5. THE VALLEY OF INDIVIDUAL DISCOVERY

 

 

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 those 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 you may not be able to do much about others around you, you can always start with yourself, and as you learn about self-transformation, you 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, those in this valley 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 showing yourself, and 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 towards the heights beyond.

You may want to be one of the many well-intentioned individuals who are working to improve the society around you, but feel that you face insurmountable obstacles. Your hopes may founder 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 much 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 you 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.92

So how do you transform yourself and develop spiritual capacities to contribute to a process of societal change?

 

 

Human Nature

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

Perhaps this idea that you 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 your lower desires in an effort to refine your character and to contribute to society in some constructive way.

Take some time to consider what really is human nature or human potential. You in fact have three realities: physical, intellectual or rational, and spiritual. Your physical reality is your body, which developed as an embryo in the womb of your mother, was born as a helpless infant, gradually completed its brain development and mastery of motor skills to the point where you 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 your physical qualities will 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 your death. Your physical perfection is a very transient thing, and it is obviously not worth putting all your hopes on it. The real significance of physical qualities is that they enable you to advance at other levels of reality.

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

Your 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 your real purpose in life. In fact, it seems to be what connects you to other planes of existence beyond this physical universe (as you can explore in the next valley), and, being intangible, its existence is not terminated by the death and disintegration of your body. No experience in this life would allow you to imagine what its progression is like, but you can rely on the superior knowledge of the great spiritual teachers and founders of religions, all of whom certify its reality, just as you 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 your physical and intellectual realities, they in fact find their logical purpose in helping to develop your 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 you cling to your childhood, you will not mature properly as an adult. In the same way, your pride at becoming rich, being a champion athlete, or winning a Nobel Prize for intellectual achievement, could be a barrier to your further spiritual development and your relationships with other people. Acknowledging that these achievements are ephemeral can strengthen your humility and discourage you from seeing yourself as better than other people. Accepting that you have a spiritual reality to cultivate opens the path to your upward journey out of this valley.


 

 

Egoism and Altruism

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

In considering the three levels of human reality, you can see the ego expressed as hedonism in our physical reality. 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 shall ultimately know everything. From this materialist perspective, reality is what we are capable of knowing and proving scientifically, and everything else is superstition or imagination. Reality stops there.

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

Why should you make the effort, when thinking of yourself first is more immediately satisfying? Because that is what both allows you as an individual to develop your 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 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 ego, power-seeking and greedy, and their short-term success is 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, and the rich vying to flaunt their wealth. Power just magnifies the negative effects.

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 qualities you have acquired, just as it is important to be aware of your weaknesses and failings and the need to overcome them.

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

Mastering your ego will empower you to evolve towards fulfilling your higher human purpose, to refine your character and discover new qualities you did not know you possessed. When you are no longer enslaved by your ego, you have the free will to create new possibilities. Forgetting yourself and becoming detached from the material things of this world frees your 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 now beginning, and you can be part of it.


 

 

Optimism and Pessimism

In this valley of internal struggles, it will also help to understand where you 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.93 Life is never easy, but you can respond to the difficulties in positive or negative ways. An optimist sees a better future ahead, that will help you overcome your 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 fright response associated with more pessimistic and conservative world views, it is largely a matter of choice, education, and the accidents of life. A secure maternal attachment during infancy can help create self-confidence, but is not essential.

Some educational systems emphasize being critical of everything, where competition to be better means putting down others. The result can be a whole 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 read media and seek out others who confirm their worst suspicions.

People differ in their biologically determined negativity bias. You subconsciously respond more and pay more attention to negative than to 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.94

People with different political beliefs come to inhabit different realities. It is your moral positions that determine what facts you accept. You may jump quickly to moral conclusions, and then come up with reasons to justify your decisions. If the facts appear to contradict a moral position, you may dispute the facts or come up with alternatives that support your belief. What feels right to believe is shaped by the culture you grew up in, with many of your fundamental beliefs formed in childhood. You are a social being and learn beliefs from the people you are closest to. Your beliefs are part of your cultural identity, and this is more important than the facts.

Optimism can also be contagious. If you 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, and are not a reason to feel guilty. 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, and when the others comment on the stench and ugliness, He 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, to dream, to play and have fun, to let go. They find pleasure and inspiration in music, reading, art, beauty and contact with nature. They have a greater tendency to be happy.95

While there are many good reasons to be pessimistic today, and the first part of this journey is full of them, 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 arm in the combat for a better future. It is the fastest way to lift yourself out of this valley.


