Spirit Matters

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Stock options and high earnings are no replacement for a sense of meaning and purpose for one's life. Living in a society whose "bottom line" is "looking out for number one" has undermined friendships, made relationships difficult, produced alienation and loneliness -- and has been used to justify corporate social irresponsibility and environmental destructiveness. Selfishness and materialism permeate our relationships in work and in personal life, while we are taught to keep our spiritual life and our moral ...
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Overview

Stock options and high earnings are no replacement for a sense of meaning and purpose for one's life. Living in a society whose "bottom line" is "looking out for number one" has undermined friendships, made relationships difficult, produced alienation and loneliness -- and has been used to justify corporate social irresponsibility and environmental destructiveness. Selfishness and materialism permeate our relationships in work and in personal life, while we are taught to keep our spiritual life and our moral vision away from the public sphere.

Spirit Matters shows how deeply we've been hurt personally, emotionally, ecologically, and politically by living in a world that systematically represses our spiritual needs -- and how we might create a personal life and a society that embodies what Michael Lerner describes as an Emancipatory Spirituality. It is a spirituality that affirms that there is enough, that generosity, atonement, joy, and celebration of the grandeur of the universe can be basic building blocks in constructing our lives together. Spirit Matters demonstrates that the time is now to stop compromising with a world whose fundamentals are so far from our own highest values and begin to create the world we privately tell ourselves we really believe in.

Don't be misled by the easy and accessible style of Lerner's writings: Spirit Matters is a profound new contribution to social theory and spiritual practice, and a new framework for thinking about childhood, loving relationships, the world of work, politics, law, education, and ecology. It is on the cutting edge of contemporary thought and yet speaks to the heart and soul.

Spirit Matters speaks both to people who have tended to think that "spirit" is an empty category for religious zealots or a reactionary tool of repression, as well as to those who take spirituality seriously in their personal lives but who have not yet realized that their spiritual practice could be the basis for a fundamental transformation of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Turning Wheel
An important book of great interest to socially engaged Buddhists.
Real Change
Shows how deeply spirituality matters in our daily lives - and how deeply we suffer because our spiritual needs are constantly denied.
Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensive manifesto calling for the development of a socially and environmentally responsible spirituality. Tikkun editor Lerner (Jewish Renewal, 1994) is a former Clinton guru who helped develop the ill-fated "Politics of Meaning" some years back. Here he tries to hit the comeback trail with this earnest, long-winded, radical attempt at giving American society some spiritual CPR—an effort sorely in need of details, parables, or (at the very least) a sense of humor. Lerner anticipates a great spiritual awakening in our millennium, after which market profits will no longer dictate the cultural bottom line. Instead, a GNP of spiritual happiness, oneness with our creator (and creation), social responsibility, and goodness will transform our institutions and prevail throughout our noncompetitive globe. The idols of amoral scientism and unchecked greed will be toppled. The lubricant for this messianic world will not be religion: the organized religions, in Lerner's view, peddle a "reactionary spirituality" that is given to veiling women and circumcising men. Lerner's God, on the other hand, is "the force of healing and transformation in the Universe," and his "emancipatory spirituality" will challenge the male chauvinism that objectifies women. Too many of Lerner's fine sentiments and proposals (for sharing resources equitably, forcing corporations and nations to be accountable for social and environmental sins, and reforming law and education) are hortatory rather than specific, and his spirituality in general has too many syllables to catch fire. His treatise is so warm and fuzzy that the bibliography is called"SupportiveReading" (although Lerner is not shy about plugging his own magazine ad nauseam). This ambitious and worthy effort would be far more effective if told in a voice that was less shrill and more eloquent. But that would require a different author.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781571743602
  • Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The Evolution of Spirit


    We are opening up in sweet surrender to:

    —deep humility about the limits of our knowledge

    —unusually profound states of experience

    —a sense of the uncanny

    —intuition of the whole working in concert

    —compassion for each segment of the whole as part of a far-reaching self-love

    —a paradoxical state of relaxed trust and animated engagement

    —a sense of surrender into a greater awareness

    —the luminous lovelight of the One

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank


How to Have a Spiritual Experience


    I can tell you how to have a spiritual experience, but I can't guarantee you'll have one, any more than I can guarantee you'll fall in love with someone to whom I introduce you, though that person might be the most loving, warm, funny, brilliant, and generous person you've ever met.

    Get yourself to a place outside in nature where you can see at least twenty stars in the night sky. Close your eyes and breathe in deep breaths.

    Focus your attention on your breath. Notice your thoughts as they race through your mind. But then refocus your attention on your breath.

    Tell yourself over and over, "I am one part of the consciousness of the universe, a manifestation of the Unity of AllBeing." Continue doing this for fifteen minutes. Bring an alarm clock set to go off in fifteen minutes so you don't have to keep opening your eyes to see how much time has elapsed. Allow yourself to sink into the experience as you notice how your thoughts are rushing toward everything else other than your own breath and on this simple statement "I am one part ..." and so forth. When you catch your mind wandering, don't scold it. Instead, gently return your attention to your breath and to this one sentence focusing on how you are part of the consciousness of the universe.

    After fifteen minutes of this focus, open your eyes. Imagine that you can see yourself where you are sitting. Now, imagine that you are going up in a slowly ascending balloon and yet able to look down on the Earth and see your physical body standing where it is.

