Monday, August 13, 2018

MINDFULNESS AND RESPONSES TO EMOTIONAL STIMULI

How well can you control your emotions?

The essence of mindfulness is acceptance and non-reactivity. It’s like the old-fashioned tape recorder or the modern-day video surveillance camera; the equipment records but does not react to what it hears or sees. So it is with mindfulness.

Ordinarily, whenever there is an activating experience, there follows an emotional response on our part. The emotional response may be positive, negative or neutral. In between the activating experience and the emotional response is the interpolation of some belief or misbelief (eg ‘This is pleasant’, ‘This is unpleasant’, and so on) about the activating experience which causes us to pass judgment on, and then react emotionally to, the experience.

A recent study, involving more than 150 adults, evaluated the impact of long and short-term mindfulness meditation training on the amygdala response to emotional pictures in a healthy, non-clinical population of adults using blood-oxygen level dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Now, the amygdala, at the end of the hippocampus, is part of the limbic system of our brain and is responsible for the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses, especially fear, anxiety and aggression. Mindfulness meditation and other forms of meditation can quieten the activity of the amygdala.


 Photo credit: National Institute of Mental Health.


Long-term meditators had 9081 hours of lifetime practice on average, primarily in mindfulness meditation. Short-term training consisted of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. The control group, made up of people with no meditation experience, was randomly assigned to a ‘health enhancement program’ over the same time period that included well-being practices, but not meditation specifically.

After an eight-week period, participants viewed and labelled photos as either emotionally positive, negative or neutral while undergoing a brain scan by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Meditation training was associated with less amygdala reactivity to positive pictures relative to controls, but there were no group differences in response to negative pictures. Reductions in reactivity to negative stimuli may require more practice experience or concentrated practice, as hours of retreat practice in long-term meditators was associated with lower amygdala reactivity to negative pictures, although the researchers did not see this relationship for practice time with MBSR.

Short-term training, compared to the control intervention, also led to increased functional connectivity between the amygdala and a region implicated in emotion regulation (in particular, the processing of risk and fear), namely, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), during affective pictures. Thus, meditation training may improve affective responding through reduced amygdala reactivity, and heightened amygdala–VMPFC connectivity during affective stimuli may reflect a potential mechanism by which MBSR exerts salutary effects on emotion regulation ability.


Study
: Krak T R A et al. ‘Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli.’ NeuroImage vol 181, 1 November 2018, 301-313.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

THE MAJOR CAUSE OF BAD POSTURE—AND EVEN WORSE THINGS THAN THAT!

Good posture occurs when the muscles of the body support the skeleton in an alignment that is stable as well as efficient, both in stillness and in movement.

Bad posture is the result of a number of things including bad habits developed over time as the body seeks ways to accommodate muscle spasm, weakness, tension or imbalance between muscle groups. Causes of bad posture include but are not limited to injury and muscle guarding, muscle tension and muscle weakness, and the incorrect use of technology. Genetics and hereditary can also play a role. However, there is one cause of bad posture that, in my experience, tops the list—shallow breathing.

Most people have heard of the diaphragm. Sadly, most people hardly use their diaphragm when breathing. They are shallow breathers. They utilise only a small part of their lung capacity. So, what exactly is the diaphragm? Well, it is a great, strong dome of flattish muscle located in the lower rib cage, that is, at the base of the lungs or, more exactly, at the bottom of the chest between the lungs and the stomach. The diaphragm, which is shaped like a parachute, separates the chest cavity and the abdominal cavities. The floor of the chest cavity which contains the lungs and the heart is made up of the diaphragm. The abdominal cavities contain the digestive, reproductive and excretory organs.


The diaphragm works like a pump. It has the capacity to move upwards and downwardsand inwards and outwards—thereby changing the volume of both the chest cavity and its passive occupants (specifically, the lungs). When we breathe with our diaphragm, air is drawn into the lower lung spaces. The diaphragm and the intercostal muscles—the muscles between the ribs—should be used to take the in-breath to the middle and lower parts of the lungs. During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and flattens. That causes our upper abdominal muscles to relax and extend slightly. Our abdomen thus moves forward, and the lower 'floating' ribs flare or expand slightly outward to the side. In addition, the diaphragm is the principal muscle used for exhaling. When we exhale, the diaphragm—in an upward movement—relaxes and returns to its ‘normal’ dome-shaped position. What happens here is the upper abdominal muscles contract, and air (in the form of carbon dioxide) is expelled - in fact, forced out - from the lungs.