 

 

The Individual and Society

If you consider what makes a civilization progress, you can see a number of factors at work. Perhaps the most important is social cohesion.96 People need to be motivated to work together, even to sacrifice for each other (as you saw in the valley of social justice). Each individual needs to accept the primary importance of the group.

This should then lead to some 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 when Europe in the Renaissance turned to Greek, Roman and Arabic sources, and borrowed ideas from other contemporaries.

The same is true of you as an individual. Your progress and the realization of your potential as a human being is largely the result of your own efforts, although you also require values and knowledge acquired through education. Knowledge is useless if it is not put into action, and values are pious hopes if you do not live them.

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

This leads you to one of the most critical questions that you face: what are you going to do with your own life? Just as a scientific discovery can be put to good or bad uses, so can your human potential be turned to good or bad ends. The choice is up to you, no one else. If you are talented (as everyone is in some way), you can become a greedy banker building a fortune at the expense of others, a powerful mafia leader, ruthless dictator, or an organizer of terrorist operations. Or you can make important scientific discoveries, organize humanitarian assistance, devote yourself to teaching young people, or create beautiful works of art. Notice the difference between these different kinds of success: a selfish disregard for the suffering of others, or a desire to be of service to humanity.

The biggest challenge you face in life and in this valley is yourself. You 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 you to think of yourself first, to form an ego. But then you must learn to master the egotistical side of yourself and to turn outward if you want to be an adult who is successful in marriage and beneficial to society, and ultimately to yourself as well. This is never easy, and it is a struggle that will continue for all of your life, for the selfish side of yourself 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 you. Saints and sinners, heaven and hell, reincarnation, nirvana, salvation, the right way, all are ways of giving form to your basic struggle with yourself and the options before you. All are accompanied by tools that can help you on your journey.

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

Why is this so important? Why does it matter if you are a successful teacher or murderer? Apart from your 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 you are constructive rather than destructive. If you look at the problems in society today, they can almost all be traced back to selfish behaviour 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 our 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 you with your own individual challenge: do you want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution? Do you simply let yourself be swept along in the current, behaving and consuming like everyone else, or are you 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 yourself is hard enough; so much more so when those around you do not believe in it. This is the choice you face today if you 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. Your individual transformation is 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 your three human realities, physical, rational and spiritual, it is important for you to understand their complementarity, their roles in your life, and how they grow and develop. This can also help you to understand the relationship between the two great knowledge systems that are science and religion.

The scientific knowledge system is evidence-based, with facts that can be tested through observation and experimentation, building an understanding of your physical reality that is continually advanced and perfected. This does not mean that scientific truth is anywhere near absolute. Concepts that may 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 does 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 your own life and in society.97

Beliefs define how you see the world and act within it. They are what make you human. They tell you what is right or good, and thus how to behave towards others and the natural world, but they are difficult to define. Your 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 you unthinkingly accept what you learn 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.

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

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Individual Beliefs

By the time you reach adulthood, you should have a relatively coherent and resilient set of beliefs for the rest of your life, which can vary along five independent dimensions of what are considered to be worthy sources of value and goodness in life.100 These are:
- traditional religiousness: level of belief in mainstream theological systems such as Christianity and Islam;
- subjective spirituality: level of belief in non-material phenomena such as spirits, astrology and the paranormal;
- unmitigated self-interest: belief in the idea that hedonism is a source of value and goodness in life;
- communal rationalism: belief in the importance of common institutions and the exercise of reason;
- inequality aversion: level of tolerance of inequality in society, a proxy of the traditional left-right political split.

