‘Today is what it is because yesterday was what it was. And if today is like yesterday, tomorrow will be like today. If you want tomorrow to be different, you must make today different.’
A revolution is taking place, a revolution in consciousness. New thinking on evolution in both science and psychology shows how as human beings we are poised to transform ourselves and the world. The crises that we are confronted with are forcing the pace of that transformation, whereby consciousness is evolving to a new and higher level. In society, in economics and even in politics, we are now seeing the signs of this evolutionary process. Hope for the future rests in our ability to transform ourselves so that we can assist the process of conscious evolution of the entire body of humanity. Inner transformation in each one of us is crucial for change to take place – there is simply no other way to bring about transformation on the scale required at this juncture.
We can see that though the world may be chaotic and confused, this process of change has been underway for some time. Whether we like it or not, we are being called upon to join this transformational shift in consciousness, for we cannot carry on living as we are.
This change in the human psyche cannot be brought about by religious belief, although the tools of spiritual practice can help. Religion is no more than a finger pointing the way. It is for each individual to find his/her own way, though the support of like-minded people is beneficial. Religious traditions may be helpful, but they are far from necessary for the process of change. We have to look beyond the outer form of traditions and institutions and rituals to what lies at their core, the impulse for us to become truly conscious.
The source of our problems is we ourselves. We tend to blame everyone but ourselves, and fail to take responsibility for our part in the mess we find ourselves in. It is the over-development of the ego that sees itself as separate and more important than nature, which has resulted in a vacuum at the centre of our being, and that we constantly seek to fill through power, wealth, fame, and other distractions which bring some kind of satisfaction for a while. The development of a strong ego has been an essential stage in our development as human beings – we had to become more self-aware in order to achieve so much of the progress we have made, but this over-developed ego has to be tamed before it is too late.
We are at present like adolescents, not yet fully mature human beings. Our mind is dominated by our ego and we have to release ourselves from its devious grip. Dealing with the ego is like trying to catch and tame a wild bull, so aptly illustrated by the Ten Ox-herding Pictures (or the Ten Bulls of Zen), a series of short poems in Zen Buddhism dating from the 12th century. The seeker, who has a sense of things not being quite as they appear to be, goes off to look for he knows not quite what, which is represented by the bull. He searches high and low but cannot find him. Eventually he finds the footprints of the bull so he knows that what he is looking for is right in front of him. He has to become increasingly brave and tolerant in order to catch the bull, but the bull correspondingly becomes fiercer and more uncontrollable. Much effort is made in taming him, through awareness and discipline. Gradually the bull is tamed and becomes gentle as the seeker and bull live in harmony.
The Wisdom Keys
The world with all its stresses and strains is a reflection of our own minds and the dominance of the ego. The Wisdom Keys are the personal qualities, attitudes and behaviours we need to develop in ourselves so that the ego is less dominant and we become less preoccupied with our own needs and more empathic with the needs of others and with nature as a whole. Once we use these keys in our daily lives, our efforts to bring about change in the world will be more effective. We can evolve and live more authentically co-creating a whole new civilization of human beings who live in harmony with each other and with all life forms.
i ) Vision
Imagination is such a powerful tool. Like having a map when we’re travelling, if we have a vision of something we want to create, it’s far easier to get where we want to go. There’s a well-known story about three men working in a quarry cutting up blocks of stone. A passer-by asks the first man what he is doing. The first man says, ‘I’m cutting stone.’ The second man answers the same question with, ‘I’m earning a living.’ The third man has a very different answer – ‘I’m building a cathedral.’
How do we want the future to look? We always have a choice about what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it. Imagination has to be the starting point for our vision. If we take time to build our vision, inspiration floods in to flesh it out and show us ways of achieving our goals. The vision has to come from the deepest part of ourselves, from who we truly are. Integrity is paramount if we’re to succeed – we have to initiate change inside ourselves to become ‘change agents’, embodying a vision of the common good. Then we need to hold our vision always in our minds, day after day, coming back to it, honouring it, however busy and distracted we may get. We’ll find the energy comes and we get support from the most unexpected places, ‘a thousand unseen hands’ reaching out to support us. Ordinary people can accomplish the most extraordinary things when they have a vision of what they want to accomplish and stick with it, particularly when that vision is shared by other like-minded individuals.
