The mind is its own place, and in itself
can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.
This is a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I use it at the beginning of my auto-biographical statement on our Karuna website.
To tell the truth, I’ve had concerns about it ever since I posted it because it can be perceived as harsh and blaming depending on how you look at it. For example, the quote can be taken to imply that if you’re in pain about something, it’s only because of how you’re looking at it – if you’d just look at it differently, it could be heaven instead of hell. But is that true in every situation? Shakespeare suggests it is in his line: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But what about the death of a loved one, or a crippling accident caused by a drunk driver, or physical assault? Doesn’t the sentiment in the quotes seem like “blaming the victim” in those incidences?
Given these issues, I’d like to talk about why I chose that particular quote and what it means to me. My primary intention in choosing the quote was to emphasize (1) the importance of perception on reality, and (2) the importance of the meaning we ascribe to the events of our lives, and (3) to highlight how powerful our thinking is in terms what it can create.
Most people are familiar with the two images below that emphasize how perception can change with perspective.
In the image on the left, can you see the chalice? Can you also see two faces looking at each other? The chalice appears in white against a black background. The two faces appear in black against a white background.
In the image on the right, can you see the young, attractive woman? Can you also see the old lady? To see the old lady, focus on the young woman’s necklace and let it become the old woman’s mouth. Let the young woman’s ear becomes the old woman’s eye. Can you see it now?
Try going back and forth quickly between the two versions in each picture. Can you get to the point where you can see both images equally at the same time? (Do you have a headache yet?) Most people have trouble with being able to see both images at once. They can shift back and forth very quickly, but it’s difficult for the mind to hold both images at the same time.
Let’s bring this concept of differing perspectives to the mental level. Think about a time a friend of yours let you down – say, they didn’t return your phone call in a timely manner, or forgot an appointment with you. What meaning did you give that event? Some possibilities are:
1. “What a jerk. How rude. Some people have no manners.” In other words, you blame the other person.
2. “Oh no, did I something that offended her. I bet she’s upset with me.” In this case, you blame yourself.
3. Ambivalence. You vacillate back and forth between who’s to blame. “I can’t believe she forgot me like this. How rude. But maybe I’m expecting too much. Everybody forgets once in a while. But she really should keep up with things better – especially if they matter to her. I wouldn’t do this to her. She really is so rude.” (This can go on for days, weeks, months, and in some cases even a lifetime. Like going back and forth between the images above, it will probably give you a headache.)
4. “I wonder if ____ got my message. Maybe she’s just busy. I’ll call her again in a day or so if I don’t hear from her.” Here you attribute a neutral meaning to the event so neither one of you has to be the bad guy.
Consider what feelings might come as a result of each thought. If you tend to think more like #1, you’re going to spend a lot of time angry, self-righteous, and critical of others. If you think more like #2, you’re going to spend a lot of time worrying, blaming yourself, and reinforcing your negative self-image. If your particular flavor of hell is ambivalence, #3, you’re likely to drive yourself crazy going round and round in circles. An unenviable by-product of 3 is that you’re also likely to drive everyone around you crazy as you try to get 100 reality checks from other people to decide who to blame. If you think more like #4, you’re going to spend a lot of time getting on with your life with feelings of peace and equanimity because there’s nothing to blame anyone for – what a heavenly mindset.
So what about you? Do you tend to create more of hell or heaven with your thoughts?
I could now go on to tell you about how our childhoods set us for this kind of dualistic thinking. I could explain how the fear of being wrong/bad leads to the defense mechanisms that make us want to project the blame. I could explain how ambivalence, though often agonizing, is actually a step in the right direction because ‘staying in the tension of the question’ at least keeps the mind open. The mind tends to close once we think we have the answer.
A LARGER PERSPECTIVE
I’d rather talk about this issue from a larger perspective, i.e., how the penchant to engage in more hellish than heavenly thinking is not totally our fault. We are, after all, also a product of our evolutionary stage of existence. The physical plane of existence into which we (humans) were born forced us, for the sake of our survival, to make dualistic distinctions between danger and safety, friend and enemy, life-enhancing and life-threatening. This plane of existence also had opposites to which we had to accommodate ourselves: day and night, summer and winter, wet and dry, hot and cold. Dualistic thinking was necessary to cope successfully with life on this plane of existence. Our tendency to see things dualistically has keep us safe and well for millennia — even lending itself to the invention of the computer which employs a binary operating system of zeros and ones much like our own dualistic mind.
Our dualistic thinking is such a part of our current state of being/thinking that we hardly notice it. Black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure, smart/dumb, ugly/pretty, top/bottom, pleasure/pain, true/false, win/lose. Our level of consciousness, evolutionarily-speaking, has been fraught with dualistic distinctions. This plays out in small things and large. Either the friend in the example above is bad, or I’m bad. Either she is at fault or I am. If we alter our thinking at all it is likely to vacillate back and forth between the two.
Dualistic thinking can be found at the global level, too, often in ways that no longer serve us well on our island home. Christians good, Muslims bad. Straight people good, gay people bad. This political party good, that one bad. This skin color good; that one bad. This kind of thinking can often lead to a literal hell on earth – divisiveness, judgment, disconnection, separation, conflict.
Does a higher, more “heavenly” level of consciousness exist, and if so, how might we participate in actively ushering it in?
