Prayer As a Remedy for Madness

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by Michael Maciel

What is prayer? Is it a wishlist to God? Is it adulation, pleading for mercy, demanding justice, or calling for a lifeline? Sure, at times it’s all of those. But that’s not the kind of prayer that will save you from madness.

The saying “we are spiritual beings” is one of those ideas that when heard makes sense but cannot be articulated. Ask a hundred people what spirit is and you will get as many different answers. The same goes for prayer.

The term “spiritual energy” is equally problematic but for a different reason. What kind of energy are we talking about, electromagnetic? Somehow, that just doesn’t satisfy. It’s too mechanical, too impersonal.

There is a word that comes to mind, one that I hesitate to use, but I cannot think of a better one. It’s the word “vibe.” It contains the concept of energy because it’s short for “vibration.” But it’s unmistakably human. People put out vibes, power lines put out energy. And a vibe is personal — each of us has one that is unique.

Vibes are easy to detect. When we meet someone new, we immediately check out their vibe to see if it’s compatible with ours. If it’s not, it’s like trying to force the wrong ends of two magnets together. But if it is compatible with ours, we connect.

Prayer is vibe management. With our thoughts and words, we change the way we vibrate. But just because “prayer” is a religious term doesn’t make it holy. There is, as we all know, such a thing as a negative vibe. And having a negative vibe is textbook for madness.

Whether it’s your bad vibe or a roomful, the energy can only be destructive. Nothing good can come of it. But a good vibe is like fresh air. It’s uplifting, light, and refreshing. Muscles relax, faces smoothe, and breathing becomes easier. Connection is suddenly possible.

To create a positive vibe, our thoughts and words must be positive. But not positive in the sense of “good,” necessarily, but positive in the sense of definite. Because praying is like shooting an arrow — you have to know what you’re aiming at. And, you must be able to summon the willpower to hit the target. A wavering vibe misses the mark every time.

It’s hard, however, to create a good vibe on your own. It’s far easier to attune with one that already exists. That’s when the concept of “God” comes in real handy. No one really knows what God is. As with Spirit, definitions abound. But everyone pretty much knows in what direction to look. We can’t usually pin it down with words, but we all know how to get in touch with the Universal Vibe. It’s like what Krishnamurti said about the unconscious: “It’s not ‘un.’ You’re just not looking in that direction.”

Sometimes, simply getting in touch with the Universal Vibe is all you need to get calm and recentered. We call that “meditation.” But prayer is different because it begins with being centered and moves out from there. It’s like dancing. When you’re in touch with your center of gravity, anything is possible.

Vibes are like musical notes. You can strike a single key, or you can create a fulsome chord. It’s up to you. What kind of vibe do you want to create? Decide before you begin. Search your memory for the vibe you like best, and then use that memory to recreate it. If that doesn’t work, ask the Universal Vibe to provide it for you. That’s usually the best approach anyway.

But whatever vibe you choose, BE WITH IT. Be confident. Don’t waver. If you fall out of your vibe, do whatever it takes to get back in it. The only failure is the failure to begin again.

If you practice this, anger and confusion will go around you. It will be impossible for you to get carried away by the collective madness. Try it. Be precise with it. Outline a strategy and then act on it. Vibe management is like training a dog. It takes patience, consistency, and a good plan. Once it becomes part of you, you will see the world start to change.

As a Zen master once said, “Begin and continue.”

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Frederick Nietzsche on the loss of myth:

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“Yet without myth, all culture loses its healthy and natural creative power: only a horizon surrounded by myths can unify an entire cultural movement. Myth alone rescues all the powers of imagination and the Apolline dream from their aimless wanderings.

“The images of myth must be the daemonic guardians, omnipresent and unnoticed, which protect the growth of the young mind and guide man’s interpretation of his life and struggles.

“The state itself has no unwritten laws more powerful than the mythical foundation that guarantees its connection with religion and its growth out of mythical representations.

“Let us now, by way of comparison, imagine abstract man, without the guidance of myth – abstract education, abstract morality, abstract justice, the abstract state; let us imagine the lawless wandering, unchecked by native myth, of the artistic imagination; let us imagine a culture without a secure and sacred primal site, condemned to exhaust every possibility and feed wretchedly on all other cultures—there we have our present age, the product of that Socratism bent on the destruction of myth.