    Notice yourself standing at a particular point on planet Earth. See what that point is. For example, I would see myself standing in a courtyard in San Francisco, and as the balloon went up a little farther, I'd notice that I was standing very close to the Pacific Ocean. As the balloon went up farther, I'd notice that I was on the North American continent, and yet all the way down there, on the side of the Pacific, in Northern California, in a backyard in San Francisco, there I am. Now see yourself standing there, wherever you are, and notice that you are on a planet that has been slowly turning all day, first toward the nearest star we call the Sun (which is a million times bigger than planet Earth). Try seeing the Sun as one million times the size of Earth, and see where you are in relation to it.

    Notice that as you were living your very important life all day long, the planet was spinning, and that it is also moving slowly around the Sun.

    See where you are on this planet and become aware that you are sharing this planet with six billion other human beings who are also looking up into heaven from time to time and noticing where they are. Become aware of how you and they must appear from way up high—a planet filled with six billion egos, each one shouting "Notice me! I'm so important! I'm the one who really counts!"

    Imagine that you can see all six billion people jumping around and yelling for attention—and recognize how the human ego gets out of control and loses its sense of proportion. From the distance of many thousands of miles away, see yourself down there with the other six billion, all exhausting themselves by frenetically pursuing their lives and imagining that they absolutely must accomplish their tasks quickly. People have less and less time, because they "must" accomplish everything now, and doing so is so deeply important. Notice how many people are driven by this frenetic need—everyone calling out for attention.

    Now, notice that our sun is one of millions of stars in this galaxy, and that our galaxy is one of fifty billion galaxies.

    Notice where you are in the universe. Try to imagine yourself as one of the manifestations of the consciousness of the universe, and as part of the totality of all things, a momentary explosion of God energy, a momentary embodiment of the spiritual energy of the universe and of the Force of Healing and Transformation.

    You know that in somewhere between twenty and seventy years from now, you and everyone around you will be in the ground, and a new generation will look up and see the marvel of the universe. But this is now, and this is your moment to join with the billions of other humans and countless other life forms that are at some level of awareness, noticing grandeur and joining in the universal song of thanksgiving at being alive and being able to see all this marvelous reality. So, allow yourself to experience how incredible it is to be alive.

    If you can, do this every night for three weeks in a row, all the while telling yourself, "I am one part of the consciousness of the universe, a manifestation of the Unity of All Being."

    Whenever your conscious attention wanders, gently bring it back to focus on the incredible grandeur of the universe.

    Once you succeed in quieting your own mind down enough so that it can focus on your breath for fifteen minutes, you'll find that in the course of those three weeks you will have a spiritual experience.


The Marvel of Creation


    Everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe is the prelude to each of our lives. Everything that has happened from the beginning of time has become the platform from which we launch our lives.

    We are the heirs of the long evolution of Spirit. Each of us is the latest unfolding of the event of Creation. Our bodies are composed of the material that was shaped in the Big Bang. And so, too, our spirit. The loving goodness of the universe breathes us and breathes through us, giving us life and consciousness, and the capacity to recognize and love others.

    Each stage in the development of the universe incorporates and transcends that which went before. It has been so from the earliest stages in the formation of galaxies, to the emergence of solar time for our particular planet, through the geological development of the Earth and the emergence of biological reality, until we ultimately emerge into human time, or history. Each stage of history, in turn, makes further developments possible, which finally bring us to the present moment.

    That evolving reality has been understood through much of recorded history as an integrated and mutually interacting web of body, mind, soul, and spirit. When we faced problems in our human reality, we can often understand those problems as dysfunctions in the way these different levels of reality interacted with each other.


Recognizing One's Place
in the Unity of All Being


    Jewish tradition relates the story of a rabbi who sought to understand his place in the universe. To keep a balance between too much grandiosity and too much self-diminution, he had two notes, one for each of his two pants pockets. One note read: "For me the world was created." The other note read: "I am nothing more than dust and ashes." The task of the rabbi is our task: to integrate these two messages and keep them in appropriate balance.

    "For me the world was created." The grandeur of creation comes to full expression in the creation of human beings. Complexly magnificent, able to be conscious of ourselves, able to transcend that which is and to move toward what ought to be, human beings were "created in the image of God" and reflect the universe's greatest outpouring of love and generosity.

    But also, "nothing more than dust and ashes." We are part of the totality of all that is, and we are ever arrogant when we see ourselves as somehow better than everything else, as having the right to use everything else for our own ends. We are here on the planet for a brief moment, and for much of that time we are deeply enmeshed in foolish schemes to perpetuate ourselves for eternity, imagining that if we amass enough power or control we can somehow live forever.

    Emancipatory Spirituality offers a different kind of immortality, not a promise that our own individual personalities with their specific sets of memories and experiences will last forever, but the immortality of being part and parcel of the totality of all being. To appreciate this second kind of immortality, we need to reach a fuller awareness of our place in the universe and our identity as manifestations of the totality of all that is.

    We are what Ken Wilber calls "holons," entities who are simultaneously separate beings, seeking to maintain our own individual existence and parts of something much bigger than ourselves. In the contemporary world, it's easy to understand the consciousness of ourselves as separate beings, but it's very hard to develop a sense of ourselves as part of the Unity of All Being.

