Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Each Soul Contributes

In The Soul of Christianity, Huston Smith describes what he calls the “corporate view” of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Each Christian is working out his or her salvation in conjunction with the rest of the church, not individually to save a separate soul. ‘One can be damned alone, but saved only with others’ is a familiar adage in the Russian Church. . . . Orthodoxy brings the entire universe into the economy of salvation. Not only is the destiny of each individual bound up with the entire church; the church is responsible for helping to sanctify the entire world of nature and history. The welfare of everything in creation is affected to some degree by what each individual soul contributes to or detracts from it.”

As an introvert, I am very partial to this idea that my private actions have something like global effects. I am by no means unaware of the need to care for the actual, worldly concerns of others – I work in human services, after all – but what exactly am I doing in my private moments of prayer and meditation? Am I merely working out my own individual salvation, striving for my own enlightenment? And if I arrive at my goal, what does that mean in terms of my personal relationships with others – family, friends, the world at large?

What would happen in the (very unlikely) event that I achieved some kind of spiritual perfection in this lifetime? Would I ascend into heaven while watching other less perfected souls fall into hell or get suspended in purgatory? Or would I step off into Nirvana, while the souls of my wife and kids, for example, were sucked back into the round of death and rebirth? Wouldn’t that be a kind of abandonment?

I suppose I could exhort those that I love to take on my beliefs, so that they too could be saved. And if they resisted I could try to force them for their own good. Of course, down that path lies religious persecution and the countless acts of violence that religion has shown it can all too easily perpetrate.

What is a guy who is drawn to all things contemplative to do?

The view of the Orthodox Church stated above – “The welfare of everything in creation is affected to some degree by what each individual soul contributes to or detracts from it” – provides a different way to think about this problem.

All religions give some recognition to the importance of attending to both the divine realm and the workaday world. Buddhism, for example, developed the figure of the Bodhisattva, the being who has attained enlightenment, but out of compassion for creation, refuses entry into Nirvana until all beings are freed from Samsara, the world of birth, death, and suffering. This is a wonderful and inspiring image. It suggests that Nirvana is not Nirvana unless all beings partake of it.

What I like about the perspective of the Eastern Church, though, is the suggestion that attention to the divine realm is, at the same time, caring for the world. Further, it teaches that one person’s spiritual development has a positive effect on the spiritual development of all people. In the private of my own room, I am not only working on my own behalf, but on behalf of the whole world. I am not leaving anybody behind so much as bringing them along with me. At the very least, if I think about it this way, it can help me to divest my contemplation of a measure of ego, which is surely one of it’s goals.

Maybe a raising of our own individual consciousness, however slight, raises the overall level of consciousness in the world. I think it must. And there is some scientific and psychological evidence for this. Neuroscientists have discovered what they call “mirror neurons” which have the effect making our minds resonate with that of another. A mother soothing her crying child is making use of these neurons to understand her babies cries and to alter his or her emotional state. And, thereby, alter his or her consciousness. Surely everyone has had the experience of feeling sad when with a friend who is sad, and joyful with a loved one who is joyful. Our emotions are changed just by being with each other. This is part of the premise on which psychotherapy, at least from a depth perspective, is founded. Jung often warned of this effect from the negative point of view, speaking of psychic epidemics and “mass psychology.” It seems to follow that someone with a higher level of consciousness might just have a kind of magnetic effect on the ordinary consciousness of the rest of us.

I have met many people around whom I feel more centered, to whom I am drawn to hear and to learn from. These are the people I have experienced as being more enlightened, in some way, from whom I imagine I might gain some benefit just from being in their presence. Joseph Campbell explains that the Buddha knows “that his value derives from his power to radiate consciousness—as the value of a light-bulb derives from its power to radiate light” [Myths to Live By]. I want always to be around those lights that give off a warm, enlivening, and steady glow. And, if I am granted by the Spirit of the Universe some ability to do so, I want to contribute what I can to improve the quality of light in the human community.

So, I guess I’ll just go in my room, close my door, lift up my heart in prayer, and send a little love into the world.

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