By David Spangler
This past month I’ve been thinking about the many ways we can contribute to making our world a better place. On the one hand, we are all engaged in seeking to improve and benefit our personal lives, those of our loved ones, and hopefully the quality of life in our communities. But what are we doing to improve the lot of humanity and of our world generally, and how are we going about it?
There are a multitude of ways to answer these questions depending on your worldview, your circumstances, and your willingness to act. For instance, if I believe only in what I can perceive with my five senses and view the physical world as the only reality there is, then if I wish to serve the world, I will try to do so in material ways, working politically, economically, and socially for the changes I want to promote. If, on the other hand, I believe in a spiritual or non-physical reality, then I may focus my actions and contributions in those dimensions, perhaps through prayer or working to help people transform their consciousnesses and approaches to life. Often these two approaches, broadly considered, come into conflict as those on one side say that we must change our inner lives to produce real, lasting outer change while those on the other side scoff and say that change only comes through physical actions in the world. Of course, both are right as both approaches are needed.
I’ll come back to this next month, but first, I want to lay a foundation for my later remarks.
Nowadays, we take it for granted that diseases are mainly caused by microorganisms. Understanding this has permitted researchers and doctors to develop new techniques and advances in medicine that have saved millions of lives. We may not realize, though, that medical acceptance of the germ theory of disease is less than two hundred years old. The idea that small, invisible entities caused sickness was generally laughed at, so no provision was made to guard against them.
In the West, the germ theory was first seriously proposed in the sixteenth century, but it was not accepted because no one could see microorganisms and thus people doubted their existence. Fifty years had to pass before the microscope was invented. It was another sixty years later that microorganisms were directly observed and their existence verified.
Even then, few people thought that these invisible, tiny critters caused disease. It wasn’t for another two hundred years that various scientists and medical researchers were finally able to prove (against the collective opinion of the established medical community of the time, I might add) that microorganisms could infect a body and cause illness. One result of this was that doctors and surgeons began washing their hands before treating a patient, a simple act of hygiene that dramatically reduced the number of deaths in hospitals and homes from infections following surgery or other medical treatments.
The history of the germ theory of disease makes for fascinating reading, but I refer to it to make a point. There exists a whole living world — the world of microorganisms — that only very few people believed in or even suspected existed because they lacked the means to see it. These creatures are everywhere but they are microscopic in size and thus beyond the range of the human eye to detect. Yet these tiny, invisible beings exert a profound and powerful influence over our lives for both good and ill.
So my first point is that the fact we can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and can’t affect us.
A second point is that just because I can’t see something doesn’t mean I can’t affect it or use it in practical ways. A direct result of the acceptance of germ theory was the development of practices of hygiene. We know, for instance, that washing our hands is often one of the best ways of preventing the spread of disease. We can’t see the microorganisms living and riding on our skin, but we now take it for granted that soap and water will remove enough of them to keep ourselves and others healthy.
What I’m leading up to is to say that just as we inhabit an invisible world of bacteria and microbes which can affect us, so we also inhabit an invisible world of subtle, non-physical energies (much of which we produce through our thinking and feeling) that can also affect us. Realizing this and taking it into account when thinking about how we can serve the wellbeing of the world is, I believe, a critical and vital step that is as needed in our time as the germ theory of disease was two hundred years ago.
A materialist can argue that this is not a valid comparison since even though they are too small to see with the unaided eye, microorganisms are still physical entities and thus part of our material world. Further, we can see them if we have a microscope.
I agree with this, but in fact many people do perceive the subtle energies and forces at work; they are like human microscopes. And while subtle energies are not physical in nature, neither are our thoughts and emotions. They are themselves part of this subtle domain and can be affected for good or ill by such non-physical energies. We are as much subtle beings as we are physical ones, and negative conditions in the subtle environment can have a deleterious impact upon a person. Hence the need for good energy hygiene.
