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Milestones on the Journey of Self-Cultivation

When you drive to another city, you navigate by looking for the waypoints, rest-stops and highway numbers that you know ought to be there.  That’s the difference between going on a journey and bumbling about.  In the same way, there are definite milestones in spiritual life, many of which are so universal and so fundamental to the needs of the human condition that they can be seen across vastly diverse ancient traditions.


Step 1: Renunciation

Renunciation is the first and most easily misunderstood step.  Its purpose is for you to form the resolve and willpower to recognise and change whatever habits, attachments and thoughts are holding you back.  It requires acknowledgement of the harm we have done and the flaws from which we suffer, so that we may offer them and ourselves to be transformed.  This step appears in every tradition under different guises, but it is also the one that can be taken too far, becoming a renunciation of the world and of other people.


Step 2: Dedication

The antidote for this is to dedicate your effort to the benefit of suffering beings.  This is something the greatest saints of the Christian East have done, but it is the Buddhists who have formalised it in the bodhisattva vows, where the practitioner dedicates their enlightenment to the liberation of all suffering beings.


This intention to benefit all beings,

Which does not arise in most beings,

Is an extraordinary jewel of the mind,

And its birth is an unprecedented wonder.

–          Shantideva, The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life


Step 3: Cultivating Compassion

In some branches of these traditions, your next step would be heroic asceticism.  While asceticism remains a necessary tool for dissolving habits and attachments, other traditions recognise that the motive force behind the practice is the most important element.  That force is love or compassion.


An ascetic without compassion is a tree that bears no fruit.

–          St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies


To transform yourself through universal love and compassion is the highest aim of spiritual life, but to begin cultivating it at this point does three things for you:

–          It ensures that your self-discipline is correctly motivated and does not degenerate into a rejection of the physical world

–          It becomes the measure of your relationships, your actions toward others and mental attitudes.  This way, your spiritual life becomes an active one from the very beginning, and you begin to heal your relationships and set up positive dynamics through helping others.  Your spiritual endeavours come to fuel your life, and your successes and failures in life provide feedback for your spiritual efforts.

–          Most importantly, it provides the Tantric means of transforming your outer habits and attachments.  Lama Yeshe teaches, “Tantra emphasises that it is much more effective for human beings to enjoy themselves and channel the energy of their enjoyment into a quick and powerful path to fulfillment and enlightenment.”


Step 4: Watchfulness

Watchfulness appears in every authentic spiritual tradition.  Think of it as spring-cleaning for the mind.  Watchfulness sets the inner attention in the role of observer, apart from the thought-stream of the rational mind.  From this vantage it can observe how thoughts arise, whether they are harmful or beneficial, and what mental conditioning they bear.  In Buddhist terms, this is examination of the aggregate components of the thought stream in order to overcome dualistic perceptions and the desires and false views that cause suffering.   This also requires editing or ending lines of thought which are harmful.  Hesychios the Priest defines watchfulness as “the continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart.”   In this state, the “I” stands above the rational mind and watches, itself silent.


The Tantric version is rather more radical.  By identifying themselves with an enlightened being, Tantric practitioners acknowledge the truth of their future enlightenment and seek to take on the thoughts and qualities of the enlightened being they wish to become.   In this way, their “I” is imputed to their future status as an enlightened being, and seek to align their mind with the non-dual awareness of the Buddha mind.


Step 5: Single-Pointedness

The next stage is single-pointed attention or attentiveness or stillness.  This technique first gathers all mental attention within the body, and aligns it behind a single focus.  The goal of one-pointed meditation as expressed in Tibetan Mahamudra is the simplicity of not grasping onto any concept, even emptiness, and any duality, even samsara and nirvana, observer or observed, so that everything seen in the world is realised to have a single “taste,” the taste of dharma, since everything can be realised as enlightenment.


