Science does it validate religion?

science does it in validate religion

science

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

Enlightenment how to think of it

spiritual questions and answers

Enlightenment how to think of it

Spiritual traditions like Buddhism speak of enlightenment as promising a state of wisdom, happiness and freedom from the troubles we usually have to deal with in life. So what actually is enlightenment? How can we understand what the term means?

Physical light and well-being

The word enlightenment obviously is based on the word ‘light’. So can we learn anything about enlightenment from what we know what is good about light?

enlightenment

Sunlight, stimulates our bodies to manufacture vitamin D, it plays a major role in synchronising fundamental biochemical and hormonal rhythms of the body, affecting both physical and psychological well-being. Studies show that it relieves the depression of those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Curiously, research has also found that light has an altruistic effect: for example it disposes people to be more helpful to a would-be interviewer and to leave a waitress more generous tips.

The word light used in common parlance

When we go around in darkness without a torch we are confused and get lost. But light shows us the way. More generally, when we understand something we speak of seeing what is meant. The light dawned and I now understand. I hope to throw some light on these matters. So light seems to be pretty central to the issue of enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. This period is said to have brought in rational thought to challenge superstitious thinking. The leading thinkers of the time found logic and reason superior to traditional assumptions and beliefs.

Symbolism of light in religious traditions

The ancient Egyptians saw Re, the sun god, as the supreme creator that sustained life. In the Rig Veda, the earliest of Hindu scriptures, the sun is described as ‘the atman – the Self – of all things’, the god of gods. This idea was in contrast to a literal-minded attitude about the sun. In other Hindu texts Krishna and Vishnu reveal themselves in flashes of dazzling light. The appearance of a succession of mystical coloured lights marks the stages of progression towards illumination in the yogic tradition. Light is a recurring theme in the Christian gospels. In a vision his followers said they saw Christ’s face shine like the sun and his clothes become white as light. The divine apparently was flowing strongly into him on that occasion.

Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is the central figure of a mystical tradition that ascribes great importance to the experience of the light that signifies encounter with ultimate reality. The symbolism of light is also conspicuous in other traditions including the Taoist, Zoroastrian, Islamic, and Jewish.

Enlightenment in Zen Buddhism.

The experience of enlightenment, according to Zen Buddhism, does not rely on argument or philosophical reasoning. Instead adherents assume it is a direct intuition of the mind. Everything is still what it was, except they see things with a new perspective. This means going beyond empty knowledge even about higher ideas, by noticing what is marvellous in the humdrum. One experiences an awakened awareness of timeless reality beyond the world of appearances.

Having self-insight into one’s actual and potential nature.

Many people who are part of western world spirituality believe that human desires and passions come both from inherited tendencies as well as acquired conventional attitudes. The latter are learned through social conditioning. One aspect of enlightened thinking is thus a realisation of one’s inner freedom to rise above such external factors. In other words finding the warmth of feelings for what is good, and the discernment & creativity of one’s true self

The vision of a mystical sun

Contemporary research suggests that mystical experience still commonly contains the appearance of light; for example the experience of being bathed in light. The appearance of a being of light is also a common finding amongst those having ‘the near death experience’.

The mystic Emanuel Swedenborg reports his vision of a spiritual sun. This non-physical sun he says represents the divine origin of wisdom. It’s rays of light illuminate the ideas we have picked up from around us so we see them with greater depth of perception.

We often find heat and light together. And so Swedenborg says the visionary sun represents the divine origin of love as well as of wisdom. Similarly, the rays of the physical sun deliver heat as well as light. The spiritual sun enlightens what we see with our minds as well as warming the feelings our heart. Our interest in a subject makes it easier to understand. Love is quick to perceive. This raises the suggestion that wisdom comes not from knowledge alone but with the effort to do right with an earnest heart.

Divine Source for enlightenment.

If the sun seen in vision is spiritually real and not just a symbol then is Swedenborg correct in saying it is the origin of all clear thinking and warm affection?

