Virtual is it achievable?

spiritual questions and answers

Virtual is it achievable

Virtue – Is it achievable?

  • “All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue.” (Plato, philosopher)

The idea of virtue can feel a little scary. Surely no-one can be such a worthy human being as to do no wrong, show courage at all times, and be full of generosity and kindness with everybody? To do good all the time doesn’t feel like the real me. I suspect few people feel they are born like this and I certainly don’t. And what is virtue anyway? Do we have to be so extremely good in order to show virtue? Is this not an excessive expectation?

Virtue in contemporary spirituality

Dalai Lama & Roger Walsh

Modern spiritual writers are interested in universal ideas common to different traditions. For example Roger Walsh encourages the reader to recognise and cultivate higher values. Examples are justice, altruism, beauty, the sacred and understanding truth.

Walsh contrasts these with lower values such as money, possessions, bodily pleasure, power, and fame. He finds virtue in the higher values. In contrast, he says neglecting spiritual principles and focusing on lower values can result in a lack of well-being. You are more likely to suffer from boredom, craving, cynicism, alienation, stress, and lack of meaning in your life when you prioritise lower values unrelated to virtue.

Virtue as understood in ancient Greece

The way the ancient Greeks thought about virtue is of relevance. Plato thought that virtue is associated with being wise.


Similarly, Aristotle wrote that virtue is excellence at being human and thus involves understanding what is right for the situation.

“At the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue.” (Aristotle, philosopher)

In other words virtue is taking into account rational considerations when being courageous, generous, or kind according to the circumstances. I think Aristotle is saying doing what is worthy and good doesn’t necessarily mean behaving in an excessive way.

“Exactness and neatness in moderation is a virtue, but carried to extremes narrows the mind.” (Francois Fenelon)

Virtue could thus be said to be acting in between two extremes in a rational light.

For example courage is a virtue that lies between cowardice and foolhardiness. You can foolishly throw away your life by thoughtlessly doing something beyond your ability.

Generosity is between miserliness and being recklessly profligate with one’s money. You can imprudently neglect your own needs, and the needs of your own family, by being overgenerous.

I see kindness as between indifference and doing too much. Fixing things by solving problems doesn’t enable children to learn things for themselves. Doing too much for the elderly can foster unnecessary dependence.

There is no virtue in taking things too far by mindlessly not considering consequences for what you do.

Virtue in tradition of Western World and Middle East


The ten commandments are less well known these days and are often regarded as old hat. Some of them are however the basis for our criminal law. We might want to bring our understanding of them up to date. If we look for a spirit of virtue within them, do these rules also require wisdom for their practice?

Arguably, the command ‘Do not kill’ is saying don’t become hateful or violent. Perhaps the spirit behind this is urging us to enhance life by nurturing, protecting, showing kindness and being useful. However, is it going too far to never get angry even when such a response is justified?

The command about not bearing false witness is about not telling lies. A deeper understanding of this might be being honest with others and with oneself. Also keeping promises and living with integrity. But could one unwisely take this command to its extreme? For example, by being too honest, tactlessly pointing negative things out to others at the wrong time, or ruminating on one’s own trivial mistakes.

There is a command about not committing adultery. Isn’t the spirit of this law to do with nurturing the family bond by being loyal to one’s partner and not acting seductively with others? Taken to extremes, one condemns and avoids all expressions of sexuality in the arts or in normal leisure contexts.

One command ‘Do not steal’ in effect tells us to respect the property and ideas of others, and give credit for them. More extreme than this would be to maintain upright respectability with false modesty about one’s own law-abiding citizenship.

“Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” (Grover Norquist)

In other words, what is good in these rules can be distorted because of a lack of wisdom in their application.

Wisdom and virtue

One can point to a distinction between what is naturally and spiritually good. With the former there is no truth of wisdom.

“People … whose good is merely natural can be carried away by falsity as easily as by truth, provided that in outward appearance the falsity looks like truth. They can also be led as easily by evil as by good, provided that the evil is presented as good. They are like feathers in the wind.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)

In other words, true virtue is a developed quality of character rather than the impulse of one’s natural disposition. It is a rock in the face of the winds of life.