In hesychasm, collected attention is the groundwork for inner prayer.  Hesychios writes, “Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought… Continuity of attention produces inner stability; inner stability produces a natural intensification of watchfulness; and this intensification…gives contemplative insight.”   Hesychasts interpret the scriptural instruction to go into a closet and shut the door in order to pray spiritually as meaning to enter into the closet of the heart and shut the doors of the senses and the thought-stream of the rational mind.


These first stages of spiritual life can be broadly categorised using the Greek term, μετάνοια, which means a change of mind, life and inner being.  Complete Reality Taoism calls this “refining the self,” which “means burning away temporal accretions encrusting the senses, temperamental biases, and all acquired energies with which one has become imbalanced through habituation.”


Step 6: Abiding in  the Non-dual Consciousness


The kingdom of God is within you

–          Luke 17:21


By small degrees is love lit, with patience it is kindled, and it becomes a great flame seizing the heavens.

–          St. Symeon the New Theologian


Within you, beneath all of the thoughts and emotions and conceptions and conditioning which you have accumulated and which contribute to your suffering, beneath the ego you defend, is a mind of clear nondual awareness.  It is called many things- true consciousness, gold elixir, seed consciousness, nous.  The entire substance of the work of Hesychasm, of Mahamudra Tantra and of all other authentic traditions is to find and abide in this mind.


The great Taoist philosopher Chang Po-tuan writes of this stage, “What the work requires is first to recognise the natural, innocent true mind, and then to use the true mind to refine the self.  Then a point of celestial energy emerges in the darkness; this is called true consciousness.”


In the tradition of interior prayer, the objective is for the heart to pray with wordless love, until the eternal love of God comes to abide in it, transforming the whole being.


In the Buddhist Mahamudra tradition, this original mind is realised as the mind of the Buddhas.


Step 7: Action/Creation

The step that most often gets lost, yet that should run throughout the entire process and mirror it, is putting our inner realisations into action and addressing our outer shortcomings interiorly.  To re-create our lives, our relationships, our world according to the image of the compassionate self which we are trying to become, is both an important goal and an important means for our journey.  This is what the great master of inner prayer Theophan the Recluse describes when he writes, “There will begin an active and vital transformation of soul and body, and of outer relationships… And you will become a real person.”


The world is shaped by the ways in which we view it.  By viewing it and interacting with it in a grasping way, we have increased the world’s suffering.  It is only when we have overcome the disorder within ourselves that causes suffering that we can truly begin to alleviate the world’s suffering.


The Golden Key: The Tantric Approach

Love, the highest state for which our beings are designed, the state of nondual union in diversity, automatically calms and aligns all lower desires.  That is the entire basis of Buddhist Tantra.  In the cultivation and practice of love, you will gain the strength to release habitual grasping after desired outcomes and become fully natural.  You will enjoy pleasures or not, without these things becoming your master.


The Hesychastic practice of interior prayer is in itself a brilliant shortcut to the experience of love in spiritual development.  Anything can feed and inspire the prayer- the beauty of nature, the presence or memory of beloved people, compassion for the suffering, the memory of the departed, the problems of the present, music and poems and books.  In that sense, it is truly Tantric, making the beauty and pain of temporal existence the path to love.  Your task, therefore, is to collect your mind in compassion and to pursue whatever will help to build it in every moment.

Weighing In: Organised Religion

Never a day goes by when some group or other doesn’t declare themselves ‘beyond the curse of organised religion’, and never a day goes by when established religions don’t mock the flakey New Agers with their wishy-washy spirituality.

What few on either side have so far been willing to do is take a deeper look at the issues underpinning this debate in an objective way.

There is no denying that organised religion is in crisis on many levels, and has done a great deal of damage to many people. Even the notion of religion itself is problematic for spiritual life, a topic we’ve covered previously. But it is also quite apparent that the “every man for himself” approach doesn’t really serve us either.


