What is your spiritual path?
When we talk about being “spiritual but not religious” or living a “spiritual” life, what do we mean exactly?
There are different ways we can define spirituality (its own line of development, the highest level or stage of any line of development, an attitude toward life – like compassion or love, a peak experience regardless of lines or stages, or the Ground of all being and experience). Spirituality means all of these things (and more) to so many. And when discussing spirituality with others, it’s important to determine which definitions are in play.
But one thing is for certain – the spiritual path should not be confused with our spiritual practice. The path is not what we do. It’s who we are, who we choose to be in each moment. It is the journey to which we are called.
And whatever we are called to do – whichever cause or organization or group of people we’re called to serve, this is also part of our path. It’s a sacred relationship, a spiritual contract held in place by the agreements you have with yourself – that you will serve on your path with integrity.
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to having doubts about my own worthiness – and my own qualifications. Not only in my career, but in parenting, in my pastoral and chaplain work, in community leadership, in my writing. Who am I to be deserving of these teachings and experiences that I’ve received? Who am I to be worthy of happiness in my life? Am I deserving of the opportunity to teach others?
Self-doubt sometimes greets you on the sunniest parts of the path.
But what we label ourselves – teacher, healer, musician, executive, father, mother, artist, poet, CEO – these are all mirrors that we hold up to ourselves. And these mirrors contain images of how we think we’re perceived. Being really great or excelling at any one of them, being a so-called “expert” at any of these things has nothing to do with your degree or your resume or what it says on your business card. It has everything to do with your willingness to devote yourself to the path, step into your role as a leader and share your truth and your experience with others.
Yes, you should study with great teachers, gain more knowledge and wisdom, but leaning forward into your own path, this is what makes you your own best teacher. This is what makes you the master.
But the path can be nothing without our practice.
Our commitment to our practice – long-term, personal, spiritual, transformative practice, whether it’s meditation, prayer, or yoga – is greater than our commitment to the path. Because just as we need tools and reminders (sometimes in the form of other people) to return us to our practice, we need our practice to keep us on the path itself.
I can’t speak highly enough about the importance of long-term practice. Even if you just focused on your shadow self – with regular psychotherapy, journaling or shamanic practices – you would be putting in place some of the tools you need to accomplish lasting transformation. But if you add in physical exercise, a focus on diet and nutrition, engagement with a community of your peers, this kind of holistic cross-training makes you spiritually unstoppable.
Michael Murphy wrote, “Those people we consider masters are generally marked by their willingness not only to endure the plateaus of the learning curve but to love the process itself, to find satisfaction in diligent, long-term practice for its own sake as well as for the gains it brings.”
When you begin to meditate, your success (in the beginning) usually depends on returning to the One. Counting your breath (inhaling on the 1, exhaling on the 2, counting all the way to 10) and when you are inevitably distracted by your own thoughts, we’re told to simply and gently label those thoughts as “thinking” or “attachment” and begin again at One.
In music, we are constantly listening to the other players trying to determine the down beat, the count, and find the number One so that we can be on the same page, playing the same song using the same language, together as one voice.
And then there’s prayer.
Prayer gets a bad rap. My first year as a chaplain, I had some resistance to the word prayer, the concept of prayer, the methodology of prayer. And how was I supposed to pray with someone else, if I couldn’t pray myself. To make matters worse, at our first chaplain retreat, the theme was “angels.” It was all just a bit too “new age” for me. I really had to sit with all of this and figure out what it meant for me – in my heart.
From my perspective, modern forms of prayer simply affirm what already is. They affirm that you are not broken or fallen or diseased, but that you have the power within you to heal yourself, and to reveal your highest potential. When you pray, you are engaging with Spirit-in-Action in 2nd person language (appealing to the “thou” or the Ultimate Other). And unlike meditation, where the goal is to let thoughts go completely, prayer is the training of our actual thoughts to be more positive, kind, gentle, loving and forgiving.
Prayer can also be a dialogue with the Divine in yourself, as in John 10:30 when Jesus said, “The Father and I are One.” Or, in the words of Thomas Merton, “You have made us one with you. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us … Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection.”
Our relationship to One or Oneness is the essence of faith. The downbeat – like our footsteps on the path – always comes back around if you are patient and listening with trained ears.
And so, in balancing our path with our practice, we find ourselves dancing constantly between duality and non-duality, balancing faith and action, being a small part of a larger system as well as being a whole system comprised of much smaller parts, being an individual and surrendering into the support of the community.
From the beginning, we’re told that that we must identify with being either/or, left- or right-brained, left- or right-handed, liberal or conservative, an introvert or an extrovert. Not to mention our sexuality – we are told we’re simply male or female (one of two binary pairs), instead of a combination of male and female expressions along a very complicated spectrum.
We seek balance in all things – on one hand seeking truth and questioning all things with skepticism and curiosity; on the other, seeking comfort and the feeling that we belong.
On one hand, knowing that you are finite and fallible and accepting any perceived limitations placed upon you by the Universe or the laws of nature. On the other, staying open and able to recognize the signposts around you, listening for what God may have in store, and responding by always showing up and doing your best.