Eileen Caddy, the spiritual teacher and author, had a vision about beginning a community at Findhorn in Scotland. Starting from very humble beginnings – a caravan park on the shores of the Moray Firth - she and her husband Peter Caddy grew some exceptionally large vegetables which attracted media attention. It also attracted thousands of visitors and has become a world-famous community and teaching centre, offering a variety of workshops and conferences.
Martin Luther King had a vision too which became a shared vision:
‘I have a dream... that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream ... that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream...that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’
His words proved an inspiration for countless people around the world, including the current President of the USA, Obama.
Nelson Mandela also had a vision which he never lost sight of in spite of his imprisonment. His dream was that a new generation of South Africans would be free from the policy of apardheid. He believed that no sacrifice was too great on the long walk to freedom. Even within prison he fought as he had fought outside against racism and repression, always believing that he would be a free man again. And he has continued to fight for the freedom of all, white and black, oppressor and oppressed. His story of struggle, resilience and ultimate triumph remains an inspiration for us all.
Working together in a true spirit of communication and respect, so much more is achievable and the vision can become reality, transcending everyday problems and human foibles. A shared vision of the society we want enables us to focus on what we can achieve and results in new behaviour and a new culture. We can transform our world so long as we each take responsibility for our own personal development and hold on to the vision of creating something better for the future for all of mankind.
Fear is a natural response to uncertainty and danger. There’s nothing wrong with feeling afraid, but fear shouldn’t stop us in our tracks. We need to be bold. Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. If fear takes hold of us, it limits us and separates us, and we may even end up behaving in a way that attracts the very thing we fear to ourselves. We may fear losing our job, or our partner, we may fear getting sick, being poor, losing our looks, we almost certainly fear dying. But there are also more underlying deep-seated psychological fears that can cripple us – a fear of not being good enough, or fear of initiating a process of change and doing something different. Our fears usually stem from our wrong perceptions of a situation, something we were told in childhood by our parents or teachers perhaps, which has stayed with us and makes us feel inadequate.
We can change our perceptions by changing our thoughts. We have to live our lives fully, acting ‘as if’ we’re not afraid, wearing a mask of boldness, and then we tend to find that we are indeed no longer afraid. In terms of facing the future collectively, we have to be bold in terms of our plans and fearless in trying to achieve them. Many individuals and groups of individuals have overcome fear and been courageous, usually when fighting for something worthwhile, whether Mahatma Gandhi in his non-violent struggle for the independence of India from the British, Mother Teresa saving the sick and caring for the dying in the slums of Calcutta, the French Resistance Movement in the Second World War, or the 9/11 fire-fighters dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York.
Throughout history, from the Greek philosopher Aristotle to the modern-day motivational guru Anthony Robbins, people have written about the transformative power of optimism. Thoughts are so much more powerful than we realize - we need to be careful what we do with them, choosing optimism or negativity. A human being is supposed to have in the region of 64,000 thoughts in a single day, and all of us will have had the experience of the mind running away with itself and spiralling out of control. Our thoughts have the capacity to make us happy or sad, as the opening lines from the Dhammapada (a slim book of 423 verses containing the Buddha’s essential teachings) remind us:
‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought: all that we are is founded on our thoughts and formed of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain pursues him, as the wheel of the wagon follows the hoof of the ox that draws it.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: all that we are is founded on our thoughts and formed of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness pursues him like his own shadow that never leaves him.’
But how can we be optimistic in a world so confronted with crisis and where so much tragedy exists? If we’re negative we’ll accomplish nothing. It is always a choice we make. If we can be optimistic and hopeful, our efforts will triumph in the end, regardless of setbacks. Working to change our thought patterns brings benefits to ourselves and to those whom we come into contact with. There is no question that cultivating optimism is worthwhile.
In recent years positive psychology has gained enormous credence, and particularly the work of Dr Martin Seligman. Many psychologists claim that optimism improves health, personal effectiveness, confidence and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. There is also objective evidence that if we are optimistic in outlook we increase our health and longevity and our cognitive flexibility and creativity, and are generally more able to be generous, kind and co-operative.