Physical light does not last, but departs with the sun. We can see from this that our discernment enjoys a light other than that of our eyes, and that this light comes from a different source. (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)

According to his writing what enlightened good we do is from our Divine Source. This Swedenborg calls the Lord, mystically acting in us and by us.

Enlightenment comes and goes.

We do not precisely know the details of Siddhartha Gautama who lived over two thousand years ago. And so the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment probably contains elements of folk history. Enlightenment transformed him after he sat meditating under the Bodhi tree.

Swedenborg’s suggests however that enlightened understanding doesn’t all of a sudden come and stay all at once although there is gradual improvement as a person’s character improves. In other words the inner light comes and goes according to our varying spiritual states. Enlightenment according to him is basically when we fully appreciate that of ourselves we cannot independently achieve good separate from its Divine Source.

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

http://www.spiritualquestions.org.uk

Satisfaction – how to find and keep it?

spiritual questions and answers discovering inner health and transformation

Satisfaction – How to find and keep it?

satisfactionDo you ever find yourself wondering “Is this all there is? This home? This partner? This job? Shouldn’t things be better?”  The popularity of the song ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones suggests that a certain element of impatience with life, even futility and disillusionment, is not uncommon.

“I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
When I’m drivin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
And he’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no”

(Rolling Stones) Listen here

So why can’t we find and keep that feeling of satisfaction?

A perspective from positive psychology

The field of positive psychology suggests some obstacles to satisfaction.

The first obstacle is a hedonistic attitude. This is mistakenly assuming personal satisfaction only comes from ‘wine, women and song’. The sensory pleasure of the moment may come from any number of things e.g. watching exciting sport or letting your hair down at a party, or enjoying good drink and food. But by prioritising pleasure one neglects engagement in meaningful activity and personal relationships that furnish a sense of satisfying purpose to your life.

A second obstacle to satisfaction is being focused on possible dangers around us. This is having a negativity bias. For example being more likely to remember and take seriously a putdown, criticism or insult than a piece of positive feedback or compliment. No wonder you are unhappy if this is preoccupying your thoughts.

A third obstacle is the attitude of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ Comparing oneself with others often results in feeling diminished e.g. if our furniture, car, holiday, or clothes happen to be less smart than theirs.

A fourth obstacle is having low self-control. We tend to act as if satisfaction results from giving in to our natural desires. So we want something now rather than later. However, it is the controlling of such impulses that actually leads to happiness in the longer run. Putting off pleasures until later is necessary if we are to consistently pursue goals. For example if our aim is to repay a debt, then we may never achieve this if we spend money when we feel like it. Being impulsive can just create problems and frustration.

A spiritual perspective on satisfaction

I would suggest that a deeper appreciation of who we are profoundly influences  our state of happiness.  The obstacle here is our natural minded tendency. We each have a strong natural sense of self-awareness as a self-contained individual.  We think ‘I am myself.’ ‘This is my body’. ‘This is my mind’. So we each seem to have a separate consciousness and life of our own. We live as if we were each an island unto ourselves. Out of contact with the notion of being connected to something bigger.

How then can this self-awareness reduce satisfaction? After all, my sense of self is crucial. It gives me a sense of individuality and thus an important feeling of freedom and responsibility for personal choices.

We feel full of life, we have the experience of feeling and thought. So it comes as a bit of shock to hear it suggested that we’re actually not what we think we are. That all our feelings and thoughts are not our own but come from outside of ourselves.

Yet this is exactly what several spiritual traditions maintain. They say this perception of oneself as independently real is a mistake. Instead, it is suggested that there actually is only one Self. Not myself but rather the Self that is my creative origin and spiritual source. The Self that is for example the higher power of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement which has the ability to transform and heal the addict.

Or the Self of the mystics who speak of the One as the only reality. The one goodness we can all learn to experience. Theravada Buddhists analyse the human mind and soul as a cluster of forces. So they have a doctrine of no-self meaning that one’s self-hood is an illusion. Christians say God created us. Our life is not our own but a gift. For the Christian inspiration, higher thought and good intentions are actually the Spirit of God’s life present in us.

