(This is the last lecture of this 6-lecture module on self-awareness
that is part of a
longer series on Psychological Literacy, offered to the Senior University
learning program, for its Fall 2009 program.
Eventually, more of the series will be posted on this website. This
sixth and last lecture will be given on November 2, 2009 (re-posted
November 1, 2009---and will probably edit it further.)
Lecture 6: MEANING, SPIRITUALITY AND INSPIRATION
Adam Blatner, M.D.
This series of lectures will
include: 1. An
orientation to the process of
self-awareness. 2. Motivations
Ideals 3. Wiser
More Foolish Coping Maneuvers
4. Body Cues and
Social Connectedness and
(this lecture: ) Meaning, Spirituality & Inspiration (and
Let's look at some other
sources for self awareness: So far we’ve talked about expanding or
intensifying self-awareness, of your inner motives, of your various
healthy and foolish ways of coping with different motives and emotions,
with your individuality—and last session went beyond your skin to
situate your sense of self as part of your social network. While in
part we are who we are within our skin, it could be argued that the
sense of self also partakes significantly of our social being-ness, as
described on other papers on my website.
Now this talk simply expands that category, and notes that beyond our
ordinary circles of social being-ness, there are also subtle relations
to wider circles of culture, language, nation, species and beyond that,
nature itself. Beyond nature, also, are a number of mysteries—of
life, death, where did we come from, where do we go, both personally
and collectively, both at the edges of a single lifetime and as a
cosmos. Somehow, this is mixed with the meaning of things—mere
knowledge of cosmology doesn’t satisfy.
Science seeks answers, even if it then uses those answers to then seek
other answers beyond. There’s another search that science cannot
satisfy: Meaning. Because science cannot offer a model for the cosmos
other than somewhat mechanistic principles, that does not mean that the
quest for meaning is, well, meaningless. There is another dimension so
complex that science has at best only nibbled at, and that’s the realm
of mind, consciousness, and judgments of purpose and beauty.
Now this differs for each person, and may partake of some or all of the
following to various extents—nature, God as each individual imagines
that being, wholeness, the depths of personal and collective
consciousness, the unfolding of history or the evolution of
consciousness, and various ideals causes, a more loving world, and so
What I mean by spirituality is the activity of developing a greater
intensity of relationship or depth of connectedness with the Greater
Wholeness of Being. This does not require any formal belief in any
personal or impersonal higher image of a supernatural being, but it
often does so. Nor am I requiring any support for any particular
religion. It’s more about how each individual constructs his or her
meaning system, pursues the what’s it all about question.
Beyond the Class
I need to confess that in thinking about this lecture I began to write
it numerous times—and more, if you include my ruminations and reveries.
It became apparent that the general theme transcends our talk today.
Partly this is because the subject of identity, who we think we are,
reflects among other things the fact that we’re in the midst of a
number of basic shifts in world-view, in ways to think about belief,
truth, fact, and so forth. In many books thinkers beyond theologians
dispute the nature of what people call God—by no means does this word
mean the same thing to different people. (For example, in the past
people who doubted orthodox religion were called atheists, in spite of
the people so labeled—I’m thinking of the great philosopher Baruch
Spinoza in the 17th century and the revolutionary writer and thinker
Thomas Paine in the late 18th century—who claimed that they very much
did believe in God, but just not the God whose doctrines were claimed
to be espoused by the mainstream religions.)
Anyway, the field is vast, and I can assure you I have no claims to
authority. However, I think I can offer you some tools for thinking
about and working with your own preferred process of constructing or
revising or reaffirming your own spiritual map. So here are a number of
concepts I’ve found relevant to the general task of becoming more
acutely spiritually self-aware.
About Spirituality—A Disclaimer
In our own culture, in a time of culture change, there is some freedom
to disconnect with a sense of obligation to consider as deeply true a
whole range of mythological images that may or may not collide with
reason. I find most people pick and choose among these doctrines
anyway. Some people change denominations or whole religions. The
emerging sentiment seems to include those who find comfort in community
and with little actual pressure to conform to doctrinal belief. Some
even find other avenues of community-feeling and consider themselves
un-observant or not-officially religious.
Of course there are those who don’t believe and don’t relate to any of
this—are neither spiritual or religious. And there are those who are
merely observant, but don’t take it anywhere, don’t feel a need to, or
think it’s possible to imagine ways of feeling more active in
developing that relationship—or discount such ambitions as mere
mysticism, as if that were not a good thing. So the sociology is mixed.
I’m not pushing any particular path, but rather simply acknowledging
that this whole spiritual endeavor can be an important part of self-ing
and self-awareness in life.
For those who think beyond religion, then making spiritual refer to
nature, or the meaning of life, with no taint of religion—the key is
the themes of thinking, feeling out what works for you, but not just
going along unthinkingly.
I want to suggest that it begins by imagining that you do have more to
you than your ordinary everyday lives, and even more than your
individual make-up. The first category to notice is your source of
excitement, vitality, what sparks you up. That your energy can be
enhanced, you can feel uplifted, excited, inspired to give more of
yourself in a positive way, this energy shift, needs to be woven into
our theories of human experience. Certainly you can make yourself
behave morally and dutifully, but for some there’s a point where this
behavior becomes joyous—and that inflow of psychic energy is not
generally appreciated by many psychologists as well. So I’m giving it a
term: I call it “the axis of inspiration.”
