Dec 202009
 

thomas_keatingSomeone recently asked me about my spiritual practices. I practice several forms of prayer and meditation, but one of my favorites is “centering prayer”. Although called “prayer”, centering prayer does not involve speaking at all. There is no petitioning or list of requests. It is closer to what most people would think of as “meditation”.

It is, in fact, very similar to many eastern forms of meditation, although it was actually derived from a long history of Christian mystical tradition – largely forgotten and neglected. The fact is that mystics of all religions tend to encounter many of the same inner experiences. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton discovered that he was able to share many experiences with his Buddhist friends regarding meditation and contemplation.

Most modern Christians aren’t familiar with what “contemplation” means in the ancient Christian mystical texts. It does not mean simply “thinking” about spiritual topics. Contemplation is a special spiritual state in which the soul opens itself to union with God.

Father Thomas Keating is the one largely responsible for reviving the practice of centering prayer in recent years.

There are a number of resources online that can teach you centering prayer, but here is a brief outline of how to begin.

First, you will select a word that will be used as a focus of the prayer, to represent your intention to approach God. Popular choices include “God”, “Jesus”, “Peace”, “Abba”, “Love”, “Being” etc. Any word that is meaningful to you will do, and you can change your word if you need to, but it helps to settle down on a single word, as soon as you can in your prayer practice, as your mind will learn to associate the word you choose with the state of contemplative prayer.

Once you select the word, you close your eyes, focus on feeling peace and love toward God, and begin your prayer by directing your attention to your chosen word. When you notice that your thoughts have drifted off, you gently return your focus to the chosen word.

It’s important to understand that you don’t repeat the word over and over. It is not a mantra.. It is simply a symbol of your intention to approach God. You return your focus to it only when you notice that your attention is wandering. And it is important to be gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself up when you find that your attention has wandered. Gently return your focus to your chosen word, and once your attention is centered, let the word fade into silence and open yourself to that silence.

It’s not necessary to assume any particular physical posture for centering prayer. Most people prefer to pray in a seated position. It’s probably better not to attempt centering prayer while lying down, as it will be too easy to fall asleep.

Try to work up to at least 20 minutes of prayer, and devote the last two minutes to simply resting in silence, slowly coming back to your normal state of mind, but trying to bring the silence with you into your waking life.

Below is a short video introduction to centering pray from Father Thomas Keating, the most well-known modern instructor in the practice.

Sep 042007
 

The whole foundation of Christianity is based on the idea that intellectualism is the work of the Devil. Remember the apple on the tree? Okay, it was the Tree of Knowledge. “You eat this apple, you’re going to be as smart as God. We can’t have that.” – Frank Zappa

Zappa, of course, wasn’t the first to find God’s behavior in Genesis 2 absurd. Shortly after Jesus, the Christian Gnostics read the Genesis account and saw something entirely different than what the orthodox saw. To them, it was obvious that the God of Genesis 2 was a bully – ignorant if not downright malevolent. To them, it was basically this “God” of Genesis 2 who was the REAL devil, and the serpent was sent from the true God to deliver Adam and Eve from Ignorance. The Gnostic “Testimony of Truth” put it in words Zappa would probably have approved of:

“But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said “Adam, where are you?” God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, “Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever.” Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger!”

But other mystical interpretations of Genesis pick up on additional subtleties. It is not simply wisdom that the fatal tree gives Adam and Eve – it is dualistic knowledge – categorical knowledge. Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Ultimately – myself vs. everything NOT myself. In other words, the developed Ego. The story in Genesis is basically the story of humanity rising above animal awareness and developing self-consciousness; a story repeated in the psychological development of every subsequent human being. Thorough the ego, humanity not only becomes aware of good and evil, but also life and death. We come to understand, anticipate… and dread our own mortality.

This is our “fall”. But it is a fall UPWARDS. The Ego is our only vehicle upwards toward transcendence, but it also can become our prison.

