You must have realized - as you climbed through the valleys and up the mountains of environmental crises and sustainability, social illness and justice and economic crisis and transformation - that so much depends on the behaviour of each individual human being even more so for those who are in positions of power and authority. The institutions of society, no matter how well conceived, will disfunction if the people within them are self-serving, dishonest or corrupt. This is what traps people in these valleys.

On the other hand, even poorly-designed institutions can perform well if those within them have high ethical standards and are motivated to be of service to others. It is not enough to transform the structures and processes of society in any field if people are not also changed. While we may not be able to do much about others around us, we can always start with ourselves. And as we learn about self-transformation, we can both become an example for others to follow and accompany others on their own life journeys.

This fifth valley is the valley of individual discovery and development, especially your own. Where the threats and challenges of previous valleys were all around you, in this valley they are within you. The valley bottom is like a maze enclosed in walls and high hedges, in which you wander through endlessly branching paths. Mostly you are alone in this valley, but you often come upon mirrors that reflect your own self. Occasionally, at a branch in the path, you may meet another wandering soul who may share something about how others see you, before turning some other way. Only self knowledge will enable you eventually to find a way out of this valley and towards the heights beyond.

While you want to be one of the many well-intentioned individuals who are working to improve the society around you, you may often feel that you face insurmountable obstacles. Your hopes may flounder if you share the erroneous assumptions about human nature - that we are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and incapable of creating a just social system. These assumptions so permeate the structures and traditions of present-day living as to be considered established fact. They appear to make no allowance for the extraordinary reservoir of spiritual potential available to us and to any illumined soul who draws upon it. Instead, they rely for justification on humanity's failings, examples of which daily reinforce a common sense of despair. These false premises obscure the fundamental truth - that the state of the world reflects a distortion of the human spirit, not its essential nature.1

So how do we transform ourselves and develop the spiritual capacities to contribute to a process of societal change?



Human nature

The first obstacle in this valley is our understanding of our own human nature and purpose. How often have we heard: 'You can't change human nature'? Yet, this all depends on how we define human nature. While there is a genetic component to intelligence and personality, the strongest influence is education, which can override many genetic predispositions. And then, is human nature only our lower animal side - most obvious in the immature stages when we were an infant and child - or is it the full potential of what we can become, physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually?

Perhaps this idea that we cannot change is really an excuse for not wanting to make the effort to change, looking for the easy way rather than struggling to master our lower desires in an effort to refine our character and to contribute to society in some constructive way.

Take some time to consider what really is human nature or human potential. We, in fact, have three realities: physical, intellectual or rational and spiritual. Our physical reality is our body, which developed as an embryo in the womb of our mother; was born as a helpless infant; gradually completed its brain development and mastery of motor skills to the point where we could walk and talk; learned by observation and imitation, then by language and reading; acquired social skills; and passed or is passing through adolescence to increase strength, become sexually mature, and end up as a fully-functioning adult.

However, many of our physical qualities peak in early adulthood and, from then on, it is physically all down hill, through menopause and ageing, until finally one disfunction or another leads to our death. Our physical perfection is a very transient thing and it is obviously not worth putting all our hopes on it. The real significance of physical qualities is that they enable us to advance at other levels of reality.

Our intellectual reality is less tangible. The knowledge and skills we acquire may help us in our profession - whether as a farmer, artist or professor. But while knowledge can accumulate in our minds for decades and mellow into wisdom, our intellectual powers also go into slow decline from early adulthood. As we age, our memory also may start to fail, first in retaining new memories, then in retaining knowledge previously acquired. Late in the ageing process, we may even suffer from dementia, lose autonomy and regress to a kind of child-like dependence on others. Our intellectual reality may allow us to make important contributions to our family, community and all humanity, but it is no more permanent than our physical reality.

Our spirituality or spiritual reality is even less tangible than the intellect, since its most evident characteristic is love and it is created by developing virtues and abstract qualities. All cultures acknowledge it in one form or another. All religions proclaim its existence and describe its cultivation as our real purpose in life. In fact, it seems to be what connects us to other planes of existence beyond this physical universe (as we shall explore in the next valley) and, being intangible, its existence is not terminated by the death and disintegration of our body. No experience in this life would allow us to imagine what the progression of our individual spiritual reality is like, but we can rely on the superior knowledge of the great spiritual teachers and founders of religions, all of whom certify its reality, just as we rely on scientists to confirm the reality of quantum physics or the neurobiological processes in the brain.

