All of the world’s spiritual and wisdom traditions use some or all of these paths as bridges to the universal.
The Path of Aesthetics and Beauty. One way to think of artistic inspiration is that artists align with some essential insight or truth about the universe and express it through their art. Leonard Bernstein wrote this about his experience conducting an orchestra:
…it takes minutes before I know where I am – in what hall, in what country, or who I am. Suddenly, I become aware that there is clapping, that I must bow. It’s very difficult. But marvelous. A sort of ecstasy… that is nothing more and nothing less than a loss of ego. You don’t exist.
Think about times when this has happened to you. Perhaps you were at a concert, or watching a sunset, or rapt in the beauty of a campfire, or at the magnificence of a newborn child. You experience awe and the awakening of a new awareness, something beyond your usual experience of yourself. The world’s spiritual traditions certainly recognize the power of this path. The art of the world, the greatest architecture, paintings, frescoes, sculptures, music and poetry have all been created for and inspired by recognition of the universal.
The Path of the Body. Physical activities can lead us to freedom from the separate self, to the feeling of being part of something greater. Athletes and QiGong and yoga practitioners know this experience very well, and people can often experience it while receiving acupuncture or other body treatments. It happens when we let go of strained effort and instead give way into the natural flow of animating life energy and wisdom in the body. An experience of the universal can even occur under the most difficult of medical circumstances, e.g., in our time of dying, when we give up fighting our physical experience and just observe it and surrender to it. In the yogic tradition, the natural flow of life energy and wisdom is called prana. In Taoism, it is chi, as in the practices of Tai Chi or Chi Kung (QiGong). In modern Western science, it is now being referred to as subtle energy. These are all references to the life force, the vitalizing force of all living beings.
The Path of Ceremony and Ritual. Part of the richness of ceremony and ritual is the synergy of a like-minded group of people joining together with shared intention. In formalized ceremonies, elements such as special garments, candles, incense, prayers, music, chanting, pageantry, theater, and dance are utilized to draw our consciousness out beyond the confines of our separate self. Meaningful spiritual ceremonies and rites of passage are not prevalent in our present culture. If, as children, we were exposed to ceremonies in a mindless and rote way, they can quickly lose their potential. This speaks to the value of creating personally meaningful ceremonies in your day to day life as reminders of the universal.
The Path of Social Action and Justice. World-changing leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King very directly drew strength from their spiritual self. Martin Luther King spoke of “the love of God operating in the human heart.” The path of social action is a path of compassion and courage. You go beyond your instinctual survival fears and your social desire to be approved of and instead stand up for fair treatment of others. The social action path is about acting bravely in the world while staying connected to meaning and a higher purpose out beyond your own self-interest.
The Path of Service. Unlike the path of social action, which is service on a large scale, the path of service can be simply directed toward one other person – your child, your patient, your student, your sponsee, your friend. The path of service is contributing to the lives of others. In doing so, you experience freedom from the fears and tensions of your separate self and instead experience an inner generation of love toward others. The ancient wisdom, “Give and you will receive,” speaks to the positive benefits that flow to you from helping others, and the latest research on the brain suggests that “social intelligence,” the ability to connect to others, is hard-wired in our system and brings us physical and emotional benefits when we activate it through empathic service. Spiritual traditions have different names for service. In Judaism, it is called a mitzvah. In yogic philosophy, it is karma yoga. In Catholicism, there are religious orders devoted to nursing, medicine and teaching.
The Path of Knowledge and Wisdom. This path is motivated by the mind’s desire to experience the greater truth of reality. We may think of the scientist and the scholar as people on this path. Often, such searchers will consider themselves pre-eminently rational and dismiss the spiritual quest as irrational. But the very origin of the Western scientific method is in the work of Francis Bacon who was trying to bring the search for truth into the world. Knowledge expands our mind out farther and farther, to the infinity of the universe, and deeper and deeper down to smaller and smaller particles of existence, and frees us from limited definitions of who we are and what we are part of.
The Path of Devotion. This path is characterized by surrender, adoration, and worship of the universal. Its premise is that we are too small to know the ultimate answers, but that we can enjoy, even love, the wonders we are part of. The great Sufi mystic Rumi put it this way:
I am so small I can barely be seen. How can this great love be inside me?
Far from the researcher who personally seeks out knowledge, the devotee’s path asks us to give up the search for knowledge and to give in, to surrender to powers greater than us.
The concept of surrender is an inherent aspect of most 12-Step programs. It is not a matter of resignation but rather an empowered awareness that something greater than our separate self is involved in our life and that we need to open to this universal aspect of reality. One of the main forms of practice in the devotional path is prayer. Dr. Larry Dossey, one of the pioneers of alternative and complementary medicine, has been studying and synthesizing experimental research in prayer. His thoughts on the nature of prayer are provocative and offer new possibilities for the devotional path:
The prevailing notion that prayer is asking for something…is woefully incomplete. I want to get away from that common way of looking at prayer. Prayer for me is any psychological act which brings us closer to the transcendent…Prayer may involve words…It can involve silence, nonactivity. It can even be done in the subconscious or when we sleep at night. So I prefer the use the term ‘prayerfulness’ to capture those activities we have traditionally called prayer.
The Path of Meditation. After his first heart attack, John, a 58 year old teacher, began to look for treatment of his coronary artery disease. He decided to try the approach of cardiologist Dean Ornish. Ornish’s patients have been able to reverse coronary arterial clogging, to reduce or discontinue medication, to reduce or end chest pain, to lose weight while eating more, and to feel more energetic and calm. All of this is accomplished without surgery or medication. It is accomplished through the alternative health practices of stress management (meditation, imagery, hatha yoga), diet, exercise, stopping smoking and other addictions.
After trying the Ornish approach for a week, John gave up. He could not comply with all the lifestyle changes. In frustration, he called Ornish on the telephone and asked him to recommend only the single most important practice in the approach. Dr. Ornish immediately told John, “Meditate.”
John was surprised. He thought surely that diet or exercise would be the priority. John asked Ornish why mediation was the key practice. In response, he was told that meditation counteracts some of the pounding the body takes from a worried mind. The path of meditation is characterized by discipline and an act of will in which you deliberately set out to expand perceptions and attention. In John’s case, meditation will be an act of retraining his mind to not succumb to worry as the dominant way to perceive reality. The physical benefits of meditation have been studied and well-documented in the scientific literature for many years. Stress reduction is the most studied effect of meditation because we can quantify reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, muscular tension and stomach acid as evidence of less stress.
In general, meditation techniques can be classified as concentrative, receptive, and creative.
Concentrative meditation emphasizes a single-minded focus on one object – the breath, a phrase, a thought, an image, a repeated movement. In such techniques, the goal is to ignore all other experiences and to keep returning attention to the single meditative object.
Receptive meditation begins with a concentration technique, such as focus on breathing, and then gradually lets awareness open to the stream of experiences, including body sensations, thoughts, feelings, moods, sounds, energy shifts. This receptive behavior is sometimes called witness consciousness or mindfulness. As only one example of its benefits, the mindfulness meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, who works with people in recovery from addictions, indicates that an important moment takes place in meditation when the person realizes he can simply observe and let go of thoughts or urges that previously caused him to act self-destructively.
Creative meditation brings the vast resource of the imagination into meditative practice. Two religious traditions that greatly utilize the imagination are Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism. They both utilize art and images extensively to lead the separate self into identification with qualities of the universal (e.g., Mary as the image of love). The potential of imagination to expand awareness is also central in the meditation practices of European psychiatrists Carl Jung and Roberto Assagioli.