Making Sense of the Senses

Question: When you talk about the senses-based self-image, it sounds as if you are saying the five senses pose the greatest obstacle to our spiritual growth. Would you mind elaborating on this?

This question touches on a very important point that is well worth further exploration. I have said on several occasions that there are no natural barriers to our spiritual growth. This will include the senses-based self-image or, using the terminology of nonduality, the body mind. Regardless of how spiritually incompatible the self-image becomes, it does not alter the condition of the soul. It does, however, alter the condition of our experience. So what does this mean?

The entire notion of soul evolution has grown out of a mediocre human experience. Because it feels as if something essential to our happiness and well-being is missing, we assume something more needs to be added. At first we try to compensate for this feeling of lack with accomplishments and possessions. Over time, we begin to notice that new acquisitions only temporarily mask this feeling that something is missing. This leads some to the conclusion that conditions of lack can only be eliminated by renouncing the senses and the personal ambition they generate. Others find it counter-intuitive to assume we stepped into this plane only to discover that our most spiritually elevated act is to renounce it. These may seek the more moderate balance between their material and spiritual needs by treating material challenges as lessons, opportunities to identify and rectify issues that originate at the soul level. Earth, from this perspective, becomes a school for the soul.

From the standpoint of the complete soul, we start with a different premise. Our earthly incarnation is a choice rather than a condition into which we were thrust, either against our will or as a means to the end of further soul development. If we accept that freedom of choice plays a significant role, then it isn’t a stretch to assume we took on a body simply for the earthly experience itself. Did we have clear knowledge of the many unforeseen issues we’ve encountered in this body? This would be like saying we chose the road trip and that unexpected engine failure.

Making the choice to have an overall experience is not the same as saying our soul chose specific negative events. This kind of rationale sends us on an endless tail-chasing quest trying to make spiritual sense of every unanticipated situation.

To the original question of whether the senses pose an obstacle to the spiritual experience, we need to first see the senses for what they are, and for what they are not. The body and its five senses provide the interface that allows us to interact with our environment. Without it, our soul could not enjoy a cup of coffee, communicate with our loved ones or pet our purring cat. Because the senses allow us to communicate and interact with our material environment, we obviously want them to operate at their full capacity. Our problem is not with the senses themselves, but with our interpretation of the information they provide. The self-image treats this ever-changing collection of information as reality. When our affairs are running smoothly, we are happy. When things go awry, we panic. Because of this, throughout any given day our state of mind can fluctuate as dramatically as the stock market. If our chart ends on a low point, we had a bad day. If it ends on a high, we had a good day.

Anchored in the self-image, we tie our quality of life to the condition of external affairs, an action that forces us to place a high premium on keeping our affairs positive. From this point of view we assume the highest use of mental and spiritual principles is to influence the course of our affairs. If we think positive, things will go our way. If we invoke affirmative prayer, God will provide.

The critical point that this outside-in approach misses is that it equates our state of affairs with our state of being, our quality of life. Our motive for spiritual inquiry, then, is prompted by the need to solve the problems generated by the restricted views of the self-image. Solving material problems, by any means, does not accomplish the balancing shift in awareness from the self-image to the soul. As soon as a given problem is solved, the spiritual inquiry ceases and the self-image returns to business as usual. Our so-called spiritual journey, then, becomes little more than an exercise in shoring up the many weaknesses of the self-image.

Your soul is 100% maintenance free. It has no need for food, shelter, transportation or money. In contrast, the body and the self-image we have constructed around it take the bulk of our attention. We become so entangled in addressing these needs that our universe centers on the body while the soul is pushed to the back burner. A practical teaching is measured by its ability to resolve body-based issues.

Consider this simple example of meeting a friend for lunch. To make this happen, you factor in things like weather, what you’ll wear, how you’ll get to the restaurant, the time the entire event will take, where you will sit when you get there, what you will eat, and so on. Even if everything goes as planned, the amount of body-oriented thought you put into this relatively simple outing is impressive. Your maintenance-free soul, on the other hand, requires no attention whatsoever. You can orchestrate this entire event, and a thousand just like it, without devoting a single thought to your soul. Has your lack of attention harmed the soul? Has your failure to acknowledge all those soul-enhancing opportunities for growth caused some sort of spiritual setback? No. The only thing that suffers from neglecting the soul is your quality of experience.

What do we mean by experience? Suppose you are sitting at your computer reading this post and some of the ideas inspire you to think of yourself and your life a bit differently. Suddenly you get an email from the friend with whom you had lunch. They are very upset over a comment you made in passing. Though your physical position remains the same (you are still sitting at your computer), in the matter of a few seconds, the quality of your life has changed. You have moved from inspired contemplation to the negative fallout from an unfortunate misunderstanding. Because you are deeply troubled by your friend’s email, the quality of your experience is instantly diminished.

