In the days when travellers did not have maps they orientated themselves on the stars. I do not believe in maps for the spiritual life. I think that when it comes to a spiritual journey you can only have orientation points. These can be found in religious, spiritual and mystical traditions..
There are many people who are active in the area of spirituality, and who are in need of orientation points, not rules. I call these people spiritual nomads. Spiritual nomads are able to cross borders between traditions, philosophies and cultures. I certainly see myself as a spiritual nomad. In using this phrase, I hope you won’t mind if I take the liberty of using the pronoun ‘we’.
Our ancestors imported the word dogma from Greek. For two millennia they lived either in conflict or in accordance with dogma. Spiritual nomads, along with many others in the third millennium, want nothing to do with dogma. Isn’t it about time we replaced the word dogma with a different Greek word? I propose the word paradigm.
Linguists define paradigm as declension of words. Historians use the word paradigm in reference to comparable cases in History. Academics in all disciplines define paradigm as a complexity of notions, which colour the vision of researchers.
Paradigm fits much better into the modern view of spirituality than the closed nature of dogma. The literal meaning of those two words says everything about the nature of the transition: paradigm literally means example, while dogma stands for the absolute and eternal truth.
While ‘Christian’ and ‘dogmatic’ are associated with each other in common thought, to the unprejudiced reader the gospels seem more like a paradigm than an hermetical set of scholarly pieces. It’s interesting to note that Christianity in its original form was a reaction to traditional Jewish dogmatism: the founder stated emphatically that the living, moving ‘spirit’ was above the letter.
To modern minds the gospels are not so much religious as they are spiritual. There is a lot of room for interpretation in the imagery and stories of the gospels; nothing is outlined, nothing is set in stone. That is why, in the history of Christianity, there is a natural diversity in understanding of the Gospels. As is the case in every religion, the value of its multifaceted interpretable meaning was lost in the ambition of every church to declare itself the leading authority. For the spiritual nomad the diversity of the Christian tradition is not a problem, on the contrary, it is a source of wealth.
Translated into modern language, the Christian vision of mankind, God and life can be summed up in the following points of view. I believe a spiritual nomad can strongly relate to these views:
∆ God is the power which gives meaning to you as well as others: your and their heavenly Father;
∆ you wouldn’t fear God or ask him a favour or make sacrifices out of fear, but you would love Him as your Father with your whole being: as the Father of your soul;
∆ the love of God and love of mankind are two sides of the same coin;
∆ don’t expect happiness from the world but challenges and tests;
∆ you can be happy regardless of what you have;
∆ when you are attached to material possessions they get in the way;
∆ give and forgive, be open and share if you want to be free:
∆ keep sight of your values: that is where your heart is;
∆ charity breaks the limitations of the ego;
∆ ethics is the front room of mysticism;
∆ true love is complete: it is love with heart, mind and soul;
∆ be perfect so that one day the world can also become perfect;
∆ being does not end in death.
In my view the central theme of Christianity in its original form is a radical change of consciousness. That probably sounds too modern but I cannot say it in any other way. It is not so much the miracles of Jesus, or even his dramatic life, but a significant strategy of the inward revolution, which makes Christianity special for someone who also knows other traditions and lives in the present. Revolution is the right word in this context because it is about a change of power; the soul taking over from the ego. Such a power change would come about through an active practise of compassion, which in the original meaning of Christianity was placed above every other religious practise. A characteristic wisdom of the gospels is this: when you want to bring your gift to the altar and you remember that your brother hates you, then keep your gift, go and reconcile yourself first with your brother and then come back and offer your gift.
On the surface this seems to be an idealistic kindness. But in the context of the gospels charity has a spiritual meaning. This differs from the compassion that is important in other traditions. According to the gospels charity is equal to the love of God because the latter is unreal without the former. The relationship between the two commandments of love – the love for God and the charity – is made very clear. If charity is not rooted in spirituality it is kitsch. Without a conscious and permanent practise the base is as solid as a house of cards.
Freedom and love belong to the main values of life in all traditions. What is special about the teachings of Christianity is that both values are given a place in life, through acts of philanthropy: giving away, parting with things, sharing, forgiving . . . In short acts contrary to the needs of the ego. Without naming the ego as such – the word did not yet exist – Christianity, in its original form, was aiming for this part of the personality as an inbuilt obstruction to freedom and love, hence also for spiritual growth.
The relationship between crossing the boundaries of the ego and the discovery of spiritual dimensions needs to be worked out. Everything depends on the quality of this effort. We have already seen what happens if we use the phrases ‘devil’, ‘sin’, ‘the fall’, ‘repentance’ and ‘hell’. We will have to see how far we can get using modern language, contemporary psychological insights and – characteristic of our time – moderation of truths determined by tradition.
On every spiritual path, you usually hear that you need to work on the ego. Since the 1960s the West has had a strong interest in Eastern gurus and spiritual teachers who claim to know how to reach beyond the boundaries of the ego. These teachers often created frustrating, hurtful or even humiliating situations in order to strip the ego of its pride. The stories of people who have had such experiences show that simulated environments in ashrams or spiritual centres have a lot in common with family life and the realm of personal relationships. Spiritual practise and compassion can start at home. Moving beyond the boundaries of the ego can start with charity. Daily charity can be a spiritual practice like daily meditation.
