(This reposted entry was first posted on Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 1:31 AM on the old blog)
I don’t want to give the impression that I think the “spiritual not religious” approach is untenable or that spirituality is just another word for making oneself miserable. Not at all.
If you ask any religious authority what they think about spiritual practice outside of a religion (or away from a guru, whatever), you’ll be told, more or less “Bad idea. Horrible. Impossible to avoid eternal damnation. Demons lurk in the darkness of independence. Our services are at 8 AM, and you can leave a donation with the office when you go out. Goodbye”.
I will tell you, categorically, that they are wrong (except perhaps about where you can leave them a donation). Religion is not necessary for a full spiritual life. Religion is not even possible for a full spiritual life, if one’s conscience tells one otherwise. If one’s conscience sincerely directs one to be unchurched, be unchurched. The right direction is always better than the seemingly easier direction.
The freedom that comes with being “spiritual, not religious” is not the freedom of nihilism and anarchy. It’s the freedom to act true to one’s inner guidance without concern for the views of religious authorities. One never asks “does it conform to doctrine?” but simply “is it right?”. One recognizes only one authority, and that authority is Truth itself.
Of course that wrestling match with self that is the mark of serious spiritual practice becomes significantly harder when the only person one has to consult with is the selfsame person sporting the self in question. Yet, if one can doubt the wisdom of continuing to follow a religion that may have been a part of one’s life since childhood, one can learn to scrutinize one’s own thoughts and ideas. Frankly I’m not sure the committed religious don’t, eventually, find themselves in the same position, unable to find sufficient guidance through their religion, alone with their mind and their conscience and their God. There are a great many things that one can’t really explain to others, even when others are present in one’s life to listen, and some things that must be experienced alone.
Spirituality in general, the real deal, is hard but good. Yes, there is peace in spirituality, though it is not the semi delusional good feelings that can come with meditation or prayer, which is present for a while, then fades (good for that! That feeling makes people who are experiencing it irritable. Ever get into an argument, or otherwise act like an asshole, immediately after meditation, contemplation, or prayer? If you don’t want to be an asshole, be alert to the problem, and make an extra effort to treat others appropriately, when awash in that glow. But back to the topic at hand.) The real thing is less a high than it is a steadiness, and it is present to draw on whether one is meditating or whether all hell is breaking loose. But you don’t get to that easily.
I do not want to fill this blog with personal anecdote, as I think drawing attention to myself can distract from the points I’m trying to make. But a particular example (Ironically, about drawing attention to myself) pops into my mind when I say “hard”.
At the time I was a middlish fish in a mediumish pond, famous in the region I lived in and showing some potential in a field where, if successful, I would gain significantly more fame.And in the circles I moved in, I had a reputation for being “wise”. I was excruciatingly in love with my fame, and very impressed with my “wisdom”. I believed, somewhat correctly, that my fame and my wisdom came from my spirituality. I was so impressed with myself that when a friend of a friend approached me, I spent the afternoon more or less talking about myself (not always overtly, but there are many indirect ways to insure a conversation revolves around oneself). Finally, when the individual had to leave, they mentioned that they were in the midst of a serious crisis, and I realized that that had been the reason this person had approached me.
I certainly could have excused my behavior with “the person should have spoken up sooner”. A few years before, probably I would have. But over time, what would once have been tolerable ceases to be tolerable, if one takes spirituality seriously. And later that day, as I was brushing my teeth, I got a look at myself in the mirror. I saw the puffed up ego, full of pride, that had just made itself useless to a suffering human being that had been looking for a little hope. If I had had the capacity to listen, the individual would have been able to speak, but my head was so full of praise for myself I was incapable of listening. I was an asshole. Getting a good look at yourself when you have run out of excuses is hard.
Had it been possible for me to instantly plummet to the building’s basement and bury myself there, face down in the dirt below the foundation, I would still not have been as low as I felt in that moment. As it was I knelt down on the spot, in an almost equally appropriate position, next to the toilet (I generally do not kneel, but sit at a desk, when I do spiritual things, but given that I felt like a sinner, I think my Catholic education kicked in). I prayed to the Ultimate to do whatever it took, that I wanted to be free of the horrible person in the mirror, and I prayed as hard as I ever had. I meant every word of it. I wanted to change, and I wanted whatever it took to do it.
Good news: my prayer was answered. Bad news: the answer was that my job situation and my housing situation almost immediately fell apart (this was back before homelessness was common). Someone stole the tools I needed to pursue my field. And I otherwise lost every bit of status and fame and apparent potential over the course of a few months. That’s how I lived, homeless, for the next two years. It was one hell of an answered prayer. It was very hard. And if it were not for that two year opportunity to change, I would still be an arrogant asshole, and a much less happy, much more fearful one.
Please note here that because I prayed for something, and found it in the form of homelessness, this does not mean that the cowboy notion that those who suffer homelessness or other injustice have brought it upon themselves, is accurate. Responding to those who suffer with anything less than compassion is wrong. I will write on the Just World fallacy, I’m sure, soon. The Just World Fallacy is perhaps the most grievous error promulgated by cowboys.