May 10, 2013
I could make a very strong argument, based purely on philosophical reasoning, about the urgency for a new conception of spirituality. Briefly put, it is about making religion promulgate sanity rather than salvation; transforming its mission from saving the soul to healing the psyche. If I am healthy in this life, I will have no fear of what awaits me in the next. Someday I hope to be able to deliver a lengthy and compelling case to that end; but for now, a personal and illustrative story will have to do.
I’m having an argument with the universe. This is meaningful not because it is rare but because it is quite common. It is one feature of my character that especially qualifies me as a psycho-spiritual teacher: I make mistakes and sometimes fight against the very Source of truth and spiritual growth.
But you may disagree.
You may prefer to have one who always “practices what he preaches,” as the old bromide has it. Well, I suppose you can keep looking for such a Diogenes; I wish you all the best, with all my heart. I sought for decades and never found such a character; if I did, I’d either not recognize him or would be filled with suspicion.
So I’m having this tiff with the cosmos. Now I’m aware enough to know how these battles always turn out. I am the John McCain to the universe’s Obama; I don’t just lose, I get hammered. Every goddam time.
My beef today is about what it’s been for most of this calendar year. I’m running like the proverbial hamster on his treadmill, wanting only to see a finish line at my belly. I have given up asking for a miracle — a job, the Lotto, a hand coming out of the sky with a fistful of green bigger than what the CIA’s been handing Karzai. I just want closure, ending, a turning of the page. I’m tired of swinging in the wind, waiting to see if I can last another week before the landlady calls in the city marshal to throw my ass out into the street. It is now time to do something, go somewhere, make a dramatic and definitive move.
This morning, I cast Hexagram 31 of the I Ching, with lines 2 and 3 changing. Here is the text (the original Wilhelm translation at left, the R.L. Wing interpretation on the right):
|2. The influence shows itself in the calves of the leg. Misfortune. Tarrying brings good fortune.||You may feel compelled to move, to take some kind of action, yet you really don’t know what you’re doing. It’s a little like sleepwalking. Avoid action until you wake up to what’s going on. Otherwise there is some danger of getting into trouble.|
|3. The influence shows itself in the thigh. Hold to that which follows it. To continue is humiliating.||You must gain control of yourself. Don’t run this way and that on impulse in an attempt to influence others or indulge in your many whims. You will ultimately be humiliated by such unconsidered actions. Set up a few inhibitions for yourself and operate within these limitations while you develop some self-control.|
So the shape of this conversation is fairly well defined here — that, by the way, is something I can, should, or may someday be grateful for, should my shoes finally drop out of the air and find me still with working and receptive feet. The encounter goes something like this:
BRIAN: How deep do I have to keep digging this friggin’ hole I’m in before the sides collapse and bury me alive?
UNIVERSE: Shut up and keep digging. You’ll get through.
BRIAN: What if I just drop the shovel now and walk away?
UNIVERSE: Go ahead. I just told you what will happen if you do.
BRIAN: Can’t you just knock me out a while, pick me up and carry me to a better place in life, like what happens in that Footprints story?
UNIVERSE: That’s better — have a couple of laughs. But keep digging.
The principle of communication with the guiding, teaching voice of the universe should be the same in good times or bad. But in practice, emotions tend to gum up the works when one feels troubled or threatened. And there are few things in life so threatening as the loss of one’s independence. Borrowing money, accepting handouts, sitting on a steep and greasy slope toward living in someone else’s house — these are realities that tend to clip your inner wings. In this dawn of a new millennium, all around the world, wings lie on the ground of nations like a fine and numberless dust of loss and desolation.
So spirituality has to do a better job of leading us through rough times than it ever has, than it has ever dared to before. It has to show us ways of relating to the Source of our being that go beyond parochial ideologies and gilt-lettered black leather books. It has to cut straight into the heart of each individual who approaches the task of communicating with the invisible energies of Life, Love, and Eternity. It must, in a word, be actually useful — to real, living, suffering human beings.