While memory loss, ageing and death may seem like a tragedy with respect to our physical and intellectual realities, they in fact find their logical purpose in helping us to develop our spiritual reality. Detachment is an important driver of spiritual growth. The acorn must be detached from its reality as a seed and sacrifice itself to grow into an oak tree. If we cling to our childhood, we cannot mature properly as an adult. In the same way, our pride at becoming rich, being a champion athlete, or winning a Nobel Prize for intellectual achievement, could be a barrier to our further spiritual development and our relationships with other people. Acknowledging that these achievements are ephemeral can strengthen our humility and discourage us from seeing ourselves as better than other people. Accepting that we have a spiritual reality to cultivate opens the path to our upward journey out of this valley.



Egoism and Altruism

The maze of the ego tries very hard to keep you forever wandering forever in circles within it. We start as a child by building our own identity and are naturally self-centred. Growing up provides many opportunities to become more other-centred, especially when we bear and raise children. Our body, our physical reality, is temporary and its death is inevitable. Our spiritual reality takes form in this life and is the ultimate purpose of life itself. In fact, the human lifespan lends itself to this process: we acquire physical strength, intellectual and social skills and knowledge in our youth; make use of them in adulthood; and then detach ourselves from them as we lose them again in old age, so that ultimately all that remains is our spirit - even before death. This is the way to escape from the maze.

In considering the three levels of human reality, in our physical reality we can see the ego expressed as hedonism. Physical pleasure is what counts, whether through sex, alcohol and drugs, or food and comfort. At the intellectual level, the ego is expressed in pride at what we know and are discovering and the belief - common among many scientists - that we have the capacity reality is what we are capable of knowing and proving scientifically. Reality stops there and everything else is superstition or imagination.

However, if we acknowledge that there is an ultimate, absolute reality and that our purpose is to approach it through human consciousness and spirituality, this changes everything and opens a whole new potential. We can be content with little and freed from all inordinate desire at the physical level - meeting our needs, but then turning to more important things in life. We can have the humility to acknowledge that our human mind, language and intellectual tools are limited by our own experiences and, while science can always progress, we can never know everything. Science can in fact free us from some of the struggle of this material existence for higher purposes. We can then turn our attention to our true purpose in life to develop the limitless potential in our human consciousness and spirituality.

It is in the nature of all human beings to be both egoistic and altruistic and life can be seen as a struggle between these two contradictory tendencies. Self-centredness is the fallback position, the original infantile state. Cultivating other-centredness requires education and effort, as we grow from a child into a mature adult.

Why should we make the effort, when thinking of ourselves first is more immediately satisfying? Because this is what both allows us as individuals to develop our potential and facilitates the complex social interactions upon which a successful civilization is built. Most of the problems in society today can be traced to neglect of this fundamental dimension of human potential. This valley, with its winding maze, is the most difficult to cross, and the climb out of it is both the most arduous and the most rewarding.

At present, the focus on material civilization cultivates the lowest dimensions of human nature. Many leaders in all fields are prisoners of their egos, power-seeking and greedy and their short-term successes are ultimately destructive, leading to war, terrorism, organized crime and corruption. Consider the enormous impacts of ego, pride and selfishness on society, whether it be dictators and tyrants ruling countries, generals in warfare, corporate leaders maximizing profits above all else, religious leaders basking in their glory, or the rich vying to flaunt their wealth. Power just magnifies the negative effects of individuals with strong egos.

The transformation must start in childhood, when education to good character takes place - largely in the family and community. Children who have responsibilities and contribute to the life of the family, through chores or other forms of service, have a greater sense of confidence and self-worth. There is nothing wrong with self-knowledge and an appreciation of the positive qualities we have acquired, just as it is important to be aware of our weaknesses and failings and the need to overcome them.

In pre-adolescence, parental control weakens and we lay the foundation of values and behaviours that set the course of our life. We ask questions such as: Why am I here? and What is my purpose in life? This is a time of idealism, when everything seems possible. Our life can either veer towards self-indulgence and hedonism, or we can learn the deeper satisfaction of being of service to others. This time is particularly challenging for youth in the modern world because our consumer society cultivates passive consumers of immediate pleasures, while playing on animal desires and feeding the ego. Learning the values of altruism is really like swimming against the current.