    The Western intellectual tradition tends to encourage us to see the world as a collection of individual things, separated from each other, and then tries to figure out how they might interact. Much of our language contributes to this sense of separateness because it was developed to break up nature and our visual field into objects that could be used or shaped by human action.

    But this isn't the only possible human goal. There's another way of thinking, one that stresses the fundamental interconnectedness of all being, one that starts with the premise of totality and moves from there. To understand the world from the standpoint of its fundamental unity, we need to transcend the language that was created to serve a different and narrower purpose. It's difficult for words to capture our intuition or perception of "the totality of all with all."

    I sometimes think of our individual consciousness as a liver cell in a complex body. The liver cell understands what it can take in, given the limited consciousness a liver cell can have. It has some inkling of connection to other liver cells, and probably some notion of a larger consciousness of the entire body. But it can't imagine a larger interconnected reality with a consciousness of the totality that is filled with love and pours out its generosity to all of its parts.

    When a liver cell gets out of balance with the rest of the body, we get a destructive expansiveness in which certain cells start to crowd out neighboring cells. We call that condition cancer. Cancer is the perfect analogy for individual egos that lose their sense of balance and begin to expand themselves at the expense of others.

    In some spiritual traditions, the solution to this problem is to obliterate the individual ego. The ego itself is seen as the big problem, so the solution is to overcome it.

    Emancipatory Spirituality, however, does not seek to obliterate the ego, but to put it in balance with the rest of the universe. In our society, we are in great need of this kind of rebalancing. Our society is full of people who go around saying "I am a self-made man or woman. I did it myself and therefore I deserve more money or power or recognition than anyone else." Many people say that because they were spiritually wounded, because they have been deprived of recognition and love, or because they never had the experience of being in a supportive community. It never occurs to them that the science and technology, the phone lines and the paved streets, the automobiles and airplanes that they use, even the conceptual distinctions and the language they draw upon were not built by them but by others. Instead, they need to puff themselves up to defend against their feeling of aloneness and their certainty that they cannot count on others. Said often enough, the myth of the self-made individual starts to take on the dimension of common sense in contemporary capitalist societies.

    But look a little closer. Emancipatory Spirituality teaches that every one of us is standing on the platform of thousands of previous generations of human beings. We inherited the wisdom, the language, the categories, and the work of the past.

    Even as I write this, I have to remember that the food on my table, the shelter over my head, the computer in front of me, and the language and categories I use are the products of a planetary economy and tens of thousands of years of human effort. That economy has been made possible by all of humanity's previous experiments with forming larger and more inclusive cooperative enterprises. You and I are the beneficiaries of the goodness of tens of millions of human beings who struggled to get information, who developed techniques, tools, systems, words, and institutions. It was out of their love for each other and for the future of the human race that we can now live in peace, ease, dignity, security, affection, and harmony.

    Here is one spiritual exercise that each of us needs to try every day. Take anything in your life—a musical instrument, a computer, a car, a piece of fruit that sits in your home but was grown far away, a television, a phone line, a book. Now try to imagine all the steps that needed to happen between the moment that human beings began to evolve and the moment you were able to have this thing in your life. If you ask what knowledge those who brought this object into your life had to have, what those who developed that knowledge had to learn from previous people who developed their knowledge, you will quickly be overwhelmed by the amount of cooperation through thousands of years that made all the things that populate your daily life possible. Try this exercise with a different object or aspect of your life every day and you'll soon see how much each of us is a beneficiary of the goodness and cooperation of past generations.

    And that's what the universe is—a vast system of cooperation. Though many contemporary social institutions teach us to see others as enemies or potential rivals for scarce resources, the truth is that we live in a world in which the basic principle is one of cooperation.

    My Hawaiian friend Morty Breyer taught me to recognize this in our own bodies. In his words: "My lungs with their system of bellows, branching, and oxygen exchange membranes; my circulatory system with its tubes, valves, and pumps; my nervous system with its wiring; my digestive system with its juices and absorption linings; my sensory systems with their lenses, keying sites, and tympani membranes; my movement systems with their structural members, hinges, and rigging tendons; all of these and much more do not occur anywhere in the internal structures of any of my cells, nor in the life of any cell that preceded it. The beautifully cooperative actions of all of these systems with their common goal of preserving and empowering me, their organizational creation, developed over a long period of the evolution of animal life with the ultimate desire to cooperate on a vast scale. And we human beings have similarly built human technologies and cooperative organizing strategies just like the cells built within us."

    Or think of DNA and the way, when damaged, it reorganizes itself. The individual parts work together to reveal the astonishing interconnectedness of Spirit.

    What makes this cooperation possible is the force of love. Each of us was a product of the love of the universe pulsating through our parents. Though many of us think about how our parents were not as loving as we needed them to be, the fact that we are alive at all is testimony to the interaction between their loving and the loving manifested in social institutions that made it possible for children to be fed, housed, clothed, and protected.


The Possibilities Created
by the Legacy of Love


    On the platform of embodied love we have received from the universe we can create our world afresh. We are poised to take the next step in the evolution of human consciousness. To do that, we have to be aware of all that has gone before.

