If in our childhood, we sometimes sensed the presence of a powerful invisible guide, and perhaps were occasionally surprised by feeling exuberantly wonderful - despite challenging, far-from-ideal circumstances - then this mystery of the "greater than" will likely re-emerge in adulthood.
"Greater than" is a subtle yet powerful sensation that can strike us with awe & wonder. Joanna Macy's quote points to this:
“If this world is to be healed through human efforts,
I am convinced it will be by ordinary people
whose love for life is even greater than their fear."
Fear is a universal defense mechanism to preserve one's own life & safety. When fear dominates ("egocentric / noisy ego," "left-brain dominance," "fight, flight, freeze reaction") the world is a dangerous place & all one's attention & energy is focused only on survival. This otherwise healthy brief reaction to transient danger is grossly distorted by severe past & ongoing trauma, as well as by conditions like narcissistic personality disorder. When lost in fear, we see a dangerous, chaotic, uncaring, perhaps even malicious world / god. To cope, many override fear with anger / disgust, bulldozing their way through life - at a cost: http://www.johnlovas.com/2022/04/very-different-now.html
Today, even those who've not experienced severe trauma, tend to be spiritually illiterate - not having the knowledge nor even the language to consider or express what is most meaningful to them. By default they assume that science knows all, and that anything beyond science - religion / spirituality is "old-fashioned superstition," leaving them boxed-in, hopeless, cynical & paradoxically angry at a cartoon-like image of a "God" they don't believe in.
Psychotherapy (with or without entheogens) and meditation / contemplative practices can be powerfully beneficial.
Many years ago, I saw a patient in his 30s for severe chronic pain in his mouth. He was extremely angry & frustrated because severe chronic back pain, & more recently mouth pain prevented him from doing the work he loved. He wasn't even able to lift up his small children to play with them. He must surely have been terrified of being unable to support, or be of any practical use to his young family. I told him that his anger (due to fear, sadness & frustration) is perfectly justified & understandable, HOWEVER it's preventing him from healing. I advised him to learn to let go of his anger so he could heal & regain his life, & prescribed an ointment for him to apply to his mouth. A few weeks later he returned with marked reduction of the pain in his mouth AND his back. The clinician from his pain clinic phoned and asked me for the prescription I had given him because "it" had such a profound beneficial effect on his back, while months of potent narcotics had not reduced his back pain at all. Of course the topical agent for his mouth had nothing whatsoever to do with the remarkable pain reduction in his back. His letting go of anger was key, allowing him to face, deal with & come to terms with his underlying great fear & sadness directly, and then he was freed to live his life.
When / if fear subsides, then our far more evolved true nature can surface ("allocentric/ecocentric," "quiet ego," "right-brain dominance," "tend & befriend instinct") and our concern & energies SHIFT to nurturing others & everything around us, creativity & joy. Our true nature sees profound interconnection between everything ("oneness"), and that "all shall be well." This perspective is totally incomprehensible to the fear-driven left-brain and therefore, to many people today - including psychologists, physicians & other health-care practitioners.
"contemplative practices allow the egoic mind to drop of its own accord, and for you to experience something greater – that direct experience of the vastness of which we are a part." Rami Shapiro 2021 interview: https://batgap.com/rabbi-rami-shapiro/
“There’s a great hue and cry now about ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And I think the Golden World is the meaning of life – that which supersedes one’s egocentric view of life - to find something that’s greater than I am; something that I can work for, outside my own egocentric structure. And I must safeguard my egocentric structure, in order to have a platform for that too. That’s the either and or that’s so difficult for the modern person.” Robert A. Johnson. “The Golden World. The Search for Meaning, Fulfillment, and Divine Beauty.” Sounds True, Audiobook, 2018.
"The ecstatic experience involves escaping from the ‘I-ness.’ This requires that we break the boundaries of our separateness to experience a greater realm, a realm that taxes our finest poets and artists to convey. It is the most valuable experience any person can have. The beauty of the Golden World is that one sees a vastness, something so much greater than oneself that one is left speechless with awe, admiration, delight, and rapture.
