Criminals – Are some people just bad?

You might think some saints and criminals are basically good or bad.
• Mother Teresa devoted her life to the care and service of the poor.

criminals
Zacarias Moussaoui

• Zacarias Moussaoui participated in the 9/11 terrorist conspiracy which resulted in the death of 2,996 people, and at least $10 billion in damage.
• Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid politician and philanthropist who inspired reconciliation and peace
• Al Capone – a ruthless gangster leader – was responsible for planning many acts of violence including the machine-gunning a rival racketeering gang in Chicago.

There are plenty of others who have done notably good or wicked things. Examples are those awarded with war medals for bravely risking their lives for others, serial killers, campaigners for human rights, war criminals, founders of charities serving the poor, sex abusers, whistle-blowers against corruption/malpractice and exploitative people traffickers.

Even if they have some other sides to their character, you may think such people are basically good or bad – full of selfless love or just plain rotten inside.

Natural causes of conduct of criminals

Are such individuals born the way they are? Should we give merit to nature or blame it for their condition? There is some genetic evidence to support the latter view in relation to the behaviour of criminals. Two genes – monoamine oxidase A (dubbed the “warrior gene”) and CDH13 – are both said to be tied to a higher likelihood of violent crime. Research into temperament has discovered that criminals often have high impulsivity, a sensation-seeking trait, aggression and low empathy.

Environmental causes of conduct of criminals

Others argue if you improve the environment of any individual then you can change the person. According to this view if people had not suffered maltreatment as children, come from homes with marital discord, or lacked parental supervision, then perhaps they would have been upstanding citizens. Also had they not had the social and economic disadvantages associated with a high frequency of changing jobs, unemployment and living in places of dense population, then again perhaps they would have been less likely to become criminals.

Legal view of criminals conduct

Our courts assume that we each carry responsibility for our actions and thus are either guilty or not guilty as charged. In other words regardless of their natural disposition and environmental experiences, even bad people can tell right from wrong (unless they are suffering from some serious disorder which prevents them from so-doing) and thus should be held culpable for their personal choices. This way of thinking implies people are neither born so bad nor conditioned to behave so badly that they cannot obey the law.

Mindfulness and our view of criminals

Similarly, the idea that we have responsibility and inner freedom to transcend our natural disposition and social conditioning is central to the spiritual and religious understanding. Religions teach we all have the potential to be inwardly transformed – find self-realisation, achieve enlightenment, become liberated, be saved.

Along with such beliefs is a common religious assumption: that it is a mistake to identify oneself with one’s impulses, urges and desires. They are merely states of mind, distinct from oneself.

So when you view saints and criminals, do you label them as good or bad by identifying them each with their feelings of say love or hate, or do you assume that they are only temporally influenced by humility or egoism?

Our view of ourselves

Likewise, when you see yourself, do you identify with the feelings and thoughts that come and go? ‘You may say yes of course I do. Why shouldn’t I suppose that my own consciousness is not part of myself? They are my feelings aren’t they? My thoughts. My desires.”

Yet one spiritual writer put it this way:

“We say ‘I am angry.’ But you are not angry; you just have angry feelings. You may say, ‘I am depressed.’ No, you are not depressed; you have feelings of depression” (Thomas Keating, Founder of the Centering Prayer movement)

This is very similar to the Buddhist view regarding attachment. Those who advocate mindfulness meditation advocate non-attachment which is the belief that one’s thoughts and feelings are not essential to one’s self but are merely phenomena to be observed. It is identifying with such thoughts and feelings that is said to cause suffering.

Swedenborg’s experience

Swedenborg is known as someone who made an inward journey of discovery, writing up his numerous mystical experiences in meticulous detail. He reports that whilst he was in an altered state of consciousness, he would see and hear spirits of dead people who were associated with him. These he discovered to be the normally unconscious source of his thoughts and feelings.

He wrote that within his mind he had seen and heard certain spirits and felt the anxieties that well up from them. He observed the increase and decrease of anxiety as they drew near and moved away.

He very often experienced being raised up so to speak into the company of good spirits; but if he were to be let go of, even very slightly, he would be exposed to an inflow from bad spirits whose illusory ideas and selfish impulses would flood his consciousness.

So the question arises, if your good and bad thoughts come from outside of yourself, can you ever be said to be a fundamentally good or bad person?

Ruling love

Swedenborg’s answer is to do with his concept of ruling love.