Your beliefs thus have little to do with conscious rational choices, and are highly resistant to change. You will go to great lengths to reject something that contradicts your position, or seek out further information to confirm what you already believe. However, you can and do change your mind, usually not rationally but in response to a compelling moral argument, and will reshape the facts to fit with your new belief. These beliefs are the deep roots of many political, religious and social troubles, but are largely invisible to you.101

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 should be rejected as a basis for politics or policy without supporting evidence or argument.102 The same argument is used to reject religion. Yet science is also limited. It is a reliable basis for understanding your physical reality, and can provide tools for use with your intellectual reality, but much of your 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 your life? You 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, you should ask how you can turn belief from something negative 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, you can also ask what constructive role religion has frequently played for individuals, communities and whole civilizations. Individuals and institutions go through cycles of growth, maturity and decline or decadence. Do you 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. You are not born with a genetically determined set of values, or the instinctive behaviour of animals. You have to learn your values in ways that protect you from some of the irrationality in your brain functions. Scientific education teaches you about the world around you, and the rules you should respect to survive and prosper physically. But you equally need some form of spiritual education to give you 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 your individual responsibility to investigate the truth and your freedom to choose your 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 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, you 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 will provide some of the 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.


Prayer

It is in the nature of humans as social beings to want to talk about things. You need to verbalize, to put your thoughts and feelings into words. Prayer is speaking to the unknowable essence, God or whatever you call It, and expressing your love. It may also be asking something from Him, His love, assistance or forgiveness. While God is above all that, and presumably already knows everything in your mind and heart, it can help you to put words to your feelings.

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

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


Meditation

Meditation is another tool for the emptying of self and reflecting deeply on spiritual things 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 you to listen to your inner voice, to put things into perspective, to lead you 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. You should be able find a time and a form of meditation that suits you.


Fasting

The great religious traditions generally include some form of physical discipline or restriction to help you to recognize the priority you should give to your spiritual development over 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, the latter two requiring abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset for a month. Those who fast generally find that breaking the routine of eating and drinking at will helps to acquire spiritual qualities like 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, you need to work on your spiritual growth every day of your life, or you too easily become forgetful and slip backwards. Therefore turning daily to your sources of guidance in whatever scripture you accept helps to maintain a constant learning process. Even if you have read the texts before, you always bring new experiences to your 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.


Nature

Another path to spirituality is through contact with nature. The perfections of absolute reality are reflected everywhere in nature. You only have to look for them. The beauties of nature can also draw you out of yourself, and strengthen your sense of humility before such wonders. You will come to appreciate that the source of all wealth is the earth on which we all walk. "The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies" (Bahá’u’lláh).103


Service

Like a tree whose purpose is to bear fruits, spirituality will not achieve its ultimate purpose if it is not put into action in your 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 make you a role model for the generations that come after you.


Building your spiritual reality is a life-long process, so what you learn in crossing this valley will always be with you. Spirituality is a state of mind and heart, not a place to reach, so you should not be over-confident, as you 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 you are "saved" or have a guaranteed ticket to heaven. Desire has reduced to ashes uncounted lifetime harvests of the learned. In many ways, the higher you go on the mountain of spiritual growth and aim for the pinnacle, the easier it is to fall, as pride and self-satisfaction are spiritually dangerous. Humility is the 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 next valley of multiple higher realities.

 

 


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BOX - MORE ABOUT BELIEFS

In the normal process of belief formation, you 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 those that we cannot easily verify with our senses. Most people accept as true things that are unscientific, if not delusional. Half of US adults endorse at least one conspiracy theory, and 90 percent of UK adults hold at least one delusional belief, like not being in control of some actions, or that people say or do things that contain special messages for them. The feeling of rightness is also fallible, and is based on our evolved psychology, personal biological differences, and the society around us.

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. Your 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 you 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 your mind and body are separate entities, and the belief that the group you belong to is superior to others.

Social psychology has also shown that you 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 you know migrants personally, the less you 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 we versus them, or the others are depicted as inferior or undemocratic, we more easily accept violence against them.98

A similar process works with respect to scientific facts, which may be in contradiction with your beliefs or behaviours, such as smoking. You can become defensive, and reject the facts and the experts that deliver them. You may be troubled because you cannot tell the expert that he is wrong, so you become more rigid in your resistance, refuse to think about the problem, or become evasive.99

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NOTES AND REFERENCES

92. Universal House of Justice, To the Baha'is of the World, Ridvan 2012.

93. 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

94. Hibbing, John and Kevin Smith. 2015. We are what we vote. New Scientist, vol 226, no. 3015, 4 April 2014, pp. 24-25, based on Hibbing, John and Kevin Smith. 2013. Predisposed: Liberals, conservatives, and the biology of political differences. Routledge.

95. 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

96. 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.

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

98. 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.

99. 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.

100. 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.

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

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

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


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