The Truth About Values

We often consider our morals and values to be fairly synonymous and deeply rooted in our spiritual faith.  This comes from a modern understanding of spirituality in which a divine entity or force dictates what is universally important, and things outside of that list that we feel are important are just mundane human priorities.

I reject that notion.  I reject it partially because I reject the existence of a deity or supernatural force directing the workings of the universe, especially one which cares about the choices I make in life.  I also reject it because morals and values are, by their very nature, focused on shaping our actions in this life, in the present reality.  Morals and values are not about pleasing a higher power, they are about expressing our spiritual truths through our interactions with others.

So, if I were to list my own personal 10 commandments, what would be on that list?

  1. Help others by making their lives safer, freer, and more stable, not by trying to force them to agree with you.
    Spirituality should guide us to provide tangible help to others, not stand in for that help.
  2. Learn as much as possible.
    Questions are more important than answers.  It is the questions which lead to answers.
  3. Listen to what other people think, but don’t always believe them.
    We aren’t gods, we’re not always right.  But other people aren’t always right, either.  No matter who they are.  Always be willing to listen, but develop the skill of discerning valid opinions from crazy talk.
  4. Admit when you are wrong.
    Refusing to own up to mistakes only makes them worse.
  5. Only give advice you’d be willing to follow yourself.
    Don’t be a hypocrite.
  6. No double standards.
    If I want others to act a certain way, I should act that way myself.  
  7. Direct change, don’t fight it.
    Change is inevitable.  Adapting to change is how we evolve.  Causing and directing change to create good is how we help humanity evolve in a positive direction.
  8. Standing up for yourself is important, but standing up for the greater good is more important.
    The more people who will directly benefit in a tangible way from your actions, the more important those actions are.
  9. Want people more than you need them.
    It’s better to be wanted than needed.  Needs change.
  10. Don’t try to control other people.
    Influencing others is a skill you can learn, but you can never truly control anyone but yourself.

Spirituality is Awesome?

The first time I ever truly had what I would consider a religious experience was in France in 1997.  I was with a study group at the monastery of La Tourette in Lyon.  We arrived in time to sit in the main chapel and listen to vespers.  Something about the space and the music — the contrast of darkness and colored light, the echo of the voices off the concrete walls — struck me in an emotional way that no religious service ever had before.  

It actually brought me to tears.  

I’ve not managed to find a religious experience to rival it since.  

But I have wondered exactly what it was about the experience that affected me so deeply, and why I considered the experience particularly spiritual.  For a long time I referred to it as a religious experience, but the only particularly religious aspect of it was the location.  And though it produced a profound emotional reaction, it didn’t make me feel as though I was necessarily more connected to any spiritual force or any closer to god.  

If I had to put a name to the emotion I felt at the time it would be awe in the classical sense: reverential, speechless, wonderstruck.  I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the experience in some unquantifiable way.  And it wasn’t something shared by those with me, at least not to the same extent.  

Is it possible that we use spiritual terms to describe emotional experiences which fall outside the spectrum from simple happiness to simple sadness?  Or is it the unexpected nature of an emotional experience which causes us to put spiritual significance to a moment of deep feeling?

In retrospect, maybe it was the fact that the religious tradition in which I was raised had no similarly grand components, and the experience of finding myself so taken with a religious environment was simply so new as to be overwhelming.  Or maybe it was the anticipation of solitude and silence after weeks of being in forced social interactions and strange, foreign routines.  

In any case, whatever it was about the moment had very little if anything to do with god, and did not come with any particular spiritual revelation.  I didn’t walk away from that monastery with a deeper understanding of the divine.  

But I did walk away with a desire to search out more of those types of experiences.  

So is that what religion is?  At its core, is it simply a search for experiences and rituals which touch the deepest parts of our emotional selves?  Is it a collective effort to create and share strong emotional experiences?  And more importantly, what is spirituality for those who never feel such a reaction?  

I’m not sure if there is an answer to that, I only know I don’t have an answer to it at the moment.  But there is something about that moment of breaking into tears in the midst of echoing song and rays of sunset which has stuck with me over the years.  That moment was the point at which I realized that my spiritual life could be so much more than routinely attending church services and absorbing as much doctrine as my brain would hold.  It could be deeply touching and deeply personal.  

Perhaps that is what is missing from so much of religion.  Maybe that lack of personal connection with the experience itself is why so many are walking away from religious traditions to find something more meaningful.  Maybe religion isn’t really supposed to be about what is taught and thought and believed, but about what is experienced and felt.  We can find doctrine and truth in so many parts of our lives.

The real question is where to find awe.

Why Waste Time on Spiritual Busywork?

