David's Desk is my opportunity to share thoughts and tools for the spiritual journey. These letters are my personal insights and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you wish to share this letter with others, please feel free to do so; however, the material is ©2017 by David Spangler. If you no longer wish to receive these letters please let us know at info@Lorian.org.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
Perhaps it’s the presence of August and the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of Summer,” but I’ve not been able to think of a suitable topic for this month’s David’s Desk. I think my mind has gone on vacation! Consequently, I’m turning to a previous essay I wrote about five years ago which is just as pertinent now as it was then. I hope you find this blast from the past interesting and useful, a tidbit of thought to carry into your own summertime.
My wife loves the science of geology, a topic I’ve learned to appreciate through her eyes. When we’ve driven through mountainous areas of Arizona and New Mexico she loves to point out the various colored layers or strata of rock indicating the different geological ages of the earth. Such strata are easy to see in such places. Unlike the Pacific Northwest where all the mountains are covered with lush forests, everything is stripped bare beneath the sun in the American Southwest. The mountain’s history is there for all to see.
We have strata within us as well. On the one hand, there is the deep history of the soul laid down over millennia and carrying ancient memories, and on the other, there is the history of current experience, laid down and changing moment by moment. In between these two is a range that is unique for each of us.
Our experience of the world is influenced by which of these strata we identify with. The deeper the strata, the more my vision is one of long time-spans and depth of experience; there is a calmness there, a sense of perspective that no matter how bad or urgent things seem in the moment, they will pass. Nothing is bad forever; nothing is good forever. It is the perspective of age.
On the other hand, the more the strata are close to the surface of my life, the more my vision can be captured by the flickering importance of the moment. The long view is not as evident; I lose perspective. Specific events, taken out of a context of history, seem more urgent, more demanding; I am less calm in their presence.
A number of factors have led to my thinking about these strata. I have always been a news junkie, taking after my father who listened to the news several times a day. So I start my day with one of the morning news programs on television. I can’t help but notice, though, that the intent is less to inform me than to quicken my pulse and engage my emotions with a sense of drama and urgency. From the way the headlines are written to the presentation of the anchors, everything is slightly breathless, the recitation of one crisis after another. Channel surfing, I find this is true of all the morning shows (and evening ones as well); the not-so-hidden subtext is to gain ratings over the competition not by informing alone but by entertaining.
In these presentations, there is no sense of past or future, only of the drama of the moment, the urgency of what’s happening. It is aimed not toward a stratum of thoughtfulness and calm reflection but towards one of immediate emotional reaction and thoughtless opinion. If I were to live at that level of awareness, then my day would be filled with one disconnected event after another as one layer of experience is immediately replaced by another. Like a layer of loose shale that can give beneath my feet when climbing over stone, this stratum has no staying power. It gives way, potentially sliding me into one feeling of crisis or another. Economic collapse! War! Terror! Climate change! Celebrity divorces! If this surface stratum is as deep as I go, I condemn myself to lurching from event to event, never finding stable footing and feeling an ongoing anxiety about life and the world if not outright panic.
I think of this as the “stress stratum.” It offers little to calm me or give me a sense of safety and composure in the face of the challenges of modern life. It’s not without its attraction, though. For those who like drama in their lives, it keeps the adrenaline going. I remember years ago when I was a co-director of the Findhorn Foundation community in northern Scotland being asked occasionally by visitors, “How can you stand living in a community where people get along with each other? Isn’t it boring?” For many people, a good argument, a good crisis, a good fight, a bit of urgency provides desired spice to their lives.
There’s some rationale for this. Medical science has long known that some stress is good for us, keeping our minds alert and our boosting our bodies’ performance. The challenge comes when there’s too much stress or stress continues over too long a time. Then mental and physical capacities degrade making us less able to make good decisions or having the healthy energy to sustain effective follow-through to the decisions we do make. So the stress stratum is good to visit now and then, but living there all the time can have serious consequences for ourselves and for society as a whole.
We are all living in a world now that is filled with challenges; the possibilities for danger, for threat, and for stress are all around us. This is particularly true if our information about the world comes mainly through popular media where drama often trumps information and thoughtful reflection. In calmer times when events did not seem so pressing and potentially calamitous, living mentally and emotionally in the surface or stress stratum of our lives might not have been so problematic. But now we run the risk of being jerked back and forth by events, media, and the apocalyptic rhetoric of political forces. Caught in the loose and unstable shale of our thoughts and emotions, we are less able to find the depth of thought and perception that can provide a stable place to find our footing to make choices that will best benefit all of us.
In spiritual practice, it is traditional to urge the seeker to find a place of calm and serenity in his or her thinking and feeling to meet the world from a more effective, compassionate and thoughtful place. There are different ways of doing this, meditation and yoga among them. The idea is to find those deeper strata of life and consciousness within us and make them the foundation for our behavior.
In a materialistic world, we are prone to think of spiritual practices like meditation or the calming of the mind, heart and body, as optional lifestyle choices, a kind of accessory to getting on with being successful in life. But this is changing. The capacity to access a place of calm within ourselves in moments of crisis is becoming a survival skill. We can’t just pay lip service to the deep strata of our being as we drive by en route to a better job, a better house, a better car, a larger television, and more status than our neighbor. Ask the thousands who are being displaced by the wild fires in the American West or the floods in the American South and Midwest, not to mention the refugees from the terror in Syria, or the potential chaos lurking just below the political, social, and economic surface of many other countries around the world. Without a capacity to find a calm center, they are at the mercy not only of the storms of events but the inner storms of their own fears and sense of helplessness. The deep strata of our being don’t automatically work miracles to keep us free from crisis but they do give us a solid foundation of resilience and hope that the stress stratum does not. Events may cascade around me forcing unwelcome change in my life, but if I can access the calm place within me, I can respond with strength. Otherwise, fear may rule, sweeping away my capacities to cope and transcend.
How might we find these deeper strata? Each of us must find our way of doing so; after all, it is our unique inner place of calm, not someone else’s. Yet there are avenues open to us: prayer, meditation, body work like yoga, compassion, a reverence for life, giving service to others. For myself, I anchor my awareness in my body, finding my center of gravity, and then connecting to the earth beneath me and, with love, to the things around me. In fact, turning my attention away from myself and towards others or to the things in the world around me with love works because the deep strata of our being are soul strata where love is the dominant mode of expression.
In the mountains of the Southwest, the lower strata of stone that my wife and I can see as we drive by represent the ancient history of the earth. They are a testament of what has been. But in our lives, our deep strata of soul life and calmness are not our history but our present, if we choose them; more importantly, as crises come to us in the future, whatever they may be or however many there are, these strata are the foundation on which a promising future may be built, one that can bless all of us.
(Originally published at David's Desk #62 - Strata)