“And here stands man, stripped of myth, eternally starving, in the midst of all the past ages, digging and scrabbling for roots, even if we must dig for them in the most remote antiquities.

“What is indicated by the great historical need of unsatisfied modern culture, clutching about for countless other cultures, with its consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical womb?

“Let us consider whether the feverish and sinister agitation of this culture is anything other than a starving man’s greedy grasping for food – and who would wish to give further nourishment to a culture such as this, unsatisfied by everything it devours, which transforms the most powerful, wholesome nourishment into ‘history and criticism’?…

“For this is how religions die; the mythic premises of a religion are systematized, beneath the stern and intelligent eyes of an orthodox dogmatism, into a fixed sum of historic events; one begins nervously defending the veracity of myths, at the same time resisting their continuing life and growth. The feeling for myth dies and is replaced by religious claims to foundations in history…

“…Like a human being, a people has value only in so far as it can give its experience the stamp of eternity, for in this way it becomes desecularized, and reveals its unconscious inner conviction of the relativity of time and the true, metaphysical meaning of life.

“The opposite occurs when a people begins to understand itself historically and to shatter the mythical bulwarks that surround it. This generally goes hand in hand with a resolute process of secularization, a break with the unconscious metaphysics of its former existence, and all the ethical consequences that follow that.”

– The Birth of Tragedy, by Friedrich Nietzsche

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Can you ever really know who you are?

AlchemySymbols

by Michael Maciel

There is a spiritual experience called “Self-realization,” a term popularized in the spiritual movement by Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship that brings a person face-to-face, so to speak, with their own being. Call it a “point of emergence” or the “source of one’s light of life.” Whatever term you give it, it is the most real part of you. And when you see it, you can neither deny it nor forget it.

Self-realization is one of the most significant experiences that one can have in a single lifetime. It changes your perspective forever. You can no longer see yourself as a separate, finite individual in a meaningless cosmos. Rather, you are one with it, and that One is intensely and universally personal.

Imagine that you are a river. You know many phases of your existence—the canyons, the valleys, the woodlands—all the places that comprise the sense of who you are. You even know your delta, the place where you intuit that you will meet your “end,” merging back into your source, the great ocean. But then you are shown your headwaters—your source. At first, this is an amazing discovery. It’s like seeing the source of your life’s energy, the place where you begin.

But this isn’t who you are, it’s just another aspect. Who you are is the entire hydrologic cycle—the ocean, the sun, the clouds, the rain—not just the surface water flowing along its banks. You see yourself as part of a larger, more complex system, one that in the final analysis is YOU. The single river, the life-expression you are perceptually attuned to, is just an individualized part of the system as a whole.

So it is with the Solar System. Taken in its entirety, our Solar System is an organic being, like a cell, complete with a nucleus, a membrane, and organelles—the planets. And just as identifying ourselves with the organic substance of our flesh is insufficient to tell us who we are, so is looking at the Solar System as a huge rock collection orbiting a nuclear furnace insufficient to describe the totality of Life. We see only a small slice of the electromagnetic structure of which the planetary bodies are but a part. Nor do we see the underlying intelligence that holds it all together.

The experience of Self-realization is like opening a door to this greater reality. It’s the beginning of the initiatory journey of knowing who we are in terms of the Cosmos—the invisible as well as the visible.

The key to actually experiencing this Great Awakening is faith—the trust that you are capable of having this kind of experience, that it isn’t something separate from your being and therefore unattainable. No. If it’s who you are in reality, then what else is there? What could possibly prevent you from seeing it, from knowing it? All you have to do is look in its direction, which is inward towards the source of the Light of Life as you perceive it.

It takes desire, willpower, and sacrifice, along with a sense of awe and a heartfelt devotion, to reach this breakthrough of awareness. But once you experience it, you will never be the same again.

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What Is the Illumination Event?

by Michael Maciel

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The central reality of our existence is the Sun at the center of our Solar System. We are immersed in its life-giving energies, as though we were “in” the Sun and not merely revolving around it at a distance. The Sun is but the visible center of an organic cell — its nucleus — a cell that is over seven billion miles in diameter.

And it’s not so clear whether the Sun’s vitality isn’t due to being part of a larger network of similar cosmic entities, all of which burn with the same intelligence-laden brilliance, an intelligence not of ideas but patterns of organic thought. Their combined light is but the first visible manifestation of an ineffable, indefinable Well of Being, one that contains every possible form of life and life-giving power.

Our bodies are natural tuning forks to this combined celestial Life Wave. Why? Because they were created by it. They are the response of the chaotic cosmic soup of undifferentiated vibrations to a supra-physical formative power. God spoke and the worlds came into being.

As deeply as we may imagine, our structure — including physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual — are enervated by this “spoken” impulse — the Word. It is that by which we exist on all the multi-planes and without which we could not exist, not even as a thought.

This “spoken” impulse is the Logos, not a particular person but many persons who have aligned themselves with it to such a degree that they have become vocal-points of its expression. When they speak — whether with their voice, their thought, or their actions — their Word tends to ignite the sleeping, potential spiritual energy of anyone who is capable of receiving it.

But unless receptivity is there, the Word barely makes a dent. The requirement for ignition to occur, apparently, is the willingness to hear, not with the ears as much as with one’s spirit.

Herein lies the necessity for preparation and spiritual development in order for the Illumination Event to occur.

How to prepare for Illumination:

The energies of life are cyclical. We know this because we can watch the ebb and flow of the vitality of our bodies, the rise and fall of our emotional exuberance, and the steady ascendance of our spiritual awareness. Nothing about us is stationary. Change and life seem synonymous — the surest sign of life is movement.

Knowing this fundamental, metaphysical fact of the cycles of life enables us to harness their energies by feeding them during their upswings and withdrawing our attention on their downswings. For example, in the morning when our energies are ramping up, we lift our awareness towards the highest spiritual states we can, while at night before bed, we retrospect the day’s events one-by-one and let go of them. This is working with the cycle, not against it. Similarly, in the beginning of our life, we strive to build constructive habits, while at the close of life, we relax them so that they do not bind us at the moment of death. There are many examples of how we work constructively with cycles.

If you are fortunate enough to have a spiritual teacher, he or she has been trained to monitor the cyclic activity of your spiritual vitality. To the untrained eye, what looks like a temporary depression can actually be the point at which the inner light is in its ascendancy. The outer mind is resisting the impending expansion and so believes that its identity is in jeopardy — hence the depression. Colloquially speaking, this where people “find God at the end of their rope.”

The seeming chaos in the outer is an inverse reflection of the reorganization of one’s inner reality. Conversely, an outer enthusiasm and enhanced physical activity is not always an accurate indication of a person’s readiness to “die on the cross.”

Confidence isn’t always a good thing. In fact, it is more likely to get in the way. This is why discursive means of study are discouraged, while contemplation and devotional readings are encouraged. The teacher may, in fact, work to undermine the student’s confidence so that surrender is made easier.

The sole purpose of mental instruction during the time leading up to the Illumination Event is to loosen the mass-mind beliefs that will prevent the student from letting go at the crucial moment. The proper kind of instruction during this phase is metaphysics — those teachings that contradict the evidence of sensory logic.

One of the best methods for this is teaching students how to get their prayers answered. Nothing blows a hole in the mass-mind wider than a good ‘ole demonstration of the Law of Prayer. When it happens, one’s entire belief system comes crashing down. The worldly mind doesn’t know what to do with the new phenomenon, and in its confusion (sometimes panic) all the doors and windows are left open, providing an excellent opportunity for the astute teacher to upload the most seditious seed-thoughts — seditious, that is, to the student’s mass-mind belief systems.

Much of this is basic psychology — reprogramming the mind so that it resonates better with divine ideas. But more is required than mere resonance. There has to be a deliberate ignition of the spiritual life force within the individual. Only a person trained in this kind of work can do it safely and effectively.

Sometimes, the Illumination event can happen spontaneously but only when the standard prerequisites are fulfilled, however that might happen, whether by design or by circumstance. One person I know experienced the sudden influx of brilliant white light when he was stranded penniless in India. He was starving and destitute, with no way of obtaining help from his family back home in America. It came upon him suddenly in the most unlikely of circumstances, not sitting in lotus position at a guru’s feet.

Others have experienced it as a result of the laying on of hands by a teacher who spoke the Word of Power, commanding the light to enter and fill the student’s body. It can happen in various ways, but the results are always the same — the direct, unmistakable experience of light within one’s body. Whether it happens in that moment or at some point in the future, it happens.

Some experience the Illumination Event in subtler ways. It might not be a profound experience of visible light. It might be an overwhelming feeling. But this can be the result of having experienced the light all throughout their lives and not knowing that it was anything exceptional. Because of its familiarity and their body’s lack of resistance to spiritual energy, their spine doesn’t light up like a Christmas tree. Instead, a sudden feeling of clarity and “lightness” comes over them. But no matter how it happens, their lives are never the same after the experience.

Illumination is real. It IS a distinct experience. When it happens, you will know it, believe me. It does no good to downplay it or to misconstrue it as an insight or greater understanding. When someone says, “I saw the light,” they are usually describing an “aha” moment, not the ignition of the Life Force made visible within their consciousness. That is not an aha moment. It is an event, one that changes you forever.

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Where your treasure is…

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by Michael Maciel

 
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” – Matthew 6:21
 
Jesus is telling us that we want what we value.
 
This is actually a straightforward observation of human nature. Whenever we move towards a goal, whether it’s a career move or a tasty snack, we say—via our actions—that the thing is more valuable than what we have now, that it is preferable to where we are in the present moment.
 
Jesus was using this basic fact of life to get his listeners to use this primary motivating factor of human nature to orient themselves towards spiritual goals. He knew that nothing in this world could be ultimately satisfying because nothing in this world lasts. If your value structure is based on material well-being, you will be continually disappointed, because conditions always change, and they don’t usually change for the better, given that all constructed things tend to decompose over time.
 
So, he was advising people to value things that do not change over time, namely the underlying principles of Being itself, which mostly have to do with higher states of consciousness and the beings who live there. He was saying that the real world is not the world that appears but is of a higher order that is motivated primarily by love, not by domination and exploitation, which seems to be what motivates people, mostly, here in this world.
 
It’s important, therefore, that we choose our values very carefully because they will be the predominant orienting factors in our life. We must have a North Star around which our lives revolve. It’s not enough to say that one value is no better than another, that all truths are merely opinions, and that there are no grand narratives by which we can orient our society in a direction that is both viable and sustainable.
 
If we abandon such narratives, we will drift, and drifting is no way to conduct oneself or one’s society. As the saying goes, “If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything.” Abandoning our cultural narratives—our mythic tales, the ones that represent our highest spiritual ideals—can only lead to disaster, because those stories exemplify the intrinsic value of the individual, and if we abandon that notion, then all we have left is tribalism—the antithesis of civilization.
 
Jesus’ teachings were not only for the individual but for society as a whole. They pointed to levels of cooperation and harmony that depend on voluntary participation. As such, they are extremely sophisticated in both their scope and their depth. Each person must accept the principle and own it personally. Otherwise, voluntary participation is impossible.
 
“Without a vision, the people perish.”

 

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Another Way to Pray

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by Michael Maciel

There’s one type of prayer that we don’t talk about very much—creative prayer. I’m not talking about asking God for favors or using prayer as a last-ditch effort to solve a problem, but rather as a way to create a condition that at present is still just an ideal—a dream—one that hasn’t yet materialized in your life.
 
This is the kind of prayer where you ask God for inspiration so that you can better see what’s possible for you in this life. At the very least, you can ask God for wisdom, to see what you’re doing wrong so that you can make the appropriate course corrections. That’s always a good place to start because it’s easier to stop doing what you know is wrong than it is to identify your ideal. Usually, we don’t know what we want, but we always know what we need to change.
 
Creative action more often than not requires some form of demolition. We have to dismantle what’s not working in our lives before we can ever hope to know what our true possibilities are. Because, while we’re in the midst of turmoil, the good is impossible to see clearly. This is where creative prayer comes in. We consult with God to find out what to do next. And that almost always entails cleanup work.
 
We may have dreams that we cling to, even when our lives are in utter chaos. But chances are that as we get rid of the habits, the possessions, and maybe even the relationships that are causing the chaos, our dreams will change. The higher up the mountain of clarity we climb, the farther we can see. As our horizon grows wider, so do our dreams. Creative prayer is the process of climbing that mountain.
 
Start by asking God what you’re doing that’s causing you problems. What do you need to stop doing? The answer will come immediately. Why? Because you already know what needs to go. But sometimes, you might be mistaken. That’s why you need to ask God. And don’t be surprised when the answer to your question comes as an outer circumstance. If your question is sincere, a day or two later you might get written up by your boss. This might be an indication that you need to find another job. But it could also mean that you need to clean up your act at work. It’s up to you to figure out which one it is.
 
What’s best for us isn’t always easy to know. It’s far easier to determine what’s bad for us. Once we get that straight, then the good will present itself by default. It will become more and more obvious as we clean up our life.
 
So, stop doing what you know you shouldn’t be doing. If you’re lying, start telling the truth. If you’re stealing time from your job, start giving back by making efficient use of your time while on the clock. And if you’re being mean to people, go out of your way to do something nice for them. You know what you need to do. Start doing it, and then watch as your horizons expand!
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Notes on the Vow of Service

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by Michael Maciel

The word “vow” seems antiquated, doesn’t it? It sounds so monastic, so religious, so restrictive. In my book, The Five Vows, I tried to develop the idea that vows, unlike the negative baggage they’re burdened with, are really more like states of consciousness. Instead of “taking” the vow of service, why not think of it as entering into the consciousness of service?

Entering into the consciousness of something presupposes a couple of things. One, the thing you’re entering into exists somehow independently of you and in some sense outside of you. This idea of an externality doesn’t sit well with most people, because we like to think that all things spiritual already reside within us and all we have to do is realize their presence and let them do their transformative work. But, while that might be technically true, it doesn’t really motivate us to move in that direction, whether inward or outward.

Two, it presupposes that the state of consciousness we’re aspiring to is larger than we are, that it is transcendent to our current state of being. This is very helpful because we all like something good and noble to shoot for, preferably something that is slightly out of our reach. It’s how we’re built—we naturally want to aim high. So, if we think we already have what we’re seeking, we don’t really try very hard. Plus, if we have any ambivalent feelings towards ourselves to begin with (and many people do), then why would we want something that’s part of us, flawed as we are?

No, there are very good reasons why we want to reach up and go for that which is truly greater—in every way—than we are. After all, if we were satisfied with ourselves just the way we are, why would we aspire to anything at all?

Entering into the consciousness of service has broader implications than you might think. Normally, we think of it as doing certain acts, such as volunteer work or giving money to the needy. But there are simpler, more integrative ways to live a life of service. Let’s look at one of them:

The consciousness of service is like a check valve in a pressurized water system. A check valve has a spring-loaded gate that only allows the water in a pipe to flow in one direction. Now, we all know that giving everything of ourselves all the time can’t be good for us, because we have needs, too, right? We have to take care of ourselves while we’re taking care of others, because if we don’t, we will burn out. Then no one is served.

But…WHILE we are giving to others, we want our energy to be a hundred percent giving with no thought of getting something in return. This is actually what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” The ancient religion of Hinduism was already three thousand years old when Jesus came on the scene, and you can bet that he knew their teachings, including the one that says that the right hand is the hand of giving and the left hand is the hand of receiving. There are mudras (ritual hand gestures) that were well-known in that part of the world in Jesus’ day and they found their way into his teachings, as in “Sit, thou, at my right hand.”

So, the consciousness of service is a pure state of consciousness WHEN you are in the act of serving other people. It is an unconflicted state. There are no misgivings, no doubts on your part. You’re all in, not trying to take something out. The way you can tell if you’re capable of such purity in the act of giving is to observe whether you resist having others give to you. An experiment once showed that when strangers on the sidewalk were randomly offered a five dollar bill, most refused to take it. Why? Who knows. Maybe they were afraid there were strings attached. How many ways are people trying to hand you something of value and you turn them down? It’s worth thinking about.

Here’s the broader sense of entering into the consciousness of service. We all know the feeling of having to get up and go to work at the crack of dawn. It’s not good, not usually. We feel enslaved to our job and we feel crushed by our culture. Conformity, not money, can feel like the root of all evil. We are oppressed by it. People have expectations, and unless we live up to them, at least a little, they will make our lives a living hell.

But that’s what cultures do, isn’t it? They always have, regardless of when or where. What we don’t realize is that while our culture is hammering us into plowshares, it is also supporting us in ways that we inevitably take for granted. Life may be hard, but it is nowhere near as hard as it has been historically for humanity as a whole. Historically speaking, we live better than royalty did just two hundred years ago. By a LONG shot. We live longer, eat better, have more entertainment, more options for education, better health care, AND we have NOVOCAINE! Let us never forget that! It used to be that people tried to get rid of their teeth as soon as possible because they were nothing but a curse. The sooner they were gone, the better.

So, one of the easiest ways we can enter into the consciousness of service is to simply show up. Be a good person. Be a reliable person. Pay your bills. Pay your taxes. Drive safely. Obey the laws. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Be responsible. Contribute to the civility of the society in which you live. Develop a skill and use it to be a productive, contributing member of your culture. It has so much to offer you.

Sure, it may act like a judgmental father, it might feel like it’s watching every move you make, it might even penalize you when you make a mistake, but by and large, it WILL help you survive. And if you go along with its program (the parts that work), it will help you survive quite well, better than you could ever manage on your own out in the wilderness struggling to stay warm while you fend off wild animals.

The consciousness of service can simply be letting go of resisting contributing to your society in ways that make it better. Because when YOU are better, society is better. But when you get pathological—when you start to lie, to cheat, and steal—you not only take yourself down, you take everyone else down with you. Instead, be a good person. Show up. The world depends on it.

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What’s the Difference Between Prayer and Meditation?

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by Michael Maciel

In the Pagan traditions, it was almost easier to pray because the One God was divided up into separate attributes, each one governing different aspects of life. So you knew which God to pray to, depending on what you were praying for.

Now we have one God, which in some sense is a little overwhelming because He/She/It is kinda hard to relate to, being the All and Everything.

That’s partly why the Church fronted Jesus and Mary—to bridge the gap between the cosmically ineffable and the relatable personal. Only with time, Jesus and Mary became just as remote as the Father God, due to the human tendency to put all things holy up on an impossibly high pedestal.

The New Age came in with its own solution, which was to say, “Well, you’re actually praying to yourself, anyway, so you don’t have to humble yourself to anyone or anything.” There was some remote truth in that, but it left people more confused than ever. How do you pray to yourself when it’s you who has the need? That approach was a non-starter.

The one thing that the Pagans have that I find most helpful is their keen sense of protocol. There are ways to properly approach a deity that involve a certain level of respect and deference—a certain formality. You never just ask for something. You must first offer a gift. You use certain words and you approach them at designated times. You have to build a relationship with the deity before you start asking for favors.

There was also the sense that if you disrespected a deity, you would incur its wrath. Things would not go well for you. Today, for example, if you take something from the volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, you had better leave a gift for Pele, the goddess of the mountain. If you don’t, she will punish you in some way.

Most of this was carried forward in Christianity right out of the Pagan playbook. The bread and the wine used in the Mass are the “offering.” And if by your sins you displease God, you will have hell to pay.

All of this simply underscores the primary assumption that prayer is the means by which we ask God for those things we either need or want. it assumes that there is a higher consciousness that is capable of delivering, that the universe is governed by a great, creative intelligence that exists within everything while at the same time is superior to it.

But the keyword is “consciousness,” which implies that when you speak to it, it HEARS you. So prayer, first and foremost, involves ways of communicating that ensure that your connection with the Infinite will be established in a way that something meaningful (and therefore powerful) can transpire between you and It.

Meditation is different. The primary purpose of meditation is to get information from the cosmic mind. This is why it’s never referred to as “worship,” whereas prayer is often synonymous with worship. Meditation is a technique, a mental skill, whereas prayer invokes the power of the heart. It’s the difference, basically, between going to church and going to the library.

Meditation should always start with a question. There is a Hindu ashram in Ceylon run by an American Hindu guru where they have an exercise that students are given at the intermediate level of their training. They pair up and one of them hides an object somewhere on campus and the other has to locate it by meditating on its whereabouts. The seeker has to demonstrate proficiency by getting up out of meditation and walking directly to where the object was hidden.

Obviously, this is a mental skill, but it’s a skill that is based on the reality that mind is universal—it does not originate in nor is it confined to the human skull.

The reason that you should always begin meditation with a question is that nature abhors a vacuum, and a question is a psychic vacuum—a space that needs to be filled. If you simply go in trying to quiet your mind, you will encounter difficulty, because you’re trying to force a vacuum, not create one naturally, which is what asking a question does. Of course, the question has to be genuine. You have to really want the answer. But…that’s not really correct, because wanting has very little to do with mind. Instead, you have to KNOW that the answer exists. If your question is real, the answer is real. All you have to do is let it come to you. That’s why meditation is sometimes referred to as “listening” to God.

One way to demonstrate this is to go to a place you are unfamiliar with and find a wall. Sit in front of the wall and ask the Universal Intelligence what’s on the other side of it. You know that something has to exist there because the wall isn’t the end of reality. Knowing this is actually the true meaning of “faith.” You don’t believe something is there—you KNOW it. It has to be, right? So what you want to know is what is there.

If you think about this, you can see that getting to the moon was a “wall.” Finding the cure for polio was a wall. Getting free of fossil fuels is a wall. Everyone knows that there’s an answer. They know it as much as they know anything. So they keep probing, which is to say, they keep asking the universe to yield up the necessary information, the missing links.

In the Temple at Jerusalem, there was a small room called the Holy of Holies. It held the most sacred objects of the people of Israel. No one could go in except the High Priest, and he could only go in once a year. The reason he went in was to seek guidance for his people. Now, there was no door to the Holy of Holies, only a veil—a heavy fabric curtain. Curtains keep us from seeing inside a room, but they cannot prevent us from hearing what’s being said within it.

The Holy of Holies is inside of us. It is that place where we have direct contact with the Divine, with God. The High Priest is also within us. He is that part of us that leads—the executive function of mind. He’s the one who says yes or no. By going in, he is saying “yes,” which is the expectation that we will receive the information we need. The “people” are all of the different aspects of our lives, both the inner and the outer. So, the information we get from our Holy of Holies should, by definition, benefit us entirely.

And the reason the High Priest only goes in once a year is that our contact with God is strengthened if we employ the cyclic powers of nature. The “year” period is only symbolic. What it really means is that the cycles we use have to be in sync with the cosmos, both the heavens and the Earth. All encounters with the Divine work better if they are an iterative event, not a one-off or sporadic or last-ditch plea. Meditation works best when we do it at the same time every day. When our timing is deliberate and consistent, we send a clearer (and therefore more powerful) message, and those who have the answers we seek will be more inclined to respond.

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One Mountain, Many Vantage Points

mountain

by Michael Maciel

For every spiritual process, there is a physical bodily function and structure. Our body truly is the microcosm of the macrocosm. It changes over time, that’s true, but over eons of time, vast stretches of time that might look insignificant in terms of the cosmos but on our scale seem like an eternity. It may not be “forever,” as the saying goes—it just feels like it.

We can take great comfort in the fact that the physical vehicle we have is somewhat stable, that the myths and spiritual practices we have inherited from the distant past are as applicable now as they were then. The story of the Hero’s Journey is eternal. The Crucifixion and Resurrection experiences are eternal. And not just eternal but universal. Everyone, regardless of sex, race, or religion, goes through them in exactly the same way, even though their individual experience, seen through the lens of their life history, makes each event seem unique.

When we focus our attention on the Divine, the same effects produced in the cells of our brain are exactly the same as those in everyone else’s brain. When we practice pranayama (spiritual breathing exercises) we are affected in exactly the same way the ancient Hindu masters were when they invented those techniques. And when we voluntarily submit ourselves to the suffering of the world and do so with joy and gratitude for the magnificent gift of life, we experience the same elevation of spirit that every other human being who ever lived experienced—in exactly the same way. The only thing about it that changes is our unique, individual perspective.

There is only one mountain but it can be viewed from an infinite number of vantage points.

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The Psychology of Winning

nascar

by Michael Maciel

Second place is just the first loser. – NASCAR adage

Yeah, competition is tricky that way, isn’t it. Unless you stake everything, and I mean everything on winning, you’re likely to lose. Second place is not an option. That’s part of what makes racing such an intense event.

Having raced in my youth, I have often contemplated the fear and excitement of ski racing. It can be simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. It’s like an initiation or, more correctly speaking, a rite of passage. It tested my courage to the absolute limit. Recently, I watched a horrific fatal accident in an online video where a ski racer crashed into a safety net alongside a downhill course at what looked like 80 to 90 mph. The net tore his body in the most grotesque way and he bled to death where he lay. It affected me in ways that I didn’t know I was capable of being affected. It was one of those things you cannot unsee and I felt something change in me at a fundamental level.

Immediately after I watched the video of this horrible accident, I found myself in a peculiar state of mind. It was, you might say, the complete opposite of sympathy. It was a coping mechanism, and I imagined it might be similar to what soldiers in combat must feel at times, although I don’t know that for sure because I’ve never been in that situation. The feeling I had was not merely one of steeling myself against the horror of what had happened to this man. It was worse than that. I found myself despising him. He had not only failed, he had failed in a way that was totally unacceptable. And for that, I had to turn my back on his pain and his demise.

Of course, what I was really rejecting was my own fear. I was using his failure as an object of my contempt so that it would not undermine the fragile buoyancy of my carefully cultivated courage. It shocked me to feel this way, but in the moment, it felt like the most powerful thing I could do. To do otherwise would defeat me, both in the sense of everything I had accomplished in the past and everything I would attempt to do in the future. I couldn’t let my confidence be undermined by his misfortune. I had to reject him utterly.

There has been a lot of talk lately about zero-sum games and how destructive they can be. And in most social situations, that’s true. Finding solutions to human problems in ways that let everyone prosper are far better than thinking that if one party is to win, the other party has to lose. That has caused more trouble on this planet than any other concept. But, can you not think of a situation where absolute victory is the only option? Are claims made upon us by other people or other countries always legitimate? Must we always take their desires into consideration before we act? Sometimes, we have to say no, and we have to say it irrevocably. Whether we say it to ourselves when we want to do something selfish that we know will hurt others or we say it to someone who wants to harm us for no good reason other than they just simply want to, the act of our saying no has to be solid. We have to draw a line and the line has to hold. We have to hold it. Sometimes, there is no retreat. When our back is up against a wall, our will to survive must be unconflicted. Learning how to do this is what sports are all about. They test our mettle in ways that don’t require us to fight for our lives but rather give us ways to practice our resolve in the safety of a controlled environment.

The kinds of extreme sports like NASCAR and ski racing are surrogates for these kinds of life-and-death decisions. They test our courage, and they have potentially deadly consequences for failure that are every bit as real as those encountered in violent confrontations. Some may argue against the usefulness of such contests or even the validity of testing oneself in ways that seem so irresponsible. But the attempt to become courageous is meaningless unless the risks involved are real. And the benefits that accrue to one’s character as a result of forthrightly facing those risks cannot be overstated. They elevate you to new heights of self-awareness and confidence. They change your life.

So I can see why NASCAR drivers find second place to be despicable—”the first loser.” It’s almost a necessary state of mind to have in order to win. It’s because, I think, that we need something to run away from while we are running towards our goals, something so frightening that we will avoid it at all costs. We need a hell to push us from behind as much as we need to be drawn forwards by our goals. Because if we don’t have that, any setback, especially a serious one like the gruesome death of a fellow competitor or even of one’s comrade-in-arms on the field of battle, will likely dissuade us too easily from the victory we seek. Failure has to be made so hateful that we will fiercely strive to avoid it.

This sentiment, if carried to its extreme, would be the death of compassion, that’s for sure. It would be the ugly cruelty of Sparta, not the beautiful strength of Athens. But in the intensity of the moment, especially when you’re “next up,” ruthlessness becomes your only salvation. You have to push away any shred of possibility of failure. And just pushing it away isn’t enough, because it might spring back repeatedly until it eventually destroys your courage and puts you down. Rather, you have to kill it outright and kill it so thoroughly that it will never raise its demonic head again. You kill it and you bury it in an unmarked grave.

Some people will find this objectionable. Even the idea of winning goes against their sense of fairness and cooperation. They distrust competition in all of its forms and think that it might even be the source of all evil. But life is neither fair nor cooperative. It is brutal and unforgiving. Nature itself seems hellbent on our destruction. Eventually, it defeats us all, usually in painful, messy ways. As French philosopher Jacques Derrida said when he was dying of cancer, “This is all going to end—and very badly.”

It’s because of this existential predicament we find ourselves in that we must value strength and resilience over safety and comfort. It’s not that we can’t have those things, but we must never sacrifice the careful cultivation of courage to the fantasy of an idyllic life where peace and love have somehow magically replaced all forms of suffering. That’s simply not going to happen. In a billion years, maybe, but not anytime soon.

And it’s not only war and extreme sports that provide us with the hard choices that can strengthen our character. It’s every moral choice that we have to make. It’s every moment that we are confronted with the choice of either doing the right thing or doing what’s expedient, to retreat into the tranquilized obviousness of what we already know or to venture courageously into the unknown and risk everything for the opportunity to know a greater truth. It’s in these small moments that we grow into the person we can be. It’s not to the cheers of an adoring crowd at the finish line that we make our greatest strides towards our yet-to-be-realized potential but in our most private decisions, the ones we make when no one is watching.

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