How the diaphragm works.

Now, what happens when we fail to use, or hardly use, our diaphragm when breathing? Terrible things!
Most people are 'chest breathers'. Chest breathers are shallow breathers. They use only the top portion of their lungs. They don't fill up the bottom part. Chest breathing is a very 'shallow' and ordinarily haphazard and non-rhythmic form of breathing, with almost all the outward movement being confined to the upper chest. One of the results of chest breathing is that the lungs are never filled completely, so the body rarely, if ever, receives sufficient oxygen. That is not good. There is a lung condition known as atelectasis, which is the collapse or closure of a lung resulting in reduced or absent gas exchange. It may affect part or all of a lung. There are several causes of atelectasis, but one of them is—you guessed it—shallow chest breathing. What we don’t use, we lose. If we don’t use all of our lungs, we end up with part of our lung collapsing or closing. Not nice at all. When we breathe correctly—that is, breathing deeply using our diaphragm—we use the bottom of our lungs as well as the top.



Atelectasis of the right lower lobe seen on chest X-ray.
(Source: Hellerhoff. Wikipedia.)

M
outh breathers are invariably chest breathers, but chest breathers aren't confined to mouth breathers. When we breathe with our chest, the neck, shoulders and upper rib muscles are all 'engaged' as our chest 'elevates' toward our chin when breathing inwards. The result? Chronic neck and shoulder tension which, of course, lead to pain. Worse, over time there can be noticeable postural changes in the body such as a forward shift in the head and a rounding of the shoulders. When the head is pulled forward, the additional pressure on the neck, shoulders and back rises dramatically. The result? Well, there are several, but one of the nastiest is tissue damage ... and more 
painEvery 2.5 cm (inch) that the head is thrust forward from its natural position adds another 4.5 kg (10 lbs) of stress and pressure on the neck, shoulders, back and spine. More bad stuff. 


The answer to all this is not to throw back your shoulders. Silly but well-intentioned advice, that. No, the answer is to learn to breathe correctly—that is, deeply, using the diaphragm, drawing air into the lower lung spaces, and exhaling fully. When we do that properly, rhythmically and habitually, our posture will improve dramatically. The shoulders will go back where they should be, there will be less rounding of the shoulders, and the forward tilt of the head will be corrected as well. The result? Not only good posture but a much better state of fitness and overall health.

So, when we breath, we should fill our entire lungs with air. It helps immeasurably if you can breathe through the nose. (Sorry, mouth breathers.) Practise ensuring that your out-breath is longer than your in-breath. That will also assist with posture. It also relaxes both the body and the mind. In addition, the regular up-and-down movement of the diaphragm massages the abdominal organs.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn to breathe correctly. It is never too late to start.


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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

MINDFULNESS MAY EASE TINNITUS SYMPTOMS

Dr Laurence McKenna
New research led by Dr Laurence McKenna, pictured, from University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) and Dr Liz Marks from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath has found that a mindfulness-based approach to tinnitus can make the symptoms of the condition less severe, less intrusive and less troublesome.

Tinnitus is a physical condition experienced as noises or ringing in the ears or head when no such external physical noise is present. The condition, which can result from a wide range of underlying causes, is usually caused by a fault in the hearing system itself, and is a symptom, not a disease in itself. At present there is no actual 'cure' for tinnitus. However, many of the causes of tinnitus are treatable.

It is an extremely distressing, even disabling, condition in and of itself. Worse, the condition is associated with many other problems such as emotional stress, insomnia, auditory perceptual problems and concentration problems. Tinnitus afflicts a significant percentage of the population—about ten to twenty per cent of the population. Some people are more at risk for the condition—musicians, military personnel, people who otherwise work in loud environments, and seniors.

