Oysters and clams are well guarded. Butterflies emerge from cocoons. Mother Earth shields herself from the harsh Sun with ether. Shall the spirit be denied a garment? Even acorns have shells.
Publication of Beyond the Sphere: Encounters with the Divine raised a relevant question. What does this book add to spiritual, theological and spiritual discussions of today? The short answer: Beyond the Sphere provides fresh, organic insight into the nagging question of why humans suffer from psychological isolation. It also points to a positive approach to spiritual growth.
For millennia, the faithful have been told original sin caused our isolation from God and one another. The familiar story of Adam and Eve in Genesis lays it out. Our ancestors ate from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” and became “naked and ashamed.” Jews, Christians and Muslims have accepted humanity is tainted, damaged, unfit and unworthy to be in the presence of God. Not even innocent newborns escape this guilty verdict and mandatory life sentence.
Belief in original sin renders us powerless in the face of inherent corruption. Treatments – not cures – include following dietary restrictions, a code of conduct, repentance. A class of interveners – rabbis, priests, imams – are required to help the sinner find their way to God’s good graces. Sacrifices must be made. In extreme cases, Western monks have taken vows of austerity, poverty, silence and celibacy – some even resorted to castration. In Christianity, there is the added requirement to accept Jesus as your savior.
Eastern religions and philosophies offer another explanation – but produce the same result. It is the ego or the self that causes us to believe we are separate from everything. The ego clings to property, is jealous, petty, violent and self-absorbed. The me is the root of suffering. Devout Hindus and Buddhists, like their Western counterparts, engage in various acts of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage in order to achieve the coveted state of enlightenment.
Ultimately, both Eastern and Western religions fail to provide a cure for the human condition. Billions of adherents continue to struggle with impulses such as anger, envy, greed and lust despite the teachings they hold dear. Cold showers, hair shirts, fasting and self-flagellation have not worked. At best, these efforts produce a life of inner conflict, where one hopes to gain victory over one’s self, and perhaps one day be a warrior worthy of meeting God.
This idea of self-subjugation as beneficial found its way into psychology through Sigmund Freud. Modern spirituality is also tainted with anti-self propaganda. Many readers of J. Krishnamurti and Ekhardt Tolle find themselves on search and destroy missions against themselves. Various gurus spout the same dubious claim that peace can be won through overcoming the I. Spiritual seekers fall into the abyss of trying to “lose” their ego to find peace. It never works. The ego always returns. And for good reason.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Beyond the Sphere offers a fresh perspective on spiritual growth. It introduces the presence of an invisible, intangible barrier surrounding each person. These encapsulating spheres appeared during an unexpected and excruciating state of hypersensitivity described in Chapter Six, “God Returns.” These subtle structures insulate each person from the world at large, but can also prevent us from experiencing the spiritual source we call God. The significance and role of these spheres was not immediately apparent.
Over the past 40 years, I’ve deepened my understanding of those hypersensitive moments through reflection, inquiry, prayer, meditation and interaction with others. As part of that process, I lived a monkish life with vows of celibacy and poverty. I fasted, prayed, and endured cold showers. I understand the motivations and sacrifices of those who seek to do good, to overcome themselves, to please the Almighty. I also learned not only was self-sacrifice unnecessary, it also hindered my growth.
I came to understand the need for and the role of our spheres as similar to the amniotic sac. Just as a fetus is protected in the womb, spiritual barriers shield developing souls and provide an enclosed space where they can be nourished. What grows inside the safe space is the self, the ego, the very thing we have been urged to control or destroy.
The acorn must shed its shell to reveal the seed of the mighty oak.
Attempts to eliminate or control the immature self are understandable as it is bound to be ignorant, make mistakes, be self-absorbed and not see the boundaries around itself and around others. Violations will occur. For that reason, developing souls need protection because life is full of potentially harmful experiences that can thwart their development. Souls can end up mired in co-dependence, addictions and self-destructive patterns. Accepting beliefs such as original sin or defining ourselves by skin color, sex, socio-economic status or educational level keeps us from our destiny as autonomous creators.
