Virtue Ethics is all about becoming virtuous by being virtuous. Creating good habits is all about habituation. Likewise, Zen training is all about training and spiritual practice is all about practice.
Overcoming bad habits and nurturing good ones doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time and effort. But it does get easier. At a certain point you begin to notice the influence of what Rupert Sheldrake calls “morphic resonance”. Patterns of thought and behaviour which resonate with established patterns, whether individual or collective, come more readily and naturally. Which is why it’s much easier to meditate or do yoga in a group, and why it’s easier to be good if you keep good company.
Treating the world as nothing but meaningless aggregates of Matter is a bad habit. Whether you agree with them or not, reading sacred scriptures literally is a bad habit. Relativizing everything is a bad habit. Politicizing everything is a bad habit. These four bad habits are easy to maintain because they resonate with established bad habits in the culture, as a result of the tireless work of the four horsemen (see How to Make Hell on Earth).
These are four examples of bad habits of thought. It’s what makes us think and act like muppets. But there are also bad ego habits, which make us behave like muggles. Our self-image and sense of identity is limited and distorted. We are like Lion Kings who think we are sheep.
There are bad habits of will and appetite. When the will is compromised we become lazy, apathetic and weak. We start to see ourselves as victims. We are easily disheartened and depressed, and may develop chronic anxiety disorders. When we surrender to every passing desire, we allow our natural appetites to dominate us and develop unhealthy addictions. We become addicts addicted to bad habits, bingeing on everything from coffee and chocolate biscuits to pop music and porn.
The four positive archetypes, Warrior, Monk, Philosopher and King represent the opposite forces, good habits that can potentially overcome the bad ones. We can train ourselves to be warriors instead of victims, monks (and nuns) instead of addicts, philosophers instead of muppets and kings (and queens) instead of muggles.
Re-alignment Meditation requires practice, training and intention. It’s not “positive thinking”, although it is a form of “positive psychology”. We try to avoid and refrain from acting out and feeding bad habits, but we also try to cultivate good ones. What distinguishes it from ordinary types of moral or psychological developmental systems, however, is the training in mysticism and shamanism.
What is mysticism? Simply stated, it is the practice of retreating from the world. This is why retreats are called retreats. What this actually means is that your consciousness retreats from the objects of consciousness, or in the mystical language of Kashmir Shaivism, Shiva withdraws from Shakti. This retreat or withdrawal of consciousness is the essence of meditation. It leads to a state of quiet meditative absorption, samadhi.
Consciousness without an object is called Parashiva. It is absolute, universal consciousness. Wherever there is Shiva there must also be Shakti. But where there is no Shakti, there is only universal consciousness, Parashiva.
To be a mystic is to practice merging Shiva in Parashiva, like a drop of water in the ocean. It is done through forgetting and unknowing. To remember God, you must first forget yourself. You must enter a Cloud of Forgetting and then a Cloud of Unknowing. In the Re-alignment Meditation system, the mystic archetype represents the union or communion of the Soul with God, Shiva with Parashiva.
This is not the end of the story – it’s just the beginning. Mysticism opens the way to shamanism (as well as vice versa). Because Shiva has retreated into Parashiva, Shakti is left to her own devices. Not completely of course, because where there is Shakti there is Shiva, but relatively. It is as though Shiva has fallen sleep, allowing Shakti to wake up her dormant powers.
Broadly speaking, for present purposes, let’s say Shiva is the mind and Shakti is the body. When the mind withdraws from the body, the body “wakes up”. A kind of intuitive body intelligence takes over. To a casual observer, this can look as though the person is possessed by a demonic spirit, as some Christian missionaries believed when they saw the ecstatic dances of African shamans. The body moves spontaneously in accord with some mysterious impulse. It shakes and moves in extraordinary ways. The shaman may make strange sounds or start speaking in tongues.
Of course these unusual (to us) phenomena are not the result of completely involuntary and unconscious processes. Shiva is not completely asleep. We are not witnessing the ravings of a madman or the strange contortions of a zombie. In altered shamanic states, there is always a subtle consciousness and will guiding and responding to the promptings of the body. There is still the dance of Shiva and Shakti, but on another, subtler level. The shaman is the one who has mastered the dance. Hence the expression “the dead can dance”. When the mind is “dead”, the body can dance.
Mystical and shamanic practices connect us to Parashiva and Shakti respectively. As the mind withdraws from the body and consciousness from the mind, Shiva realises his essential nature as Parashiva. As the body is released from the controlling mind, it connects with the deep well-springs of its life energy and Shakti realises her intrinsic nature. We don’t call this state “Parashakti”, because she is not transcendent. She is still dependent on Shiva for her existence. Nevertheless, the Shaman experiences Shakti in all her fullness and glory.
Again, this is not the end of the story. Once we have experienced Shiva and Shakti in their pure forms, they can be re-united refreshed and invigorated. Absence makes the heart grow stronger – Shiva and Shakti fall into each other’s arms again with renewed life and passion.
When Shiva and Shakti are re-united after being separated, they will not let their restored lover out of their sights. They will not forget each other. This is what is meant by “Self Remembering”. Self Remembering is the simple practice of holding in awareness simultaneously both the object of awareness and the subject of awareness. You are aware of something, such as the words in front of you, but at the same time you are aware that you are aware.
Mindfulness is really just another word for “Self Remembering. In both cases, you are simultaneously aware of your consciousness, Shiva (“mind” or “self”) and the contents of your consciousness, Shakti (the “world”). Normally we are identified with the objects of our experience – we are in a “world trance”. But with the separation of Shiva and Shakti, we can experience them both at the same time, and we feel awake, alert and alive.
Now we are in a much better position to cultivate the character strengths represented by the four archetypes, Warrior, Monk, Philosopher, King. We can mindfully act in accordance with the Warrior virtues and train the will. We can mindfully act in accordance with the moral virtues of temperance and self-restraint represented by the Monk and train our appetite. We can mindfully think in accordance with the intellectual virtues of the Philosopher and train ourselves in the right use of reason. We can mindfully comport ourselves with the sovereign dignity and authority of a King or Queen and train ourselves in authentic assertiveness and ego strength.
Each of these four (good will, good desire, good reason and good ego) find their expression through the skilful and loving dance between Shiva and Shakti. The will of the Warrior is not just a strong will, but also a skilful will and a loving will. The same is also true of the appetite, reason and ego. They follow hidden intuitive promptings rather than explicit rules. The cultivation of good character is an art not a science.
Remember Parashiva. Be a Mystic. Remember Shakti. Be a Shaman. Then remember Shiva and Shakti together in everything you do. You will find that you are not only a Mystic and a Shaman but a Warrior, a Monk, a Philosopher and a King.