Regrettably, there is at present no treatment to stop the noise of tinnitus. That’s where mindfulness comes in. The essence of mindfulness is—acceptance and non-reaction. It’s like the old-fashioned tape recorder or the modern-day video surveillance camera; the equipment records but does not react to what it hears or sees. So it is with mindfulness.

The research team found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) helps to significantly reduce the severity of tinnitus compared to relaxation-based treatments, an approach recommended by many tinnitus clinics.


For the study, which has been published in the journal Ear and Hearing, seventy-five patients took part in a trial at UCLH’s Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, receiving either MBCT or relaxation therapy. The research team found that both treatments led to a reduction in tinnitus severity, psychological distress, anxiety and depression, but the MBCT treatment led to significantly greater reductions in tinnitus severity than the relaxation treatment, and this improvement lasted for longer.

‘MBCT turns traditional tinnitus treatment on its head — so rather than trying to avoid or mask the noise, it teaches people to stop the battle with tinnitus,’ Dr Marks said. 

In other words, people learn how to 'allow' and 'accept' tinnitus rather than fighting it or trying to push it away. This is the practice of non-resistance: what you resist, persists. How true that is!


Study: McKenna L, Marks E, & Vogt F. (2018) ‘Mindfulness based cognitive therapy for chronic tinnitus: evaluation of benefits in a large sample of patients attending a tinnitus clinic.’ Ear and Hearing, 39(2), 359 - 366. DOI: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000491


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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

FREEDOM FROM BONDAGE: THE FIVE STAGES OF TRUE GROWTH

All of us are in bondage to something or someone, some of us more so than others. Some of us are in bondage to alcohol or other drugs. Others of us are in bondage to other sorts of addictions including being addicted to work and other people. (Oh, how we crave the useless attention and approval of others! But why?) Still others of us are in bondage to mental obsessions and physical compulsions, things that make even our moment-to-moment existence misery. What can we do about all this?

When we get right down to the bottom line all bondage is addiction to self. Yes, addiction to self. Self-obsession, self-absorption, self-centeredness, selfishness. Yes, there may be mental illness as well as physical illness involved as well, but deep down all forms of bondage are bondage to self, that is, to a sense of self that is illusory. We are not a ‘self,’ or those many, many ‘selves’ which are nothing other than mental images. They are not the real person each one of us is. So, what is the answer? We need to
wake up! We need to experience self-release, which is the ending of illusion. Once we see the false as falseand self is the ultimate illusiona whole new world opens up for us.

George S Arundale
Many years ago I read a little booklet penned by George Arundale. I can’t remember the title of the booklet—it was more of a pamphlet—but I do remember something of immense value in it, something has that helped me greatly in my own life, something that I want to share with you now. Of all the bits and tidbits of advice and wisdom I’ve read over many decades, this gem of spiritual wisdom from Arundale is perhaps the best and most useful of them all.

George Arundale wrote of the five stages of true growth—true spiritual growth, that is. The five stages are as follows: discontent, search, escape, discovery, and freedom. Let’s deal with them in turn.

First, discontent. This is the beginning of freedom. You know, there is a phrase ‘divine discontent,’ because discontent can be a most wonderful thing. Without a certain amount of discontent in our lives we would never seek to grow, learn, understand, or escape bondage. The Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti had this to say about discontent: 

Only a mind that is in despair can find reality. A mind that is completely discontented can jump into reality, not a mind that is content, not a mind that is respectable, hedged about by beliefs. ... Though painful, it is a marvellous thing to be discontented ... .

Arundale calls discontent, which is the knowledge and recognition of bondage and limitation, an ‘angel-messenger of Light in the midst of all darkness.’ Take the alcoholic, for example. Alcoholics are never really happy. In fact, they live in misery, as do all addicts. Every alcoholic—and the same goes for any addict—seeks to escape an unwanted self. 

Actually, that is a very necessary thing to do, for we all must learn to escape our unwanted selves, that is, all those false and illusory images we have of ourselves that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. The problem with alcoholism and all other forms of addiction and bondage is that drugs and the like are never the answer. Indeed, they increasingly become the problem, and more and more of a problem, until the sufferer either dies or goes mad. That’s true. Don’t doubt it, even for a moment.