We may not naturally have much in the way of virtue – forgiveness, kindness, courage, humour, generosity, humility, contentment, or honesty. However, I conclude that doing good in an enlightened manner leads to a sense of well-being and feeling energised by life. I would say, virtue is achievable, as long as you seek the wisdom of rational thought needed to make use of good inclinations.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Buddhist idea of no self – True or not?

spiritual questions and answers

Buddhist idea of no self – True or not?


A Buddhist makes the claim that the self does not exist. In Sanskrit this is calledanâtman. In other words my notion of I or myself is an illusion.

When people first hear this, they are astonished. How can anyone deny they exist? Don’t we have our own thoughts and feelings? Don’t we act in ways we choose? No, the Buddhist sees you as having no genuine identity, no selfhood of your own.

According to this Buddhist view, there is no self or soul which could survive the death of the body. A human person is simply a transient bundle of energies which come together briefly and then separate.

Before rejecting the Buddhist view out of hand, perhaps we need to ask whether there might be some element of value in it? After all, appearances can be misleading. The sun rises and sets apparently circling the world. But this is a fallacy. The pleasures of the body appear to offer the best enjoyment in life. But they soon pall and become boring if over-indulged in.

We can forget ourselves

We speak of sometimes forgetting ourselves. Usually I am concerned about the way others see me. But if I were to angrily lose my temper then this sense of self is forgotten. I’m too busy expressing an emotion.

Some times we may acknowledge our limitations and humbly seek guidance. Is this not an example of forgetting one’s ego?

Another example of forgetting ourselves is the experience of meditation. In a state of higher consciousness, meditators see their thoughts, but they become convinced that they the person meditating is in some sense not the thing that generated the thoughts. They forget themselves.

We can be selfless

The sense of selfhood can also be said to not exist in states of compassion or generosity. In selfless thinking the idea of oneself is forgotten and put to one side because one is compassionately focused on the needs of those suffering hardship or pain.

How very different this state of mind is from that of the self-centred person who may indulge in the fantasy that he or she is more important or attractive than others. Or those people who fancy they deserve special treatment.

Buddhist argument

The Buddhists would say that our lives are about extinguishing the flames of desire which only cause suffering. What people say is self needs emptying out.

A human being it is argued consists of no more than various energies such as bodily form, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. None of these, Buddhists say are permanent or can be controlled. For example we cannot prevent our physical body ending at death. And so they say there is no self.

It is true that any beginner starting to meditate will confirm how impossible it is to feel responsible for and control the mind chatter that goes on at the fringe of awareness.

Also I can acknowledge that my thoughts are not my own: they come from various influences around me. Ideas, sentiments, even fantasies seem to come unbidden.

However, I would argue that I can still identify myself as an observing self who can be aware of all this mental stuff without owning it.

Individual free choice

I can go along with the suggestion that all images, feelings, ideas, sentiments originate somewhere beyond me. And that I can take no credit for them. In other words I haven’t a self in the sense of one that has life of itself. Instead I see myself as a mere receptacle who receives a flow of good and bad influences that come from elsewhere.

Yet I would say there is a me – a self – that makes personal choices.

I feel inwardly free to choose between different ideas, between different interests, and between different ideologies. And in so doing aren’t I making such personal choices my own. Part of me?

Even if the idea of self were an illusion, it seems to me to be a necessary illusion. Without such a sense of me how could I take responsibility for my personal choices?

Ruling love

Don’t habits of conduct also form as we make the same choice in similar situations? Choices about for example being patient or impatient, truthful or insincere, generous or mean.

In other words character traits form as we face the ordinary choices of daily life. I make deeper ideas my own as I reflect on various ways of thinking and choose between them. Eventually I will adopt certain basic stances to life, an overriding interest in something that I have come to really value. Perhaps a dominant love of composing uplifting music, or wanting to be famous in order to receive the acclaim of fans, or of doing my job well to the satisfaction of my boss and customers. Whatever the ruling interest is, doesn’t it define me as a person? This is me. This is what I stand for. This is who I want to be.

Conclusion about Buddhist anâtman

I feel I am a receptacle of sensations, thoughts, emotions that come to me. They flow into me. I don’t create them.

It follows that an awareness of myself as being the origin of this mental life is an illusion.

But I think this notion of a separate self is a necessary illusion. One that allows me to make choices and take responsibility. By exercising free choice don’t we gradually form character? And why shouldn’t such a character last beyond time and place? Beyond physical death. Whatever its quality.