Some are critical of the whole approach of positive psychology, but choosing to think positively and be optimistic in a situation is very different form the naïve belief that you can have whatever you ask for, just visualize it and it will come to you. All the more reason for serious meditation practice, which keeps us grounded. Just watching the breath, or the repetition of a mantra, or a full visualization practice helps still the mind so that we can be refreshed and renewed. Meditation can be done anywhere and in any circumstances, connecting us with something far deeper than our ordinary consciousness. When we do this on a regular basis, we are able to be more optimistic about the future in a healthy way. In terms of facing the future collectively, we have to make a commitment to the highest common good and be optimistic about achieving the goals we set ourselves whatever the obstacles that may confront us.
As we move into the future we can make things easier for ourselves by lightening our load. We can try and let go of attachments that don’t really work in our best interests, in the sense of attitudes that can hold us back and prevent us from experiencing new and exciting opportunities. We may be attached to our status, our appearance, our opinions, our memories, or relationships that are unsatisfactory, or jobs that are unfulfilling, and a host of other things. But the less attached we are to these things, the more flexible we are, and the more open to new possibilities.
Practising forgiveness also frees us up. Letting go of old wounds, disappointments, loss, injustices, betrayals, rather than allowing them to gnaw away at us, means that a different kind of energy can fill us. Forgiveness improves health and relationships. All the religious traditions of the world have emphasized the need for forgiveness. If we’re consumed by anger or resentment, we’re doing ourselves a disservice – we’re prisoners of the past, replaying old tapes, and unavailable to both the present and the future. But if we can rise above the pain of the past, wounds are healed and we are more able to give freely of ourselves and be available for the future.
This is also true for families, communities, races, whole societies and nations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Rather than vengeance, and the continuance of hatred and racism, forgiveness, healing and compassion were the goals, and in order for reconciliation, the truth of what had happened had to be exposed. Just as old wounds have to be opened up and cleaned before healing can take place, once the truth of a situation is evident for all then forgiveness can happen and healing begin.
Forgiveness, and a change of heart, results in a radical transformation of ourselves. Only when we truly forgive wrongs that have been committed can there be peace. Our need for peace, individually and collectively, can be fulfilled only when we choose to forgive rather than continue in turmoil with thoughts of anger and revenge.
Trust is essential in society and is linked with a sense of purpose and meaning. As we look towards the future, there’s so little we can feel any certainty about and put our trust in, except the process of change itself. We certainly can’t put our trust in governments, the stock markets, banks or the kind of things our society seems to value – money, power, celebrity, beauty or youth.
We need instead to have faith in something beyond all these things, to trust that there exists a power greater than ourselves, whether we call it nature, the universe, Spirit, god, whatever term we feel at ease with. Only the cynic refuses to acknowledge that there is some greater power in the universe, while the agnostic admits that he/she does not know. But when we allow ourselves to feel that reverence for a creative power at the heart of life and to trust the unfolding of life’s evolutionary process, faith grows. We grow stronger because of it and are more able to deal with whatever challenges lie ahead, because we trust that what happens in life is for our growth.
Growth isn’t something we think about very often, in fact we don’t think about it very much at all when we’re happy. It’s far more likely that pain and suffering teach us what we need to know to become wiser human beings and more at peace with ourselves. When we look back on our disappointments, losses and tragedies (and no life is without them), we usually find that we have learned a great deal from them and are able to be more compassionate to others. That is why trusting life to unfold in the way it does is something we need to cultivate.
Attention means giving ourselves wholly to something and when we pay very close attention to something, then we are living in the present moment, the Now. Unfortunately we tend to live our lives through memory and anticipation, rather than living in the present. We hark back to the past going over something that may have happened moments, hours or even years before, and we think about the future either worrying about what may happen or day-dreaming about some future event whether it’s what we’re doing after work or the holiday we have planned for next year. Rarely are we able to live in the present, when the mind ceases its endless chatter and we feel a sense of peace and clarity.
If we focus on the Now, there are no problems that we cannot deal with, and we find we have huge resources of energy to accomplish what we want to do. When the task in hand commands our full attention, whether it’s baking bread, gardening, making a pot, playing in an orchestra, or decorating a hall for our community, if we carefully observe the tasks we’re engaged in, then we completely forget anything else except what we’re doing.