Most of us will measure the quality of our experience by the external events that prompted the email. We’ll repeat the entire scene, reliving the details trying to figure out how our friend could have so misunderstood us. To calm this subjective storm, we decide we must talk with our friend and resolve the misunderstanding. We call with apologies and an explanation of why the conversation went as it did. In other words, we take objective steps to resolve a subjective disturbance.

While we do not want to discount the input of the senses, we want to remember that the identity and the perceptions we have built using the information they provide is but a thin atmospheric region surrounding the soul. The condition of the soul does not fluctuate with passing phenomena. Yes, we want to take responsible action toward the improvement of our conditions, and the starting place of all such action is the same.

When Jesus advised to seek first the kingdom and all other things would be added, he wasn’t suggesting that we turn to the great provider in the sky to solve the mental and emotional storms sparked by external conditions. He was pointing to a shift in awareness back to our center of power.

The soul remains eternally unperturbed. When the senses report chaos, we take note, but we remember the issue is occurring at the level of our physical interface. The quality of experience we seek remains within our reach, for it is our very essence. Nothing has the power to diminish or block the expression of the soul. Consciously connecting with your center of power provides you with a fresh interpretation of the information the senses report. We don’t want to shoot the messenger. We want to take into account the information the senses provide and utilize it from the strength of our soul.

See Rev. Doug’s Palm Sunday Talk on Youtube: View From the Threshold

View From the Threshold

Click for audio: View From the Threshold

Click here for video: View From the Threshold

When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, the Gospel account tells us that he rode the colt of a donkey and was greeted by crowds who threw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground before him. This is known as the Triumphal Entry and is commemorated on Palm Sunday.

Many interpretations are put forward concerning the significance of the crowd’s gesture. If we look at the three main elements of this story, we can form an interpretation that has significance to our own spiritual understanding. The three elements are earth, cloaks/palm branches, and Jesus. We have the earthly (road) and the divine (Jesus), and we have a point in between (cloaks and palms). While we might think of the cloaks and palms as a dividing point between two worlds, let’s think of them instead as a connecting point.

Let’s explore this idea with a simple illustration. Imagine opening the front door of your home and standing on the threshold. You can turn one way and face the inside then turn the other way and face the great outdoors. When you’re facing the interior, you are turned toward your personal habitation. When you face the outdoors, you are turned toward the habitation of many. You are gazing into the universal. You are, in this sense, the cloak and palm that stands between the two worlds of the personal and the universal.

Our tendency is to close ourselves inside the personal house of our self-image and view the world only from that perspective. We peer out our windows and get some sense of that world, but most of what we think we know about it we glean from the opinions of others. When we step outside our home, we see something very interesting. Ours is not the only house on the block. Ours is not the only block in town. Our town is not the only town in the state, and so on up to the very galaxy we inhabit and claim as our own. In other words, there is a vast world that begins right outside our door. We are the connecting point between the personal and the universal.

If you are going through a challenge, remember that you are looking only inside your house. You can turn and see that life is much greater than this defined space you call yourself.

Why Half?

Click for audio: Why Half?

The perspective we hold has much to do with the way we approach the challenges in life. A way to get in touch with our perspective is to ask: Do I see this glass as half full or do I see it as half empty? In other words, am I approaching this issue from the standpoint of lack or from the standpoint of possibility? Let’s further challenge ourselves by asking, Why half? Why do we have to assume the glass is either half full or half empty? Why can’t we start with the assumption that the glass is already full?

We do not start with a full glass because, by all appearances, something in our situation is missing. The glass appears to be anything but full. From this point of view, we only have two options. Either we don the mantle of optimism and approach the issue as an opportunity to fill the glass, or we fall into the pessimism of resignation, accepting it as a sign of failure. The first perspective is a call to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The second is giving in to this failed cause.

What about this third option of seeing the glass as full? Isn’t this unrealistic, wishful thinking? The Psalmist apparently didn’t think so. In one of the most oft quoted biblical passages, he penned this powerful affirmation:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows (Psalms 23:5).

The power of this passage is found in the fact that it is framed in present tense. He doesn’t say, You will eventually prepare a table, or You will anoint my head in the future, or you will one day fill my cup. He treats these things as if they are done now. The glass is full.

What does this mean? It means that the resolution you seek is now present. Because this is true, you may stop struggling to find it. This resolution may look entirely different from the one you are expecting. But why should this matter? The willingness to release your preconceived notions of both success and failure opens your mind to an entirely new set of possibilities. Rather than spend your time contemplating the half-full or half-empty question, you declare your glass is not only full but overflowing. Move through your day with this attitude and see what peace it brings.