Likewise, the spiritual philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg teaches that the only real life that gives happiness and satisfaction comes from the Divine Source Itself.  If all of nature on earth is created by this spiritual origin of life, then it follows that we have no life of ourselves and are merely receivers of life from a higher source. In other words, as long as we only rely on ourselves for happiness then we will never gain real peace and satisfaction.

By the way this is not a way of claiming we cannot accept responsibility for how we lead our lives. I would suggest we have been gifted the freedom to choose to turn one way or the other.  Nevertheless, if all goodness comes from the Source of Goodness then it follows that just of ourselves we have no power to do good or make ourselves happy.

Illusion as an obstacle to satisfaction

I’m saying then that this natural fallacy of the senses – that we possess life, abilities, strength and goodness of our own – can lead us astray.

Furthermore, because of the illusion of having life of oneself, we are at risk of falling into self-orientation with its dangers of self-serving and self-interested behaviour.  Aren’t we thus liable to forget the needs of others, of the principles of living we have learned, and lapse into a state of feeling alone, empty and dissatisfied with life?

“In this negative state we are open to all the evils that accompany it. And closed to all that is good and true”(Michael Stanley, spiritual teacher).

Egotistically, believing in only ourselves, we come to assume that happiness can only come from bodily comfort, social status and power.

Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Enlightenment comes from Goodness!

The title for this blog site is “Love is the Ultimate Science.” This may seem anti-intuitive to a culture that believes enlightenment is an intellectual pursuit whereby an individual seeks out and fills his or her memory banks with increasing bits of knowledge and data.

But let us explore this pursuit more deeply.

The search for knowledge starts as basic human curiosity in childhood. But this inborn curiosity is driven by one’s affection (love) to know things. According to scientist/theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, it is affection that draws information from the external world and into the mind.

Humans do this better than any other species on earth. In fact, this is the evolutionary niche that the human species has carved out for itself. Whereas other animal species graze or hunt for food, humans graze and hunt for knowledge. Humans even metabolize information.

This metabolism of information becomes operative when the love of knowing is dialed up into a love of understanding what we know. Information just doesn’t sit in our memory like undigested food in our stomachs—it can be broken down and reconstituted into more abstract and creative ideas.

If we seek further enlightenment, this will be activated by a love of reasoning about what we understand. This cognitive process is no longer satisfied with mere information or even imaginative creativity, but with the discernment of truth.

The discernment of truth and reasoning can then be upgraded to the cognitive function of wisdom when we use truth to reveal the essence of goodness. Wisdom is the love of doing what is good.

The cognitive functions of memory information (knowing), understanding what we know, reasoning about what we understand, and wisdom or the cognition of goodness from the things we hold as truth, are all activated by a distinct quality of love. Love focuses our attention and organizes the information in our minds into real coherent structure. This mental structure is our worldview and belief system (including our faith).

That is why the Lord God’s two greatest commandments deal with the issue of love and goodness. True religion takes account of the lawful steps, science and process of the human mind acquiring true enlightenment—a process that seeks goodness and empathy as its ultimate goal.

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Proving God

Ley lines dowsing – Are they valid entities?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

ley lines

 

Review of The Sun and the Serpentine by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller.

Some matters talked about in new age circles are attractive for those who have a sense that there is a mystery to life. Two examples of topics that resonate are ley lines and dowsing – and they come together in this book. But do ley lines exist and does dowsing work?

Ley lines are alleged alignments of such places as ancient monuments and megaliths, ridge-tops and water-fords. It is claimed that these lines have spiritual power and that their intersection points resonate a special psychic or mystical energy. Some people think they were selected in earlier times for the spiritual benefits and revelations bestowed by nature. Others however suggest finding straight lines that “connect” sites, should be put down to coincidence given the high density of historic and prehistoric places in Britain.

The authors are firmly in the first camp. They claim that ley lines do exist and that a  general ley line runs right across southern Britain for 300 miles from the far west of Cornwall to a point on the east coast of Norfolk. It is called the St Michael’s line which takes in many historic places such as at Glastonbury, Avebury and Bury St Edmunds. It is claimed dowsing reveals two specific ley lines of enigmatic flows of energy meandering around its course.