Mastering our ego empowers us to evolve towards fulfilling our higher human purpose, to refine our character and discover new qualities we did not know we possessed. When we are no longer enslaved by our ego, we have the free will to create new possibilities. Forgetting ourselves and becoming detached from the material things of this world frees our potential to evolve individually towards endless perfections.

Think of the multiplier effect - of having many individuals all striving to become altruistic, selfless and full of love, desiring to be of service to others. This is what will enable us to evolve collectively, to extend social relationships, to build communities and institutions and to advance civilization. It will allow human society to achieve higher orders of integration, cooperation, and reciprocity, both geographically and over time. Now that science and technology have removed all the physical barriers to global integration, the process of building a world civilization is beginning and we can all be part of it.



Optimism and pessimism

In this valley of internal struggles, it will also help to understand where we stand on the spectrum of optimism and pessimism. The optimist is sure there is a way out of the maze while the pessimist is convinced that there is no exit. Psychological research shows that these are two common attitudes to life.2 Life is never easy, but we can respond to the difficulties in positive or negative ways. An optimist sees a better future ahead that will help us overcome our problems. A pessimist feels guilty about bad moments and this spreads to become a general view about life. While genetic predisposition may account for a quarter of the tendency to one or the other, with a stronger fear response associated with more pessimistic and conservative world views,3 it is largely a matter of choice, education, and the accidents of life. Research shows that a secure maternal attachment during infancy can help create self-confidence,4 but that is is not essential.

Some educational systems emphasize being critical of everything and where competition to be better means putting down others. The result can be an entire society with a tendency to see the bad side of things. Such attitudes can be self-reinforcing and pessimists tend to withdraw and isolate themselves from social contact or select the media and seek out others who confirm their worst suspicions.

People differ in their biologically determined negativity bias. We subconsciously respond more and pay more attention to negative rather than positive events and individuals vary in their degree of response to negative stimuli, with some reacting almost equally to positive and negative and others much more strongly to negative. One study has shown that political conservatives react more fearfully than liberals to threatening images and see the world as a dangerous place. They have stronger reactions of disgust to bad odours and morally-suspect behaviours. Those with a strong negativity bias favour protective policies, are suspicious of new approaches and people who are different and prefer certainty, tradition and security. They seek in-group safety and react against immigration and other perceived threats. Individual political orientations such as attraction to populism are deeply connected to biological forces that are usually beyond personal control and grounded in emotions.5 Education and life experience can help to overcome negative emotions and encourage positive emotions.

People with different political beliefs come to inhabit different realities. It is our moral positions that determine what facts we accept. We may jump quickly to moral conclusions and then come up with reasons to justify our decisions. If the facts appear to contradict a moral position, we may dispute the facts or come up with alternatives that support our beliefs. What feels right to believe is shaped by the culture we grew up in, with many of our fundamental beliefs formed in childhood. We are social beings and learn beliefs from the people we are closest to. Our beliefs are part of our cultural identity and this often has greater determination on our beliefs than do facts.

Optimism can also be contagious. If we feel down, it can help to associate with optimists who see the good side of things, who remember the good times who do not dwell on the unpleasant things of life. Optimists understand that difficult situations result from specific conditions that are limited in time. The intelligent optimist is in touch with reality, neither hiding behind a forced optimism nor lost in an unrealistic ideal. They know themselves, are honest about what they are capable of without guilt or shame and look for the positive side of things. The classic story illustrating this tells of Jesus walking with some friends who come across a dead dog. When the others who are with Him comment on the stench and ugliness of the dog, Jesus responds that it has beautiful teeth. Optimists have lots of advantages: they are more popular as others seek them out to be uplifted; they are more curious to explore and are free to imagine, dream, play and have fun, as well as to let go; they find pleasure and inspiration in music, reading, art, beauty and contact with nature; and they have a greater tendency to be happy.6

While there are many good reasons to be pessimistic today and the first part of this journey is full of these reasons, why not choose to be optimistic? It is the first step in empowering yourself to be an agent of change. It is the rational foundation of hope. It is the best weapon in the combat for a better future. And it is the fastest way to lift yourself out of this valley.