And so, in one important sense, the intellectual, categorical, dualistic mind IS an obstacle. Not because it allows us to question dogma or doubt doctrine, but because it isolates us from the rest of the universe in a prison of concepts, tortured by the suffering of remembered or anticipated pain and death and annihilation. The ego is our hell, and our only salvation is that the ego is temporary. To live forever in our present state would indeed be a grim fate.

Every mystical tradition recognizes that the intellectual mind is an obstacle to be overcome in the spiritual path. Zen masters give their disciples torturous, insoluble mental puzzles (koans) to trick the mind into exhausting itself. Yogis practice for years to quiet the noise of the mind. In Christianity, “contemplative prayer” involves a long discipline of focusing the mind on divine emptiness.

John Wren-Lewis, an atheist mystic, describes his experience of awakening from the conceptual world into emptiness:
“Now all the judgments of goodness or badness which the human mind necessarily has to make in its activities along the line of time were contextualized in the perspective of that other dimension I can only call eternity, which loves all the productions of time regardless.”

Jan 312007
 

Is Jesus Christ essential to the salvation of humanity? If so, how? One verse in the Bible in particular is often quoted by Christians to suggest that no one who does not explicitly believe in Jesus can be saved:

 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.  (John 14:6 KJV)

 On it’s face, this seems to be pretty bad news for anyone who hasn’t known about Jesus during their lifetime.  Billions of people have lived and died on earth and never heard the name “Jesus”. Among these were some very good people – some probably better than the average Christian.  Among these were some very sincere people, who tried to follow the truth as they understood it – possibly trying harder than the average Christian.  Would God really deny someone entry into heaven simply because they hadn’t heard of Jesus, while allowing someone to enter who was less moral, less sincere – but who said a “sinner’s prayer” and used the name of Jesus?

 In spite of all attempted defenses or explanations of this by Christians, we all know deep down that something’s wrong with this picture.  When our deepest moral intuition conflicts with our understanding of a particular scripture – we need to at least ask ourselves if we have possibly misunderstood the scripture.

 The Gospel of John, in addition to the above scripture, includes many similar “I am” scriptures in which Jesus claims great power and authority, for example:

 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.  (John 6:35 KJV)

 Or…

 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: (John 11:25 KJV)

 Or…

 Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.  (John 8:12 KJV)

 
Critical readers may be willing to simply dismiss all these saying of Jesus as later additions by Christians who had developed a much more elevated Christology than Jesus originally claimed. And they have a point. But let’s follow this train of thought a little further. In the last scripture quoted, Jesus claims to be the “light”, not simply of his disciples, or his town, or the Jews in general… but of the entire world – including, by implication, people who had NEVER HEARD OF HIM. This echoes a similar set of statements earlier in John’s gospel:

 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not…the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.  (John 1:4-9 KJV)

 Who is this “He” who is the “light of the world”? John identifies it as the “Word” (“logos” in Greek). This “Word” is coequal with God himself. The “Word” is eternal, and creates all things.  In the Greek philosophies, “logos” was used to speak of the underlying reality of the universe – the animating power, the supreme truth. John implies that this “Logos” is, in fact, Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. 

 It sounds almost like we are talking about two different beings. In other gospel accounts, particularly earlier ones, Jesus (although a miracle worker) seems very human in many respects. He was born, suffered, and died. He didn’t know who touched him in the crowd. He asked God to save him from suffering.  He was hungry and thirsty.  Then there are these statements in John about the eternal, uncreated, omnipotent, omniscient Logos of God.  What is the relationship between these two descriptions?

 The answer worked out and agreed to by many Christians (after centuries of squabbling) is that Jesus Christ had TWO completely different “natures”. He had a human nature (let’s call that one “Jesus”) and he had a DIVINE nature as the Logos of God (let’s call that one “Christ”) and these two natures were seamlessly united in one person.  In eastern or New-Age terminology – one might say that Jesus was an “Avatar” – a person completely united with the Divine Nature so as to be an incarnation of God.

