Listen carefully. Obsculta is the first word of guidance written by St. Benedict, the 6th century mystic and Father of western monasticism. His Rules for Monks is still used today to direct the lives in Benedictine communities. St. Benedict immediately qualifies what kind of listening they, and we, need to do. Obsculta inclina aurem cordis tui – “Listen by inclining the ear of your heart.” What could he possibly mean? Our hearts have ears? If that is true, then how do they work?
St. Benedict’s poetic language is asking us to listen, not just with our ears, but with our hearts to all that comes our way. While we might hear the words with our actual ears, with our hearts we can deeply reflect, discern, and take action if necessary.
When we are an embryo, the sound perceiving mechanism of the ear is the first organ we develop. During the same time, our heart also starts to develop (5 weeks after conception). Imagine! At 18 weeks in the womb, one of our first sensations of life is the inner sound of our own and our mother’s heartbeat. Studies have shown that a baby will become agitated if its mother’s heartbeat beats faster than normal, suggesting its mother is under stress. We also begin life listening to the rise and fall of our mother’s breath, our parents’ muffled voices, the world outside.
Let’s talk about fear. Inner fear. How elusive and arbitrary it can be. We sometimes struggle with fear over the simplest things – talking to our boss, having a routine visit to the doctor’s, or taking an exam. We might be fearful for our health, bank accounts, jobs, or kids. Of course, we can feel legitimate fear, but usually what we fear is not based on our outer reality but rather coming from within ourselves. Assagioli calls this fear a widely diffused psychological poison.
In order to deal with fear effectively, Assagioli urges us to eliminate or minimalize the fear within ourselves. He also warns us of a vicious circle that can occur – the fear within us can open the door to the influence of external fear, and external fear feeds the inner one.
To break this vicious circle, we need to use our skillful will to withdraw our attention deliberately from the psychological poison of fear. The energy that is holding and nurturing the fear will then be released. We can then redirect this new-found energy to do the most good in our lives.
Last year, Susan came to see me because she wasn’t able to become pregnant. She and her husband were both 30 years old and had been trying for one year without success. Susan had a doctorate in biochemistry and knew exactly all the ways the body functioned – and didn’t function. After two of her friends had died of cancer, she was terrified of the disease. She had spent hours visiting various doctors asking for multiple aggressive and invasive tests just to ensure herself that she did not have cancer.
I paint in a sea of Spanish. For the past two years, every Wednesday morning I enter the inspiring atelier of my teacher Luz Jiménez Díaz. She is from Colombia and has lived in The Netherlands for the past 20 years. Most of my fellow students are also Spanish speaking, coming from Mexico, Columbia, and Argentina. They easily slide from Spanish to Dutch to English, sometimes laughing and chatting as they paint.
The large room is full of light. Outside a flower garden, tended by Luz’s Dutch husband Johan surrounds us. You enter the garden by way of a large mosaic terrace Luz designed based on Egyptian images and gods. In late autumn, the garden is still vibrant. White and purple cornflowers flourish while the sunflowers hang forlorn and creamy dahlias struggle against the cold.
A small group of us attempt to bring our imagination to life under Luz’s patient and encouraging eye. When I first started, Luz would often appear before my atrocious splashes of color and say, “Your work is full of feeling.” She would then take a brush and tenderly demonstrate a technique that she wanted me to learn. “Why don’t you try this?” she would ask, and I was completely swept away. Only later did I realize that when she said, “Your work is full of feeling,” it probably needed a lot more technique!
Last week I decided to bring German cakes to share with my fellow aspiring artists. We usually stop mid-way for rich Colombian coffee or herbal tea, accompanied this time with slices of tart, both thickly-layered, one of apple and another of raspberry cream.
Our acts of kindness are like seeds in the wind. Surrender them to be transformed into miracles.
How often do you despair at your apparent insignificance? Between ISIS, Ebola, and the devastation of the world’s climate, what possible difference can we make? Such problems can feel overwhelming and our own meager lives seem so small. Even when we do rise above such feelings of inadequacy, we then might struggle to choose the most appropriate response. What actions can we possibly take at a personal level to affect what is emerging globally?
First of all, you and your actions do matter. My experience is that our significance reaches far beyond our imagination. Even the smallest acts of kindness directed towards rectifying the world’s injustices make a difference. But perhaps most surprisingly and wonderfully, even obscure acts that we may not consider meaningful can make a difference.
Let me offer you an example from my life. Sometimes I write poetry and often I wonder why. What purpose do these poems serve? I scribble them down in a notebook, sometimes share them, most of the time not. But then one day, I received a mysterious letter. The only address on the envelope was:
Catherine Ann Lombard
At the time I was living in The Netherlands. This letter, without any street address or zip code, had been forwarded to my new Dutch address from the Italian post office 1300 km (800 miles) away.
There are times in my life when I know I am trying too hard. No matter what I seem to do, nothing works, eases forward, sings in tune. For instance, while working in my garden, I can dig the earth, feed it the richest manure, insure it has enough calcium, carefully sow the seeds, faithfully water, fuss over the tiniest plants, pull weeds, and even pray. And still nothing grows. Sometimes I forget about God. Oh yeah, that Guy. He also might have something to say. In fact, his Will (or in psychosynthesis terms, the Higher Self and Transpersonal Will) might be bigger and beyond what I can imagine growing in anybody’s garden. In anybody’s heart and soul.
