Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Spiritual Paths to Virtue

Urgings of the Heart: A Spirituality of Integration
By Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon
Paulist Press (1995), 170 Pages, $14.95

By William Spohn

You won't find books in the philosophy section of your local bookstore on how to live a more virtuous life. Sidney Callahan, author of In Good Conscience, concludes that philosophers have little to say about developing the habits of heart called virtues.

In our secular culture, which prizes pluralism, most philosophers worry that if they spell out the content of the good life beyond the most minimal values—fairness, tolerance, equality—they run the risk of endorsing specific religious or moral traditions to the detriment of other positions. So virtue retreats from the public square into the private sphere.

For an exploration of how to lead a fuller moral life, you will have to go to the crowded shelves under Spirituality, Religion, or Self-Help. Spirituality has two general themes that go beyond the confines of philosophical ethics: First, there are levels of reality that are not immediately apparent; second, the self is working toward integration against fragmenting or destructive forces.

Disciplined contact with spirituality's deeper levels of meaning and goodness has a healing and transformative effect on the self. This contact comes through specific practices such as Zen meditation to attain loving attentiveness, solitude in nature to give a sense of interconnectedness with all of reality, breathing and focusing exercises to calm the mind and reach the sacred, and exercise routines to produce equanimity and balance.

In Urgings of the Heart: A Spirituality of Integration, Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon recommend a combination of Christian meditation practices and Jungian depth psychology to untangle a number of contemporary traps, from co-dependency to workaholism. The authors point out that many of our compulsions have roots in the unresolved tension between our public persona and its unconscious negative counterpart, our "shadow."

Carl Jung coined the term shadow "to describe the part of our personality that we repress because it conflicts with the way we wish to see ourselves," according to Urgings of the Heart. The shadow functions as a subpersonality with drives and values that contradict our public persona.

Au and Cannon's strategy is frankly therapeutic; it assumes we cannot develop mature habits of the heart until we unmask and redirect the underground energies and needs that regularly sabotage our conscious efforts.

Earnest attempts to redress social injustices, for example, will falter if they are prompted by unconscious projections of painful childhood memories and fears onto authority figures. Political divisions remain intractable when they are driven by unacknowledged resentments.

For example, the intensity of emotion that immigrants evoke in many Americans far surpasses the economic impact of immigration. When people complain that we are being swamped by a tidal wave of foreigners, often the underlying issue is the white fear that immigration by people of color threatens America's very identity.

Until that fear is addressed, the battle over specific policies such as welfare benefits for immigrants or expelling the children of illegal immigrants from school will never end. But since ethical discourse on these policy issues takes place at the conscious and public level, it often neglects the obscure yet powerful energies that skew perception and camouflage our actual intentions.

To deal with these unconscious forces, Au and Cannon suggest a number of specific practices of centering and meditation that direct attention to transcendent sources of beauty and goodness. These practices are in the tradition of Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola, who taught ways to use the imagination contemplatively to enter into the scenes portrayed in Scripture.

The aesthetic appreciation of the sacred can be "unselfing" by raising our attention beyond immediate needs and defenses. So long as we are preoccupied with comfort and survival, we have little energy for generosity and compassion. When we know we can rely on a goodness beyond ourselves, we are more likely to appreciate the goodness of others—and also to notice their needs.

It is true that some forms of contemplation can lead to quietism and withdrawal from the world's problems. But that is not the whole story. Spiritual practices can contribute to an ethical vision. Many Westerners are discovering in Buddhist meditation practices a respect for the cosmos that can counteract the arrogance that has despoiled the environment. By deepening their awareness of being one with the rest of nature, they find a new reverence and compassion for all the other parts of the ecosystem.

Still, spirituality is no substitute for ethics. Normative reflection and public discourse about values require a certain level of abstraction and detachment. Standards of justice, for example, should have a common meaning that does not depend on a particular definition of spiritual or transcendent meaning.

Aristotle and Plato, however, knew something contemporary moral philosophers have forgotten or renounced: The reason for studying ethics is to become a better person. To do that, we need self-scrutiny and transformation by attachment to a good beyond the self. Analytical skills alone will not get us out of the cave and into the light.

William C. Spohn is Presidential Professor of Ethics and the Common Good at Santa Clara University.