We all are inwardly making personal choices turning towards either higher or lower spirits although we are not conscious of their presence with us. Turning towards the thoughts and feelings of the higher spirits we strengthen their presence within. But turning to the lower ones, we form bad habits of thought such as impure fantasies, self-serving priorities or  spiteful attitudes.

If we are not careful we begin to own lower ways of thinking which can then start to dominate our motivation. We are slowly forming a type of self-centred attitude that takes priority over higher hopes, wishes and sentiments. Criminal intent thus may become the  reigning desire which is the character one gradually forms for oneself.

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands (http://spiritualquestions.org.uk/2012/10/heart-head-hands-ebook/)

Posted on15th June 2015CategoriesHuman nature, Latest post, Meaning of lifeTags, , , , , ,

Go with the flow – But what does this mean?

go with the flowDo you feel things could run more smoothly with less frustration to tire you out? Like  mislaying the garden tools or the favourite recipe book for that special meal, not to mention difficulty finding a satisfying job, loving partner, comfortable home? When you seem to be swimming against the current of life, then don’t you feel dispirited and drained? Wouldn’t you rather go with the flow?

Animals in their natural habitats don’t have these difficulties. They seem to be in harmony with the flow of nature. Call it instinct but they have less trouble finding food to eat, building their shelter, finding their mate, caring for their young and all this without having any instruction or money.

So how does one go with the flow?

Go with the flow by getting absorbed in the ‘here and now’

Part of the trick is getting absorbed in the ‘here and now’. Focusing your entire mind on what is happening in the present moment. This means no spare time to worry about the future or feel guilty about the past. In other words to go with the flow is similar to what they say in Buddhist circles about mindfulness. They are talking about attentive awareness to the reality of things. Mindfulness practice, is increasingly being employed in Western psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and in the prevention of relapse in depression and drug addiction. One needs to lose oneself in the flow of life in order to find oneself.

Part of an inner focus of mindfulness is an attitude of fully engaging in what one is doing. It means facing experience head on and accepting whatever the challenges and opportunities it offers instead of avoiding it or trying to make it into something else. Dealing with the immediacy of the current situation, rather than possible futures or the past. The Zen Buddhist masters used every conceivable means to awaken their students to the ‘eternal now’. The ultimate reality is seen to lie right at the heart of daily existence, if one but knows how the grasp the absolute moment.

Go with the flow in ordinary situations

Adrenaline junkies seek out dangerous situations like snowboarding down mountains. It’s as if they cannot experience a sense of being really alive in just ordinary situations. They are missing out on the ‘power of now’ to give them any buzz in their normal life at home and work.

Perhaps they don’t know about, what has been called, the ‘illusion of senses’. This is holding to a mistaken notion that the external side of life determines one’s inner sense of well-being. According to many spiritual thinkers, the reality is different.

Go with the flow of spiritual life from within the soul

What exists within the human spirit flows into what is on the external side of life. In other words, happiness, contentment, excitement flows from the divine presence within our soul to the outer part of experience and not the other way round. It is not what happens to us that matters but our attitude towards it. The mystic can fathom this, by standing aside from sensory impressions:  instead to go with the flow from what is within.

But for the rest of us existence seems very different. There is a sense of self as being somehow apart from the rest of life, apart from the one – the one source of all life, the one creator of everything, the one divine source of life. We are caught up in how life appears – our own individual interpretations, our own reconstructed memories, our own misconceptions. We follow what self-intelligence sees as the appearance rather than trusting in the reality.

Go with the flow of heat and light from the Divine

Swedenborg suggests that this notion of inflow of divine reality can be seen by comparing it with the flow of heat and light from the sun into earthly objects, which for example gives rise to plant-life producing different colours. And so going with the flow involves recognising the inflow of the divine into the mundane. Spiritual heat creates warm-heartedness and spiritual light causes an enlightened understanding.

Seeing the flow into our experiences of what is uplifting, creative, illuminating, and fortunately co-incidental, will inspire hope, love, trust. When things go pear-shaped the flow of illumination can show us where we are going wrong and we can learn from our mistakes.

Go with the flow of the stream of Providence

Going with the flow also means learning to trust in what Swedenborg calls the ‘stream of providence’ instead of trusting in oneself. Life’s journey is a bit like floating down a river. This will involve going with a gentle flow but it also could mean getting stranded on mudflats, blocked midstream by rocky outcrops, having to cope with rapids, and cross-currents. The point is no matter what life throws at you, it is possible to keep one’s balance by believing that what is needed will be provided, what is vulnerable to harm will be protected, what is lost will be found. In other words trusting in the stream of divine providence.