I recently learned a lesson from my sunflowers. This year they grew with only the Hand of God to tend them. Last year, we carefully planted sunflowers which grew and blossomed. Once the flowers hung heavy with seed, tipping their heads like bowing monks, we cut and left them on our terrace for the birds to swoop down and eat from. The chickadees and blue tits would shyly flutter from the sunflower stalks down to the cut flower heads on the terrace, steal a seed and speed home. By the end of the day, discarded seeds and shells would lay strewn on the terrace floor to be swept away.
Besides strong, skillful and good, another aspect of the will that Assagioli writes about is the transpersonal will, which touches on the spiritual dimension of the human being. Many people can lead a rich and useful life without this aspect of will. But others, who have had a direct experience of a transcendent reality, will recognize the transpersonal will operating in their lives. Their goal will be to use the other aspects of will—strong, skillful, and good—to tune into the transpersonal will, come into relationship with it, and use it to act in the world as well.
Transpersonal Will Activates Personal Meaning
We may find ourselves longing to tune into the transpersonal will when we feel a need to understand the meaning of our life. We might feel as if our life—despite our worldly success in work, family, and on a personal level—lacks meaning or value. Or we might be facing a sudden, unexpected crisis, like a death in the family or loss of job, that calls up this need.
The Three Stone Cutters
There is a medieval story about three stone cutters who were cutting granite for a new cathedral. When asked in turn, “What are you doing?” the first replied in an angry tone, “As you can see for yourself, I’m cutting stones.” The second answered, “I am earning a living for me and my family.” And the third said joyously, “I am building a great cathedral.” All were doing the exact same thing, but the first felt a sense of futility, the second a personal purpose in his work, and the third recognized a greater meaning and connection with a greater whole.
We are familiar with the idea of peace in the world—there peace movements and marches, demands for “Peace not war,” and a Nobel prize for peace. But what do we mean exactly when we say “good will”? Roberto Assagioli, describes good will as one of the four aspects of will, the others being strong, skillful, and transpersonal (cosmic or God’s will). We all have these aspects of will, in various degrees. How might we develop and strengthen our “good will?”
Difference between Good Will and Love
Good will is the vital energy needed in all of our diverse relationships and it is close to the concept of love. We think of love mostly as an innate spontaneous experience, yet compassion towards all creation can also be developed through willful choice. When we attempt to replace competition with cooperation, conflict with dialogue, and consider the welfare of others then we are engaging our good will.
1000-arms Avalokitesvara-kwan-yin Buddha Statue
In order to activate our good will, our task is to develop love and will in balance and strength. Compassion is not true compassion unless it is active, a definite synthesis of love and will. In fact, the Buddha of Compassion in Tibet is depicted as having a thousand eyes that see the pain in all corners of the universe, and a thousand arms to reach out and extend help to all those who are suffering. To be compassionate isn’t enough; we need acts of compassion.
As I wrote in the last blog, strong will is not about how well you can dominate others. It is about how much power or energy you have to drive your own life forward. Imagine your strong will as a horse. Horses are huge, strong beasts with tremendous power. But if you don’t know how to ride a horse, or how to be in relationship with them, they will take advantage of your ignorance. They might gallop away with you hanging on for dear life, or they might just stand there and not take a single step, no matter how much you try to coax them.
If we think of our strong will as a horse, then we quickly see the great need to have skillful will. Without the skills necessary to ride a horse, we might never leave the meadow. Or worse! We might end up running around the meadow chasing the horse. Skillful will is, in fact, our ability to obtain what we want with the least amount of energy. We all know people who can ride horses almost magically, easing these huge, powerful animals right or left with just a miniscule pull of the reigns. This how we want to move through our lives, skillfully, with minimal effort, going in the direction we desire.
Strong Will Can Work Against You
Let’s look at one example of how the strong will can actually work against you and the skillful will is more effective. I knew a woman from Romania named Olga. She needed to support her son through university, so she left her own job as school headmistress and moved to London where she could earn more money working as a nanny and also improve her English. Suddenly, after 20 years of running a high school and two university degrees—one in mathematics and the other in engineering—she was taking care of three children, ironing, and cleaning house for someone else.
Roberto Assagioli wrote about four aspects of will. Today I want to focus on strong will, the others being skillful, good, and transpersonal (Cosmic or God’s will). We all have these aspects of will, in various degrees. Will is energy and usually one aspect is more developed than the other. The idea is to make all the aspects equally balanced.
Strong will is not your ability to force your will onto others. This is the Victorian idea of strong will. Strong will is todirect, not impose. In fact, most people see strength as the only aspect of will. But when the will is only strong, it can actually cause failure and harm to yourself and others.
Strong Will is the Fire in Your Belly
Strong will is really about fire. How much fire or drive does your will have to carry out a decision? Perhaps you can remember a time when your strong will surged forward. It might have been a crisis, when you felt that you had to say “No!” no matter what the consequences. Times when you felt there was no other choice in a matter and your determination seemed to propel you forward towards a desired goal.