Blaise Paschal, the seventeenth-century theologian, claimed, ‘All men’s miseries derive from being unable to sit quiet in a room.’ The mystics have always understood the need to pay attention and the value of silence. The Desert fathers went out into the wilderness, to live alone, free from distractions; the rishis, or holy men of India, went into forests or caves; monk and nuns retreated to the cloisters. We may not feel that we want to be that extreme! But if we want to live differently, if we want peace of mind for ourselves, and a more peaceful world, then taking time out to be silent and pay attention to what’s going on inside ourselves is vital. We seem to have no time for ourselves – there’s too much to do, we live as though we’re immortal, running ever faster, we’re addicted to things and experiences that don’t give us the lasting satisfaction we crave. This is samsara - the daily round we’re caught up in, a kind of incompleteness that we sense, the hole at the centre of our being, the unsatisfactory nature of so much of what we call our lives. We need to live in the present moment, the here and now. We need to stop, slow down and breathe. Our breath is very much a reflection of the state we’re in. Periods of just ‘being’ is what we need, as opposed to always doing or being stimulated by something. If we live in the present moment, accepting it just as it is, without judgment, and let it unfold to the next moment, we will find a greater peace within ourselves and also have access to a place of wisdom and inspiration. Artists, writers, poets and composers have often testified to this need for silence for creativity to flow, and be able to produce their work.
We may not feel we want to give huge amounts of time to sitting still and paying attention, but if we set aside time on a regular basis, a new awareness develops. As we become more at peace through this practice, then we are more able to manifest it in our lives, and then we can begin to make a difference in the world. We are able to listen to others more fully, whether it’s our spouse, our boss, a friend, or the still small voice within. We have to give space to truly listen; we can’t be doing something else at the same time if we’re truly to give our full attention.
Life is never easy – no one lives a completely charmed life, no matter who they are. Things go wrong, turn out different from what we had expected, ‘shit happens’, as they say; and as a result of the various crises we’re going through, probably none of us has escaped unscathed. And maybe worse could lie ahead – we just don’t know. It’s easy to get downcast and depressed about the future, but in taking time to ‘count our blessings’ and remember the positive things about our lives, even in the most difficult of circumstances, things begin to look different.
When we truly appreciate what we have in life (and we in the West have much to be grateful for), we appreciate the preciousness of life itself. We know from heart rate variability (HRV) or heart rhythms) that sustained positive emotions like gratitude have beneficial effect, producing a higher degree of coherence within the heart’s rhythmic activity, as well as throughout other systems in the body from blood pressure to the digestive system.
It is just as important however to be appreciative of the difficult times in our life too, for they have provided us with the opportunity to learn and grow.
Compassion requires us to treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated – the so-called Golden Rule. All the great humanitarians and teachers of different spiritual persuasions have stressed the importance of compassion, which is about having empathy for all forms of life, human or otherwise, with whom we share a deep bond. Compassion requires us to be less self-centred and to recognize this connection. Compassion is a natural instinct – our heart goes out to people who are suffering. Sometimes however it is difficult to feel love and empathy for others if we’re anxious or unhappy ourselves, and our circumstances seem dark and hopeless? How can we feel love for those who have hurt us, or compassion for those who commit terrible crimes? These are difficult issues, but the new consciousness requires that we let go of the ego’s attachment to negativity. Negative emotions are harmful whereas positive thoughts and emotions profoundly affect are health and well-being.
To practise compassion, we start with ourselves. We take time to nurture ourselves with life-enhancing behaviour, increasing the amount of love we feel towards ourselves, and this results in better outcomes in our life. There is nothing narcissistic or selfish about this. Unless we feel good about ourselves, and truly accept who we really are, we’re unlikely to feel compassion for others. When we are happy with the way we are, then we can more readily love our neighbours as ourselves, we are more able to empathize with another’s pain, or begin to understand how deprivation and violence beget unspeakable acts. We can start by making our ‘neighbour’ everyone we meet – the checkout girl, the homeless person, the stranger – a smile and acknowledgment, a kind word, a helping hand – these things make a difference. Compassion requires practice, and the more we are able to cultivate it, the better it is for our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. In fact, every act of compassion has a chemical impact on the brain, since natural opiates are released and help lift our mood. By practising compassion frequently our brain actually changes because we flex and enlarge the compassion-producing areas of the brain, just as we improve our body muscles by exercising them regularly.