Most people, including many spiritual seekers, get stuck in a state of inner conflict as they reflexively judge every person, experience, thought or emotion as good or bad. Energies that could go toward our spiritual development are squandered in an internal war that cannot be won. Instead of becoming one with ourselves, we are locked in a constant battle between what we’ve come to believe are good and bad aspects of ourselves. By attempting to rid ourselves of certain feelings, we become inwardly numb to all feelings. Our efforts to control anger only repress it and store it up until one day we erupt in a mushroom cloud of rage. All effort to control, subjugate or ignore the self robs us of the precious energy needed for spiritual growth.
There is another way. We can become aware of the limitations of our spheres, and understand how we are creating and sustaining them. Not to remove them or tear them down, but to simply be aware of them. This is called “motiveless awareness.” By allowing our innate intelligence room to operate, we begin to see things clearly. The fog of war dissipates. We begin to observe how our mind works, how it creates, how we invest energy in visions or ideas and how that energy interacts with the world around us.
Eventually we reach a point in our development where we no longer feel the need for protection from everyone and everything. As a result of these insights, we stop investing psychic energy in conflict or in our limiting beliefs. We open ourselves to the unknown, to outcomes not part of our limited projections and predictions. Our intangible barriers weaken, leaving us vulnerable to life itself. This is a completely natural, unforced process. It doesn’t require any effort — which would only be a continuation of inner conflict.
As I contemplated the existence and purpose of our spheres, the clandestine meeting between Jesus and the Pharisee named Nicodemus came to mind. According to John 3:1-36, the two met in the dead of night to discuss Jesus’s teachings. Little detail is offered in the New Testament about their discussion, but it would make sense the learned Pharisee would want to discuss how Jesus’ message fit within the sacred texts Nicodemus knew by heart. The Hebrew scholar would naturally be curious why Jesus appeared to violate long established Jewish customs and challenge the status quo with such pronouncements such as “love your enemy.” But none of this dialogue was recorded.
Instead, we learn Jesus told the high priest, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” In other words, memorizing all the Biblical texts and following the ancient edicts would not end Nicodemus’ spiritual emptiness and lead to an encounter with God.
Nicodemus was confused, saying he was too old and couldn’t possibly re-enter his mother’s womb, prompting Jesus to clarify. The rebirth he referred to was of “water and the Spirit.”
“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit,” Jesus added.
In essence, the spirit must be born. Jesus compared spiritual liberation to physical birth centuries ago. Physical birth is not painless, and neither is its spiritual counterpart. It will be uncomfortable and there will likely be tears shed as we “break the shell” enclosing our understanding.
This perspective on what Jesus meant by born again is unconventional. Traditional interpretations are based on the idea by which we are all so hobbled: we need a savior to transcend original sin. Yet, even with the salvation offered by Christianity, we continue to be isolated, confused, susceptible to temptation, addiction and so on. Despite thousands of years of Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian beliefs, we continue to create an often hostile world of greed, envy, war and lust.
Beyond the Sphere offers a paradigm in which our spirits are evolving, gathering understanding, experience and wisdom. We learn to create, to make choices and witness their consequences. We experiment with various beliefs and experience their outcomes. We learn beliefs are prisms we use to highlight aspects of life and interact with the world. But beliefs, while often helpful, ultimately prove to be limiting.
Naturally, we grow more mindful and self-aware. Our defensiveness, our isolation and the resulting spiritual longing become clear. Our monotonous, cyclic patterns make us weary. Autonomy and self-directedness become core values. We choose to interact directly with Reality rather than through beliefs. Our boundaries vaporize as we invest our energy in embracing a more abundant life.
Al Guart is a Pulitzer Prize nominated investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Post and Agence France Presse. He also produced in-depth television news segments for CBS News. He is author of the groundbreaking book, Beyond the Sphere: Encounters with the Divine, which explores the powerful impact Divine Visitations have had on humanity.