The individual and society

If we consider what makes a civilization progress, we can see a number of factors at work. Perhaps the most important is social cohesion.7 People need to be motivated to work together and even to sacrifice for each other (as we saw in the valley of social justice). Each individual needs to accept the primary importance of the group.

This should then lead to an effective system of organization and governance in the society, as well as to intellectual, scientific and technological advances that permit greater utilization of resources and technological progress. Note that these are largely internal to the society, although they may also build on previous civilizations, as, for example, when Europe in the Renaissance turned to Greek, Roman and Arabic sources and borrowed ideas from other contemporaries.

The same is true of us as individuals. Our progress and the realization of our potential as human beings is largely the result of our own efforts, although we also require values and knowledge that are acquired through education. Knowledge is useless if it is not put into action and values are pious hopes if we do not live them.

Fortunately, change is possible, but it is not easy. It is challenging because it is difficult to imagine what change in the future would look like. Perhaps the most important factor is our own belief that we can change. If we start with this, change can happen. Change also requires courage. We need to be brave to face our inner shortcomings or external threats, not to give up or yield to pressures to conform and to continue even when the going gets tough. Courage can be learned. If our moral foundation is strong enough, we can resist anything, even if it means giving up our life for our beliefs, as many examples in history attest.

This leads each of us to one of the most critical questions that we will face: What am I going to do with my own life? Just as a scientific discovery can be put to good or bad uses, so can our human potential be turned to good or bad ends, of be fulfilled with good or bad means. The choice is up to us, no one else. We can become a greedy banker building a fortune at the expense of others, an employer exploiting poor labour, a corrupt politician or a drug trafficker. Or we can make important scientific discoveries, organize humanitarian assistance, devote ourselves to teaching young people or create beautiful works of art. And even when the end is beneficial for society, we can be driven by pride, ego or a desire for fame and recognition, stooping to anything to achieve our end. Notice the difference between these different kinds of successes: a promotion of self and disregard for the suffering of others, or a humble desire to be of service to humanity.

The biggest challenge you face in life and in this valley is yourself. We are born with the potential for both good and evil; with evil being the absence of good as darkness is the absence of light. As a child, it is natural for us to think of ourselves first and to form an ego. But, if we want to be an adult who is successful and beneficial to society and ultimately to ourselves, we must then learn to master our inner egotistical side and to turn outwards. This is never easy and it is a struggle that will continue for all of our life - for the selfish side of ourselves is never totally defeated.

This is a universal theme in all civilizations, from Greek mythology and tragedies to modern literature. It is also at the heart of all religious traditions and, in fact, religion could be described as the dimension of civilization that is specialized to address this part of us. Saints and sinners, heaven and hell, reincarnation, nirvana, salvation, the right way - these are all ways of giving form to our basic struggle with ourselves and the options before us. And all are accompanied by tools that can help us on our journey.

Those who say that you cannot change human nature generally believe that humans are fundamentally selfish and aggressive. They are not entirely wrong, but this theory is incomplete. We also have the potential to be altruistic and peace-loving; but we need education to give us this vision of our higher human purpose and the strength of character to put it into action.

Why is this so important? Why does it matter if we are a teacher or a murderer? Apart from the individual outcome (i.e. thankful students or prison), it is really in the interest of society and of human advancement as a species and builder of civilizations, that we are constructive rather than destructive. If we look at the problems in society today, they can almost all be traced back to selfish behaviours and a lack of ethics or values. Societies advance when there is trust, cooperation and solidarity and decline when they are dominated by corruption, competition and exploitation.

The evolution of any species is dependent on its survival and on its success in adapting to changing conditions, both as individuals and as a species. This is how nature works. For the human species, our evolution today takes place largely at a social level. We can only survive as individuals within a functioning family, community and society. In a world that has become united through science and technology, we now have to evolve rapidly to make the transition to social and spiritual unity in a global civilization, or risk crises that could wipe out a major part of humanity.

This presents each of us with our own individual challenge: do we want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Do we simply let ourselves be swept along in the current, behaving and consuming like everyone else, or are we ready to make the effort to swim against the tide and to become an example for others to follow? It is hard to be a pioneer and to risk ostracism or worse. The struggle to master ourselves is hard enough; so much more so when those around us do not believe in the need for it. This is the choice we face today if we want to build a better world.