On one hand, nurturing an intellectual spirituality that is regimented and exalted and complete – a practice that honors Gaia, the web of life, all living things and their evolution through time, from the sub-atomic particles to the cosmological constants, an intellect that understands the mythology of the world’s many cultures and traditions as issuing from the one mind of God. A spirituality that honors objectively from outside. A spirituality of the head.
And at the same time, a spirituality of the heart – one that keeps us open and vulnerable to the difficulties of being compassionate towards others, toward our world. Being loving and accepting in each moment and, yes, ready to be hurt. But also to be healed, repeatedly. And returning always to the regenerative source at our center.
We seek to lean back and at the same time lean forward.
This idea of leaning forward reminds me of one of my favorite stories from the teachings of Shambhala Buddhism.
Imagine you are sitting on a beach. The day begins perfectly. Blue water, white sand. The sunlight dances on the ocean. You are surrounded by friends and family. The sounds of birds singing, children playing and waves breaking create a soothing kind of rhythm and melody. Nothing could be more relaxing than your feet in the sand in this moment.
The day (or for the sake of this allegory, your life) wears on. Eventually, you begin to notice how polluted the beach is. People have left their trash (empty bottles, chunks of styrofoam) in the sand for someone else to tend to. You begin to notice the strangers who accompany you on this beach, and their chasing and lusting after one another begins to make you uncomfortable. The sound of the birds screeching and waves crashing create a kind of static or white noise. The sand is too hot to walk on, and you find yourself needing sunglasses to protect your eyes and sunscreen to avoid being burned.
This beach, once soothing and serene, has turned into a place of suffering. You are surrounded by it. It’s all you can see.
Eventually, you notice a distant shore across the ocean. And every fiber of your being longs to leave this beach and swim for it.
You take a deep breath, lean forward, walk into the water and begin to swim with all your might. The waves try to beat you back to shore, but you press on, diving straight into them, facing each new challenge with a sense of joy.
Finally, you reach the distant shore, climb out and sit on the beach. Once again, the sand is so soft, the water so blue, the sun is shining and the sounds are relaxing.
Now, according to Shambhala, the beach is suffering and the distant shore is enlightenment. It’s important that we make a distinction that enlightenment is not the act of escaping or avoiding your current state. Enlightenment is the willingness to transcend and include all of your current states and stages; body, mind and soul; light and shadow. Enlightenment is, in the words of the Buddha, knowing that “whatever is is best.”
Eventually, as the days of your life wear on, you notice that across the ocean are your friends and loved ones. And you think to yourself, “I miss my family.” So, you take a deep breath and you lean forward, and once again you swim across that ocean to carry them, one at a time, to that new shore on your back – sometimes kicking and screaming. But you show them how fighting the current can be fun and playful, because you’ve done it before and can now live by example.
The act of returning to that beach for your friends and loved ones – of risking suffering in order to lift up your fellow human beings – this is the Boddhisatva path, the way of The Christ, the way of compassion.
For me, the distant shore is any new consciousness, new community, new skin, new circuitry. We must test these waters regularly, we must stretch and explore, disrupting our own behavior, firing and wiring new neurological and social connections. And eventually, we will live there in that new place – at least until we are called to a newly expanded state of enlightenment or consciousness that is more accepting or inclusive than the last.
Author H. Emilie Cady wrote that “you must let go of the lesser, in order that you may grasp the whole in which the lesser is included.”
It calls to mind the image of the gymnasts on the rings. The ones who are able to swing, and flip, and pop up into the air and grab another set of rings somewhere just out of reach. They make it look so easy, don’t they? Do you think that kind of talent comes naturally or might it require practice?
So, how do we let go of the lesser in order to grab the whole? Is it as easy as it sounds? We know it takes faith. But doesn’t it also take practice?
I want you to hold your hands out in front of you, palms down. And clench your fists as tightly as you can. Imagine that you are holding onto everything that you love and cherish in this world – your family, your home, your job, money, your passions and desires, your rituals and routines. Squeeze them tightly, hold on and don’t let go. Now become aware of how this makes you feel. Feel what it does to your fingers, your wrists, your arms, your back.
Squeeze as tightly as you can, as if someone is trying to pull these things out of your hands, and then slowly, gently release them. Open your fingers, flatten your hands and relax your arms. How do you feel? Which action feels better, more comforting? Grasping or releasing?
We have got to start showing love and compassion to the parts of us that exhibit resistance or attachment. Nothing but gentleness and love can melt those attachments away.
We’ve got to begin to put down our attachments and resistance to anger, fear, aggression, ignorance, prejudice, jealousy, pride, addiction, anxiety.
We must simply be present, do the work and move on.
As I take a deep breath and lean in to this moment, in this perfect occasion, now and now, I affirm that I am willing to move forward toward a greater understanding of life, love, joy and wisdom; toward a deeper understanding of mystery; toward a oneness and a unification – within and without; toward the science behind the sunset.
And through my experience of God (not my or anyone else’s explanation of God, but my direct experience of God), I am inspired (filled with light and breath).
And I know that as I endeavor to return to my own breath, my practice, my path, my community – the situation may not change, but I have been transformed.