To dowse is to search, with the aid of a simple hand held tool. For example this can consist of two rods simply and quickly made for example from a pair of metal coat hangers cut appropriately and bent into a right angle. What is sought is otherwise hidden from view or knowledge. Dowsing has been used to look for underground water, archaeological remains, cavities and tunnels, oil, and veins of mineral ore. It is also claimed to detect subtle energies that surround certain things.

Dowsing apparatus has no power of its own but merely amplifies slight movements of the hands. The subconscious mind may influence the body without the dowser consciously deciding to take action. Dowsers maintain that they are intuitively perceiving a mystical force through divination. Scientists are more likely to explain dowsing in terms of firstly physical cues that the dowser senses without realising it, secondly what the dowser expects to find, and thirdly what is probable given the specific situation.

For some people, reading this book may be an exasperating experience. There is little or no attempt to accommodate to the reader who might not share the authors’ instincts and intuitions. We get speculation often voiced as faith, theory presented as fact.  This is not a book that addresses questions about the methods used. Nothing about the expectations of the dowsers. Could they have independently confirmed each others results without prior knowledge? We do not know. Neither does it address the level of statistical probability for ley lines and confidence one can place on the patterns found.

On the other hand perhaps we should take into account what has been called ‘the common feeling background’. The researches of philosopher and psychology teacher James Pratt have revealed a mild form of mystic experience which is the sense of the presence of a reality through other means than the ordinary perceptive processes or the reason. This feeling is said to be often overlooked although common place. The reason he gives is that those acquainted with it are frequently hesitant or ill prepared to describe it.

I can sympathise with the view that earth is a mother that gives us life and that industrialisation has progressively created a situation where humanity works against nature instead of with it. However, whilst realising our present way of understanding and treating the earth is wrong, I do wonder whether this talk of ley lines as an alignment of sacred sites and the earth as a living creature might just be a wishful expression of this realisation?

In his account of the spiritual dimension to life, Emanuel Swedenborg does not mention ley lines or dowsing but does writes that there is an  energy that flows into the natural world via a hidden spiritual realm. According to this view, the earth is not alive in itself but receives a flow of energy originating from its divine creative source.

Swedenborg writes about how spiritual enlightenment is needed if we are to perceive reality clearly. We need to intuitively tap into the mystery of life because our physical senses cannot tell us all there is to know. At the same time we need to use our physical senses and thinking ability to confirm and understand what we intuitively perceive. In his spiritual philosophy he tries to write about his own deeper perceptions in a rational form as possible. At the same time he knows only too well that what is deeply true transcends even the rational degree of the mind.

So what to make of ley lines, dowsing and the book The Sun and the Serpent ? I still don’t know!

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

http://www.spiritualquestions.org.uk/

Posted on 29th September 2011Categories Consciousness, Mystical experienceTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  Leave a comment

Right from wrong – Should we try to tell?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

right from wrongTabloid newspapers are popular. They love to be judgmental and cast blame. Yet we disapprove and adopt a very different ethos where telling right from wrong is seen to smack of being judgmental. In post-modern Britain, discrimination is out and tolerance is in. Anything goes these days as long as it doesn’t cause harm.

Corporate ethics telling right from wrong

On the other hand, over the last ten years or so there has been a big growth of corporate ethical statements and codes of practice. This may be all about gaining customer confidence. But is it not also a genuine attempt at seeking guidance for telling right from wrong in tricky commercial and professional decision making?

Distinguishing right from wrong in personal choices

In your private life, you are faced with numerous dilemmas – emotional, financial, domestic – and it can be hard to know what is the right thing to do. Some of these decisions have profound implications for the quality of one’s own as well as other people’s lives. To allow a sexual relationship to start, to communicate private information about a friend, to prioritise career over family or the other way around, not to mention the tricky issues of telling right from wrong in relation to abortion, divorce and voting at elections.

Many people do not think in terms of morality yet they feel that decisions should be made on the basis of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Those, who deny there are any personal rights and wrongs, nevertheless, emphasise the ideals of love, holism, and self-improvement. And even criminals usually acknowledge their crime is wrong deserving punishment if they are caught.