I act as of myself but believe that any good in me comes from a higher source working in me and by me. I therefore conclude that no one’s life is self-existent.

The journey of life is letting go of oneself – one’s self-reliance, one’s pride, one’s egoism. For me to be spiritual is being open to, and thereby united with, the universal Self in contrast with the delusion of our separate selves.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

humility where is the good in it

spiritual questions and answers

humility where is the good in it

People often equate humility with submissiveness, low self-esteem and low confidence. Not qualities suited to say being a leader or entertainer.

Jim Kong Kim

However, Jim Kong Kim (President of the World Bank) is a leader who recognises the value of humility. He says it allows him to ask for coaching of new personal skills and request feedback on his performance from his subordinates.

Sure, cockiness and arrogance can lead us into trouble. An inflated ego, showing off and seeking admiration can create high expectations that one cannot fulfil. But is a positive sense of self-respect, confidence and assertiveness that are not taken too far, actually compatible with humility? Can humility be a good thing?

Features of humility

So what do we mean by humility? You may associate humility with shameful experiences. I can recall many years ago on holiday waking up in my tent alone. My two sleeping companions were elsewhere. We had been drinking vodka the evening before and I couldn’t remember going to bed. But I was shocked to see I must have thrown up in the tent. I had to eat humble pie when I met up with my mates.

Professor June Tangney

There seems to be several key features of humility according to June Tangney, professor of psychology, George Mason University

  • An accurate sense of one’s skills
  • The willingness to acknowledge mistakes, and gaps in one’s knowledge
  • An openness to advice and new ideas, even if they contradict one’s assumptions.
  • A capacity to ‘forget’ the self.
  • An appreciation of the value of all things.

Humility and inferiority

It can’t be a bad thing to be able to take an honest and even-handed look at oneself – warts and all. Seems like this doesn’t require a sense of inferiority to others. The truth about oneself is solid rock – rather than shifting sand – on which one can start to build one’s character.

In fact a sense of inferiority may hinder humility. Psychologist Dr. Julie Exline points out:

People may need a secure sense of personal worth before they can tolerate an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

You don’t need to feel inferior to others in order to humbly see yourself as a relatively small part in the larger scheme of things perhaps in comparison to the universe.

Are you willing to learn from others – your friends, work-mates, family members? And can you give credit where it is due? Those who are humble will not need to put others down to feel better about themselves. Also can you admit it when you need help?

Humility and pride

If you are an unassuming soul you probably may not impress people on first meeting. But they will probably take to you more than to the proud overbearing type of individual who doesn’t have the humility to admit when he’s wrong about something or whose boasting and showing off will eventually lose him friends.

Such an individual:

“places merit in good deeds .. and believes that all good originates in himself.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)

People like this tend to think they deserve rewards on the basis of what they see as their own worth. Yet doesn’t true happiness come from wanting to do what is good and useful without having any concern with being well thought of by others or remunerated?

Swedenborg reports on a vision he experienced. He saw people cutting wood. They carried on doing this without tiring. This was their delusion.

“They seem to themselves to be cutting wood. This is exactly how it appears to them. I have spoken to them. When they are doing their work and are asked whether they are not tired out, they reply that they have not yet done enough work to be able to merit heaven.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)

He says that these people had confirmed themselves in the idea that they deserved credit for the good things they had done in life. Consequently, they believed they could save themselves from unhappiness and suffering by their own efforts alone. We are told that because they had led a conscientious life this mistaken belief would eventually start to fade and they would stop the wood cutting and be taken care of.

Humility and awareness of one’s limitations

Clearly we are all obliged to deal with the problems of living by making our own choices and trying to make the best of things. People who are aware of their own limitations soon realise that, of themselves, they can achieve very little. They are the first to put their hands up into the air and say – sorry I can’t do this without assistance. I need ideas and support from colleagues, family, friends. Even help from a force for good that is beyond my own limitations.

Have you ever had a feeling of surprise and admiration, evoked by an experience that is in some way inexplicable or that surpasses expectation? Perhaps it was something of the mystery of life or a fresh insight into familiar thing. By reminding us of our own limitations, a sense of wonder may lead to humility, reverence, and an appreciation of things that are greater than ourselves.