My experience, for what little it’s worth, is that this is a matter of reduction more than addition; of stripping away excess so that the essence may be revealed and given room to move and act within us. What, then, must be reduced or stripped away, that is specific to our topic here of making and maintaining a genuine connection with the cosmic Reality that both embraces and transcends us? The following possibilities may be worth a few minutes’ consideration…
Priests, ministers, masters, gurus…trash ’em all. They’re a lot like cops — always oppressively present when you’d rather they weren’t, and never there when you need ’em. And usually they’ve got an outstretched palm in your face that wants some grease. You can easily live your inner life without their help; you can in fact thrive without them. If you want rituals, make up your own; if you need that fatherly sort of advice and insight that people have traditionally sought in human spiritual masters, take up an oracle or another practice that delivers verbal guidance and inspiration. Sure, there are good priests out there. There are good cops too. I’m not saying you can’t get to know one; just don’t imagine that you need one. Spiritual communication is a lot like finding a lover or having a child: you can manage it a lot better than you think you can. If I need to learn a new computer programming language or how to drive a car with a standard transmission, I’d better find an expert to guide me. But for communicating with the heart of creation and tapping the universal mine of blessing — that path is just wide enough for one. A great American — Ralph Waldo Emerson — once told us the same thing: “the only true church has a congregation of one.”
Don’t try to imitate God. About 600 years ago, a fellow named Kempis wrote a book about doing this. Fortunately, he wrote it in Latin, so it’s not widely read anymore. But that notion of being like God still sticks, and it has led to some fairly decadent and murderous behavior on the part of world leaders, corporate behemoths, and miscellaneous psychotics in media, the military, and private life. The whole point of communicating with the hidden world is not about becoming more like God, but becoming more truly yourself. If you pay attention to the messages arising within and around you, you’ll learn a lot about yourself, and unlearn even more. That’s what will guide you forward and lead you into the life you would seek if you had the vision and depth of the cosmic Mind. It is our good luck that we only need to deepen our awareness of being a part of that Mind; we do not have to become it, through either imitation or aggrandizement.
Nurture flexibility, especially in your attitude. In English, “faith” is always a noun. When it comes to spiritual practice, we typically speak of having the noun, the thing: I have faith. Faith is problematic not merely because it is fixed belief that has no support from or relation to lived experience; it falls short because it is a thing, an object, never an inner action. Trust, however, works as both noun and verb; it is flexible both linguistically and practically. Our trust is continually tested in the crucible of experience; faith is the chain we wear willingly in the hope of some future compensation in the afterlife for the pain it entails in our present life. So to develop a real and living relationship with the Ineffable — a relationship that grows, deepens, and nourishes both yourself and your Source — trust is a better attitude than faith. This leads to the next point…
Imagine a spiritual democracy. That is to say, try working with the All, the Great, the Source — God, if you will — from a basis of fundamental equality. I know, it sounds too weird; maybe it is. I remember having what I thought was a lighthearted debate with a serious Buddhist once about the Dalai Lama. She was saying that he deserves to be treated as a God of sorts, since he’s directly descended from the Buddha himself. I said that I’d prefer to imagine myself sitting in a tavern with him over a few beers; that I wouldn’t dare think of him as a god or demi-god because that would rob him of his most precious quality — his humanity. The lady got a little offended at such a notion, so I let go the argument, but thinking of it now relates to this point, that a more democratic attitude towards the leading energy of your inner life would make the relationship a lot easier and more productive. It would also take the matter of fear out of the encounter: the one thing about religion that has always mystified me is the idea that we can and even should fear the very entity that we believe is the ground, source, and essence of Love. It has been my experience that fear and love are the oil and water of the psyche. In any event, it makes sense to strip away the notion of a Superior Being, because that makes you an inferior being. It builds a vast distance between you and your Source — a distance that make communication difficult if not impossible.