 This helps us to understand some of the otherwise incomprehensible claims of John. How, after all, could Jesus – one individual man – be the light which enlightens EVERY SINGLE PERSON who comes into the world? (even those who’ve never heard of him). The answer is that it is the Logos of God who enlightens all people. All people, in other words, have access to the underlying Reality of the cosmos. All of them are connected to the creative energy which animates the universe. All of them have access to the universal Truth at the root of all things. All people who have ever lived are immersed in the Logos. All people are enlightened by “Christ”, even if they have never heard of “Jesus”.  Only in THIS way can Christ be the light of the world, and enlighten all.  Such a statement fits in Jesus’ mouth only because he is united with the Logos of God.

 But now let us re-examine our problem scripture: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But does this refer to the human nature “Jesus”? Does it refer to the preacher of Nazareth, born in Bethelem and crucified in Jerusalem? Or does it refer instead to the divine nature of “Christ”, the light of the world?  If it refers to “Christ” the Logos – then the whole puzzle is solved. We might imagine a person worthy of heaven who didn’t know the name “Jesus” – but can we imagine a person in heaven other than by the path of universal truth and light? Everyone who comes to the Father comes through the Christ principle – but many of them do not know the name of Jesus.

 Every person who has ever lived is in touch with the Christ principle. It lives at the core of every soul. It enlightens the world’s great religions, and inspires all the world’s great saints.  Every good deed is done through Christ. Every beautiful thing expresses Christ. Every truth embodies Christ.  And it is through Christ the Logos that God is approached.

 I’ve quoted it several times here, but one of my favorite passages on this is from the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. In “The Last Battle”, a soldier who worships a demon (named “Tash”) meets Aslan (Jesus) in a final judgement. He is accepted into heaven, and is confused, because he has served Tash all his life. Aslan explains to him: “For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

Sep 082006
 

Near the end of his life, Mark Twain said: "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” How many hundreds of hours have we spent agonizing over possible problems that never actually happened?

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it more poetically:

 

"Some of your hurts you have cured,

And the sharpest you still have survived,

But what torments of grief you endured

From the evil which never arrived."

 

The Peanut's character Charlie Brown is notorious for this kind of worrying. Eventually he said, “I’ve developed a new philosophy. I'm only going to dread one day at a time".

 

The Master Jesus doesn't want us to dread the future. Not even one day at a time. He wants to introduce us to the "Perfect love which casts out fear." He tells us in his teachings not to fear the future. Now the version of this we have in Matthew is a bit confused. It makes Jesus into Charlie Brown. Jesus says there, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Now I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a very good rendering of what Jesus actually said. Jesus never focused on troubles and he would hardly advise us to do so. I suppose if he had, we could make a fortune marketing the “Don’t Worry About Tomorrow” Christian day-planner. It wouldn’t have a calendar – just a page that says “Today’s Troubles”.

 

I suspect what happened was that some poor neurotic scribe a hundred years after Jesus read Jesus’ statement to “not worry about tomorrow” and thought “How can Jesus be serious? How can we not worry about tomorrow?? Oooohhh – it must be because there are so many horrible things to worry about TODAY!!” He apparently doesn’t notice that two verses earlier, Jesus tells us not to worry about TODAY either! Here’s how Bishop Keizer renders this entire teaching in the Simple Word of the Master Jesus:

 

“Therefore, do not WORRY (!) or say, what will we eat? Or, what will we drink? Or, how will we be clothed? For your Heavenly Father knows you have need of all these things. But seek first the guidance and justices of God’s INNER kingdom, and all these things shall be added unto you. Therefore do not fear the future; rather, entrust the problems of the day in prayer to the Father, and then act on Heaven’s guidance. For the transformed present will produce a transformed future.”

 

The Master Jesus wants our attention in the here and now. In the present moment – the only moment where we can actually change anything. The past doesn’t exist. The only contact you have with the past is in your memories – in the present moment. The future doesn’t exist. The only effect you have on the future is caused by your actions right here and now, in the present moment.