There are many idealistic movements and people working for good causes, but too often they fail, or their success is tarnished because they suffer from the same individual human failings as the rest of society. Our individual transformation is at the heart of the matter and everything else follows from that. Your commitment to that transformation and your continuing effort throughout your life will give you the strength to climb up the path out of this valley.



Rationality and belief

Returning to our three human realities - physical, rational and spiritual - it is important to understand their complementarity, their roles in our life, and how they grow and develop. This can also help us to understand the relationship between the two great knowledge systems of science and religion.

The scientific knowledge system is evidence-based, with facts that can be tested through observation and experimentation, building an understanding of our physical reality that is continually advanced and perfected. This does not mean that scientific truth is anywhere near absolute. Concepts that seem firmly established may suddenly be overthrown by new theories, new evidence and new mechanisms to explain existing facts.

A few decades ago, the continents were considered stable on the surface of the planet, and observations that some continents looked like pieces of a puzzle that might fit together were considered fortuitous. A few years later, data on the young age of ocean bottoms and a new understanding of the mantle in the planet's interior proved that continents in fact drifted across the planet's surface, breaking up and colliding.

The science of physics has similarly undergone revolutions in the last century. Even scientists trying to be purely rational may observe what they expect to observe and find ways to explain away data that do not fit. Peer review, which is intended to ensure that proper scientific rigour is observed, may also reject research that is too far outside the established paradigm, but which may subsequently prove to be an important step forward.

Religion is considered one form of belief, but there are many others and it turns out that belief is as fundamental to human life as rational thought. Recent research is deepening scientific understanding of the importance of belief and raises fundamental questions about how to consider its role in our own lives and in society.8

Beliefs define how we see the world and act within it. They are what make us human. They tell us what is right or good and thus how to behave towards others and the natural world, but they are difficult to define. Our brain tries to extract meaning from all its inputs. Knowing something is true is different from believing it to be true. Knowledge is objective and belief is subjective. Brain research shows that we unthinkingly accept what we learn in childhood as true and have to make an effort to doubt and reject it. Disbelief requires much more brain activity in regions associated with deliberation and decision-making, as well as with emotions of pain and disgust. Belief involves both reasoning and emotion.9

Belief may lead us to accept as true things that are unscientific or irrational, such as conspiracy theories, the paranormal, superstitions and magical thinking. We can even believe in contradictory things. Beliefs are what lie behind feelings of racial or national superiority and make it easy to be polarized into 'us' versus 'them' - which is at the root of many social conflicts. If a belief is challenged, we can become defensive, rigid in our resistance and reject the facts and the experts who delivered them.10 Here, our challenge is to become aware of any contradictions and to work for coherence between our rational self and our beliefs.




Individual beliefs

By the time we reach adulthood, we should have a relatively coherent and resilient set of beliefs for the rest of our lives, which can vary along five independent dimensions of what are considered to be worthy sources of value and goodness in life.11 These are:

Traditional religiousness - the level of belief in mainstream theological systems such as Christianity and Islam.
Subjective spirituality - the level of belief in non-material phenomena, such as spirits, astrology and the paranormal.
Unmitigated self-interest - the belief in the idea that hedonism is a source of value and goodness in life.
Communal rationalism - the belief in the importance of common institutions and the exercise of reason.
Inequality aversion - the level of tolerance of inequality in society, a proxy of the traditional left-right political split.

Our beliefs thus have little to do with conscious rational choices and are highly resistant to change. We can go to great lengths to reject something that contradicts our position, or seek out further information to confirm what we already believe. However, we can and do change our minds, usually not rationally but in response to compelling moral arguments and will reshape the facts to fit with our new beliefs. These beliefs are the deep roots of many political, religious and social troubles, but are largely invisible to us.12

For the rational materialist, it is unsettling to discover that people have little conscious control over their beliefs - which are built on intuition, biases and gut instincts. Even scientists are influenced by their beliefs about what is important, what they might find and what their findings mean. Belief is a potent force in human affairs and the foundation of civilization. For most scientists, belief without supporting evidence or argument should be rejected as a basis for politics or policy.13 The same argument is used to reject religion. Yet science is also limited. It is a reliable basis for understanding our physical reality and can provide tools for use with our intellectual reality. But, much of our spiritual reality cannot be subjected to any kind of scientific measurement. Does this mean that it does not exist or should not have an influence on our lives? We cannot measure love by weight or energy content, but does it therefore not exist?

