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Focussed Mindfulness: 21st century spirituality

Posted in philosophy on 02/09/2017

Focussed Mindfulness: 21st century spirituality

Ever since the big bang and probably before even that - the universe has been evolving: from a hydrogen cloud through the birth of Earth, the appearance of the first mammals, the domination of the planet by humans, to now. The direction has been towards ever increasing organisation and complexity: atoms organised into molecules, then single celled organisms, then animals with nervous systems, then socially organised colonies and now self-aware human beings. This may be the first time that, through us, the universe has become conscious of itself.

Putting aside the big questions around the cause or purpose of our evolution for now, I would like to acknowledge what we as a species have already done: we have put men on the moon, created the internet and developed medicines that can postpone death. We now have, or could soon develop, the capacity to end wars, hunger and disease. This is a truly wonderful time to be alive and based, on the possibilities open to us and our awareness of them, we should be the happiest and most optimistic we have ever been in history. And yet we are not. The Western world is suffering unprecedented rates of depression and anxiety and even our children are suffering from an epidemic of mental health problems and here I want to explore why and explain how I think this unhappiness could drive the next step in our evolution.

As early hominids we probably began off free from self-awareness and lived in the state of presence and connectedness that some of us are struggling to re-find today. This, I believe, is the state of consciousness experienced by most life forms on this planet: they are aware of their environment but they are not aware of themselves as separate entities within it.

At some point in our evolution we developed the intellectual capacity for self-awareness and reflection. Then, for the first time, we could see ourselves as individuals: each an ‘I’ that is separate from everyone and everything else and I suspect that then, as now, it was a terrifying realisation. We felt exposed, alone and lacking the resources to look after ourselves, we were no longer at ease in the world. Our pre-occupation from that point forward has been to find ways to allay our fear, to find a sanctuary where we can feel once again connected and safe from our vulnerability, our alone-ness and our self-doubt.

For most of history we have put our faith in powers outside of ourselves. We have worshiped nature, other human beings and various god figures, believing that if we pleased them enough we would be safe. Then, quite recently, a new god emerged and was raised above all others. Its omnipotence is now such an assumed part of our psyche that it is rarely questioned or doubted: we have turned our faith within and put our trust in the power of our own intellect and capacity for rational thought. This has led to a great burst in human development. Since the enlightenment we have developed antibiotics, motorised transport, solar panels, the iphone and so much more. Most of us in the Western world now believe that we can bring a rational understanding to everything: the workings of the human mind, the Creation, even love. Our salvation will be through understanding.

I see that this focus on the intellect has led to a wonderful enrichment of our material lives, and this cannot be devalued, but it has been at a huge cost. This creative and rational organ has its limitations, there are things it simply cannot do, and our focus on it has put other aspects of ourselves into the shade, it has led to a lop-sidedness which brings a lack of balance to our selves.

The intellect cannot understand and therefore does not trust the intangible. It tends to either dismiss or deny anything it cannot rationalise, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, the stuff that we ‘don’t know we don’t know’. It is the intellect’s job to understand, it is comfortable when it can categorise everything, make it all black and white.  

The intellect cannot make decisions. It is its job is to weigh up, reflect and analyse, it is not to choose.

The intellect cannot manage our emotions and it cannot reconcile our murky, shameful, passionate, hellish, shadow side. It tries of course, because we have set it up to believe it can rationalise every aspect of our human experience, but it simply doesn’t have the capability to do it so.

Small wonder that we have increasing levels of anxiety, stress, depression, nervous breakdown, self- harm, mental illness and addictions. We have promoted the intellect not one level above its comfort zone, we have done the equivalent of putting a graduate scheme computer programmer in charge of the multinational company.

This stage in our evolution, which I will term intellectual supremacy, has led to unprecedented development for us as a species on the one hand and on the other unprecedented destruction and suffering of the planet. Fortunately, there are signs that it is finally nearing an end and we are witnessing a movement into a new phase. As in any step up to greater order, it is preceded by a period of increased chaos and dissolution of the old order, but more and more individuals are growing into the next level and an era where the intellect is balanced and moderated by a wiser, more compassionate, more connected and humbler state of consciousness.

We had forgotten that our mind is not comprised solely of our intellect. The Oxford Living Dictionary’s definition of mind is ‘the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.’ I think elements rather than a single element would give greater clarity, but otherwise I find this helpful. Alongside the intellect we have other minds: we have our ego, our feeling body, our unconscious, and deeper and less and less tangible we have what I will term the soul mind, the knowing or gut mind and the unified field where we realise that we are connected to everything else, and we have the self-aware mind which is the ‘I’ that perceives all this.  

When our focus is on the self-aware mind we can begin to see all aspects of ourselves in the context of the connected whole. We get glimpses of this, but with conscious self-development we can get ever closer to this state and move into it at will. I believe that this state, the conscious human being is the next level of our evolution and it is within our reach.

Currently our default state is to be focussed on our intellect. We get caught up in its fears, doubts and confusion. Many of us have learned to switch off from our feelings and consequently from our unconscious drivers and do not recognise the effects that these still have on us. We deny our less desirable impulses and no longer feel connected to the land or our heritage and we have lost our sense of wonder at life and our universe.

Our journey towards increasing self-awareness is to seek out, meet and reconcile every aspect of ourselves for what we deny and ignore will keep us from integrating, being at peace and able to live consciously. It requires of us three things: commitment to developing ourselves through regular practice, the openness to finding the teacher we need for the next step on our individual journey and the humility and courage to know that this is a journey where we are not in control and will not reach our destination, although we may have the fleeting illusion that we have got there from time to time! 

Wayne Dyer and Richard Rohr have identified three aspects to our practice that will help us towards greater consciousness: cleaning up, waking up and growing up.

The cleaning up is, as I see it, working towards a lifestyle that is congruent with a conscious way of being. We can choose food that is good for us and that is produced in a way that respects the planet, we can consume only what we need to live simply and well, we can keep our bodies healthy and fit to serve, we can choose to be kind and helpful to others and we can choose to avoid behaviours that are destructive to ourselves or others. We can do this lightly and with humour, accepting that in our human-ness we will digress, but we can hold these as aspirations to guide us.

The waking up is the practice of focussing on our self-aware mind, seeing ourselves in context and experiencing our connectedness with all things. This can be cultured through the practice of mindfulness and the eight week course is a great introduction that will help you find the approach that works best for you. Another excellent mindful practice is to simply seek within for the ‘I’ that is conscious of ourselves and to ask the question that Ramana offered us: ‘Who am I?’.

The growing up is the work of reconciling those parts we would rather ignore: our negative, judgemental, cruel, terrified, grief-stricken, proud and shameful parts until we feel OK about ourselves. This work of developing self-acceptance allows us to develop a state of embodied unconditional love which frees us to live consciously in the present and from our hearts. This is the work that Focussed Mindfulness supports and is the subject of my next book.

There are many rewards to committing to a journey towards greater consciousness even if your interest is not to progress the consciousness of humanity. It is a path that opens you to greater love both for yourself, others and this wonderful universe we inhabit, it is a path to less personal suffering and greater joy and gratitude for the life you have, it is a path towards more respectful and loving relationships and it is a path that guides you to a life of greater fulfilment and purpose.