An article by Kat Allen: The Big View of Hard Times
This article was published years before our world changed because of Covid-19, but as we all know, things have been been growing progressively more difficult and scary for a long time. I hope this article may bring some broader perspective to your own experience.
Everywhere we look, we see the world “falling apart.” We are faced not only with the dilemma of “can we do something about it?” but something much more difficult to pin down…how to be present with the Inconvenient Truths we are facing everyday. Is there a philosophical or practical stance—a viewpoint— that is clearer than others? One that is more direct, accurate, compassionate or helpful? In attempting to write this article, I am struck by the differences that exist between traditional psychotherapy and spirituality. One could say that psychotherapy asks us to become aware of—in what can feel like a painfully intimate way—with certain key moments and areas of our lives, so that we may see, feel and understand “core wounds”—our own and those of our loved ones. Ultimately we are asked to integrate the unprocessed or unrecognized parts of self and story, and attain a healthy, functional stance in the world and relationship.
Initially, spirituality has many of those same goals, but then asks more of us. Spiritual paths tend to propose that we focus less on our personal issues, stories and harms experienced, and instead direct our awareness and energy toward something else: towards clarity, or the ideal of “pure consciousness,” or Universal Life Force, or a Creator, or acts of service to others. Something other than self-preservation. Devotional spirituality, bhakti yoga, has us pray to, meditate on, chant or sing the various names of God, and unabashedly share our devotional outpourings— “Praise the Lord!” Active service, and the practice of seeing others as manifestations of the Divine we are serving, are the requirements of karma yogis, while the contemplative and/or intellectual sorts find themselves drawn to meditation and study of source texts, or raja yoga.
A smaller—but growing—percentage of people, of which I include myself, find that our spirituality is most enlivened by refining awareness of the body, breath and energy systems, and cultivating a connection with Pure Consciousness, or as the Buddhists describe it, “Natural Wakefulness.” Through an integration of practices that include all of the above, and/or with utterly dropping the idea of a separate “self,” we make progress towards waking up to the ultimate experience of reality. With that shift, we become more present, kind, less deluded, and more capable as seeing all beings as worthy, lovable and deserving of help and compassion.
All of these approaches have one important goal: to remind us that life is actually a blessing, there is much to praise and be grateful for, and that there is much more going on than meets the eye. Or as Max Lucado reminds us: “Gratitude lifts our eyes off the things we lack so we might see the blessings we possess.”
With that in mind, and turning towards the complications of living a modern life, we must ask ourselves: “How then do I want to show up?” We seem to be faced with an impossible situation. Driven by biological urges and imperatives, there seems to be no good alternative, in terms of survival, than to be a part of what our society has created, and so we exist within a status quo that is hellbent on individual advancement, and destroying our natural environment and a majority of the species with whom we share our precious planet. But rather than focus on what’s going wrong, how we feel about it, and how we can get activated to help (which far smarter and socially committed people are already doing), in this article I want to either introduce or deepen a perspective that I refer to as the Really Big View. For that’s another aspect of spiritual practice…shifting the focus from the limitations we encounter through the lens of the personal self and survival, to an expansive view that brings greater clarity and compassion, oftentimes informed by great traditions and seers, both past and present.
First, let’s name what is happening right now. On the physical plane, here in the northern hemisphere, the nights are growing longer, the trees have shed their leaves, and we’ve reached a halfway point between fall and winter. In Celtic and druidic culture, this time of year was a power time, signaling a shift from external development to inner growth. In those cultures, we are asked to not just bear with, but go right into the dark, in order to ultimately find the light—that which cannot be taken away: our essence and inseparability from Source. In Greek mythology there many stories that depict a journey—as in the story of Persephone— and like her, we have the opportunity—or are forced—to go into the Underworld, into our unconscious, whereby we undergo a loss but also a gain, emerging transformed and empowered.
Watching all that is happening now on all fronts, it seems that darkness is all there is. It is not only painful to stay present to the extreme, literal suffering that is occurring for so many, but to have to deal with the pervasive abuse of women, minorities and animals, what we are doing to our environment, watching the goings-on of the US president, and the basic greed and small mindedness found everywhere. How are we to find ways to cope and maintain, let alone connect with a positive view? This is where study of other cultures has been useful, and the discovery of the Really Big View in the various Cycles of the Ages. This is characterized by the idea that long eras exist and form cycles that repeat themselves. In Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, kalpas are unfathomably long cycles of creation and destruction, and relate to the nature of the universe itself. Like modern science, this ancient cosmology describes a universe of almost infinite size, variety and duration, with this important emphasis: a kalpa is evoked as an encouragement to spiritual practice, reminding us how rare it is to be born human and to hear spiritual teachings. A smaller unit of time is referred to as a yuga. The Age we are in now, the Kali Yuga, is the most challenging of ages. And the opportunity for us in difficult times like these is in how much spiritual practice and progress—-the evolution of consciousness—-the refinement of the personality, we undertake.