Swedenborg also points out that orientating towards the divine flow however requires the individual to no longer be orientated towards self. No longer watching out for what suits one-self, how things impinge on one’s comfort zone. For when the love of self no longer rules your heart, then you  rise above your worries concerning the transient things of the world.

 Those are not in the stream of Providence who trust in themselves alone and attribute all things to themselves… Be it known also that insofar as anyone is in the stream of Providence, so far he is in a stateof peace.

(Swedenborg. Arcana Coelestia section 8478 4)

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

True self – How to attain it?

true selfPeople often think that human beings are inherently good. And that personal development simply involves getting in touch with one’s true self. In addition, they see this true self as the potential within us all for being truly good. A life, filled with compassion, joy and peace, defines the true design of each individual.

However, there is a lot of unhappiness around – a far cry from this idea of our true self. We are a bit of a mix. We switch from being generous to being selfish, from being fair to dishonest, from being conscientious to careless. Consequently, I think that unhappiness comes when we follow some of our own negative inclinations.

“We want to be important; we enjoy running people down because it makes us feel superior; we are easily hurt and feel vengeful if we do not get our ‘rights’; we are pleased if we can win an advantage over someone by slightly twisting the truth. And so on.” (Brian Kingslake, spiritual writer)

If no one is perfect then we all need to make some sort of spiritual progress. To find a way of attaining our true self.

How can we do this?   Students of comparative religion have discovered that very similar experiences may be subjected to different and incompatible explanations, according to the spiritual tradition one is familiar with.

Mindfulness meditation and the true self

Mindfulness meditation involves being aware of the various thoughts that enter consciousness. It also requires the person to stay in the observer role without emotionally engaging or identifying with these thoughts. A hard thing to do without much practice.

Initially, without realising it, the myriad concerns and pre-occupations of the unruly mind capture one’s attention . Uncomfortable feelings predominate as we become more self-aware and start to realise the frequency of our anxious and judgmental thoughts. As mindfulness practice becomes firmly embedded in one’s life, although difficult thoughts and feelings still arise, they possess us less often. One can now usually make the conscious choice not to let them overwhelm one.

Eventually, one meets situations, that would have once created anxiety, depression, anger or frustration, with acceptance and equanimity. One gets glimpses of deep peace and clarity that can occur during meditation or arise spontaneously during everyday life.

Confessional prayer and the true self.

Another spiritual practice is confessional prayer. By this I mean an inner conversation with one’s image of a loving Divine Being. It involves honestly acknowledging one’s shortcomings in terms of one’s inner conscience and having genuine remorse. Those who feel a sense of guilt say they experience a sense of forgiveness.

If asking for inner strength in prayer, one can feel greatly encouraged and uplifted in one’s spiritual struggle. I believe that for this spiritual practice to work, two things need to be present. Firstly, resisting the impulse to fall into the same old bad ways. Secondly, acknowledging that the power to do so comes from the Divine Being working in one.

Over-reliance on the head and the true self

Some adherents, of whatever spiritual practice followed, rely on their beliefs for producing spiritual progress. They value the understanding of the head to guide their way forward.

Things can go off-track however with this.

The Pharisees in the Palestine in Christ’s day believed in the Jewish teachings about spiritual living but nevertheless had little or no love for others in their hearts. Consequently, the ‘faith alone’ in their thinking was not enough.

True self
D.T.Suzuki

In the Buddhist tradition, right thinking is not sufficient for the attainment of nirvana.

“No matter how much someone’s understanding advances, when it is not accompanied by feeling, it will hinder that person’s spiritual progress.” (D.T Suzuki Buddhist scholar)

Over-reliance on the hands and the true self

There are those who primarily rely on charitable deeds or spiritual rituals for their spiritual progress. People around them may see them as ‘do-gooders’. The trouble, with this practical hands-on approach to attaining one’s true self, is that all sorts of good actions can sometimes be due to un-spiritual motivations. Hidden desires for future rewards, wanting to look good, to feel superior, or to get one’s own way. One can pay lip service to ways of acting without any change in underlying attitude. The attitude change is a turning round. Facing towards self is being egotistical and prioritising pleasure. The opposite is turning around to look towards the needs of others. Prayer and meditation are no good without this changed attitude.