The Institute of Heart Math has conducted research showing the physiological and psychological effects of both compassion and anger (1995). Heart-focused, sincere, positive feeling states boost the immune system while negative emotions suppress the immune system. There is every reason therefore to be more compassionate and help to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings whoever they are. Getting people to understand this and to commit to practising lies behind initiatives like the Charter for Compassion and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
Without a sense of purpose in life, it’s unlikely that we will feel fulfilled and become truly mature human beings. Today’s society has an unhealthy emphasis on consumption, achievement and status. Sadly we often find ourselves climbing the wrong ladder, wondering what life is all about. Most human beings want to be happy once their basic needs are fulfilled, but how do we find real happiness as opposed to something that is fleeting? When we look outside ourselves we’re most likely only going to experience a short-lived sense of happiness. We’re more likely to feel happy if we have a sense of purpose in our lives that goes deeper than the ego’s wants and desires. And that requires a deeper understanding of why we think we’re here. Ultimately, it’s the connection to a larger reality – the whole, the universe, God, Spirit, whatever we choose to call it that gives a sense of meaning to our lives. And with that as a backdrop we’re more likely to choose to commit ourselves to helping to make others’ lives better. In using our skills and talents to the best of our capacity to serve others we are fulfilling our lives’ purpose, and there is no more meaningful work.
Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese author of The Prophet says: ‘Work is love made visible.’ This is very much what karma yoga is (one of the four paths of yoga). Literally karma yoga means ‘union through action’. We have to act without being attached to the fruits of our action. The great dialogue on this is in the Bhagavad Gita (part of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata), when Prince Arjuna is talking to Krishna on the eve of a great dynastic battle. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight. By acting as an instrument of God and not being attached to the outcome of his actions, then he is performing his duty. Similar ideas can be found in other religious traditions eg. the Parable of the Talents in the New Testament. Right livelihood is one of the Eight Precepts of the path of Buddhism, and is about making one’s work helpful to other people. Exploiting others, unethical investment and an obsession with profit, and using up the earth’s resources without replacing them have no place in the world of the future.
We can play our part by keeping our own house in order, and doing everything we can to help others. This does not necessarily mean that we rush off to go and help earthquake victims, or feed the hungry and homeless or work with the sick and dying, though some are equipped to do just that. Each of us can make a meaningful contribution through the way we live our daily lives, through supporting appropriate charities, by making the right choices in the workplace and how we spend our leisure time, and through how we relate to all those we come into contact with. Volunteering, or simply giving of ourselves and our time when someone needs it, and going that extra mile – that is service.
Our overall approach to living and consuming is changing. In the developed world we’re beginning to recognize that we’ve become enslaved by the consumer culture and have sacrificed too much of our time and energy to it. We have placed too high a value on material possessions and made life too complicated by having too many expectations and commitments. I’m not suggesting that we be as radical as the millionaire who gave away every penny of his three million pound fortune, or the woman in Germany who has lived voluntarily without money for the last thirteen years, but we should ask ourselves, how much do we actually need?
The material improvements in our lives in the western world over the last fifty years have often been at the cost of enjoying the simple things of life. The rise of material affluence has resulted in a huge increase in depression and anxiety. Rather than satisfying our needs, we’re constantly trying to satisfy our wants, and the problem with that is that there is always a desire for something else once one desire has been satisfied. The truth however is that simple pleasures bring greater satisfaction than material possessions, simple past times don’t cost the earth, and simple food is likely to keep us healthier.
Increasingly people are realizing that a more balanced approach to living is infinitely more satisfying. Simpler and greener approaches to living are becoming part of everyday life and culture for many – from organic gardening and farming, to healthier cooking, use of solar energy, running small businesses from home, to making things and buying second-hand. People see the sense in being debt-free, living more cheaply, and having more free time. And as Gandhi put it so wisely – ‘there is enough for each man’s need but not enough for each man’s greed.’
To read more fully about the revolution in consciousness that is taking place, my book Wake Up and Hear the Thunder: Finding Hope in a Hopeless World is available to order direct from this website as a paperback; as an e-book via Amazon.