By Dr. Stewart Bitkoff
While we are living in unsettled times, it seems that many periods in human history have been that way. Consider this famous quote from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, authored in 1859.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.” Charles Dickens
Might not this description fit our modern life? Add to this description an overlay of daily predictions of natural disasters, excessive drug and alcohol use, rampant societal depression, terrorists blowing-up innocents, civil unrest and riots across the globe, the failure of capitalism as a viable way of life and a general fear that the fabric of our daily lives is being destroyed.
It certainly is a mess out there and this affects our personal reaction to events: forming negative attitudes and a stressed mental posture.
What Is Attitude?
Certainly if I wasn’t depressed before starting this piece, I sure am right now; even I wonder how this ‘piece of practical wisdom,’ concerning the right attitude for progress along a spiritual path, will help raise my mood and spirits? Well let’s get started; here are 7 points to consider.
- Today just about everyone is aware of the importance of a good attitude and how it contributes to overall health, success in the market place, and happier, stress free living. In our society, this awareness has percolated up to the point that is common knowledge.
- What has not come along with this awareness is a general understanding and laboratory to practice methods, exercises and techniques to lift our attitude when ‘it is in the dumps.’ Plenty of written material exists offering techniques; however, what is lacking is practical in the field training. Often the closest the spiritual traveler can come to this is in a therapist’s office or exchanging ideas with a gifted spiritual teacher.
- Life is a series of ups and downs, mentally and emotionally, and for most travelers: it takes a lifetime to master our shifting patterns. Early on we need to be given the tools to observe our attitudes in different situations, practice and master them and then graduate to doing this throughout our lives.
- Webster’s, The Free Dictionary, defines attitude as: 1) ‘a settled way of thinking or feeling, typically reflected in a person’s behavior: “she took a tough attitude toward other people’s indulgences.” 2) A position of the body proper to or implying an action or mental state: “the boy was standing in an attitude of despair.”
- During the course of a day, and our spiritual journey, we have many attitude shifts based upon different events and thoughts.
- One of the first things learned in a spiritual school is to monitor thoughts and our attitude throughout the day; so we can become masters’ of our consciousness and more easily facilitate the flow of higher, positive choices. Accompanying this personal monitoring there needs to be discussion, with a teacher, about alternatives and other reasons or explanations as to why a series of events turned out a specific way.
- At an early age, many thoughts and reactions which help create our attitude are engineered into us by society, hardwired by biology, or based upon previous life experience. The spiritual traveler must take the time each day to sift out, the origin for troubling attitudes, and learn to disarm them by suspending these thoughts and consider all the possible options around troubling events. Most often we jump to conclusions, based upon previous experience, without going deeper into other possibilities.
For example, “she said she would call today. Why hasn’t she called? Did I say something wrong? The reason could be any of the following: she doesn’t like something I said; she was too busy; had an emergency which took-up her time; had trouble with her phone; had to work extra hours; simply forgot. I could go on, but you are getting the point; few of these alternatives had anything directly to do with me.
The Correct Attitude
In a spiritual search, it is not easy to offer a singular, overall best attitude for learning, which allows the higher knowledge to come forward. Here are 5 points to consider concerning ‘the correct’ positive attitude and mental posture.
- One definition of Sufism states: ‘Sufism is an attitude learned in the presence of other Sufis.’ Another traditional saying offers a definition of Sufism: ‘to see what is in front of you, not what you think is there, is to be a Sufi.”
- This objectivity to see what is actually present as opposed to what you want to be there or have been taught is there, is a difficult mental posture (attitude) to maintain. This attitude of listening to the situation with your heart, free of engrained prejudice and personal thoughts, allows you to learn and the higher knowledge to come forward.
- In order to benefit from daily experience, your consciousness must be still, a quiet place, where you listen and observe; taking in and allowing events to unfold.
- Another of the first things learned and taught in a mystical school, is the importance of surrendering to a situation. Giving-up or suspending what you believe, want and accepting what is actually being offered. This prayer is a good technique to help develop this attitude.