    Human beings were never truly isolated or thrown into the world alone. That existential picture, described by the German philosopher Heidegger, is a further elaboration of the philosophers of early capitalism like Hobbes and Leibniz, who saw human beings as isolated nomads who forged contracts to enter into community only to avoid the war of all against all. Ironically, this war of all against all may be a good picture of what it's like to live in our contemporary "looking out for number one" society. It was seldom true of human life throughout most of our history.

    Much of human history has been the history of smaller groups beginning to see common interests and ties to larger groups, first as clans, then as tribes, then as peoples, then as nations.

    The next stage of human history requires that we take the next step in the evolution of consciousness and begin to see ourselves as one—as deeply connected, sharing one planet.

    The idea of our fundamental interconnection with each other and with nature was already articulated in the Bible when its Prophets warned that without a society based on justice, peace, love, and caring, the whole world will face ecological catastrophe. From the Bible's perspective, we commit a global sin by allowing injustice and lack of love toward the stranger and our neighbor to persist. And its message is clear: You cannot act immorally without global consequences.

    The next stage in the evolution of our spiritual consciousness will be facilitated when we internalize the awareness that you and I are deeply linked to the other six billion human beings who share this planet. But more than that—we are interdependent with all the other creatures who are traveling with us on spaceship Earth, and beyond that, with all life throughout the universe.

    Here I think that the human race has a lot to learn from Biblically based religions. The central message of the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible, and the Muslim Koran is that we were born from God's love and the love that permeates the universe, and that we have every reason to see each other as created in the image of God, as embodiments of God, and to treat each other as such.

    When I talk of God, I am talking about YHVH (mistranslated in the King James version as Jehovah, but actually four letters that Jews never pronounce precisely because they do not signify a specific being, but a world process, a God-ing, or, as David Cooper put it in the title of his book, God Is a Verb). YHVH comes from the root HVH, the Hebrew word for "the present tense" and the Y, which indicates the future. What the word really means is "the transformation of the present into that which can and should be in the future." In this sense, God is the Power of Healing and Transformation in the universe—and the Voice of the Future calling us to become who we need to become.

    The word "God" has accumulated so much authoritarian and patriarchal baggage that many people find it impossible to believe in the God they were taught about as children. Part of my reason for using the word Spirit throughout this book has been to avoid those associations. But if we think of God as the totality of all that is, was, and ever will be, as seen from the perspective of its evolution toward higher levels of consciousness and higher levels of loving connection, then many people who do not believe in God can still come to see the universe from this Spirit-oriented perspective.

    Looking at the world in this way, we can each understand ourselves as one of the billions of ways Spirit has chosen to pour its love into existence. We are at once a manifestation of all the love of the universe, and an opportunity for the universe to manifest greater loving, cooperation, and harmony. This is what the angels meant in the Psalm when they said, "What is Man that thou shouldst think of him or the son of man that thou shouldst take account of him? But you have made man just a little lower than the angels." And yet, we are also, as the Psalmist proclaims, "... like a passing shadow, like a dream that vanishes."

    While we are here on Earth, we have an incredible opportunity to recognize and rejoice in the Unity of All Being, to stand in awe and wonder at the glory of all that is, and to bring forward as much consciousness, love, solidarity, creativity, sensitivity, and goodness as we possibly can.

    Developing and refining this kind of consciousness is a central element in what it means to develop an inner life. And this is one of the central aspects of spiritual practice.


When Spiritual Wisdom Lost Its Path


"... some tragic falling off
from a first world
of pure light
..."

Robert Hass


    To the best of our knowledge, human beings have always responded to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement. Religious and spiritual consciousness evolved in a variety of ways, but until the past three hundred years, it was always a major fact in the daily lives of ordinary human beings.

    The need to celebrate, to rejoice in creation and in our own existence, and to connect what was perceived as an inner spiritual reality with the outer spiritual reality of the universe seems to be pervasive throughout all cultures and societies.

    The memory of a spiritual golden age seems encoded in the human psyche. Great epic literature from around the world—from Greek mythology, to the Scandinavian Edda, to the Bible—recall an early paradise when we knew that spirituality was present in all things and all actions. And most contemporary movements, even movements we find distorted or misguided, seem to hearken back to some lost paradise. Spiritual oneness cannot be "objectively verified," but our literature, our music, and our current yearning for spiritual connection seem to recall a shadowy past when the intuition that All was One played a much more powerful role in human life.

    What we do know about the spiritual lives of ancient peoples teaches us that ancient spiritual wisdom frequently involved a sense of the individual's connection to the totality of Being. Whether that was expressed in the Hindu notion that "atman is brahman" (the individual soul and the universal soul are one) or in the language that each individual is "created in the image of God," the intrinsic connection to the Unity of All Being was a central part of ancient spirituality. With that spiritual wisdom came an equally powerful sense of connection among human beings, a sense of solidarity and shared common purpose.

    I do not want to suggest that the meaning of this ancient experience is what I want to return to by renewing our spiritual traditions. The meaning of this oneness, and how it is experienced, is significantly different in those who have gone through other stages in the development of human consciousness. The lionizing of indigenous societies seems off base to me for this reason: there are many elements in the consciousness of earlier societies that need to be incorporated and transcended, not romanticized as the goal of spiritual development.