Kill your inner flagellant. I suppose there are still a few Catholics who continue to physically whip themselves. But for most of us, the problem that remains is an emotional or ideological self-flagellation. When it comes to ordinary modern spirituality, guilt and sin are still whipping us and bleeding us, just as they have done for centuries. So in our meditations and other spiritual practices, it would make a lot of sense to regularly kill the voices and thoughts that feed us the poisons of guilt, sin, and the need for penance. The better we can destroy guilt in our relationship with the All, the saner and more nourishing will our human relationships become. Remember, the encounter with your Source is a relationship between mind and Mind; heart and Heart; lover and Love. Guilt and sin obstruct and inevitably destroy such a relationship. If you can pull the treasure of your own body out of the prison of Original Sin, and clear away the rotten and eternal stain of Guilt that you supposedly incurred because some folks once talked to a snake and ate an apple — well, just clear that garbage out of yourself and your conversations with Eternity will make a lot more sense. And your mistakes will actually be fewer for your not carrying them around like millstones around your inner neck.
Blow up the wall of the external and destroy spiritual racism. You might think that we’d grown out of the old white man in the sky; the young white male hippie performing miracles; the male prophet streaming light and glory out of a book from a mountaintop; and all the other images of color and gender specificity that are attributed to our gods and other spiritual bosses. But this crap persists, and it creates an abyss — a vast and impossible distance between who we are and the Consciousness that is our source and destination. How you go about exploding this wall that divides you and the All is up to you. I sometimes hear a voice during meditation that tells me of some phrase or image within me that still bears lies about the fixed form, gender, color, or hierarchical rank of the Ineffable. At times like these, I’ll ask for help in destroying that fabrication, and then I’ll do a physical workout that brings my body into the work and burns the delusion out of both my physical and energy bodies. However you do it, make a conscious effort at pulling down the walls of separation and racism that divide you from a natural communication with the Great.
Remove the abject and self-abasing attitude from prayer. Sure, we’ve all had the experience of falling down on our knees in desperation, begging for understanding or deliverance or sanity or love or truth. But by and large, the cosmos does not respond well to dramatics. The relationship and your communication with the universe will only deepen and broaden when the call for help is heartfelt yet without that dissonant tone of despair to it. Hopelessness should not be coded into prayer; yet that is exactly what I hear and read in many people’s prayers. I imagine that God responds no better to us when we prostrate ourselves or pull our hair or crawl before the altar like bugs than otherwise. Try making your tone level, your attitude confident, and your self-perception clear and vibrant when you make your requests of the invisible world. Ask the universe for its guidance and blessings in a similar way that you’d ask your lover or spouse for sex, and I’m betting you will enjoy both the experience and the outcome much more.
Now I return to my conversation that I described above. I am being given a cosmic gift: a view of my current situation from a greater and clearer perspective than I can achieve with my limited perception and my turbulent emotions. An oracle does not tell us the future, for the future is not a script written into a stone of linear time. It gives us something even better: an encompassing view of the consciousness of the present, of this moment in our life; and as a result the opportunity to self-create a transformative future.
The same may be said of visions, epiphanies, and other cosmic openings of consciousness. As with all intimate relationships, the quality and depth of the truth of such openings, the meaning and guidance that we receive from them, are determined far more by our attitude than by our possessions. The quantum world doesn’t care what good works I can do, what changes I can force upon myself in exchange for its blessings, or what other spiritual coin I have to offer as barter for my answered prayers. It merely wants me to give in exactly the measure as it gives: with sincerity, humility, and love in my attitude. Let us try and feel as if we have at least that much in common with the invisible realm of being.
So I know my task: I must strip away the mistrust, the fear, and the suspicion born of hopelessness that I brought into my relationship with the universe. Once again, it is more a matter of reduction within the self than of making offerings. The cosmos is not interested in my deals; it already has everything it needs — including me. But if I can deepen my trust and further open my awareness, then both I and my Source will be enriched. Thus, I return to the inner work that must be done to make this so on my part; and if I persevere, then my life and the Life of which I am a small yet essential aspect will both advance and endure in that pervasive harmony of peace and blessing.