“O Lord/Light, I surrender myself to you. Help me to see what is in front of me, learn from this situation and know your will; so, I might better serve you and the higher destiny.”
- In a mystic’s training, surrender of will is not a passive state of consciousness. It is an active attitude where “I” is suspended, so, the traveler might free himself from self and learn/perceive what is actually present; this surrendering of self is offered, in order to serve as a divine instrument.
We Are What We Think*
More and more work is being published on the importance of positive thinking for good attitude and health. The more I read, the more I am convinced that we are what we think.
Clearly, many factors influence our thought- and many of these influences are outside our sphere of control. Yet how we react to things, in large measure, are a matter of conditioning and are something that can be changed.
We don’t need behaviorists to tell us that it isn’t good to worry all day or that negative self image affects career potential. What we do need are many different people, many educators, and many systems that help maximize our capacity to think positively and productively use what we have.
Some would argue that this is the realm of psychologists, and that is true to a point. However may cultures have systems that help develop human potential. We in our scientific frame of reference have, until recently scorned the usefulness of these tools and systems. Fortunately, Western scientists are beginning to re-evaluate their initial dismissal and there is a reawakening of the age-old knowledge to harness the power of our minds, bodies and world(s).
The New York Daily News used to run a series of sayings by Confucius, and one has always stayed with me: “A happy man thinks happy thoughts.” This is true. However what is missing is how to get to the point of thinking happy thoughts, or how to correct situations in which only unhappy thoughts are generated.
Humanity has struggled with this problem since the beginning, but there has always been and answer: turn inward and embrace your Higher Self. Until recently, we were looking in the wrong place.
Robert Ornstein, PhD, suggests that the human personality is made up of many parts and smaller selves. We are a composite of parts, some of which are inborn and some of which are developed by situations and potentials.
From my point of view, the task of the spiritual traveler is to get to know these many selves. Identify them and be aware of their operation, so that over a period of training you can learn to still them. Once stilled, we can begin to listen to other parts of self that only operate under this condition. Stilling something is much different that obliterating it, the premise being that the higher consciousness can work within the ordinary personality. We don’t have to change all our smaller selves-only modify some of them. Then the lasting self will come forward.
Living in the Moment*
Living in the moment is a mystical state in which the normal faculties of consciousness are suspended. The ego, or I, recedes and the higher consciousness and concentration comes forward. In this condition of surrender, one is free of preconceptions, intellectual baggage and desires. It is a state of acceptance of what is transpiring, awareness of the unifying mechanisms in events and intuitive perception. This is not a static condition and it is not maintained throughout the day. After training, this state may be triggered by the focus word or other devices.
How does this technical, somewhat ambiguous description relate to situations that are packed with anxiety, like fighting congested traffic while commuting to work every day. When I find myself becoming overly anxious, annoyed, or distracted by negative thoughts, I enter this state of consciousness. The end result is that I become more fully integrated and able to accomplish what needs to be done. Accompanying this state of mind is another level of energy and capabilities.
If you have ever driven on the Deegan, or commuted on a monster highway like it, you know how helpful this state of mind can be.
Surrender to the Situation
In summary, in order for the spiritual traveler to maximize opportunity for spiritual learning, the correct attitude, for the most part, is an attitude characterized by mental openness; the capacity to see what is in front of you- free of personal bias and the ability to listen to what is taking place through the heart’s inner wisdom.
This is accomplished by surrendering to the situation, and for a time suspending self or ego. One way, or technique, to surrender self or ego is by saying the prayer of submission, very slowly and focus on the words.
* These sections first appeared in my book entitled: A Commuter’s Guide to Enlightenment, Llewellyn, 2008; and help describe switching attention from one attitude to another and acquiring the right attitude for spiritual learning. These techniques and examples are offered within the context of a daily commute to work, and are useful in many other areas of daily life.
Check-out my two books: Sufism for Western Seekers: Path of the Spiritual Traveler in Everyday Life and The Ferryman’s Dream. Both books are also in Kindle format and available on Amazon.com or local bookstore.
If you are interested in learning more about universal mysticism and Sufism contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.