    Nevertheless, these earlier moments, memorialized in the literature, folk legends, and cultural legacies of many ancient peoples, help us understand why the emergence of class societies was such a shock, and why many religious and spiritual traditions had immense credibility in part because they managed to perpetuate some of that earlier sense of unity and connectedness whose absence in the daily life of class societies was painful and traumatic.

    One of the interesting facts of human history is that when people conquer or oppress other human beings, they often feel a strong need for some kind of ideological framework to tell them that these others are really Other, that is, not really "like us," not really human at all, something else, something lower, something that somehow requires oppression. This kind of self-deception is necessary because of the almost instinctive awareness each of us has of our deep ties to all other beings, an awareness that has been increasingly repressed over the past four thousand years and needs to be repressed in order for people to function in societies that do not treat everyone with equal respect.

    But once this domination started to happen, spiritual traditions were altered and warped. Instead of the spontaneously joyful celebration of the universe and of each other, organized elites began to shape spiritual life into forms that justified or even supported class domination. Over the course of a few thousand years, religious communities lost much of their original spiritual foundation.

    This couldn't happen overnight. People's strong spiritual intuitions sustained a deep understanding of the value of every other human being and of the preciousness of the earth. The very idea of "owning" the earth violated the sacred traditions and memories of this earlier spirituality.

    So religions were developed that preserved the consciousness of awe and wonder at the glory of the universe. They thus sustained the feelings of unity and connectedness that have given the world its beauty and enchantment for most humans. In their stories and in their rituals, religious and spiritual traditions taught people about solidarity and caring, about hope and joy, about the obligations to community and the need to find one's own path.

    Yet at the same time, the religions that emerged in the three thousand years between 2000 B.C.E. and 1000 C.E. were shaped to meet the needs of the ruling elites of the society. The more they fit those needs, the more they were forced to forget or marginalize aspects of the original spiritual insights. So religious traditions became increasingly ritualistic and spiritually lifeless. To accommodate themselves to the established order they focused more and more on demands the gods made on human beings.

    The same religion that could encourage and permit people to dance the joy of being alive and conscious, and incorporate the erotic energies affirming life, joy, and pleasure, could simultaneously tell people that their rulers were given sanction by the gods to run the world and to appropriate a portion of the food each family labored to create.

    Similarly, within families and throughout the society, these religious systems were used to justify patriarchal rule and the subordination of women to men.

    While some religious traditions sustained the memory of earlier moments in which women had equal power, and celebrated the power of female gods, most soon succumbed to the growing patriarchal order, its class domination, its justifications for unequal power, and the infliction of pain on the majority by the privileged.

    Religious ideologies began to speak of pain and cruelty as endemic to the very nature of creation, embedded in the gods and in the nature of human beings. Cruelty, in short, was presented as an inevitable part of "reality."

    Having begun to codify the spiritual experience of the community, religious traditions were soon shaped by a specialized class of priests and religious leaders with interests of their own, often intimately connected with the interests of the society's ruling elites. The social world and its class realities were presented as part of the natural world, unchangeable, fixed, and God-given.

    People in the ancient world already knew that there was something deeply distorted in the religious traditions being imposed upon them by their own elites. So it's important not to romanticize ancient or even indigenous religious or spiritual traditions—because many of them were already quite distorted by the time they were taking concrete form some four thousand years ago. It's popular today to blame Western influences for undermining indigenous cultures, but many of these cultures had already distorted themselves by accommodating to a world of pain and cruelty and the demeaning of the other.

    No wonder, then, that some people were drawn to religious renewal movements that sought to get people back in touch with the original, and sometimes quite revolutionary, consciousness that had formed the spiritual basis for the religion.

    Judaism, for example, came into the world to protest the tight alignment of spirituality with oppression in the religious life of both Egypt and Babylonia/Assyria/Persia—and to testify to a very different conception of the spiritual than the one that prevailed among ancient imperial societies. On the basis of the slave rebellion recounted in Exodus, Judaism explicitly called for a redistribution of wealth and for a spiritual order that would restore the fundamental justice, equality, and dignity of each individual.

    Equally important, Judaism proclaimed that "cruelty is not destiny," that the world could be radically transformed, and that what makes that possible is YHVH—the four letters that stand for the Divine as the Force of Healing and Transformation of the universe. Nothing in the world was fixed, because the fundamental creative force in the universe, the Creator of the universe, was the YHVH Force that guaranteed that the world could be transformed from oppression and cruelty to a world based on love and caring.

    Yet the people who received this message and brought forward the religion of the oppressed were deeply scarred themselves by all they had undergone in the world of oppression. The history of the Jewish people became a history of asserting this transcendent message inscribed in its holy book, the Torah, and then of running away from that message and reverting to the very same patterns and systems of thought the Torah had originally been created to resist.

    At times the people who proclaimed a renewal of the basic spirituality of the universe found themselves acting just like the pharaohs who had oppressed them. At times they abandoned the radical spiritual message: celebration of the Spirit must not be connected with any form of domination or oppression, but should instead be a way to reinscribe awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the center of our lives and at the core of how we build social and economic-practices. Jews were supposed to be witnesses to the possibility of social healing and transformation. But frequently they abandoned this task and tried to become "ordinary people" like everyone else, making accommodations to the world of oppression and even incorporating some of its norms into their own religious lives. Even in the Torah itself there are times when the original transformative vision gets obscured and people begin to hear the voice of God speaking in a language that seems more consonant with the established wisdom of an oppressive class society than with the fiery presence of the transcendent goodness of the universe.