The second stage of true growth is search. Discontent, after varying periods of time, results in a search for a way out. A thought comes to mind— ‘There must be a way out!’ There is—always. So, we look for a way out. That may take a long time, although in most cases we make it longer than it need be. We may seek the views of others. We may join a new religion. We may read self-help books galore. I did all of those things in my own search for freedom. None of them really helped me to break free from bondage, but for some glorious reason I never gave up hope. But eventually I gave in—that is, surrendered, let go. Only then was it that a power-not-myself—for self can never change self, as self is forever the problem and never the solution—led me to freedom. Sadly, many people never get to this second stage. They die—discontented.

Discontent alone is not enough. Insight alone never changes us. We must want change—I mean, really want it above all other things—and we must be prepared to go to any length to get it. As Williams James used to say, we will always do whatever is our strongest desire. Search begins with desire. The stronger the desire for escape, the more likely the search will not be in vain.

George S Arundale
The third stage is escape. We exit the prison. We enter into a new world. Arundale called it a ‘garden.’ Lovely imagery. Then, we make a great discovery.

Discovery is the fourth stage. We take possession of our new world and we discover. We learn. We understand. Gone are the old beliefs that only helped to keep us in bondage. Once, we believed. Now, we know and understand. There is a whole world of difference!

The fifth stage of true growth is freedom. Arundale wrote that we need to be very careful here. Sometimes, if we are not ever-vigilant, we will find that we have entered a larger prison. True spiritual growth, he wrote, is often a case of freedom succeeding freedom as we draw nearer to Eternity—‘at least to an Eternity,’ wrote Arundale.

Discontent … search … escape … discovery … freedom. That’s it! In many ways these five words are all you need to know to be able to live a long, happy, and satisfying life. Arundale wrote that these five steps encapsulate a certain spiritual or metaphysical law—the ‘Law of Universal Growth,’ he called it. He also wrote that this law of growth is ‘God’s gift of Time.’ Perhaps, but for many people time is running out. We must act … now!

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2), says the New Testament. Yes, right now! Salvation is all about wholeness and health of mind, body and spirit … and freedom from bondage and limitation of all kinds—in this life. Salvation is all aboutwaking up! It's about self-release. It's about freedom from bondage.

Yes, there is a power-not-oneself that can make all things new. That power, as Norman Vincent Peale has written, is 'a spiritual giant within you, which is always struggling to burst its way out of the prison you have made for it.’ The power can restore you to health and vitality, release you from all bondage, and make your life worth living. The power is your 'real self'that is, the life in you manifesting itself as you ... your very ground of being ... the source and essence of your life, health, strength, and vitality.

May you come to know this power today ... indeed, right now!


Thursday, June 7, 2018

HOW TO MEDITATE—IT'S SIMPLER THAN YOU THINK


'Meditation is not divorced from our daily living. In the very understanding of our daily living meditation is necessary. That is, to attend completely to what we are doing. When you talk to somebody, the way you walk, the way you think, what you think, to give your attention to that. That is part of meditation.'—J. Krishnamurti.

Here are the names of a couple of people of yesteryear. There will be more than a few readers who will have heard of them, but there will ever so many people who will not have heard of them at all, which is a great pity. The names of the two people are Annie Besant and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Both were incredible women.

Annie Besant
During her lifetime Annie Besant was many things—minister’s wife, atheist, secularist, reformer, Fabian socialist, advocate of women’s rights and socio-political change, author, Theosophist, Co-Mason, orientalist and leader of the movement for Indian home rule. Madame Blavatsky (‘HPB’) was quite a woman as well. She was a Russian occultist, spiritual philosopher and author who co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Besant met HPB in or around 1890—HPB died the very next year—and in August 1890 HPB moved in to Besant’s house in St John’s Wood, London. Anyway, here’s a little anecdote Mrs Besant would tell. She once asked HPB, ‘How shall I meditate?’ HPB is said to have replied, ‘Stick your stamps on straight, my dear.’