While it is true to say that many internet comment sections are the lowest forms of communication yet devised by humanity, it is also fair to say that religious people tend to do themselves very little credit on them. One would think that the increase of love and the decrease of hatred would be the obvious objective of religious participation on the internet, but so far this doesn’t seem to be happening (Buddhists aside). One can only take so much of the constant dogmatic wrangling, which all amounts to the same thing- “My pet dogmas are right and anyone who disagrees with me is stupid and/or an enemy of the truth.”

This is illustrative of an approach to spiritual life which many people are rightly discarding. The notion that belief in the correct ideology is the main requirement for your future happiness is a chronic recurring delusion of the human race, whether we’re talking about religion or any number of modern ideologies. That approach to religious teaching, based on fear and coercion, is perhaps the main obstacle for any religion hoping to survive into the next century.

But rather than reject all fixed teaching out of hand, we should take a moment to appreciate the nuances of the problem. It is true that dogma has gotten out of hand in many religious contexts. But why is this? In many cases, it is a function of institutional politics and sometimes cultural factors as well.

By responding to this problem by doing the opposite, we are essentially setting the clock back to zero. Assuming that our goal is to make real spiritual progress, we cannot ignore the value of the accumulated experience of previous generations, nor can we ignore the fact that the beliefs we go in with strongly shape the result we get. Without this kind of grounding, we are robbing ourselves of centuries’ worth of knowledge and shortcuts. Accessing that knowledge means taking the time to educate ourselves about who to listen to in a given tradition, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to have that kind of patience.

By taking an “every man for himself” approach, we are also giving organised religions a free pass on the many inconsistencies they need to address before they can be taken seriously as centres of spiritual life. How many religions actually practice the real spiritual exercises of the authentic spiritual tradition with which they are associated (assuming they have one)? Many religions claim love and compassion as core values, but how many have stayed consistent with those principles in the development of the detailed rules that religious institutions love to promulgate?

Doing the Opposite

It often seems that when it comes to answering whatever aspects of organised religion they don’t like, the independents will do whatever seems to them to be the opposite of that position. If they don’t like juridical morality, they will instead say that everything bad we may do is either the result of the experience of past lives or because the people we do the bad things to need to learn a lesson in this one. Whatever the issue, the pattern seems to be that people prefer taking the path of least resistance rather than actually getting to the root of whatever the problem was.

Whether we’re talking about juridical morality or sexual mores or anything else, there is a long, winding and often very revealing history to the topic in just about any religious context you might choose. By understanding the history, we can look at these positions not as an inevitable product of any tradition, but as the result of certain historical choices.

We’ve spent a good deal of time on this site and others teaching Westerners about the history of their own religious world, and again and again, we find that knowledge having a transformative and liberating affect.  This impact could be multiplied a thousandfold if we all gave some mindful attention to the historical roots of the religious problems we may have inherited.

A Changing World

There is a change coming in the way that religion and spirituality are discussed, and in the way that existing traditions relate to society and to each other. Religions that do not adapt- not in the sense of the last generation’s attempts at “relevant” religion, but in terms of addressing the deeper institutional, spiritual and dogmatic issues which damage their integrity and spiritual credibility- simply will not thrive.

On the other hand, the staying power of the shallow end of the New Age smorgasbord is also questionable. As more and more people get sick of counterfeits and demand substantive, transformational spirituality underpinned by a repeatable, evidence-based process and integrity grounded in the universal ontological morality about which so much has already been discovered, a new approach to spiritual life and community will start to take shape.

What Every Westerner Should Ask About Spiritual Life

As the Western world’s never-ending reaction to its history of distorted spiritual life continues, there are some common myths and bits of wilful ignorance that have become embedded in our culture. Today, we tackle two of them.


1. It’s all the same

Religious syncretism is one of those feel-good viewpoints that people adopt when they want to feel enlightened or progressive or open-minded without thinking too much. It’s all very well if you view spiritual life as an exercise in feeling good, connecting with the community, a “cultural heritage” and so on. Different people connect with the Absolute in different ways and it’s all good. We’ve mentioned the difference between religions and Authentic Ancient Traditions before. This view of things struggles even to qualify as religion.