    The contradiction was so overwhelming that many Jews themselves saw it, and a movement of resistors and renewalists, called nevi'im, or Prophets, emerged to get this renewal religion back on track.

    The Prophets were met with hostility, anger, and sometimes overt violence. Yet the initial impulse to Judaism was so strong that in subsequent generations the Prophets were honored and their messages read aloud and sometimes taken to heart. Jewish history has been replete with renewal movements, including Hasidim in the eighteenth century and Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century. In our own time, I've been involved with a vibrant Jewish Renewal movement that seeks to restore the powerful and deep path of Jewish spirituality as it becomes an embodiment of this prophetic energy.

    A similar story can be told about Christianity. It emerged in part as a renewal movement within Judaism, but its largest impact came from taking the Jewish renewal message and attempting to bring it to the rest of the world.

    Christianity originally challenged the system of Roman power. The Roman legions had enslaved much of the known world, and their power seemed invincible. Yet Christianity identified with the slaves, with those who had been subjected to torture and crucifixion. Our God, the Christians proclaimed, had become incarnate in a human being, a Jew, who died on the cross, and transcended all that pain through resurrection to a higher realm. The real power, then, was not in the hands of those who defiled the earth with their instruments of oppression, but rather with human beings who stayed faithful to a higher spiritual truth.

    Christian spirituality was a renewal of the original spiritual vision of human beings as connected to each other through love, and as loved by the universe—in short, a return to the deepest spiritual aspirations of the human race, which had originally been articulated in the Jewish Torah. No wonder it spread like wildfire, winning to its midst those whose experience with religion lacked this sense of outrage at injustice and hope for a world more consistent with our fundamental spiritual being.

    Yet within a few hundred years, Christianity had developed its own set of priests and elites, who defanged and declawed its original revolutionary message and reshaped it to justify cruelty and inequality. But even as Christianity served to consolidate and justify oppressive regimes and humanly demeaning policies, its theology kept a transcendent vision alive and sustained hopes that stood in sharp contrast to its own social realities. Christian traditions like Quakerism and Catholic Liberation Theology have sought to keep this consciousness alive for centuries.

    This same story could be told about most of the major religious and spiritual traditions of the past few thousand years, as unique as each of these traditions is. On the one hand, these spiritual traditions maintained the deepest and most liberating aspirations of the human race. Frequently they were a society's most consistent repository of hope for justice, love, and human connection. But at the same time they were guilty of some of the worst forms of oppression, and acted as cheerleaders for the oppressors.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Introduction 1
1 The Evolution of Spirit 39
2 Living in a Spiritually Deadened World 72
3 Love, Mutual Recognition, and Spirit--The Psychospiritual Dimension 101
4 Ecological Sanity Requires Spiritual Transformation 138
5 Emancipatory Spirituality 165
6 The Respiritualization of Our Work and Our Professions 195
7 The Soul of Medicine 204
8 The Spiritual Transformation of Law 219
9 The Spiritual Transformation of Education 233
10 Spiritual Practice and the Socially Engaged Soul 273
Afterword: How You Can Be Involved 331
Bibliography 340
Index 351
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First Chapter

one
The Evolution of Spirit
We are opening up in sweet surrender to:
--deep humility about the limits of our knowledge
--unusually profound states of experience
--a sense of the uncanny
--intuition of the whole working in concert
--compassion for each segment of the whole as part of a far-reaching self-love
--a paradoxical state of relaxed trust and animated engagement
--a sense of surrender into a greater awareness
--the luminous lovelight of the One


Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank
How to Have a Spiritual Experience

I can tell you how to have a spiritual experience, but I can’t guarantee you ’ll have one, any more than I can guarantee you’ll fall in love with someone to whom I introduce you, though that person might be the most loving, warm, funny, brilliant, and generous person you’ve ever met.

Get yourself to a place outside in nature where you can see at least twenty stars in the night sky. Close your eyes and breathe in deep breaths. Focus your attention on your breath. Notice your thoughts as they race through your mind. But then refocus your attention on your breath.

Tell yourself over and over, "I am one part of the consciousness of the universe, a manifestation of the Unity of All Being." Continue doing this for fifteen minutes. Bring an alarm clock set to go off in fifteen minutes so you don’t have to keep opening your eyes to see how much time has elapsed. Allow yourself to sink into the experience as you notice how your thoughts are rushing toward everything else other than your own breath and on this simple statement "I am one part . . . " and so forth. When you catch your mind wandering, don’t scold it. Instead, gently return your attention to your breath and to this one sentence focusing on how you are part of the consciousness of the universe.

After fifteen minutes of this focus, open your eyes. Imagine that you can see yourself where you are sitting. Now, imagine that you are going up in a slowly ascending balloon and yet able to look down on the Earth and see your physical body standing where it is.