Now, for the benefit of those who haven’t posted a letter—remember them?—in some time, or have never posted a letter, HPB is referring to licking (yes, licking) a postage stamp and then neatly but firmly affixing the stamp to the top right hand corner of an envelope. Hence, ‘Stick your stamps on straight.’ Of course, HPB is using an analogy. What she is saying is that, in order to meditate, you must take care to ensure that you perform your daily tasks, no matter how seemingly unimportant or trivial, with proper attention to detail and the effort to do it right.

H P Blavatsky
Note Mrs Besant’s question—‘How shall I meditate?’ She was asking for a method or technique. I hate the words ‘method’ and ‘technique’ as well as the 'how' word. I really do. My use of the word 'how' in the title to this post, implying the supposed need for a method or technique in order to achieve the sought-after end, is intentionally provocative, not to mention a bit mischievous. 

There’s a Zen story that goes like this. A disciple says to the master, ‘I have been four months with you, and you have still given me no method or technique.’ The master says, ‘A method? What on earth would you want a method for?’ The disciple says, ‘To attain inner freedom.’ The master roars with laughter, and then says, ‘You need great skill indeed to set yourself free by means of the trap called a method.’ Yes, I do have a real aversion to all so-called ‘methods’, ‘systems’ and ‘techniques.’ Don’t ask, ‘how’. Just do it! (I think that's not just a slogan but a trademark as well.) True meditation is a choiceless awareness applied it to one’s whole day, indeed one’s whole life. The philosopher and authority on Zen and all things magical and mystical, Alan Watts wrote that meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment’.

Annie Besant 'first day cover'.
Indian Posts & Telegraphs. October 1, 1963.

That, my friends, is what mindfulness is all about—living from moment to moment with awareness and being fully present during each immediate moment. True meditation occurs when there is a directness and an immediacy about your experience of life. All so-called methods, techniques and systems are an artificial construct—a barrier—to your moment-to-moment experience of life. Thousands of people spend a small fortune on courses, lessons and tuition on how to meditate. They recite mantras, affix their eyes upon an object, go into a trance-like state, and so on. The Indian spiritual teacher, international speaker and author Jiddu Krishnamurti was dismissive of all forms of meditation—except one. This is what he had to say about a commonly practised form of concentration meditation known as mantra meditation:

The other method [mantra meditation] gives you a certain word and tells you that if you go on repeating it you will have some extraordinary transcendental experience. This is sheer nonsense. It is a form of self-hypnosis. By repeating Amen or Om or Coca-Cola indefinitely you will obviously have-a certain experience because by repetition the mind becomes quiet. It is a well known phenomenon which has been practised for thousands of years in India---Mantra Yoga it is called. By repetition you can induce the mind to be gentle and soft but it is still a petty, shoddy, little mind. You might as well put a piece of stick you have picked up in the garden on the mantelpiece and give it a flower every day. In a month you will be worshipping it and not to put a flower in front of it will become a sin.

So, what, then, is true meditation? Krishnamurti went on to say:

Meditation demands an astonishingly alert mind; meditation is the understanding of the totality of life in which every form of fragmentation has ceased. Meditation is not control of thought, for when thought is controlled it breeds conflict in the mind, but when you understand the structure and origin of thought, which we have already been into, then thought will not interfere. That very understanding of the structure of thinking is its own discipline which is meditation.

Meditation, which Krishnamurti saw as a lifelong inquiry into what it means to be truly present and aware, occurs when you live in the action of the present moment, as opposed to the so-called present moment itself, for as soon as you say 'the present moment' you are in the past, you are involved in memory, and thus not living in the present moment. One more thing. You can only be said to be living in the present when your mind is free from all ideas of ‘self’. When you have the idea of ‘self’ (that is, of ‘I’ and ‘me’) you are living either in the past or in the future. 

‘Stick your stamps on right, my dear.’ Attend to the small, ordinary things of life with an ‘astonishingly alert mind’. Yes, meditation is in the direct and immediate living of your daily life, from one moment to the next.


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Sunday, May 27, 2018

LOVELY LADY DRESSED IN BLUE—A VISIT TO WALSINGHAM

Our Lady of Walsingham, Pray for us.