Certain activities and events open us, help us to feel part of the
flow, or of something bigger. What is that about? I am hoping to arouse
your curiosity about that—this is the axis of inspiration. There are
some systems of esoteric psychology that unpack this axis, such as the
system of chakras of kundalini yoga, but I don’t know if those systems
are necessarily true: Rather, I consider them to be hypothetical ways
of trying to appreciate the workings of our emotional and spiritual
lives and how they cross over and inform each other.
Here’s another way to think about it. Human beings, along with many
animals, inherit the bonding instinct. For parents it’s the instinct to
nurture one’s young. This is a great mystery, involving thousands of
subtle cues, communications signals, the way a mother and child
recognize each others’ sounds, smells, and the like. We’re very
gradually appreciating some of the elements, which is by no means the
same as fully understanding them. Rather, we’re just beginning to be
able to tease this apart.
So babies bond with parents fairly strongly, and this leaves strong
impressions throughout life. Less strongly but still significantly,
this same bonding expands to include other early caretakers,
grandparents, siblings, others who live closely or whose presence
becomes quite relevant to a child. The circle rapidly expands into the
My early years occurred during World War 2, and I got a good dose of
propaganda, movies, talk, parades, flags, and it left me with a strong
sense of national virtue and purpose. I mention this because in the
last several decades I don’t see this sense of unity and purpose
operating as strongly in our country. In some ways, lively political
conflict is good for democracy, but at the same time, my point here is
that a sense of destiny, purpose, not just nationally or politically,
but in life itself, is a good thing.
I was also lucky to have fallen into a vocational ambition that was
socially validated, and again that is something I’ve learned not to
take for granted. But the point here is that as we grow we bond also to
wider and wider circles.
Some of you may have bonded early in life to nature, depending on your
environment or the behavior of relatives or peers. Nature in turn can
be great and mysterious enough to elicit awe and reverence, and these
qualities tend to associate with the something-bigger that perhaps
redounds to the person’s identity.
So I’m suggesting that spirituality is a bonding with the all-ness,
with the sense of being part of something bigger. It doesn’t require a
special brain structure or gene, as hinted at by some recent books.
Spirituality is the activity of feeling connected, and is highly shaped
by the cultural matrix that one grows up in.
The five senses are not the only ones—there are several types of touch
and feeling, for instance. But there are also more subtle ones, like
the sense of presence of a loved one, the body-feelins of affection and
cuddling, intuitions and hunches that come, gut sense about what feels
right or wrong, and so forth. We might expand these to include insight,
excitement, curiosity, affection, and recognize that some of the basic
affects are also sensations.
Another sub-type is what I call “aggregate
experience,” which are general senses that are the product of
several, perhaps scores of subtle component senses. The sense of being
a separate self and/or a valued self are thus constructed; the sense of
reality, or being dream-like; the sense of presence of God or spiritual
forces; or of a situation making sense, or being particularly
relevant—two kinds of what it means to be meaningful. About the latter,
there is a word called “numinous,” which refers to the sense of
something not just relevant but oddly compelling. That may cross over
to feeling called, or a strong impulse to follow a more complex goal
(rather than simply to scratch an itch).
Widening Circles of Identification
This lecture has been the most difficult for me to prepare, because the
ideas here lead to so many other considerations, contemplations, of
related themes and issues.
The take-away is that self-awareness participates not only in the self
as imagined as the individual alone, the lone wolf, apart from the
social network—this hero who has been idealized if not idolized in the
modern period—and re-integrates also the self that includes the
trans-personal, the social, and even broader fields that give the sense
of self meaning.
The sense of self is a sense, an aggregate. There is no way of
isolating or determining the boundaries of the self as clean and
To illustrate, how much of your self sense is caught up in some of the
following dimensions of existence?
– any social or political cause
– your allegiance to city, state, nation
– allegiance to family, ethnic background, religion (as a social
organization), vocation, etc.
– identification with any minority group or group (even majority)
seeking more right (e.g., feminism)
– historical trend that you agree with; or historical trend that you
want to fight or redirect
– social value of some sort
– God as you imagine or define that word
– creative channel, art, form of expression
– whatever you feel “called” to do
– what have I left out?
– your deeper subconscious, soul, depths of being, authenticity
These are in many ways “bigger” than you—and that’s the point of this
talk. It is better to begin to open your explicit conscious mind to
these influences. That doesn’t mean that you should try to completely
know these domains—that’s really quite impossible. They’re much bigger
than you. But you can begin to give them more thought, especially as to
how they fit for your life.