Notice yourself standing at a particular point on planet Earth. See what that point is. For example, I would see myself standing in a courtyard in San Francisco, and as the balloon went up a little farther, I’d notice that I was standing very close to the Pacific Ocean. As the balloon went up farther, I’d notice that I was on the North American continent, and yet all the way down there, on the side of the Pacific, in Northern California, in a backyard in San Francisco, there I am. Now see yourself standing there, wherever you are, and notice that you are on a planet that has been slowly turning all day, first toward the nearest star we call the Sun (which is a million times bigger than planet Earth). Try seeing the Sun as one million times the size of Earth, and see where you are in relation to it.

Notice that as you were living your very important life all day long, the planet was spinning, and that it is also moving slowly around the Sun.

See where you are on this planet and become aware that you are sharing this planet with six billion other human beings who are also looking up into heaven from time to time and noticing where they are. Become aware of how you and they must appear from way up high--a planet filled with six billion egos, each one shouting "Notice me! I’m so important! I’m the one who really counts!"

Imagine that you can see all six billion people jumping around and yelling for attention--and recognize how the human ego gets out of control and loses its sense of proportion. From the distance of many thousands of miles away, see yourself down there with the other six billion, all exhausting themselves by frenetically pursuing their lives and imagining that they absolutely must accomplish their tasks quickly. People have less and less time, because they "must" accomplish everything now, and doing so is so deeply important. Notice how many people are driven by this frenetic need--everyone calling out for attention.

Now, notice that our sun is one of millions of stars in this galaxy, and that our galaxy is one of fifty billion galaxies.

Notice where you are in the universe. Try to imagine yourself as one of the manifestations of the consciousness of the universe, and as part of the totality of all things, a momentary explosion of God energy, a momentary embodiment of the spiritual energy of the universe and of the Force of Healing and Transformation.

You know that in somewhere between twenty and seventy years from now, you and everyone around you will be in the ground, and a new generation will look up and see the marvel of the universe. But this is now, and this is your moment to join with the billions of other humans and countless other life forms that are at some level of awareness, noticing grandeur and joining in the universal song of thanksgiving at being alive and being able to see all this marvelous reality. So, allow yourself to experience how incredible it is to be alive.

If you can, do this every night for three weeks in a row, all the while telling yourself, "I am one part of the consciousness of the universe, a manifestation of the Unity of All Being."

Whenever your conscious attention wanders, gently bring it back to focus on the incredible grandeur of the universe.

Once you succeed in quieting your own mind down enough so that it can focus on your breath for fifteen minutes, you’ll find that in the course of those three weeks you will have a spiritual experience.

The Marvel of Creation

Everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe is the prelude to each of our lives. Everything that has happened from the beginning of time has become the platform from which we launch our lives.

We are the heirs of the long evolution of Spirit. Each of us is the latest unfolding of the event of Creation. Our bodies are composed of the material that was shaped in the Big Bang. And so, too, our spirit. The loving goodness of the universe breathes us and breathes through us, giving us life and consciousness, and the capacity to recognize and love others.

Each stage in the development of the universe incorporates and transcends that which went before. It has been so from the earliest stages in the formation of galaxies, to the emergence of solar time for our particular planet, through the geological development of the Earth and the emergence of biological reality, until we ultimately emerge into human time, or history. Each stage of history, in turn, makes further developments possible, which finally bring us to the present moment.

That evolving reality has been understood through much of recorded history as an integrated and mutually interacting web of body, mind, soul, and spirit. When we faced problems in our human reality, we can often understand those problems as dysfunctions in the way these different levels of reality interacted with each other.

Recognizing One’s Place in the Unity of All Being

Jewish tradition relates the story of a rabbi who sought to understand his place in the universe. To keep a balance between too much grandiosity and too much self-diminution, he had two notes, one for each of his two pants pockets. One note read: "For me the world was created." The other note read: "I am nothing more than dust and ashes." The task of the rabbi is our task: to integrate these two messages and keep them in appropriate balance.

"For me the world was created." The grandeur of creation comes to full expression in the creation of human beings. Complexly magnificent, able to be conscious of ourselves, able to transcend that which is and to move toward what ought to be, human beings were "created in the image of God" and reflect the universe’s greatest outpouring of love and generosity.

But also, "nothing more than dust and ashes." We are part of the totality of all that is, and we are ever arrogant when we see ourselves as somehow better than everything else, as having the right to use everything else for our own ends. We are here on the planet for a brief moment, and for much of that time we are deeply enmeshed in foolish schemes to perpetuate ourselves for eternity, imagining that if we amass enough power or control we can somehow live forever.

Emancipatory Spirituality offers a different kind of immortality, not a promise that our own individual personalities with their specific sets of memories and experiences will last forever, but the immortality of being part and parcel of the totality of all being. To appreciate this second kind of immortality, we need to reach a fuller awareness of our place in the universe and our identity as manifestations of the totality of all that is.

We are what Ken Wilber calls "holons," entities who are simultaneously separate beings, seeking to maintain our own individual existence and parts of something much bigger than ourselves. In the contemporary world, it’s easy to understand the consciousness of ourselves as separate beings, but it ’s very hard to develop a sense of ourselves as part of the Unity of All Being.

The Western intellectual tradition tends to encourage us to see the world as a collection of individual things, separated from each other, and then tries to figure out how they might interact. Much of our language contributes to this sense of separateness because it was developed to break up nature and our visual field into objects that could be used or shaped by human action.