PROACTIVE EVOLUTIONARY THINKING
UPGRADE YOUR OPERATING SYSTEM
You probably know that a dog’s ability to hear and smell exceeds that of a human. You probably also know that there are ranges on the light spectrum (e.g., ultraviolet) that the human eye cannot see. Did you also know that the human eye can only perceive ¼ of what it sees?
What if there are levels of consciousness that we can’t apprehend yet either – levels that exist outside the bandwidth we can recognize? Or said a better way, levels of consciousness that lie as undeveloped potential inside us. Many of the great avatars of the past stressed the importance of transforming our minds, transcending the usual dualistic mindset of the times. Consider Buddha’s non-attachment to outcome, Jesus’ “love your enemies”, Gandhi’s passive resistance. Perhaps avatars were so misunderstood in the past because their level of consciousness exceeded the current level of human consciousness.
Kabir, a well-know 14th century Indian philosopher, poet and songwriter, suggested that:
We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. Beyond the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative faculties; and image-forming and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification, because they are operating best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection with the cosmic mind, the total mind we call “heart.” (Quoted in Bourgeault, p. 36; italics mine.)
Buddha believed that our usual human approach to thinking led to “dukkha” — meaning suffering, struggling, chronic dissatisfaction and just plain misery. Many “new thought” Christians and students of mystical Christianity consider “sin,” as it originally translates from the Greek, to mean missing the mark or missing the point. Eckhart Tolle suggests that “to sin is to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering.” (Tolle, p. 9)
Some teachers from the wisdom school of Christianity assert that heaven is not a place you go to after you die, but rather a state of transformed consciousness. They suggest that Jesus’ phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is his own favorite way of describing a state which today we would call a non-dual or unitive consciousness. Contemporary mystic, ex-monk and public policy attorney Jim Marion suggests that it is “not a place you go, but a place you come from — a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place” – into heaven. (Quoted in Bourgeault, p. 30.)
Ken Wilber, who is one of the most widely read and influential American philosophers of our time, postulates nine levels of consciousness. Consider this quote from him:
Are the mystics and sages insane? Because they all tell variations on the same story, don’t they? The story of awakening one morning and discovering you are one with the All, in a timeless and eternal and infinite fashion. Yes, maybe they are crazy, these divine fools. Maybe they are mumbling idiots in the face of the Abyss…. But then, I wonder. Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual’s consciousness does indeed touch infinity—a total embrace of the entire Kosmos—a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It’s at least plausible. And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing? Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane? Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, p. 42-3.
One way to try to advance our level of consciousness beyond the dualistic stage is to learn to consider the nature of our reality from a different perspective. To some this means trying to eliminate all forms of negative thinking – to insist on the triumph of good over evil. But consider this response to that approach by Cynthia Bourgeault. A student had asked how God could allow human atrocities. Bourgeault replied:
Can’t you see that judging only makes it worse. By trying to stop the black – to make it all white, all good; by saying that this we can accept and this we must reject, you keep empowering that cycle of polarization that creates the problem in the first place…. (T)he orientation that cleaves to the light by trying to deny or reject the shadow…only ends up empowering the shadow and deepening it. The resolution doesn’t lie in collapsing the tension of opposites by canceling one of them out. Something has to go deeper, something that can hold them both. (Bourgeault, p. 123; italics mine.)
So what will help with this evolution of consciousness besides not participating in dualistic distinctions? My favorite choice of the moment is meditation. Why? Because it lets us experience how our “monkey mind” jumps around all over the place without our permission. Because it teaches the observation of mental events (thoughts) as opposed to identification with them. Because it teaches us enough mental discipline to realize we can become the container for our thoughts rather than the victim of them. Because it teaches us how to practice staying in the moment which is the only place reality can happen.
In his bestselling book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckart Tolle asserts that humanity is on the cusp of an evolutionary shift in consciousness:
What is arising now is not a new belief system, a new religion, spiritual ideology, or mythology. We are coming to the end not only of mythologies but also of ideologies and belief systems. The change goes deeper than the content of your mind, deeper than your thoughts. In fact, at the heart of the new consciousness lies the transcendence of thought, the newfound ability of rising above thought, of realizing a dimension within yourself that is infinitely more vast than thought. You then no longer derive your identity, your sense of who you are, from the incessant stream of thinking that in the old consciousness you take to be yourself. (Tolle, p. 21-22)
But who are you then, if you are not who you thought yourself to be – not that voice in your head, not your thoughts? You can learn to become the one who sees the thoughts, the one who has awareness over and above thoughts. You become the space in which thoughts happen. You are, indeed, the vehicle through which Life is lived.
Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2008.
Hollis, James. What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. New York: Gotham Books, 2009.
Ladinsky, Daniel, Ed. Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.
Marion, Jim. Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner World of Christian Spirituality. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 2000.
Muktananda, Swami. Play of Consciousness: A Spiritual Autobiography. South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1978, 2000.
Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Plume, 2005.
Wilber, Ken. No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth. Boston: Shambala Publications 1979, 2001.
Wilber, Ken. Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Shambala, 2006.
Williams, Mark; Teasdale, John; Zindel, Segal & Kabat-Zinn, Jon. The Mindful Way through Depressions: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. The Autobiography of a Yogi. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1946, 2000.