 

Does this mean we SHOULDN’T use an appointment calendar? No, that’s not what it means at all. It’s fine – even helpful, to use “time” for practical purposes. Who do you think worries more about tomorrow – the person who consults their appointment book and knows they have three appointments tomorrow – or the person who doesn’t HAVE an appointment book and THINKS they may have appointments tomorrow. The person without the appointment book may spend hours trying to remember where they are supposed to be and at what time, or making calls to find out.

 

Even if you aren’t consciously thinking about your appointments and things to do – if you don’t have a good planning and appointment system, your commitments will always be there in the back of your mind or in your subconscious, giving you a faint feeling of anxiety as your mind tries to keep track of everything. So the purpose of organizing your plans and appointments isn’t to worry about the future, it’s to NOT worry about the future. Once your mind knows that your commitments are captured in some external system that it knows you will check when you are supposed to – it can relax, and let you focus back on the present moment.

 

Of course, if organizing and reorganizing your day becomes your hobby – if you spend more time organizing than actually DOING, then you’ve let your organizing pull you away from the present moment.

 

So let’s get back to the present moment. Because the present moment is the gateway to the Kingdom of Heaven

 

I’m going to make a statement that may seem extreme, but I ask you to consider it carefully. Almost all of our worry, fear, stress, frustration and anxiety comes from refusing to accept the present moment as it actually is.

 

Next time you’re worried about a relative or stuck in a traffic jam, notice your feelings. At the bottom of your frustration you’ll find a deep feeling of resentment and hostility against the reality of the present moment. When we worry about the future, what are we really doing? We may be rebelling against the fact that our reality has uncertainties in it. Or we are unhappy with our present reality and want to focus on our plans for the future – but they’re not coming fast enough. There are too many setbacks. We’re not getting out of this terrible present situation as fast as we’d like to. Or perhaps we fixate on the past to escape the present moment. We linger in the sweet sadness of memories of a past that we prefer to our current situation.

 

We fight and we resist and we run away from the only thing that actually exists – the present moment.

 

Why do we resist it so?

 

Well, one thing that may worry us is an idea in the back of our minds that if we accept the present moment, and are content with our current situation – we’ll never get out of it. We’ll be stuck here. Forever. We think that with our discontent we can bribe or threaten God into changing things for us. But if we let him think we’re content – he’ll just let us languish. That doesn’t say a lot of good things about our image of God, does it? It sounds like the kind of God who if we ask for bread will give us a rock. But it is love and gratitude that open the windows of heaven, not discontent.

 

If we drop our resistance to the present moment, does that mean we are stagnant? That we can’t change? Of course not! It means that our change begins with an objective, loving assessment of out situation as it really is. It’s like a person who falls into quicksand. By resisting – by flailing around like a lunatic – we only sink deeper – because our activity is irrational – not productive. But if we keep ourselves calm – if we don’t resist the reality of our situation, then we can plan our escape more efficiently. And the universe will help us. Perhaps we will notice a branch nearby that we can grab. Something we wouldn’t have noticed if we were flailing around. Perhaps we can explore the quicksand and find a gentle handhold or toehold somewhere. And we make progress.

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The next time you find yourself in the grip of worry, or resentment or anger some other strong negative emotion, try this exercise – completely surrender to the present moment, including all its risks and possibilities. Don’t resist. Know that everything is just as it must be for the moment. Suspend your judgment of other people, or the situation or yourself.

 

What you will find is that a space opens up in the spiritual atmosphere. There’s a feeling like a fresh breeze blowing away your problems. You may still feel anxiety or some other emotion – but you won’t be lost in it. You won’t BE worried – you’ll be a person aware of experiencing a feeling of worry. And that’s a much different feeling. And when you do, you’ll find that your emotions will settle down. Negative emotions like worry don’t like to be watched. They’re bashful. Be the witness of your emotions instead of being possessed by your emotions.