On a recent trip to England my wife and I visited Walsingham in the northeastern part of the county of Norfolk. It was a most impressive and uplifting place. Indeed, I will never forget the place, for it left a very powerful impression on me. It was a combination of the beautiful countryside, the quaintness, old-fashioned religiosity and piety of the place, and an intangible something-or-other within me crying, 'I believe; help my unbelief' (Mk 9:24)). For the most part, my wife and I walked around the village in noble silence, with the knowledge and in the awareness that we were walking on 'holy ground'. Words are so useless at the best of times, but especially when talking about matters spiritual.

In this post I discuss several different lines of symbolism concerning Our Lady, each of which is devoid of superstition. I claim no originality for the ideas discussed, all of which are firmly grounded in esoteric and metaphysical Christianity. Now, the word 'esoteric' is often misunderstood. When used in the present context it simply refers to the fact that sacred scripture, mythology, folk tales and similar writings and ideas generally have an 'inner' and deeper meaning: cf Gal 4:24 ('Now this is an allegory'); 1 Cor 3:6 ('we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God'). The early Christian theologian Origen wrote that every religion has a body, a soul and a spirit and that scripture can be interpreted in three different ways, the first according to the letter (‘the body’) of the scriptural text, the second according to the allegorical meaning of the text (‘the soul’), and the third according to the esoteric interpretation of the text (‘the spirit’). Of course, there are some texts that can, sensibly, only be interpreted literally. However, some ideas only make sense when interpreted allegorically or symbolically.


Now, Walsingham. In medieval times the village of Walsingham was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world and a rival to even Rome. That changed after the Reformation, but a revival during the 19th century put Walsingham back on the pilgrimage map and thousands now visit Walsingham each year, especially at Easter time.

While at Walsingham I got to thinking about ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. The latter is a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary venerated by Roman Catholics and some Anglicans associated with certain alleged Marian apparitions to one Richeldis de Faverches, a pious English noblewoman who was Lady of the Manor of Walsingham, in Walsingham in 1061. Lady Richeldis is said to have been requested by Our Lady to build at Walsingham a replica of the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth in honour of the Annunciation and as a place of pilgrimage where people could come to honour the Virgin Mary. So, Richeldis had a building structure named ‘The Holy House’ built in Walsingham which later became a shrine and place of pilgrimage. Nearby, in Houghton Saint Giles, there is the Roman Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham, also known as the Slipper Chapel or the Chapel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The Orthodox Churches also have a presence at Walsingham.

The Bible tells us that Mary ‘magnifies the Lord’ (Lk 1: 46) and her spirit ‘rejoices in God [her] Saviour’ (Lk 1: 47). What are we to make of all that—especially those of us who have trouble with talk of the so-called supernatural and even God? Well, one thing I learned from my study of metaphysics is that the words ‘the Lord’ where used in scripture refer not so much to God per se but to our own understanding or concept of God which, for better or for worse, will have a great bearing on what happens to us and how we view it. Take, for example, the verse that says that ‘the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ (Ex 9:12). Now, God did not really harden Pharaoh’s heart. If you think that, you have a horrible concept of God. No, the truth is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, by attaching his ‘I Am’, that is, his consciousness, to hard-heartedness, obstinacy and stubbornness.

So, let’s start with the word ‘God’ itself. Who or what is God? Some theological abstraction? Yes and no. For starters, the Bible tells us that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Listen to these words: ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love’ (1 Jn 4:7-8). The Bible also tells us that God is Spirit, that is, the very spirit of life (Jn 4:24).  Another way of understanding the spirit of life is as pure Being. All things come from the One Source of all Being. God is pure Be-ing—the self-existence and self-consciousness of life itselfand we have our be-ing-ness in God. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28). 

So, if you think that God is a giant man 'up there' or 'out there', some supra-personal Being with a face, body, arms and legs and genitalia, you are horribly mistaken. In short, God is love, life, truth and power—and the very ground of our being. The English metaphysician and judge Thomas Troward referred to God as undifferentiated Consciousness—that is, the formeless awareness that creates by Itself and becomes that which It images Itself to be. I like that. That makes sense to me. If quantum mechanics has shown us anythingand it has shown us plenty—it has shown that consciousness or mind is fundamental, eternal and all-creative.