The moment you get serious about spiritual life as an exercise in self-transformation, you have to face the fact that the results you will get will be heavily conditioned by the worldview and schema of spiritual life that you adopt. And yes, you have to adopt one if you expect to get anywhere. Taoism, for example, has more than two millennia of experimentation behind it, and has always regarded self-transformation as a science with a definite process behind it. You can’t make it up as you go and expect to come up with comparable results.

The presuppositions of Taoism place great emphasis on the body and its energy system, and so their results will always be qualitatively different from those of Buddhism, which regards the body with more reserve. There’s no particular conflict between these two traditions, but neither can they pretend that their worldviews and methods are the same. What they both can do is point to their results, to the transformed people they have produced. And this is the key. The moment you embark on spiritual life as self-transformation, you have to look for evidence.

From there, you realise that there are faiths and philosophies with inner traditions of self-transformation and union with the Absolute that can produce results- and everyone else. To place these traditions alongside mainstream Protestantism, or attempts to revive dead paganism, or any other religion which does not have results behind it, is disingenuous in the extreme.

2. Christianity Was Always the Way it is Now

There is a general ignorance of Christian history in the West, and so the popular mind tends to project the centralised, hierarchical Catholicism of the present back in history right to the beginning. What we often fail to realise is that the Catholicism of the second millennium was the result of a long process of degeneration. The forces at work in this process can be summarised as:

  • Political: Following the conquest of the western Roman Empire, the Roman papacy attempted to gain as much authority as possible to gain leverage against the Germanic nobility. The Germanic nobility eventually took control of the church, and were able to recast church doctrine as a means of social control against their subjugated serfs.
  • Theological: The groundwork for the juridical theology they would use had been laid by Augustine of Hippo, and continued by the Norman theologian Anselm of Canterbury, who declared that God, being infinite, was infinitely angered by Adam’s fall and therefore took out his infinite anger on an infinite target, his Son.

There’s more to it, of course, but the bottom line is that the flaws of Western Christianity today were not just always there. It was a particular path chosen at identifiable points in time, and there is very little beyond the wishful thinking of some Catholics to connect this later, centralised, juridical church with the diverse, decentralised and theologically very different church of the early centuries.

Until the West understands this history, it will never come to terms with its religious heritage, and will continue to be divided by it.


The modern-day spiritual confusion is allowed to reign because of the questions people don’t ask. In the case of Christian history, the reason huge aspects of the topic are glossed over is dominantly emotional. Those in Western churches are eager to defend their particular takes on Christianity, while many outside are violently and categorically dismissive, creating a false polarity which stops people from asking the real questions. In the case of syncretism, people often just don’t know what to ask. The real question is, on what principles do you want to base your spiritual life? If you know your principles and you have decided to seek self-transformation through union with the Absolute, you have a good starting point for asking some penetrating questions.

Does Natural Energy Bring Enlightenment?

There is a strange notion going around about spiritual life. The notion is that by developing our natural energies, or qi in Chinese terms, we are developing spiritually. Qigong, yoga, energy healing of various kinds, these are powerful systems, and sometimes enthusiastically touted as paths to enlightenment in themselves.  It is an understandable thought- after all, our civilization spent millennia completely ignoring this side of reality, so rediscovering the potential of natural energy was bound to make us a little giddy.


The Role of Natural Energy Work

There is no doubt that energy work is a powerful level of personal development, a healing modality that affects the entire organism, a profound avenue for discovering our potential as human beings, and a foundational tool for spiritual life. Energy work can help us to clear mental and physical ailments and trauma that hold us back. It can clarify our powers of perception and our ability to align our lives with powerful universal principles. The experience of real energy work is often powerful and a profound revelation of our own potential. To experience the universe as energy and consciousness rather than matter is a transformative realisation for many.