So the question remains just how does one know what really is right and wrong?

Do values determine the way we tell right from wrong?

Although some people might think that a moral or ethical code is simple, it is often a complex definition based upon underlying values. What is right or wrong in a specific situation is one thing, but one’s values identify what should be judged as good or bad. These personal and cultural ethics may reflect religious doctrines, political ideologies, aesthetic theories, or just social norms. They guide what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, and constructive.

Some dress-codes may simply be conforming to social etiquette but yet reflect something that is valued. Wearing the colours of your sports team alongside your fellow supporters is what one’s mates do to express raw tribalism but it is also expressing the value of communal belonging.

Is telling right from wrong just a matter of social convention

Some social scientists argue that what is convention / custom /social fashion can be the determining factor in deciding what is right. They say there is no correct definition of right behaviour, and that what is morally right or wrong can only be judged with respect to particular socio-historical contexts. Doing one’s duty, and fulfilling one’s obligations may reflect a higher value but it might just be conforming to the notion that it is right if in your culture, society says it is right.

Yet some values appear to run deeper than others and have a more universal meaning and thus can be seen as spiritual. Wearing dark clothes at a funeral in many cultures expresses the value of respect for the emotional needs of the bereaved and the dignity and solemnity of the occasion.

Can spiritual values guide right from wrong

Another example of a spiritual value is the ‘golden rule’ that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. This ethic of reciprocity was present in certain forms across the ancient world and can be found in all the world’s major religious traditions. For example the Buddha made this principle one of the cornerstones of his ethics and loving the neighbour is central to Christ’s message.

Strangely this principle of reciprocity is also seen as the cornerstone of a scientific theory that denies any moral truth. Many evolutionary biologists say its function is typically to ensure a reliable supply of essential resources, especially for animals living in a habitat where food quantity or quality fluctuates unpredictably. Reciprocity is shared, for example by all mammals living in complex social groups (e.g., wolves, coyotes, elephants, dolphins, rats, chimpanzees).

Learning right from wrong in  childhood

A particular moral code may be fallacious but everyone has to start somewhere in the growth of understanding about how to live life. People can believe in the moral precepts associated with their religious upbringing. They may believe it is right if God says it is right. After all the kind of moral rules contained in religion prohibit murder, adultery, theft and false witness. These precepts are incorporated into the civil law-code in all the countries of the world because without them no society could hold together. Other people take their lead from the views of respected political leaders, parents and friends.

However usually, after absorbing the views of those whom are admired, the individual begins to consider and reflect for him or herself about right and wrong. And this means choosing what underlying things about life are the most important. What should rule one’s decisions – lifestyle considerations that represent one’s idea of the good life?, aesthetic values?, social standards?, economic ethics?, political ideals? or spiritual principles? Where do you get your own moral judgments from?

Enlightened understanding and telling right from wrong

Often words limit the perception of truth, which is beyond words. It is entirely possible for an individual to be a genuine seeker after truth, gradually building up his or her own spiritual philosophy with enlightenment from within. This means perceiving what is right inwardly from the light of the spirit of truth that is with them and not just taking on board the views of others.

According to Swedenborg, enlightenment comes to those who have a love of what is really true wherever that leads them. We need to use our rational faculties and the knowledge we gain from others but most of all we need to sense and learn to rely on the divine spirit of truth within the human soul.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

http://www.spiritualquestions.org.uk/

Posted on17th June 2011CategoriesEthics, Private EthicsTags,, , , , , , , , , , ,, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  Leave a comment

How to become a better person?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

better personNot everybody wants to be a better person and develop along what can be our hectic journey of life. My cat doesn’t. She’s quite content with the stage she has reached in her life — as long as I feed and stroke her on a daily basis. Nor do those human beings who are uninterested in moral values, want to improve their character. You may be different.

Perhaps you have a vague uneasy feeling that you could be a better person – if only you knew how. Not necessarily because you want people to think well of you but because you would like to live a decent life, becoming more patient, tolerant, kind,  fair-minded or whatever. Many people are interested in making spiritual progress.