Part of our challenge is that we view our inner life now almost entirely through the lens of psychology which subjectifies our mental and emotional experiences and views them as locked within our private brains. Psychology has much to offer, but in this instance, its lens can distort as fully as it can reveal. What is needed is a field theory of the mind that acknowledges an objective existence in the subtle realms of mental and emotional energies as much as we recognize a subjective correspondence of those energies within our interior life.
New theories of the subtle dimension and our participation in it are, I am firmly convinced, part of our future and will make a huge difference in how we understand ourselves, the world around us, and the relationship between the person and the environment. There are breakthroughs of understanding to be made here.
In the meantime, though, just as doctors don’t need to see bacteria in order to have healthy practices of bodily and environmental hygiene, we don’t have to see the subtle dimensions to practice healthy subtle energy hygiene. In fact, some of the new directions in psychology such as mindfulness practice, positive psychology, the psychology of happiness and of optimal states, and somatic therapies that re-integrate us with our bodies are already establishing a foundation for such non-physical hygiene. Likewise, I have written on this topic and teach a class — Working with Subtle Energies — on it. Many others are doing so as well, such as my friend and colleague William Bloom in England who has excellent books — and classes — about our energy nature.
For me, the crux of good energy hygiene is simple: loving oneself and loving what is around you. Heartfelt respect, honor, appreciation and love are qualities that when they are alive in us create a subtle environment that promotes a healthy flow of subtle forces within and around us.
To this end, I would like to leave you this month with an exercise I have found invaluable over the years as part of my own subtle energy hygiene. I call it the “Touch of Love”. The idea behind this is that we “touch” each other all the time. The way we think of each other, the feelings we project onto others, the looks we give, the tones of voice, the words we use: all these are touches. But to bring love into them, I find it useful to get the flow going within me through this simple exercise.
The Touch of Love
• Fill yourself with a felt sense of lovingness. You might imagine, for instance, your heart overflowing with love or your spine glowing with love. You might use one of the exercises given above for enhancing your transpersonal “circulation”.
• Feel this love flowing out from the core of your being, down your arms and into your hands. Feel this love pooling in your fingertips.
• Reach out and touch something. As you do so, feel the love in your fingertips overflowing. In this Touch of Love, you do not take anything into yourself. You do not really project it into anything, either. You simply let it pool in your fingertips and overflow, allowing that which you touch to absorb it in its own way.
• As love flows through your touch, it also stirs and flows and circulates through your own being, bringing love to all parts of yourself just as you are bringing it to the things you touch.
• Touch as many things as you wish. When you feel finished, just remove your fingers and allow the love to be absorbed into all parts of your body.
By David Spangler
In Part 1, I suggested that just as we are affected by and can affect an invisible world of bacteria and microbes, so we are affected by and can affect an equally invisible world of subtle forces and energies. I ended the essay with a simple “energy hygiene” exercise I call the Touch of Love.
The overall context of my thoughts, though, is about the debate, if it can be called such, between two approaches to dealing with world problems. On the one side are those who feel it’s important if we are to make real change to work on one’s spiritual life and what might be called one’s “vibrational output”, which is to say the way in which we affect the subtle dimension around us. On the other side are those who feel only physical activism will have any effect and that inner work is an ineffective and narcissistic denial and retreat from the problems we are facing.
In a way, this argument is one of economics based on a material world idea of scarce resources. In this case, the resource is one’s time and energy. Given severe and threatening conditions in the world, such as climate change, is it “cost-effective” to spend time and energy in meditation or pursuing inner development when that same time and energy could be used in protesting Big Oil or writing to one’s Representative in Congress or engaging in some form of social activism to produce political and social change? Can I justify spending an hour engaged in some contemplative activity when I could have used that hour stuffing envelopes for my local environmental action group? After all, I only have so many hours in the day and so much mental, emotional, and physical energy at my disposal to use.
Put this way, we see the argument doesn’t really make sense. Time and energy are not physical resources and are not depleted in the way money is. Yes, I only have so many hours in a day, but we’ve all experienced how time stretches and when we’re doing something that we love and in which we are fully engaged—that is, when we are in the “zone” or in the “flow”, as runners and psychologists like to say—we can accomplish much more in less time than when we are mentally or emotionally distracted or depressed. And as for vitality and energy, we know both scientifically and experientially how these are increased or decreased by our moods and by our sense of loving connection with what we’re doing.