I remember my first meditation lesson. It wasn’t much of a ‘lesson’: the teacher said that we should do one thing only: focus on the breath. This form of meditation is called ‘Vipassana’ which means ‘insight’. The first experience with Vipassana meditation can be a real disappointment for those who expect insight to be more than an exploration of the consciousness. Doing it for the first time this exploration doesn’t seem at all interesting. The observation of the breath is a meaningless and monotonous physical process. So your awareness tends to leave the breath. Thoughts that arise seem much more exciting than focussing your awareness on inhalations and exhalations, but you are not supposed to give those thoughts any attention. However, observation of the breath is only a tool for exploring the inner power struggle. Meditation becomes interesting when you realise that it’s all about observing this inner power struggle.
Charity calls for a closer look at the issue on hand. It is about an inner connection with others as life partners, whatever that may mean. This is not about firing up passions. It is about a conscious change of behaviour, which in turn initiates a change of consciousness: an active and effective interaction between behaviour and consciousness. The important thing is that mankind gets bigger and not smaller: it is the ego, which should become smaller, the smaller it gets, the more space there is for the soul. Charity can also be seen in this light.
I don’t know if the first Christians who left us the gospels and other stories, also saw charity in this way. I am simply talking about my perception of the gospels from the viewpoint of a spiritual nomad. I can hear echoes of Buddhism in these aphorisms and other universal teachings; which is not surprising if you acknowledge the unity of religions.
Striking quotes: ‘if thou has insight of the truth then the truth shall make you free’ and ‘nothing would be impossible for you’. That is very far removed from the ecclesiastical view of mankind: a helpless sheep that can do nothing without its shepherd. Indeed the sheep features in the gospels, but only as a metaphor for a part of the personality. In the original Christian spirituality man is a complex creature and it is not the sheep that should be the most important example to him: His sun rises over the good and the evil and casts rain over the just and the godless. . . if thou greets only your brothers, what is so special about that? . . . be perfect, as your heavenly Father is.
Be perfect, in other words, overcome your limitations; develop the godlike in yourself and put it into practise. That is the direction and the goal of a shift in consciousness for which a Christian should work hard. This effort is not only necessary for himself but also for the world. Synergy is a notion which is used in the natural sciences as well as in Christianity. In the academic vocabulary synergy means the unification of impulses, forces and energy in one complete action. In Christian mysticism (amongst other in Hesychasm) synergy was called the co-operation between God and mankind in the creation of the world. In order to do so the individual would have to cross the boundaries of its ego and find partners in others.
Partnership in creation is an underlying reason for charity and of far reaching religious meaning. What it doesn’t include is a self-abnegation - ‘Love thy neighbour as you love yourself’. No less but certainly no more. If ‘I’ and ‘you’ do not have equal value then the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘you’, in which the ego is rooted, simply remains. Whichever is valued more or less is immaterial as long as this distinction exists because it separates people from each other internally and it prevents the flow of synergy. Moreover Christian self-abnegation practised from the perception of the other being more important, easily turns into the servitude of the other ego’s interests. Strange isn’t it that Christianity in its original form denied each sacrifice: understand what this means: I want compassion and not sacrifice.
The desire to transcend the fear of death and impermanence is human nature. In giving our spiritual meaning to our lives this is made possible. Early Christianity instructed that in order to meet God one does not need anything in particular: no temples, scholarly priests, rituals, sacrifices, secret teachings, holy books, mind expanding substances: God is inside you. This is a message that people are open to today. It’s a message, which can also be united with independence of spirit, freethinking and pluralism. The original Christian paradigm can be supplemented with modern views on religion and psychological insight.
But there is a limitation: the unattractive image of latter day Christianity, which paralyses many spiritual nomads and prevents them from finding spirituality in the gospels. Spiritual nomads of the 1960s and 1970s thought that Christianity was too moralistic. For the new generation, which often looks for stimuli in their spiritual search, it is too common. But ‘common’ can be a deceiving phrase.
I remember the excitement I felt when I once found a very old book covered in mildew. I opened it and started to read. The text was in Old Russian but that was not a problem: just before the find I had passed my exam in Old Russian. I found this book amongst the rubble of a derelict house in a secluded North Russian village. I was there together with my fellow students looking for stories of folklore from the area. My find was purely coincidental. Finding this book felt like a mystery.
The old book had no front cover and it was missing the first few pages. I immediately recognised it to be a religious text, but I couldn’t identify the book beyond that. At the time it was my first field trip, and I wasn’t familiar with Christian literature. The contents were strange but that simply intensified the mystery. Because of my excitement and impatience I stopped reading and went to the teacher who was leading the field trip. “It’s a very common book of psalms”, he said after a quick glance and passed my discovery back to me with indifference. The word ‘common’ spoiled it for me. I had to endure many such disillusionments until I realised that ‘common’ is one of the most misleading words.