Monday 4 March 2024

The Three E’s Empathy, Ecstasy and Enthusiasm: Turning Self Consciousness into Consciousness

I was in the park with Molly on Monday morning. I was feeling tired and somewhat run down. I had woken up with a bad throat. Sunday had been a long day, three services and several other activities. There weren’t many dogs around for Molly to play with so she made her own fun. She is such a happy little dog, full of life and character, at ease with herself and life itself. After a while a woman appeared with her tiny dark cavalier spaniel. I have passed the woman in the street many times over the time I have had Molly. Her little dog was somewhat unfriendly towards Molly as a puppy, the woman said her dog didn’t like puppies, or men for that matter. Even as Molly became an adult the woman never stopped for them to get to know each other. It was different this time though. The woman came talking to me, she seemed upset. She told me her dog was unwell, in fact she had heart failure, she was only eight years old. It was her fifth Cavalier and two of her previous ones had died the same way. I told her I had seen her dog with a walker a few days before and I pointed out to the walker that there something wrong with her. The walker had informed the woman and she had taken the dog to the vet. The woman told me that she was trying to get her dog to go to the toilet, but didn’t want to walk. Then Molly brought her to life and she ran around and played for a little while, before they went off to the coffee shop. The poor woman has some big decisions to make over the next few days, as she doesn’t want her little dog to suffer. I felt for her.

As I walked away I was thinking about the three keys of the spiritual life that Forrest Church had identified, “Empathy”, “Ecstasy” and “Enthusiasm”. They are essential antitdotes to the blight of self-consciousness and lead to connection and consciousness. I was awake, I was conscious that day, despite feeling somewhat low and tired in mood. I had been a few days earlier when I noticed the little spaniel struggling. Molly had too, her empathy and enthusiasm had brought a few moments of ecstasy to that sweet little dog. We were at ease with ourselves, we knew ourselves and thus we were not slaves to ourselves, we were instead awake to the life around us.

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Now while not wishing to argue with the great philosopher I do wonder if the “over examined life” can prove just as worthless. It is so easy to get lost in ourselves, wrapped up in our own underwear, to such an extent that we do not live at all. We can become so self-conscious that we fail to become conscious of all that is and all that has ever been. It is so easy to become wrapped up in our own perceived needs that we fail to live in the world with others and then complain about feeling lonely. Yes it is important to examine ourselves, to understand who we are and what makes us tick, but that should not be an end in itself, a destination. It is a staging post in the spiritual adventure, but not an end in itself.

I remember at last year’s “Ministry in the Making” I was asked to speak on the purpose of ministry, which literally means to serve. The college principal was somewhat concerned that while the students had a great deal of self understanding this in itself was not all that the spiritual life is about. That it is not just about knowing and understand ourselves. Self awareness and spirituality is something that comes to life in the real world, that its purpose is to fit us to be of maximum usefulness in this life. I thought about my time in the park with Molly, I probably do as much ministry there as anywhere else in life. Monday morning proved that once again.

The spiritual life is about love. Yes love for ourselves, but also one another and life itself and of course whatever it is we believe is at the core of all, what I call God. Sadly sometimes spirituality can tend to be too inner focused and a turning away from life. Such approaches can make us even more self focused and instead of setting us free, enchains us even more.

So yes I agree with Socrates, that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. That said the “over examined life” can prove just as worthless. It can easily become inhibiting and can lead to a kind of self-consciousness that can become so consuming that it takes over our human interactions. I wonder how many of us suffer from this kind of commentary when we meet up with people. “What will they think of me?” “How do I look?” “If I say something, will they think I’m an idiot?” and then as it continues, “He gave me a funny look, he must have thought me a fool. Why on earth did I have to make that stupid remark? Gosh I’m such a freak, they all seem to be staring at me.”

I was talking with a friend on Tuesday morning who described some such interaction at a work event the other day. She found herself becoming consumed by such an inner dialogue. Thankfully she was able to step out of herself and begin to make contact with others, this helped them do the same thing.

This though is not always the case. This kind of self conscious inner dialogue can be so crippling. It can haunt us from the moment we wake and continue throughout our day, eating away at our every decision. Oh and of course because we doubt ourselves and every decision we make, we assume that everyone else must be doing exactly the same thing. This kind of self-consciousness can be so crippling and it blocks us off almost entirely from the world around us. We can become so consumed by this kind of self-consciousness that we see the world entirely from our own point of view, excluding all others.