Perhaps, rather than fighting against belief, rejecting it or trying to reduce it to what science can understand, we should ask how we can turn belief from something negative and that is the cause of irrational behaviour, prejudice and conflict, into a force for unity and peace. Perhaps good beliefs that contribute to the advancement of civilization can be cultivated. This is one of the fundamental themes all along this journey.

While the cognitive by-product theory of religion reduces it to an attempt by the brain to find meaning where there is none, we can also ask what constructive role religion has frequently played for individuals, communities and whole civilizations. Individuals and institutions all go through cycles of growth, maturity and decline or decadence. Do we focus only on the latter, observing the admitted disfunctions of old religions, or see what can be gained by considering how religion can form a positive and scientifically justified belief system adapted to the needs of today?

One issue in dealing with belief is to ask if there is an equivalent to empirical evidence in science as a measure of truthfulness or rightness of belief. Is there a touchstone of truth with which beliefs can be tested? Is there an authority other than scientific authority that can guide the selection of beliefs that are constructive rather than destructive of human well-being and advancement? In particular, religion has usually claimed some kind of divine authority for its basic teachings and beliefs, but this has not prevented the emergence of conflicting dogmas and disputes. This is one challenge awaiting you in the valley to come.

All of the above demonstrates the human need for an Educator. We are not born with a genetically determined set of values, or the instinctive behaviour of animals. We have to learn our values in ways that protect us from some of the irrationality in our brain functions. Scientific education teaches us about the world around us and the rules we should respect to survive and prosper physically. But we equally need some form of spiritual education to give us a sense of purpose in life and the values and ethical rules necessary for a healthy society. One of the original purposes of religion has been to provide Divine Educators for humanity at various stages in its development. However, too many tragedies have been inflicted on humanity through the wrong forms of spiritual education, so it is important to avoid indoctrination and to respect our individual responsibility to investigate the truth and our freedom to choose our own beliefs and values.

Your beliefs and values will be the armour that will protect you on your continuing journey upwards. Are they fit for purpose? In your crossing of this valley, have you identified a need to re-examine some of your beliefs and to bring them into coherence with the goals you have set for yourself on this voyage of self-discovery?



Cultivating your spiritual reality

As you work your way through the mazes up this valley, in addition to the armour of your beliefs and values there are some weapons you can use to defend yourself against your ego and tools that will help you to find and cultivate your spiritual reality. Fortunately, universal human problems also have some universal remedies and thousands of years' experience with this has been captured in the great religious and spiritual traditions of the world. By comparing across traditions and finding what is common among them, we can separate what is universal from the rituals and dogmas with which religions tend to become encumbered over time. Some of these, like belief in some absolute truth or unknowable essence, will be explored in the next valley.

As you emerge from this valley, you will find houses of worship perched on the hillsides - quiet places where you can explore the power of prayer and calm and peaceful sites for meditation. To learn detachment, you can walk the paths of fasting and there are libraries, the internet and e-books giving you access to all the world's spiritual knowledge and wisdom - including the holy scriptures of all religions - for study and reflection. These tools described below will provide some more practical exercises to refocus your attention on what is most important for your own development and fulfilment as you climb towards the peaks of self-knowledge.


It is in the nature of humans as social beings to want to talk about things and to express our feelings. We need to verbalize, to put our thoughts and feelings into words. Prayer is speaking to God, or whatever we call the unknowable essence, and expressing our love towards this Divine Source. Prayer may also be asking something from God, be it love, assistance or forgiveness. While God is above all knowledge and understanding and presumably already knows everything in our minds and hearts, it can help us to put words to our feelings.

Some religions have revealed prayers or scriptures that can capture these feelings better than we can ourselves and that help to educate our spiritual natures. This is why prayer is an almost universal part of religion and belief; turning towards the object and source of our belief and requesting or beseeching something. Since cultivating our spiritual reality requires detaching ourselves from our material reality, ego and superficial pleasures, prayer becomes an essential part of that process of turning outward, re-directing our positive feelings of love and our desire for comfort and assistance, to this external focus. If we are able to purify this prayer from idle fancies and vain imaginings, selfish thoughts and material desires, it will have its impact and lead us in the right direction.