If God is love and life then Jesus is God in a form that we can understand. That's more than enough for me. He is Way-Shower, indeed the way to an abundant life (Cf Jn 10:10). Jesus is the embodiment of love and life. Is Jesus God’s ‘only-begotten son’ (cf Jn 3:16)? In a special sense, yes, but listen my friends. We are all begotten of the Only One. There is Only One – that is, the omnipresence and omnipotence of life itself – and everyone and everything is the only-begotten son, that is, the offspring of life itself. The spirit of life is forever taking shape and form as you and me and all other living things. 


Do you think that the Incarnation happened just once, some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, when Jesus was born? Think again. The Incarnation is forever happening! Yes, the spirit of life is forever being incarnated into new and fresh manifestations of life. The Roman Catholic archbishop Fulton J Sheen would often make that point in his sermons and writings. Some say that God spoke His final word in Jesus but the truth is that God, the spirit of life, is forever speaking. And God speaks just one word—his son—and God is forever begetting the son. God begot you and me and all other forms of life. Yes, we are all divine, being sons and daughters of the Most High. Even Jesus himself affirmed, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High’’’ (Jn 10:34; cf Ps 82:6). So, despite what others may have told you over the years, the ‘only-begotten son’ is every son and daughter begotten of the One Father-Mother God. The son is your real self, the person that in truth you are.

Now, in Christian metaphysics the phrase  ‘only-begotten son’ refers to something else as well, namely, a saving idea, thought or desire in our mind or consciousness, the latter being the ‘father’, metaphysically speaking. Here is a simple illustration of this truth. Let us say that you are ill. In your mind (the ‘father’) you have a desire for health (the desire being your ‘son’). The realization of your desire is your saviour. So, we have mind (the Father), idea, thought or desire (the Son), and expression (the Holy Spirit). A metaphysical Trinity, analogously.

And what of Mary, the mother of Jesus? Is she a real presence in the world today? Well, as I see it, she is truly present in a special sense, namely, as the embodiment of something else that is very real indeed. You see, Mary signifies the ‘virgin soul’, the soul – that is, the mindset (both consciousness and personality) – that is in love with God and that has come to an awareness of things higher than the material. This mindset puts spiritual values and principles (eg the importance of love and family, courage and self-surrender) first and is completely concentrated and focused on those things. With the virgin soul there is a total orientation of thought, affection and will towards love and truth combined with humility, a lack of guile and a radical detachment from all earthly, material things. The virgin state of mind, signified by Mary, is capable of conceiving and producing countless conceptions of itself in the forms of thoughts and desires ('sons').

‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us’ (Mt 1:23). The virgin birth occurs by perception. In other words, we are changed, not so much by what we do, but by our willingness to be changed, our willingness to surrender, give up, and let go. This requires a real change in consciousness. In order to grow spiritually, we must be prepared to give up everything in our lives that holds us back and keeps us in bondage to our lower selves. Our lower selves are also known as false selves, being all those ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ -- our likes, dislikes, views and opinions – that we wrongly take to be the real person each one of us is. Just as the Virgin Mary said, ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ (Lk 1: 38), so we must open ourselves to the possibility of growth—and to the action of a power-not-oneself. So, let us magnify the presence of the spirit of life (consciousness) in us, for in so doing we will find the solution to all our problems.

According to one great line of symbolism, Mary signifies our subjective self, that is, our subconscious mind. According to another, Mary signifies the great Deep, that is, the great Sea or the waters of space over the surface of which the Holy Spirit brooded and upon which It acted. Our Lady Mary is the Star of the Sea which is why she is almost always depicted in robes of the blue of the sea and the sky. The name Mary in Latin is, of course, Maria. The word maria is the plural of mare, the sea. More directly in origin, the word Mary is derived from the Hebrew mar, 'bitter', or 'the sea'. Water is a common symbol of the soul. There is a metaphorical bitterness in the soul being imprisoned in matter when its destiny lies elsewhere (as does our own), but the soul (the 'higher self') can escape from the bondage of flesh and limitation and give birth to a more exalted existence. Make of that what you will. Suffice to say there are a number of ideas here including the idea of the seas of virgin matter from which the universe was created and the idea of the birth of the Christ Child. Actually, these lines of symbolism are quite interconnected. The womb of the Virgin Mary, in which the as yet unborn Christ Child grows, and the waters of the deep (the sea of virgin matter) at the dawn of creation over the face of which the spirit of God moved are symbolically one and the same. On another level, Mary represents the feminine aspect of the Godhead, something Protestants tend to overlook to their detriment. On yet another level, Mary signifies the Spirit of Wisdom: ‘She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour’ (Prov 3:15-16).