One of my great frustrations with a lot of modern “so called spirituality” is that it does not seem to be about relationships at all. It seems to be all about the self, almost about protecting the self, from the so called “messiness” of living. It seems to have become almost narcissistic in its nature. Maybe that’s why it can seem so appealing. The truth is of course that all we ever achieve in blocking ourselves off from the messiness, from circling our spiritual wagons, is increase the loneliness and the emptiness.

The spiritual life is about relationship. We need to be in what I have often heard called right relationship, with ourselves, with others and with whatever it is we connects all of life, what is often called the Divine, to live spiritually alive.

I can usually get a good measure as to where I am at spiritually by simply checking where I am at relationally with myself, with others and with God, they are all interconnected and inter related.

So what can we do about it? How do we wake up to a greater consciousness? How do we break free from this crippling self-consciousness? How do we become better inter-related.

According to the Gospel’s Jesus taught his followers that they must lose themselves in order to be found. That by emptying ourselves of our self-absorption we begin to be filled with the spirit of neighbourliness. So that when we look deeply into the still waters we are not drawn in by narcissistic self-consciousness and loathing at our own reflection, but rather into a deeper contemplation of our shared lives. We become conscious of all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. By opening ourselves to and for others we begin to shed that debilitating skin of self-consciousness that is so easy to become imprisoned in.

Gandhi said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service of others”

The Buddha talked of Nirvana, of being freed from the suffering that was the blight of humanity. He showed that we all suffered and that it was in seeing our suffering as individual that led to this sense of separation. He suggested that we needed to break through our suffering not only to serve others but to reach a higher state of being, true consciousness, to be awake to the life in which we live.

Now please don’t get me wrong this morning I am not suggesting that we do not need to know ourselves to understand how we tick, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. All I am saying is that we must not get stuck there, we must not get lost there and we must not see this as a destination, more a staging post on the journey. The adolescent stage I suspect. Sadly for many folk, me included, this adolescent stage often goes well into adulthood.

So how do we move from self-consciouness to consciousness. Well as I mentioned earlier Forrest Church in his wonderful book “Lifecraft” offered three simple suggestions, which he called the three “E’s”, “empathy”, “ecstasy” and “enthusiasm”. The key he claimed could be found in the literal understanding of these words. “Empathy”, to suffer or feel with another; “Ecstasy”, to stand outside ourselves; “Enthusiasm”, to manifest the god (theos) within us.

“Empathy” is a deep felt compassion. When we open our hearts empathically to another we are courageously refusing to allow self-consciousness to stand in the way of a higher consciousness that comes into being as we feel what another is going through. In so doing we serve both ourselves and the other person, as well as that higher consciousness beyond our singular selves.

Now “Ecstasy” has often been misunderstood as some kind of hedonistic state and therefore self- indulgent, it is far from this. In its truest sense what it actually does is takes us out of ourselves and lifts us beyond the confines of ourselves. In so doing we transcend our self-consciousness and enter a realm in which purpose begins to emerge and meaning is found.

“Enthusiasm” means to be filled with spirit, with holy energy. Enthusiasm allows us to be fully involved and engaged in whatever it is we are doing. It allows us to see beyond the confines we have created. Forrest himself states that “Here, once again, consciousness displaces self-consciousness. We escape from our mirrored room. Its mirrors turn into windows. Or the pond grows so still that we can see beyond our own reflection to the trees and clouds and birds and sun. There is, by the way, no higher form of spiritual practice. When we step out of our own shadow, consciousness replaces self-consciousness.”

In so doing we are set free to walk with others in our own faltering ways. Instead of being lost in what we believe is wrong with us we are set free to do what we can in this our shared world and in so doing we encourage others to do the same, as perfectly imperfect children of God.

For me the purpose of the spiritual life is to develop a deepening sense of connection. We all have our troubles and our worries either within ourselves, those around us or wider world. We need to see them for what they are, we need to acknowledge the truth, but we must not get stuck there, for that will paralyse us and stop us doing what we can. We cannot change the way the world is but that need not prevent us from doing what we can do and in doing so we will grow spiritually as we become integrated into all that has been, all that exists and all that will ever.

So much of modern spiritually gets it wrong because it is seeking the wrong thing. There is so much talk of finding ourselves, when in actual fact what we ought to be doing is losing ourselves. What we ought to be striving for, I believe, is integration and remove those aspects within ourselves that block this. We all ask the question “Who am I?” when really we ought to asking is “How am I doing? And if we are still feeling utterly dis-connected we need to ask why? And how can I integrate once again? You see if we can begin to integrate with all that is, all that has been and all that has ever been we begin to truly cohere. In doing so we transcend our self-consciousness and become conscious. We become spiritually mature. We wake up to the world in which live and breathe and share our being and we will know the joy of living, in all its mystery.

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"