But this isn’t the only possible human goal. There’s another way of thinking, one that stresses the fundamental interconnectedness of all being, one that starts with the premise of totality and moves from there. To understand the world from the standpoint of its fundamental unity, we need to transcend the language that was created to serve a different and narrower purpose. It’s difficult for words to capture our intuition or perception of "the totality of all with all."

I sometimes think of our individual consciousness as a liver cell in a complex body. The liver cell understands what it can take in, given the limited consciousness a liver cell can have. It has some inkling of connection to other liver cells, and probably some notion of a larger consciousness of the entire body. But it can’t imagine a larger interconnected reality with a consciousness of the totality that is filled with love and pours out its generosity to all of its parts.

When a liver cell gets out of balance with the rest of the body, we get a destructive expansiveness in which certain cells start to crowd out neighboring cells. We call that condition cancer. Cancer is the perfect analogy for individual egos that lose their sense of balance and begin to expand themselves at the expense of others.

In some spiritual traditions, the solution to this problem is to obliterate the individual ego. The ego itself is seen as the big problem, so the solution is to overcome it.

Emancipatory Spirituality, however, does not seek to obliterate the ego, but to put it in balance with the rest of the universe. In our society, we are in great need of this kind of rebalancing. Our society is full of people who go around saying "I am a self-made man or woman. I did it myself and therefore I deserve more money or power or recognition than anyone else." Many people say that because they were spiritually wounded, because they have been deprived of recognition and love, or because they never had the experience of being in a supportive community. It never occurs to them that the science and technology, the phone lines and the paved streets, the automobiles and airplanes that they use, even the conceptual distinctions and the language they draw upon were not built by them but by others. Instead, they need to puff themselves up to defend against their feeling of aloneness and their certainty that they cannot count on others. Said often enough, the myth of the self-made individual starts to take on the dimension of common sense in contemporary capitalist societies.

But look a little closer. Emancipatory Spirituality teaches that every one of us is standing on the platform of thousands of previous generations of human beings. We inherited the wisdom, the language, the categories, and the work of the past.

Even as I write this, I have to remember that the food on my table, the shelter over my head, the computer in front of me, and the language and categories I use are the products of a planetary economy and tens of thousands of years of human effort. That economy has been made possible by all of humanity’s previous experiments with forming larger and more inclusive cooperative enterprises. You and I are the beneficiaries of the goodness of tens of millions of human beings who struggled to get information, who developed techniques, tools, systems, words, and institutions. It was out of their love for each other and for the future of the human race that we can now live in peace, ease, dignity, security, affection, and harmony.

Here is one spiritual exercise that each of us needs to try every day. Take anything in your life--a musical instrument, a computer, a car, a piece of fruit that sits in your home but was grown far away, a television, a phone line, a book. Now try to imagine all the steps that needed to happen between the moment that human beings began to evolve and the moment you were able to have this thing in your life. If you ask what knowledge those who brought this object into your life had to have, what those who developed that knowledge had to learn from previous people who developed their knowledge, you will quickly be overwhelmed by the amount of cooperation through thousands of years that made all the things that populate your daily life possible. Try this exercise with a different object or aspect of your life every day and you’ll soon see how much each of us is a beneficiary of the goodness and cooperation of past generations.

And that’s what the universe is--a vast system of cooperation. Though many contemporary social institutions teach us to see others as enemies or potential rivals for scarce resources, the truth is that we live in a world in which the basic principle is one of cooperation.

My Hawaiian friend Morty Breyer taught me to recognize this in our own bodies. In his words: "My lungs with their system of bellows, branching, and oxygen exchange membranes; my circulatory system with its tubes, valves, and pumps; my nervous system with its wiring; my digestive system with its juices and absorption linings; my sensory systems with their lenses, keying sites, and tympani membranes; my movement systems with their structural members, hinges, and rigging tendons; all of these and much more do not occur anywhere in the internal structures of any of my cells, nor in the life of any cell that preceded it. The beautifully cooperative actions of all of these systems with their common goal of preserving and empowering me, their organizational creation, developed over a long period of the evolution of animal life with the ultimate desire to cooperate on a vast scale. And we human beings have similarly built human technologies and cooperative organizing strategies just like the cells built within us."

Or think of DNA and the way, when damaged, it reorganizes itself. The individual parts work together to reveal the astonishing interconnectedness of Spirit.

What makes this cooperation possible is the force of love. Each of us was a product of the love of the universe pulsating through our parents. Though many of us think about how our parents were not as loving as we needed them to be, the fact that we are alive at all is testimony to the interaction between their loving and the loving manifested in social institutions that made it possible for children to be fed, housed, clothed, and protected.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2000

    A Spiritual Challenge to Conservatives and Liberals

    Lerner argues that our needs for spiritual meaning -- joy, mystery, awe, connection to others, rest, prayer, empathy -- are essential to our happiness when we have them and destructive of our personal and social lives alike when they are missing. He applies his position to education, law, medicine and the environment. He offers a persistant spiritual optimism combined with a hard headed critique of conservative social policies and liberal secularism. This book will challenge many of your basic ideas. Read it. Argue about it. Share it with a friend or colleague.

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