Many traditions point to a similar framework. From the Greeks we have the “Five Ages of Man,” first penned by the poet Hesiod in the 8th century BCE, that include a long passage of continuous degeneration, from the Golden Age through Silver and Bronze, including a Heroic Age, then down to our present time, the Iron Age. This age, as compared to the peace and harmony that prevails in the Golden Age, is characterized by evil and selfishness, and burdened with weariness and sorrow. “Piety and other virtues disappeared and most of the gods who were left on Earth abandoned it.” (Click here for a link to the 5 Ages of Man)
According to Hindu scriptures and mythology “the universe as we know it is destined to pass through four great epochs (yugas), each of which is a complete cycle of cosmic creation and destruction.” We are presently in the Kali Yuga, the 4th epoch which corresponds to the Iron Age, “in a world infested with impurities and vices. The numbers of people possessing noble virtues are diminishing day by day. Floods and famine, war and crime, deceit, and duplicity characterize this age. But, say the scriptures, it is only in this age of critical troubles that final emancipation is possible.” (For a very clear explanation of the 4 Yugas, click here).
In Hopi tradition, legend has it that the current earth is the Fourth World to be inhabited by the creations of the Sun Spirit called Tawa. In each previous world, the people, though originally happy, became disobedient and lived contrary to Tawa’s plan; they engaged in sexual promiscuity, fought one another, and would not live in harmony. Thus, “the most obedient were led (usually by Spider Woman) to the next higher world, with physical changes occurring both in the people in the course of their journey, and in the environment of the next world. In some stories, these former worlds were then destroyed along with their wicked inhabitants, whereas in others the good people were simply led away from the chaos which had been created by their actions.” (click here for link)
Clearly, it was important to our ancestors to recognize vast cycles of existence; not just cultures arising and fading away, but entire worlds and universes. And some of the numbers given to these epochs are so large, they are nearly impossible to imagine. If we take a moment to contemplate the vast scope of these cycles, what does that offer us? Do we interpret them through the lens of “a loss of righteousness in the world,” or do they symbolize, as in yogic thought, the phases of involution, where we humans gradually lost awareness of our inner selves and subtle bodies? (To learn about the the 5 Sheaths model of the physical, energetic, mental-emotional, wisdom and bliss bodies, click here.)
In utilizing the Big View of Hard Times, the question remains: does it effectively help me regain a sense of balance, joy, commitment, compassion…? For me, the answer is yes. And it takes practice expanding the view! I find the following meditation very helpful and freeing—- and directly responsible for the cultivation of deep gratitude. In the visualization, I drop attachment to this small, frail human body and travel into space. I look back and appreciate, first, our beautiful Earth, and then go further out and view our Solar System, and then even the Milky Way galaxy, and so on. The sweetness of establishing a relationship with the Earth, and then traveling further out to hold in consciousness the vast nature of the universe is indescribable and mind-blowing. I stay “out there” experiencing the open, spacious clarity that is connected to the Still-point. Then, I practice coming back into my body, holding awareness of that vastness, and the reminder of how small my so-called troubles really are. Coming all the way back into the body, I feel such gratitude for the chance to experience this life in such an intimate way.
(If you are interested in learning meditative practices such as this, click here.)
It is in this play between the empty, still, clear nature of space, and the close, warm yet “sticky”—complicated—aspects of life, that I find so much growth and potential. And why I think Buddha and other teachers are really onto something. Without coming into form, we would never get the chance to develop compassion, having direct experience from within a suffering body-mind, or learn that we are here to serve. We can use the idea of the 4 Ages to inspire an interpretation that no matter which age we are in, we truly must keep developing a perspective that encompasses all, understanding our inter-connectedness. And developing gratitude for whatever is cropping up, good times or bad. That is how we become, or re-connect with the fact that we are Beings of Light, that love is our essence.
From the modern spiritual teacher Shanta:
“To the fearful eye, all is threatening. When you look toward the world in a fearful way, all you see and concentrate on are things that can damage and threaten you… The loving eye can look lovingly upon anything. If we could look at the world in a loving way, then the world would rise up before us full of invitation, possibility, and depth. The loving eye can even coax pain, hurt, and violence toward transfiguration and renewal.”
She reminds us what many have experienced: that we can Bless any situation, which means “to confer energy upon.” Blessing will cause it to vibrate at a higher frequency. When we bless something, it brings the Infinite Intelligence of Divine Light to the circumstance. It also gives us the opportunity to ask for a Creative Solution if it seems so dire that we can’t see our way through it.
So matter what situation, planetary position, age, or yuga or we are in right now, individual human beings can connect to a Golden (blessed) Era (energy), Source Light. That means individual human beings can live in a golden time within themselves, and share that light with others. Even in the worst of times, the possibility to be a loving, light-filled human being is there. That’s the good news. It’s worth holding onto and worth practicing.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I offer G.K. Chesterson’s immortal words:
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
May Blessings shower upon you and yours