I could make a very strong argument 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.
My experience, for what little it’s worth, is that spiritual growth 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 Thomas a Kempis wrote a book about doing this. Fortunately, he wrote it in Latin, so it’s not widely read anymore. It is an awful book. 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 love there is no fear; and there is no love in anything you fear. 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 are 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.