The Roman Catholic Church and certain other branches of Christianity teach the perpetual virginity and immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. I am unable to affirm either of these dogmas in a literal sense, but allegorically they reinforce the notion of Mary as a symbol of the ‘virgin soul’. The first dogma – Mary's perpetual virginity – speaks of a lifelong commitment to, and communion with, God and as such symbolises our ongoing commitment to the spiritual life. The second dogma – Mary's immaculate conception – attests to the sacredness of human life as well as purity and innocence. Mary is immaculately conceived from her mother Anne because all life proceeds from one source, which is pure Spirit. Hence, all birth is immaculate for that reason. Mary is often spoken of as the Mother of all, the Virgin Immaculate, crowned with stars and clothed with the sun, for she signifies, among other things, that all manifestations of life proceed from and out of the ether of space. We start as virgin or immaculate matter, so to speak. According to this line of symbolism Mary represents the immaculate, unblemished presence of life (God) in us—indeed, our very I Am-ness. When we awaken to the truth of our be-ing-ness, our I Am-ness, the Christ Child is born in us. 

And what of the dogma of the Assumption? The Assumption of Mary into heaven, according to the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and parts of Anglicanism, refers to the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life. Once again, I cannot affirm the truth of that proposition in a literal sense. Indeed, I have a real problem with the whole idea of there being higher planes of consciousness and angelic hierarchies with Mary being the 'Queen of the Angels', but I am able to accept the idea of a completely purified personality symbolicially 'rising' in its nobility and beauty. 

However, I generally interpret the idea of the Assumption as follows. The Bible says: ‘Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it’ (Ecc 12:7). We come from God, we belong to God, and ultimately we shall return to God. Life is indestructible. There is only life and there is no place where life is not. We are life. Life is energy. Life is expression. Life is in all, through all and around all. It cannot cease because it is ceaselessness itself. Yes, we will change form and ultimately vanish from view but we cannot cease to be. We never cease to be—not for a moment. We cannot be separated from life. We cannot be less than life. And life cannot other than be.

Here is a truth—perhaps the most important truth of all. The One—that is, the One Source of all Beingbecomes the many so that the many may know themselves to be one. There will be a universal restitution or restoration of all things and people—that is, all things and people will eventually be restored to their source and original essence. This is referred to in the Bible, in Acts 3:21, as the ‘restitution of all things’ or the ‘restoration of all’ (apokatastasis panton). In Greek astronomical and philosophical literature apokatastasis refers to the actual re-establishment of the order of the universe. By what means? Another Big Bang or a series of Big Bangs? At some point, an ever-expanding universe will come to an end—unless there be another Big Bang to keep things in motion.

I will finish with the following poem-prayer by Mary Dixon Thayer (1889-1989) which has always been a favourite of mine. Fulton Sheen loved it as well and popularised it on his TV show and in his talks. The poem is very sentimental but I love it all the same:

To Our Lady

Lovely Lady dressed in blue—
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little boy,
Tell me what to say!

Did you lift Him up, sometimes,
Gently on your knee?
Did you sing to Him the way
Mother does to me?

Did you hold His hand at night?
Did you ever try
Telling stories of the world?
O! And did He cry?

Do you really think He cares
If I tell Him things
Little things that happen? And
Do the Angels' wings

Make a noise? And can He hear
Me if I speak low?
Does He understand me now?
Tell me—for you know.

Lovely Lady dressed in blue—
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little boy,
And you know the way.


Note. The photos in this post were taken by the author. The poem ‘To Our Lady’ is included in Mary Dixon Thayer's The Child on His Knees (New York: Macmillan, 1926). All rights reserved.