Some of these elements you may come to re-think. Perhaps you don’t
agree with what you thought you believed or believed in. Or have some
questions about it. I’m just suggesting that at this phase of life,
some wrestling with issues is a good thing to do, a good example to
give your kids, a good thing to know you have done as you approach
Some of these elements you might want to re-prioritize. This or that
may be validly part of you, or on the edge, or ready to drop away, or
be re-defined. Re-inventing yourself—I love that phrase. Hey, if
Madonna and some other movie stars can be said to be reinventing
themselves, I don’t know, but it seems like an option we can all
consider for ourselves if we want to. Or not, re-affirming our lives is
fine, too. (For me, I’m pretty happy with my life, but there is a
little creative dissatisfaction that keeps me fizzing around the edge,
wrestling with some stuff, and I like maintaining a bit of that edge.
Maybe I’ll settle down in a few years, but right now that works for me.
But the point is that we can come to these positions more consciously
and adapt them to fit whatever is up for us as individuals in our
Another aspect of spiritual awareness is the quasi-hypnotic suggestion
that if you are more, if your unconscious is a source of creativity, if
there are muses or angels helping, part of the idea of surrender is to
open to inspiration. This is one of my missions—to encourage people to
trust their inner subtle impulses about singing, dancing, writing
poetry, however non-talented one may be. You aren’t doing it for
others. You’re even a bit shy. And there are those who are a little
less shy. The point is to open to getting excited, in bubbling up with
energy or vitality. There aren’t really theories in ordinary psychology
for this kind of enthusiasm—that word really refers to the spirit of a
small-g-god coming through you, theos in enthusiasm—i.e., the muse.
In some spiritual traditions, chants and all are key—it has to do with
the breath, the voice—the content of the words are less relevant or
even irrelevant. It’s taking the emotions and expressing them
fully—there isn’t that much of this. Some Black Gospel songs have that
energy, which also come out in singing the blues. A few hymns, for some
people, maybe. Moving, shaking, beating drums, there is a breadth of
ways to channel the energies of pain or joy, fear or safety at last.
Okay, now for something different: Just an imagination exercise.
Teilhard de Chardin was a mystic living in the early 20th century, a
Jesuit who on assignment as a paleontologist in a flash of insight saw
that evolution—which was then considered by fundamentalists to be
anti-religion—and Christianity could be reconciled: What if evolution
was the way God got things done? His writings are interesting, but one
of his lines is especially so: What if we are not physical beings who
have spiritual experiences on occasion, but rather what if our lives
are really that we are spiritual beings who happen to be having a
This reversal of perception is the key, whether or not you agree with
this idea. Whether or not you use religion as a framework, the question
is whether you can recognize that your sense of self either does
partake of something greater, or perhaps it could, or you might or
might not want it to. But lots of people do attend to this and you
might want to investigate your inclination to do so or not.
Teilhard’s suggestion is that there is more to you than your ordinary
sense of what you are aware of, and interestingly, without knowing it,
there are many correlations with various teachers from South India and
other countries who believe that the mind is only the top level—the
executive in some regards, to be sure— but only the top or outer-most
level of consciousness.
Another category that overlaps with what I brought up last week about
the way people tend to discount the “three only things”— dreams,
intuitions, and seeming coincidences— and that is the category of
uncanny experiences. So without feeling obliged to share, you might
review such events in your life. That would include experiencing
something like a sense that someone who had died has re-appeared in
more than memory; an out-of-the-body or near-death experience, more
than an ordinary dream; a mystical experience, even mildly; a story of
being saved from an accident in an unbelievable way; and so forth?
Then there are even more common but inexplicable things—dreams or
strong hunches or visions that are telepathic or pre-cognitive. And
before you raise your hands, please suggest some other phenomena I
haven’t covered—even if you’ve only read about them, or been told by a
Finally, who has had an experience that has deepened your faith, or
confirmed something like spirituality even if it wasn’t withing the
general sense of what is considered valid by your religion?
Okay, with all those big ol’
question marks, how many?
Here’s another interesting principle in the development of
self-awareness about spiritual things or meaning in life. Acceptance,
surrender, letting go and letting be—it’s something you’ve been
learning as you raise kids, stay married, live longer. There’s even a
skill, in my thinking, even if it is a rather subtle one, just in
refraining from trying, from doing. Not-doing. Letting the flow happen.
Refusing to give in to the temptation to grab on, clutch, cling to,
hold on, etc.
It seems to me that the older we grow, the more we need to discover the
balance of trying or effort and letting go and acceptance. More effort
and conscious attention and will in some activities, more the other way
Our culture has a bit too much try harder and never give up kind of
talk, as if that’s a good thing, a wise thing. I think it’s good to
have both categories available, not be fixed in either one, and able to
reflect on the situation and see what’s needed.
For the Buddhists, there is something spiritual about giving up the
effort to know completely, to be able to define, pin down, or come to a
conclusion, and especially, giving up the illusion of having, not only
property, but also status and the illusions of achievement. I think
there is a good deal of wisdom in just this idea—I use the term
“greedy-grasping,” as in trying to hold a butterfly in your hand so
tightly that you crush it. This is related to letting go and surrending
I may well revise this further in time, and with people’s feedback.
There are related topics that can be explored—such as relating the axis
of inspiration to the different chakras—and this is hinted at on the
6 on “deep maturity.”
I welcome feedback and suggestions.