While we can make up our own prayers, we risk projecting a selfish perspective. If we have the benefit of revealed prayers, designed for our education, their impact will be more profound since they can put our personal issues and concerns into a new and more spiritual perspective. Daily prayer is important to keep reminding us of our spiritual priorities. If we are not constantly advancing, we risk slipping backwards.


Meditation is another tool for the emptying of self and reflecting deeply on spiritual things, but without necessarily putting them in words. Different religious traditions have their own approaches to meditation, but they all contribute in their diversity to spiritual development. They may involve deep thought and reflection on a prayer or spiritual theme, or a calming and even emptying of the mind, focusing on something regular and essential like breathing.

Meditation can help us to listen to our inner voice, put things into perspective and lead us to a decision or course of action. It can be a prayer that rises above words and letters, syllables and sounds. It is a quiet time that can be an excellent antidote to the stress and tensions of the modern world. We can all find a time and a form of meditation that suits us.


The great religious traditions generally include some form of physical discipline or restriction to help us to recognize the priority we should give to our spiritual development over our material desires. Fasting, or refraining from eating and often drinking, is one of the most common - whether in the Christian Lent, the Muslim Ramadan, or the Bahá'í Fast. Those who fast generally find that breaking the routine of eating and drinking at will helps to acquire spiritual qualities, such as patience and detachment.

Voluntarily giving up the priorities and pleasures of the body is a way of acknowledging that spiritual development is ultimately more important. Self-discipline learned in this way can carry over in many other beneficial ways, especially in a society that gives such importance to immediate hedonistic pleasures.

Daily study

As with prayer, we need to work on our spiritual growth every day of our lives, or we too easily become forgetful and slip backwards. Therefore, turning daily to our sources of guidance, in whatever scripture we accept, helps to maintain a constant learning process. Even if we have read the texts before, we always bring new experiences to our reading and take away new insights. Quality is more important than quantity. Reading one sentence with an open heart and mind can be more beneficial than a superficial or exhausting scanning of long texts.


The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies.14

Another path to spirituality is through contact with nature. The perfections of the Divine are reflected everywhere in nature. The beauty of a rose, the grandeur of a mighty tree, the majesty of a mountain, the splendour of a sunset can resonate with our innermost being and give us an intimation of what can be even greater. We only have to look for these reflections. The beauties of nature can also draw us out of ourselves and our sense of humility can strengthen before such wonders. We can come to appreciate that the source of all wealth is the earth on which we all walk.


Like a tree whose purpose is to bear fruits, spirituality will not achieve its ultimate purpose if it is not put into action in our own life and a life of selfless service is an important way to acquire spiritual qualities. In the past, people seeking a spiritual way retired to a monastery or convent, or became hermits, devoting hours to prayer. But an active life of social contacts provides many more opportunities to practice patience, forgiveness, detachment, humility, trustworthiness and other qualities of the spirit. A life spent seeking opportunities to be of service to others and to society can be very rich and rewarding and can make each of us a role model for the generations that come after us.

Building our spiritual reality is a life-long process, so what you learn while crossing this valley will always be with you. Spirituality is a state of mind and heart, not a destination, so we should not be over-confident; we can slip and fall along this path at any time and lose everything. The ego, symbolised in ancient scriptures as Satan, the devil or the evil whisperer, is always looking for ways to exert itself. There is no point at which you can say we are 'saved' or have a guaranteed ticket to heaven. Selfish desire has reduced to ashes uncounted lifetime harvests of the learned.15 In many ways, the higher we traverse on the mountain of spiritual growth and aim for the pinnacle, the easier it is to fall, as pride and self-satisfaction are spiritual pitfalls. Here, humility is an all-important antidote.

With the qualities you have acquired in crossing this valley of the self and climbing the surrounding mountains of selflessness while cultivating your spiritual nature, you are now ready to enter the valley of multiple higher realities.