Humility of a tree branch

If you know anything about orchards you will know that one needs to cut off any withering branch of a tree not producing fruit. Might as well throw away and burn it for all the good it does. Also one should prune those branches that are okay so that they will produce more fruit. The obvious point is that no branch can bear fruit by itself. It must remain attached to the trunk.

Isn’t it the same with each of us? I would like to make the suggestion that it’s no use trying to live life as if we are unattached to the source of life. No good trying to go it alone. The branch needs to remain connected so that the tree’s energy and nourishment is working in the branch.

Isn’t the tree of life the source of our deeper motives and ideas? Some would say this spiritual source can be recognised as a cosmic love and wisdom that pervades the universe, if only we would acknowledge and receive its inflow.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Verse of the day

for Saturday, January 27, 2018

Science does it validate religion?

science does it in validate religion


The idea that science has replaced religion has become popular these days. Some put religion to one side as now of date. People are noticing a huge development in research into the working of the human brain which seems to support this view.

New imaging technologies allow science to measure blood flow and neural activity whilst people are meditating and praying. Science claims it can predict and measure religious experience in this way. Atheists like Richard Dawkins are saying this is evidence that religious experience is nothing more than natural activity in certain parts of the brain. From this they conclude that there is no such thing as any supernatural reality.

What science has found

It has been found that intense or mystical experiences associate themselves with co-ordinated activity in certain areas of the brain and absence of activity in other parts. For example both meditating Buddhist monks and praying Catholic nuns demonstrate a decreased activity in the parietal lobes. This is a brain region responsible for spatial orientation. They also show increased activity in their frontal lobes. This is a brain region responsible for concentration. Similar patterns of brain activity are observed for singing, meditation and prayer regardless of the specific spiritual belief of the people studied.

Alternative explanation

There is an alternative interpretation. Just because religious experiences are accompanied by predictable brain activity, why should this mean they are caused by it? When two things go together, we don’t know which of them influences the other. Alternatively, some third factor might influence both.

One cannot expect science to investigate spiritual factors that might be involved. Quite rightly researchers depend on using natural tools to measure phenomena. Science practices methodological naturalism. This is a strategy for studying the world, by which scientists choose not to consider supernatural causes – even as a remote possibility. So, science does not theorise about any unnatural causes of what it studies.

Drug induced religious experience

Those who are sceptical about religion say if psychedelic drugs can produce mystical and religious experiences then religion is due to brain chemistry and not to God. Users of such substances report that they have remarkably spiritual experiences.

These drugs produce a wide range of often extraordinarily vivid perceptions. The kind of experience depends on several factors including the individual’s type of spiritual orientation, and the expectations of the social setting, as well as the specific drug and its dosage. Since the early 1960’s researchers have shown that, for many, such chemicals have induced positive benign and blissful mystical and religious states. However some have agonising encounters with loneliness, hopelessness, guilt and visions of dark forces.

When we are in an altered state of consciousness something releases the mind from its attachment to, and its rational awareness of, the external material world. I would suggest then we become more aware of a normally hidden inner world of spirit. I would say this inner world consists of both a presence of timelessness and unity but also a presence of dark forces. So these drugs expose full awareness of this inner world which is not observable using our physical senses.

To my way of thinking we make a huge mistake to suppose that the mere swallowing of a pill can yield the same results as years of spiritual discipline and growth. Also it is an error to suppose that religious experience is nothing more than a brain in a certain chemical state.

Science and religion

So do you think that science invalidates religion? Or do you think, as I do, that when some argue that only science has the truth, they are not arguing scientifically at all. Actually, I would say they are stepping beyond the scope of science into discourses of meaning and purpose.

It is good for us to have factual knowledge. Without it we cannot build up our rational understanding of ordinary things. Science provides many opportunities to look for and find God in nature and to reflect on belief.

Hinduism has historically embraced reason and empiricism, holding that science brings legitimate, but incomplete knowledge of the world. Most Buddhists today view science as complementary to their beliefs.

According to Emanuel Swedenborg Christian philosopher, the danger comes when we only see things in a natural light. We also need to use a spiritual light which is available to us. In other words, the worldly and bodily-minded individual makes a mistake to imagine one can use sensory evidence alone to see what is really important in life for oneself.

I rather like the view of the son of the founder of the Bahá’í religion. He said that religion without science is superstition and that science without religion is materialism.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems