Underneath all our ecological and economic crises lies, it seems to me (and I'm not by a long way the first to articulate this of course), the urgent need for humankind to take a leap in the evolution of consciousness. If we want to survive as a species, and if we truly care about whether or not we take down the rest of the planet with us in our thrashing and posturing destructiveness, we need to change, and fast, in terms of our awareness and the outcomes of the choices we make: looking at our greed, our megalomania, our potential for hate, our fear. Staring it in the face, individually and collectively, until we really know the shape of it. Everything else is sticking a plaster on it.
One of the great contributions this last century to consciousness has been the pyschotherapeutic movement. It seems to me that the integration of psychology into our spiritualities – and vice versa – offers us a potentially huge way forward, and this is happening in some areas.
What this conjunction offers is an engaged way of living in the world, where we learn what it means to take responsibility for our movement through it and the consequences of that on self and other. I remember too those words of Jung's: that with increased rights come increased responsibility. This doesn't seem to have hit home really, looking at the way we humans are in the world.
One of the things that has appealed to me always about Zen is the potential for bringing awareness to each moment, every moment, and how we relate to it (this is common throughout Buddhism but shines clearly in the stripped-down-ness of Zen). In emphasising as it does the interconnectedness of everything (as does modern paganism, which has also influenced my life through shamanic and druidic practice) it reminds us that every personal thought/word/action has a consequence – again at least potentially – in the collective, in the way (this is an image frequently used in Buddhist thought) that the ripples from a pebble in a pool spread out. As in good poetry, the personal also opens out into the universal.
One of the many things psychotherapy brings to this is an increasing awareness of our patterns and habits, our beliefs. Once we bring these subliminal conditioned patterns of being into the conscious mind we have some choice; whereas as long as they reside unnoticed in the subconscious they continue to drive us and, in their relative automony, can wreak havoc.
And to karma – a widely misunderstood term in the West, it seems. Karma is simply the consequences of actions: harvesting what we sow, in other words. It is not merely a kind of balance sheet of good actions/bad actions for which we'll reap reward or be punished at some unspecified later date – or at least, that is only a crude representation. What it is is an awareness that everything we do has an effect; and the consequent notion that the more awareness we can bring to our way of being in the world the more liberated we (and others affected by us) will be.
Implicit in karma is that our thoughts and beliefs about the world really do shape our experience of the world. This is of course a self-perpetuating cycle – 'the wheel of karma' applies here too. This is relatively easily empirically tested; and there are a number of studies that show the way this may work in relation to others. I'm thinking here of the well-known experiments where a teacher was given an unfamiliar class of pupils and told that they were underachievers. Whether or not this was actually the case, the pupils all underachieved in the tasks they were set. A different teacher was given the same group of pupils and told the opposite – that they were all exceptionally gifted. Guess what?
So if we believe – or are told enough times – for instance that we are powerless, that is the tone we will tend to attract and manifest in our lives, putting it crudely. The reactions of the world to this will reinforce the belief. If we believe that the world is 'dog eat dog', that is what we will see, that is what we will buy into and enact and that is what will appear to happen to us too. If we live by the sword, etc. (I know this is crude as well but it will do for now.)
One of my bedside books, falling to pieces now as it's lived there for more than 30 years, is the Pali text The Dhammapada, a little collection of aphorisms incorporated into the Buddhist canon some time before the Christian era.
Here's its opening aphorism (in Juan Mascaro's translation):
'What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.'
So simple; so revolutionary. I have to remind myself frequently never to underestimate the power of thought.