But that energy is still, in the terminology of the hesychast tradition, created. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But Authentic Ancient Traditions recognise that there is a distinction between natural energy and divine or uncreated energy, the divine love. Only in the latter do we have contact with the Absolute. Even Taoism, of all traditions the most excited about energy work, acknowledged a distinction between natural and primordial energy, between natural energy work and spiritual cultivation. The good news is that that divine energy exists as potential within each of us.  The bad news is that unless we cultivate it, we risk becoming like a gardener who weeds and fertilizes and waters but doesn’t plant anything.



What we have here is in part a challenge of worldview or cosmology. Having rejected the Western view that God is outside of nature, what we call panextheism, many people default to some form of pantheism- God is nature in one way or another. But the third alternative, the alternative pointed to by the AATs, is panentheism- God is everywhere present throughout nature, but still distinct. We, and all of nature, are made to share in the energies of the Absolute and to be transformed by them.

Divine and natural energies are thus not unrelated. But we can’t just cultivate qi and expect to find enlightenment or deification. When the energy system of the human organism allows itself to make room for the divine energies, the energy system itself transforms. Created energy finds itself, aligns with its intended function, only in contact with divine love. Hesychasm calls this the process of deification, and it profoundly transforms the whole organism. Without this, natural energy ultimately cannot overcome its own corruption.


The Magic Pill

Our culture has a particular fascination with instant results.  Because the results of energy work are so immediately apparent, it is tempting to see energy work itself as the ultimate solution.  We’d like to believe that someone can have us on the table for twenty minutes and reconnect us once and for all with the Absolute.  It would certainly be more convenient.  But unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.  Energy work can help us a great deal, make it easier to do the work, but in the end it is we who have to make room in ourselves for the Absolute to act.


Conclusion- The Path and the Goal

Energy work is a potent and, in our culture especially, indispensable aid to spiritual life. But we should not mistake this important part of the path for the goal.  To stabilise our moment-to-moment contact with the divine love, to make room for it to abide in us and transform us, is an endeavour that requires not only energy work, not only prayer and meditation, but a conscious approach to every aspect of life.

“Spirituality? No, we don’t do that here.”- When Religious Institutions Go Wrong

In the spirit of our membership site’s upcoming unit on spirituality, we thought it was time for a little perspective on all the ingenious ways we humans find to avoid that very subject.  Religious institutions, or at least large parts of them, tend to become masters of the art of avoiding spirituality! 

The reason is simple- like many human institutions, religions often start with a powerful sense of purpose, but over time, people with vested interests make the institution less about that purpose than about them.  At that point, anything that might lead the membership to think that the institution is about more than the rules laid down by those in power becomes a liability. And spiritual life is the ultimate liability- after all, what person in power wants pesky little enlightened people popping up here, there and everywhere, upsetting the applecart and undermining their authority with inconveniences like truth, love and integrity?

That being the case, we thought we’d give you a short tour of some of the clever devices which religious institutions have come up with to avoid such a disastrous state of affairs.  As the saying goes, it is better to laugh than to cry, although we have to admit that sometimes it’s hard to know if these things are the product of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in all of his diabolical sincerity.


Anyone who lives in North America has experienced moveable-letter church signs, from the pointed…


to the cringe-worthy…





to the laugh-out-loud hilarious.


We will be using these signs, along with a goodly selection of cartoons, to signpost our tour through the mind of corrupt religious institutions, and by extension, corrupt institutions everywhere.


The real danger to any corrupt institution is from within.  As the word ‘corrupt’ implies, the people occupying positions of authority are neither toeing the straight and narrow themselves nor are they particularly interested in finding out whether any of their peers are.  What they are all deeply interested in is making sure that no one else ever looks too closely, or if they do that they don’t find anything, or if they find something that they’re discredited, or if they’re not discredited that at least they can’t do anything about it.  To quote a much-loved British sitcom, “When you set the cat among the pigeons, you let the dog out of the bag.  If you spill the beans, you open a whole can of worms!”  In short, a sticky situation. 