“Repentance of the lips, and not of the life is not repentance.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, theologian)  

Over-reliance on the heart and the true self

There are also those who over-rely on their good feelings to attain spiritual progress. They may talk a lot about loving intentions and feel that human happiness results only from such feelings. However without regular application and wise thinking such an attitude is in danger of descending into sentimentality.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In other words, when we procrastinate, our good intentions that lack practical application are of little use. It would be a bit like practicing mindfulness meditation without the rest of the time adopting a mindful attitude. Also, without the guidance of enlightened understanding, even with good intentions, one can be easily sidetracked into unwise actions and mistaken avenues with unforeseen consequences.

Head, hands and hands all needed for attaining the true self

I would say enlightened thoughts alone, good deeds alone or feelings alone don’t lead to the true self.

“Both (Mahayana Buddhism and Swedenborgianism) deny that salvation is effected by performing rituals, or faith alone, or deeds alone, or even by having mystical experiences.” (David Loy, scholar of comparative religion)

According to this view, how we inwardly live our life on a daily basis makes us what we are.

I conclude that whatever one’s spiritual tradition and spiritual practices, it is loving intentions put into practice and guided by right ways of thinking that lead to attaining the true self.

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

Posted on27th January 2017CategoriesHealing attitudes, Latest post, Spiritual healingTags, , , , , , ,,

Discontent – Why do I have this?

discontent
Brian Moore

Brian Moore the former English rugby international player sees something of discontent in himself. What he wanted was success. And he pushed himself really hard over and over again to do well. He now recognises that whether it be in sport, business or whatever field you are in, if you are too driven you can drive yourself into the ground.

Some people have high ambition and specific goals to match. But those of them who are too driven have discontent even when they get to where they wanted to be.

Discontent hankering after things

You also may hanker after things you haven’t got; fame, or fortune, people or possessions. For example perhaps all you think you need is just a new sofa and when you get it everything will be sorted. But when it arrives you find there’s something else you must have — a new holiday, a new job. For some people a basic discontent persists no matter what they get or achieve. Something else looms on the horizon and they long for that too. Sooner or later they won’t get what they want because nobody gets all they want in life.

Discontent hanging on to things

When people in India hunt for monkeys, they set out a heavy wooden box with a small hole on top just big enough for a monkey to squeeze a hand through. Inside the box is a banana. A monkey smells the fruit and reaches inside to grab it. The hunters approach to capture him. As it tugs and pulls, it can’t pull the banana through the hole. The strange thing is the monkey refuses to let go and run away before being captured.

Sometimes you may wonder if you too hang on to things no matter what the cost because you assume your happiness depends on having them.

Discontent of envy

In a ‘keeping up with the Jones’ type of society, envy can arise when there is a love of having more and more of the same things that other people have, only better and better things. In a competitive intellectual society, envy can also raise its ugly head. In both cases it is striving for anything which is owned, prized or wanted by others in order to gain their approval and admiration.

According to the major spiritual traditions, these sort of feelings arise when the superficial things of life are the sole centre of attention for their own sake, at the expense of deeper human values, human relationships and social obligations.

Story of Nasrudin

The Islamic mystics tell a story about Nasrudin out walking who found a man sitting on the side of the road crying. He wailed “I am so poor. I have no money and everything I own is in this little bag.”

“Ah-ha!,” said Nasrudin, who immediately grabbed the bag and ran as fast as he could until he was out of sight..

“Now I have nothing at all,” cried the poor man, weeping still harder as he trudged along the road in the direction Nasrudin had gone. A mile away he found his bag sitting in the middle of the road, and he immediately became ecstatic. “Thank God,” he cried out. “I have all my possessions back. Thank you, thank you.”

“How curious!” exclaimed Nasrudin, appearing out of the bushes by the side of the road. “How curious that the same bag that made you weep now makes you ecstatic.”

Discontent not noticing the valuable

Sometimes what is valuable is not noticed. It is hidden away in the simplest things of life but we do not see it or appreciate it because of the frantic pace of our lives. Overwhelmed by numerous commitments, activities and appointments, our lives are filled to the brim with things to do and little time to be – things to achieve and little time to appreciate. Greedy to accomplish more, we pack our daily schedules with things to do and places to go. Believing that achieving our goals is more important than being still to quieten the mind and appreciating the many treasures and simple joys stored up for us within the present moment.

Discontent not trusting in the Divine

Emanuel Swedenborg taught that those who trust in the Divine remain in equanimity whether they obtain their desires or not ; and they do not grieve over the loss of them for they  are content with their lot. If they become wealthy they do not set their hearts on wealth. If they are given social status they do not regard themselves as more worthy than others.

Is this not the route away from discontent and towards satisfaction and peace of mind?

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