In the normal process of belief formation, we combine incoming information with unconscious reflection on that information until it feels right - and a belief is formed. People are surprisingly susceptible to strange beliefs, especially beliefs that we cannot easily verify with our senses. Most people accept as true things that are unscientific, if not delusional. Half of adults in the United States endorse at least one conspiracy theory and 90 percent of adults in the United Kingdom hold at least one delusional belief - such as not being in control of some actions, or that people say or do things that communicate secret messages intended for them alone. The feeling of 'rightness' is also fallible and is based on our evolved psychology, personal biological differences and the society around us.16

Our evolved psychology is closely linked to religion as a belief system, with religious belief remarkably similar across all religions, including some supernatural agency, life after death, moral directives and answers to existential questions. Our brain is primed to see agency and purpose everywhere as it searches for meaning. For the cognitive by-product theory of religion, this is merely an attempt to give meaning to otherwise random events. Where religious claims are frequently encountered in early childhood, they are unquestioningly accepted and rooted deeply in our cognitive architecture and feelings of rightness. The same process can make us susceptible to many irrational beliefs - from the paranormal and supernatural to conspiracy theories, superstitions, extremism and magical thinking. It also supports the dualistic belief that our mind and body are separate entities and the belief that the group we belong to is superior to others.17

Social psychology has also shown that we can believe in contradictory things without being aware of their incoherence. A good example is attitudes towards migrants or foreigners. Our society places value on national identity and culture, which we do not want to see eroded. On the other hand, we may have a tradition of tolerance and openness to others, especially if refugees have escaped from war or persecution. Psychologically, we can believe both at the same time - by hiding our prejudices as implicit or contextual, so that we retain a self image as one free of prejudice, while putting the blame on the other, such as by saying 'I'm not racist, but...' Research shows that the more we know migrants personally, the less likely we are prejudiced against them, while those who have simply been told about conflicts with migrants are more vulnerable to anti-migrant propaganda. If the social discourse is polarized into 'us' versus 'them', or the 'other' is depicted as inferior or undemocratic, we more easily accept violence against them.18

A similar process works with respect to scientific facts which may be in contradiction with our beliefs or behaviours, such as smoking. We can become defensive and reject the facts and the experts that deliver them. We may be troubled because we cannot tell the experts that they are wrong, so we become more rigid in our resistance, refuse to think about the problem or become evasive.19

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2. Braconnier, Alain. 2014. Optimiste. Paris: Odile Jacob.
Braconnier, Alain, 2014. L'optimisme donne du sense à l'existence. Interview in Migros Magazine, no.10, p. 20-23. 3 March 2014

3. Kanai, R.; Feilden, T.; Firth, C.; Rees, G. 2011. 'Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults', in Current Biology, vol. 21, no. 8 (26 Apr. 2011), pp. 677-680. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017.

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6. Braconnier, Alain. 2014. Optimiste. Paris: Odile Jacob.
Braconnier, Alain, 2014. L'optimisme donne du sense à l'existence. Interview in Migros Magazine, no.10, p. 20-23. 3 March 2014

7. Turchin, Peter. 2006. War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. New York: Plume Books (Penguin)
Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultra society: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books.

8. Lawton, Graham. 2015. Beyond Belief. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2015, pp.28-33.

9. Lawton, Graham. 2015. Beyond Belief. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2015, pp.28-33.

10. Lawton, Graham. 2015. Beyond Belief. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2015, pp.28-33.

11. Saucier, Gerald. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 104, p 921, quoted in Lawton, Graham. 2015. Beyond Belief. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2015, pp.28-33.

12. Lawton, Graham. 2015. Beyond Belief. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2015, pp.28-33.

13. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, editorial, 4 April 2015

14. Baha’u’llah, quoted in Esslemont, J.E. 1923. Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. Chpt. 3, p. 35.

15. 'Abdu'l-Bahá. 1957. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette, IL.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1957, p. 59.

16. Lawton, Graham. 2015. Beyond Belief. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2015, pp.28-33.

17. Lawton, Graham. 2015. Beyond Belief. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2015, pp.28-33.

18. Falomir-Pichastor, Joan. 2016. "Nous réussissons à faire tout et son contraire sans percevoir d'incohérence". Interview by Laurent Nicolet in Migros Magazine 25, 20 June 2016, pp.40-43.

19. Falomir-Pichastor, Joan. 2016. "Nous réussissons à faire tout et son contraire sans percevoir d'incohérence". Interview by Laurent Nicolet in Migros Magazine 25, 20 June 2016, pp.40-43.



© Copyright Arthur Lyon Dahl 2019