If something bad has happened once, it’s probably happened more than once, and if it’s happened more than once, there may be something wrong with the system, and if there’s something wrong with the system, the whole house of cards could collapse.  That’s why certain other corrupt systems (the USSR) made it quite clear from the start that it was alright to criticize, but never to generalize.  It’s never the fault of the system.  That kept a lid on pesky critical thinking for a few decades, but since religious institutions don’t always have gulags and firing squads to make sure the people are minding their manners, other, rather more painful processes for burying cans of worms have been found- specifically, denial.



The first thing degenerate institutions do to help them in the cause of denial is to deprive their people of a central set of principles by which to evaluate the central principles and mission of the institution.  In a religious context, this means leaving people without the tools to evaluate the contents of their religious traditions.  That way, traditions go from ‘golden thread of wisdom reaching down to us from the ages’ to ‘anything that one of us thought or wrote in the past, no matter how moronic or trivial,’ until you get


Some have gone so far as to declare war on reason altogether.  Of course, reasoned faith is quite possible- but letting your people expose their faith to reason might turn up all sorts of nasty little inconsistencies and moral problems with the gospel-according-to-you, and is therefore to be avoided at all costs.


Cognitive dissonance is unavoidable in these situations where one has to declare war on morality, sense common or otherwise, and critical thought of any kind. Even so, religious institutions have realized that this is hardly a showstopper.  After all, the key to the propaganda machines of all totalitarian regimes has been not to persuade people, but simply to say something so often that it is accepted as true no matter how laughable it is, because no one dares to speak against what everyone else accepts as obvious truth- in short, new-think.




Division is a favorite tactic of institutions throughout the ages.  In the 19th Century, nascent European nation-states started wars because they believed that it was the best way to cement national identity.  The surest way to demarcate “us” is by identifying all the evil “them”s.


Playing the victim is a derivative of this tactic of division, except that rather than attacking the enemy you’ve identified directly, you can talk about how much he’s oppressing you.  The advantage here is that you can treat any attempt on his part to express an opinion different from your own as further oppression.  If you’re particularly talented, you can get so much credit for being that victim that the more violent and unreasonable your reactions, the more everyone will bend over backwards to placate you.



One of the surest signs of a religious milieu gone bad is that it will attempt to dictate the politics of its members.



Closely connected with trying to dictate the politics of their members, corrupt institutions will often seek to colonize territory- that is, to make themselves as exclusive as possible in a given area and turf out all other influences and ways of thinking,

Church activist




which is why after just a small taste of government by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the world population distribution of Coptic Christians now looks like this:


Fear is the ubiquitous weapon of all institutions-gone-wrong, but where bosses and bankers can only threaten your money, religious institutions have a somewhat broader repertoire.  Hellfire and brimstone is the old favorite…




because it seems people are easily intimidated and will do anything to spend eternity with someone when they hear he’s thinking about spit-roasting them.


Another tactic is the attempt on the part of a religious institution to divorce its clergy, and even its membership at large, from genuine understanding and contact with the society around them.


true confession 512

When all else fails, when you have nothing else going for you, when the cognitive dissonance between your agenda and any sort of objective reason and morality is enough to make even Andrew Jackson baulk, dispense with the implied intimidation and just threaten to kill them.


Of course, there are certain strategies which almost guarantee that your institution won’t survive.  It’s alright to predict the end of days, for example, but if you give an exact date, well, you’ve just put an expiry date on your viability.  Of course, originators of doomsday cults aren’t in it for the long haul- they just figure that people are less likely to guard their wallets while they’re waiting for the rapture.




All joking aside, the point is not to vilify faith or the faithful (although many atheists make a self-serving and one-sided argument in that direction) but rather to bring home the point that religion tends to include two of humanity’s most dangerous weapons- institutions and ideas.  It’s important to test both when you’re looking for a spiritual home.  The blessing is that even in the most decrepit institution, there are small, unnoticed islands of sanity and grace.



~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


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