I remember a woman who came to me years ago complaining of low energy. She was a passionate individual who felt keenly the problems in the world, so she had a habit of taking on causes to “help the planet.” If someone asked her to volunteer for a particular project, she couldn’t say no. The problem was that her primary motivation wasn’t love or a sense of joyous service; it was guilt and a sense of duty. What she really wanted to do was spend time painting, but her various causes allowed her no time for that., and she felt anxious if she wasn’t “serving”. As a consequence, she was on the edge of burn-out and breakdown.
I was able to help her see that she wasn’t really helping the causes she believed in because increasingly she was bringing to them a sense of depression and scattered energy. Consequently, her volunteer and her paid work were suffering. I suggested she needed to start saying no, cutting back on the amount of service she was trying to give, and taking time just for herself. She was desperate enough to be willing to try this, and the result over time was that she regained her usual joy and vitality, stopped trying to do everything to save the planet and picked where she was able make a real contribution and to do it effectively and with joy.
There’s nothing earthshaking about this, but it demonstrates that inner and outer work really go hand in hand. Neither a blissed-out navel-gazer nor a burnt-out activist are helpful to a world in crisis. Besides, most people aren’t going to be attracted to or go to such extremes anyway. We can get muddled, but most of us have an innate sense of balance in these things that serves us most of the time.
Looking back at the economic metaphor, it turns out that time spent working on our inner energy states and our spiritual unfoldment actually can multiply the amount of vital energy we have to pour into our outer activities. When love and joy are present, miracles often happen. Certainly more can be accomplished than if we’re working solely because of anxiety, pressure, or guilt. The time and energy invested in inner work can repay us in rich dividends to be spent for the outer causes that are important to us.
But there is another side to this, and I was laying the foundation for it in Part 1 of this essay two months ago.
If I want to de-clutter and clean up my house, it doesn’t make sense to take the clutter out of one room and simply toss it into another. One room may end up looking clean and clear, but the house as a whole is still cluttered and disorganized, just in a different way than before.
Because we don’t acknowledge the subtle dimension of the earth, we don’t fully appreciate how the energy and vibrations of our thoughts and feelings can clutter up this invisible side of the world and consequently affect how we feel and how we react in the physical world. It’s analogous to doctors not washing up before performing surgery. The operation may be successful, but the patient becomes infected.
So let’s say a person is on the street protesting Big Oil or the proposed construction of a new pipeline, or opposing fracking or off-shore drilling. The act of protest, if it can put political and economic pressure on corporations or the government that leads to change, might be an effective and important thing to do. But the person who is filled with anger at the government or at the leaders of a corporation, probably fearful of the consequences of what they are doing, possibly even feeling hatred for those involved, may be “off-gassing” powerful emotional energies into the subtle environment which become their own kind of pollution. Others who are less balanced in themselves or more emotionally vulnerable may pick up on this subtle pollution and, finding themselves now feeling anger or fear, though perhaps not knowing why, may be motivated to acts of violence. At the least, they add their negative emotions and thoughts as further psychic pollution. In effect, our collective human body is further infected.
If, on the other hand, our activist had spent some time learning how to act from a calm center, had learned how to transmute his or her more violent and angry emotions, had learned how to be more whole and how to bring love and respect into their activism, then such a person could still be on the streets or in a courtroom or passing out fliers but not further polluting the subtle environment. In fact, he or she could be mindfully cleaning up the psychic clutter of that subtle room in the world’s house even while working on cleaning up the physical room.
This is not an either/or matter. Given the dual nature of the world and of ourselves, “being spiritual” is also being practical. Spending time and energy to understand and master his or her own inner states gives a person a powerful edge in working with challenges in the world. The most effective activist these days is a person who has a vision of the whole earth and, drawing on his or her own wholeness, works to heal and transform that which needs healing and transforming in both rooms of the planetary house.