 

Let’s come back to the present moment again. There is another reason we run away from the present moment. This reason is rooted in the nature of our being. It’s a metaphysical reason. That doesn’t mean it’s weird or complicated. Just the opposite. It means it’s so basic it’s sometimes hard to see.

 

The Master Jesus says that the Kingdom of God – God’s dominion or God’s dimension – is within you – within each of you. If you could reach down to your innermost nature, your heart of all hearts – you will find the presence of God. Your innermost essence – is God’s essence. That is the secret of all secrets. That is the core of all mystical teaching – the root of all true religion.

 

But this inner kingdom is hidden from us. It’s covered up by huge amounts of emotional turmoil and mental noise. Anyone who has seriously tried to practice meditation knows that – even when you don’t want it to – the mind keeps spewing out thoughts like some unwanted television set that’s impossible to turn off.

 

Eckhart Tolle tells a story of sitting on a bus next to a woman who was mentally disturbed. She was talking to an imaginary person in a loud and often hostile voice. Lots of profanity. She was a running stream of conversation. Later as he washed his hands in public bathroom, Eckhart thought to himself “I’m sure glad I’m not like that woman” – and the man at the sink next to him gave him a strange look. Then Eckhart realized he hadn’t THOUGHT the phrase to himself – he’d actually said it out loud!

 

We’re all “crazy people”. We all have a running stream of mostly useless, mostly repetitive thought going on in our minds all the time. The only difference is that the “normal” people manage not to let it come spilling out of their mouths – at least MOST of the time.

 

A lot of those thoughts are hopes and plans, and especially worries, about the future. They pull us like a strong swift current away from our grounding in the present moment. And it is in the present moment, and only there – that we can find the gateway into the inner kingdom of God.

 

You won’t find the Kingdom of God in some grandiose plan for the future.

 

You won’t find it in some cherished memory of the past.

 

God, your inner nature – is reality. And there is only one point of contact we have with reality – that pinpoint gateway – that eye of the needle, between the remembered past and the imagined future. The doorway to the kingdom of God that fills up the reality of the present moment.

 

Be in the present moment. Don’t think about it. Experience it. Surrender yourself in a complete and loving acceptance of the present moment, and the door begins opens to you. And behind the door is the essence of the Godhead, the Buddha Nature, closer to you than you are to yourself.

 

And as you become more at home in the present moment, you realize that you ARE the present moment. It is timeless. It has no past and no future. It is only now – eternally now. Forms and manifestations come and go. They appear in the field of Now and then they disappear – but the Now remains, and YOU remain – at peace in the vibrant energetic emptiness of God – wanting for nothing, worrying about nothing.

 

And here’s the paradox. When you seek first God’s inner kingdom, all the rest falls into place. The universe aligns itself to your purposes because you are aligned to the universe. Just at the moment when you begin to lose your desperate grasping after the external things of the world, the things you need begin to come to you almost without effort. And you can enjoy them fully – free of worry, because when they go, as all finite things do, they don’t take a part of you with them. You are connected to the source of all manifestation.

 

This is the kingdom of God, and the home country of all mystics. It’s a place where worries and problems subside, because you are no longer at odds with the purposes of God manifesting in your life. Many teachers of different traditions have commented on this.

 

Listen to the Catholic mystic St. Theresa describe it:

 

Let nothing trouble you / Let nothing frighten you

Everything passes / God never changes

Patience / Obtains all

Whoever has God / Wants for nothing

God alone is enough.

 

The Indian Guru Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said:

 

"You are all drenched for it is raining hard. In my world it is always fine weather. There is no night or day, no heat or cold. No worries beset me there, nor regrets. My mind is free of thoughts, for there are no desires to slave for."

 

And here’s one of the most famous quotes from “A Course In Miracles”

 

"Nothing real can be threatened.

Nothing unreal exists.

Herein lies the peace of God."