Very few people have the intelligence to surrender with dignity to forces greater than themselves. Most of us have to be hit in the head ... and thereby forced into a realization of the Golden World.
... when one has stopped trying to maneuver external reality so that it will work out as the ego desires. One turns authority over to something greater than oneself; the ego is sacrificed to the Self, the earthly world serves the heavenly world, and one learns, at last, to trust the slender threads.” Robert A. Johnson, Jerry M. Ruhl. “Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations.” HarperCollins, 1998. EXCEPTIONALLY WORTHWHILE BOOK
Balfour Mount, the Canadian surgeon who introduced palliative care in North America, studied existential suffering, & the experience of integrity & wholeness, in persons with life-threatening illness. He identified 4 types of 'healing connections' involving a sense of bonding to Self, others, the phenomenal world, & ultimate meaning. These situated participants in a context that was greater & more enduring than the self, thus leading to enhanced meaning and quality of life. (More recently, this phenomenon is referred to as "post-traumatic growth.") Balfour M. Mount, Patricia H. Boston, S. Robin Cohen. “Healing Connections: On Moving from Suffering to a Sense of Well-Being.” Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 33; 4: 372-388, 2007.
"Near Death Experiences (NDEs) often lead to a paradoxical decrease in devotion to any one religious tradition, despite a greater awareness of guidance by and connection to a higher power. ... Many experiencers describe adopting a form of nondenominational spirituality since their NDEs, in which all religious traditions are valued but no one religion is given precedence." Bruce Greyson. “After. A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond.” St. Martin’s, 2021.
“The search for reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. (ineffable means too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words)
We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.
Citizens of two realms, we all must sustain a dual allegiance …” Abraham Joshua Heschel
"There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe." Teilhard de Chardin
Perhaps the most common & saddest example of needless suffering today is seen among the elderly, especially those with progressive diseases such as Parkinson's, dementia etc, who have nothing but a materialist / physicalist worldview, and see their situation as meaningless loss of control & suffering, or perhaps worse, the victim of a cruel creator. In this unfortunate situation, Dylan Thomas' famous words, "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." may sound heroic, BUT there is infinitely wiser advice:
"… in any situation in life, confronted by an outer threat or opportunity, you can notice yourself responding inwardly in one of two ways. Either you will brace, harden, & resist, or you will soften, open & yield. If you go with the former gesture, you will be catapulted immediately into your smaller self, with its animal instincts and survival responses. If you stay with the latter regardless of the outer conditions, you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it, divine being can reach you. Spiritual practice at its no-frills simplest is a moment-by-moment learning not to do anything in a state of internal brace. Bracing is never worth the cost.
This does not necessarily carry over into an outer state of surrender, or ‘rolling over & playing dead.’ On the contrary, interior surrender is often precisely what makes it possible to see a decisive action that must be taken and to do it with courage and strength. To ski down a hill or split a piece of wood, you first have to relax inwardly; only then can you exert the right force and timing. It’s exactly the same in the emotional world. Whether it’s a matter of holding your ground in a dispute with your boss, handling a rebellious teenager with tough love, or putting your life on the line for an ideal you believe in like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., action flows better when it flows from nonviolence, that is, from the place of relaxed, inner opening.
... surrender is an act of spiritual power because it opens the heart directly to the more subtle realms of spiritual Wisdom & energy. One hands oneself over, in the poet Dante’s beautiful image, into ‘the love that moves the stars and the sun.’ When the attitude of prompt surrender has become permanently ingrained in a person while still in bodily life, that person becomes a powerful servant of humanity – a saint, in the language of the Christian West – whose very being radiates blessing and spiritual strength." Cynthia Bourgeault. “The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming An Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart.” Jossey-Bass, 2003.
“Most important of all, do everything you can to nurture your spiritual intelligence. It is your only genuine source of hope, direction, meaning, and comfort.” Thomas Moore
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