hand, we are encouraged to follow daydreams but not the nitty-gritty night dreams that often contain great power. This example seems to reflect the great value put on daydreams in this country but not on the night dreams. I leave it to my readers to provide the deeper answers why this is so.