 

Put aside the unreality of your worries about the future, your longings for the past, your impatient desires. Surrender to the reality of this present moment.

 

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jul 262006
 

The conversation on the reality or unreality of “gods” interested me, and I wanted to add a few words by way of suggesting a particular metaphysical “model” for consideration.

MythMythAfter having been “around the block” a few times, I have come to the conclusion that many of the people who report seeing such diverse things as angels, demons, “gods”, monsters, aliens, faeries and other such things are actually having experiences that are, in some way “real”. Skeptics who are happy to write all such experiences off as pathological delusions will have no use for this model, and can stop reading right about now.

Many of us are willing to accept the reality of odd “sightings” that confirm our own worldview, but either reject everything else as delusional, or chalk it off to demonic impersonation, as Brandon did. One person may believe in angels but scoff at aliens. Another person may have the opposite viewpoint.

Let me suggest a more charitable model that can accommodate both. It comes from the general “New Age” framework of various esoteric teachings, but I don’t see anything in it that would prohibit a Christian, for example, from accepting it.

Let’s start with some observations from OBE (Out of Body Experience) or Astral Projection. People who experience this phenomena regularly noticed something long ago, and made note of it. The astral world can be shaped by human thought. If an astral projector find that he has need of a sword, for example, to fight off something bad, or wants a chair to sit in, it can be created with a simple act of will, and will exist in the astral world as long as this will is maintained.

Next, it was noticed that if something was created in the astral world REPEATEDLY, it began to take on a more permanent character. It would last longer with a smaller effort of will, or even remain in the astral dimension from one visit to the next. Mystics began to specifically create and reinforce things in the astral, such as temples. It was further noticed that this power of creation and maintenance was exponentially increased with the number of people concentrating on the task, and pouring their emotional and spiritual energy into it. A large number of people pouring a lot of energy into concentrating on some specific astral/spiritual thing, over the course of time, was found to have astonishing creative power.

Let’s suppose, for example, that thousands of people were to invest a great deal of psychic and spiritual energy into the notion of the god Zeus. Over the course of years, mystics would find themselves running into “Zeus” in their meditations, astral projections, etc. He would appear in more and more dreams. Given enough energy, he could even appear to people in altered (or in rare circumstances, even NORMAL) states of consciousness. He would even have considerable power during these appearances -power channeled into him by thousands of worshippers.

These powerful group thought-forms are called, in esoteric literature, “eggregors”. An eggregor, depending on its power (based on the number of people contributing their energy to it) can create strong influences and even physical manifestations. These manifestations can the various physical forms that make up the visual images of the eggregor. Let’s see how this might work:

Billions of people, over thousands of years, say trillions of prayers and devote enormous amounts of spiritual energy meditating on the Virgin Mary. This could build up an eggregor of astonishing power, causing, for example, the mass apparitions and solar phenomena observed at Fatima, Medujorge, etc.

Millions of people watching and reading science fiction spend countless hours thinking on the idea of extraterrestrials. This could build up an eggregor strong enough to cause sightings, altered states of consciousness perceived as “abductions”, etc.

People in nearly every religion have devoted great attention to the idea of angels. This might build up a strong enough eggregor to cause seemingly miraculous intervention by “supernatural” beings.

Voodoo and similar cults spend years of devotion and ritual directed toward a powerful pantheon of gods and similar forces. This creates a strong psychic eggregor which could be directed against particular individuals.

Let me back up and make a few disclaimer – I personally believe that there ARE angels, demons and probably a host of other types of supernatural beings that have a reality independent of human thought. Apparitions of Mary, angels, Jesus (or demons or aliens) MAY be exactly what they appear to be. Furthermore, not all eggregors are evil. Mass consciousness can be used for great benefit to help, heal and produce good works.

But consider the possibility that SOME “supernatural” occurrences may simply arise – not from God, and not from demons, but simply from natural human abilities to manipulate the spiritual world.

This model, it would seem to me, would explain a great deal.

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