Becoming a better person through therapy

Much of psychotherapy and personal growth coaching is about strengthening the ego, integrating the self, correcting one’s self-image, building self-confidence, the establishing of realistic goals and so on. However, some therapists tend to believe that self-insight into our hang-ups or personal problems is sufficient for personal healing. And those that don’t actually believe this tend not to report their efforts to tackle the clients’ volition. It is as if new ways of thinking are sufficient for changes in behaviour.

But is this true? Does personal improvement come just from enlightened understanding? Is there really no need for a change of heart in facing a new direction? No need also for effort to change one’s ways?

Becoming a better person through self-discipline

Can I suggest the idea that personal improvement involves the effort of self-discipline. Self-discipline over what we think, say and do.

“Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits become character. And character becomes your destiny.” (Unknown author)

In any trip to the shop there is a price to pay for anything we want to take home. But my point of view is that in becoming a better person it is not so much the wallet or purse that we need to produce but rather the cost of letting go of an attitude that has been with us for perhaps a long time, something that has almost become second nature. One can’t have one’s cake and eat it. So how can you expect to become more patient and tolerant whilst continuing to indulge in impatience or intolerance?

Likewise does not learning self-restraint and moderation mean forgoing excess? If so,  every desirable quality has its opposite that needs to be acknowledged as something that needs to die within the individual.

Perhaps this is why Old Testament injunctions regarding religious laws have been often couched in terms of what not to do. Don’t do this and don’t do that. In other words, you can’t do what is good unless you stop doing what is bad.

The world from biblical times on has had people who have acted selfishly or dangerously. So the Bible and the criminal law is expressed in terms of what not to do. Don’t steal, don’t act fraudulently, don’t murder and so on.

Becoming a better person through affirmations

Yet not everyone behaves badly. My plea is that instead of assuming we have what Christianity has traditionally called our ‘original sin’, we might see ourselves as innocent until our individual actions consistently prove us guilty.

Those adopting this stance practice affirmations. They say :

“I am not the impatience/intolerance/closed-mindedness/unkindness etc that I sometimes feel. I disown such traits. They need no longer cling to me.

Instead I can take on board patience/tolerance/open-mindedness/kindness etc.”

“I can learn to identify myself with good traits and as I practice them they will become ingrained into my makeup.” 

Of course, saying affirmations is one thing, but following through a commitment to change can be quite another. The conscious decision to change can be viewed as a  bridge between acknowledgement and action. If no action ensues then there probably has been no real decision at all but only a flirting with decision.

Becoming a better person through determination

This raises the interesting question about how genuine are our intentions. How real is our decision? The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom has pointed out that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godott clearly illustrates a lack of resolve. The characters think, plan, procrastinate. The play ends with this sequence

Vladimir: Shall we go?

Estragon: Let’s go.

[Stage directions: No one moves]

Becoming a better person through trust in a higher power.

Sometimes the going can be very hard. However much you try to change your ways you may fail. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous recognise this and try to put their trust in what they call ‘a higher power’ many of whom think of as God. Religious faith means just this surrender to something beyond ourselves. For example Christians are taught to try to surrender themselves to the work of the Spirit of God working within them. It is said that without the gift of the Holy Spirit of God they cannot acquire better characteristics.

Those outside organised religion who have a similar approach often are more comfortable referring to this Spirit as the Divine Within without which they are powerless to effect change in their lives.

In my opinion the huge problem with both groups is the erroneous way this insight is sometimes applied. As if belief in a higher power absolves our responsibility for self-discipline and self-control. I trust that active co-operation with what I see as the Divine Spirit can transform my character. This is my challenge. It involves my heart and hands as well as my head.

There are many who declare that man is saved through faith, or as they say, if he merely has faith…Faith however is not mere thought …. thought does not save anyone. (Swedenborg: Heavenly secrets  section 9363)

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

http://www.spiritualquestions.org.uk/

 

Posted on13th July 2012CategoriesPrivate EthicsTags, ,, , , , ,, , , , , , ,, , ,  Leave a comment