I’ve spent time on many different spiritual paths, and all of them involved practices and activities which I found to be deeply satisfying.  Growing up in a Protestant church I gravitated towards opportunities to be involved and use my talents, like learning to play the organ because nobody else at our church knew how.  When I became Catholic I loved the private meditative practices like praying the rosary and felt that those activities brought me spiritual connection I had not found in my previous religious experiences.  When I started practicing magic I liked crafting my own tools and creating my own rituals, shaping my practice to fit my focus at any given time.  And when I started studying alchemy I was excited about lab work and creating useful medicines, putting my spiritual pursuits to use helping myself and others.  These things made me feel spiritually connected and active.

But all of these traditions also involve practices and activities in which I don’t find meaning or satisfaction.  There are expectations which become drudgery and obligatory busywork.  These are the things which drain our spiritual energy and make us less likely to find fulfillment in our spiritual lives.  Things like evangelism, confession, dream journaling and astrology make me feel like I’m just going through the motions with no benefit.  

So should we feel compelled to participate in pieces of spiritual practice when we don’t feel that there is meaning to be found there?

I think we absolutely should feel able to shape our personal practice to make it more fulfilling and meaningful.  Everyone’s spiritual pursuit is unique to their experience, and we can’t expect to get what we need from a spiritual path by following exactly in the footsteps of others.  So we should not feel compelled to half-heartedly go through the motions of rituals which don’t move our spiritual understanding forward.

But the danger in freeing ourselves to delete and avoid spiritual activities at our will lies in our tendency to write off things as meaningless when in reality they are uncomfortable or difficult but ultimately good for us.  We aren’t always the best judge of what is best for our own selves.  If we avoid the beneficial parts of our practice, we render it entirely meaningless.  

The trick is to examine what we’re doing spiritually and determine what is beneficial and what is not, from a personal standpoint.

This is extremely hard to do without a great deal of self-awareness.  So maybe it’s best to go into any practice or experience, spiritual or not, with the intention of finding meaning in it.  Approach life with the goal of making it meaningful, forcing it to be significant, even if the effort must rest completely on your shoulders.

And maybe, that’s what spirituality is ultimately all about.

Where, Exactly, Are Your Toes?

So we seem to be fixated on our rights and freedoms lately, as we should be, but in an increasingly bizarre way.  There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding what is a right, what is a freedom, and who has the right to decide who gets to do what.  Politically, I’m not sure I want to get into that on this blog at this juncture.  But spiritually, I have a few thoughts to share.

First of all, I think we can all agree that we don’t particularly like other people telling us how to live our lives for reasons with which we don’t agree.  I dare say that’s a fairly universal truth.  If you think I’m making rules up on authority which doesn’t exist and using those rules to keep you from doing things I don’t like, you’re going to be upset.

Secondly, nearly every religion has some doctrine or principle which basically says not to be horrible to other people.  Granted, the definition of who counts as “people” is sometimes a little hazy.  But still, for all intents and purposes we almost all adhere to some version of the golden rule.  That’s because it’s one of the mechanisms by which society works.  If you don’t want me to treat you badly, then it is also your responsibility not to treat me that way, and vice versa.  It allows us to all assume that most people are going to cooperate, and we all live together relatively peacefully.  That’s the deal, and it applies here as much as any place.  If you want freedom, you also have to extend it to other people.  

Third, there is only one reason why two people’s rights or freedoms would conflict with each other, and that’s because one person wants their freedom to give them special authority over the actions of others.  For instance, if I want the right to eat chocolate cake every night and my spouse wants the right to never eat chocolate cake again, we’re fine.  I don’t get to make my spouse eat the cake, and she can’t stop me from eating mine.  Everything is groovy.  

But if I want the right to make everyone in the house eat chocolate cake every night and my spouse wants to never have to eat it, we have a problem.  And the problem isn’t that she doesn’t want to eat the cake.  Her not wanting cake doesn’t have anything at all to do with me having it.  I don’t have the right to make everyone do what I want.  

See, there’s a fundamental difference between “I want to be able to do this thing” and “I want everyone to do this thing with me.”  There’s a difference between “you’re stepping on my toes” and “I’ve put on these very large clown shoes and you’re stepping where my toes would be if my feet were actually that big.”

Don’t be the jerk in the clown shoes.

Reaping What We Sow

Cultivating a spiritual life takes a certain amount of time, energy, and intent.  There is an investment we make of ourselves, which implies that we expect some sort of return on that investment.

I consider writing to be a huge part of my spiritual practice.  My books and research notes, this blog, and the journals I keep for myself are the space in which my spiritual life happens.  And then there are the ways in which I celebrate the passing of time with those around me, and the groups in which I participate, as well as the ways in which I attempt to help make the world better.  All of this is time and money and effort put in.  

I think for everyone, some of the expected return on all that invested time and energy is internal.  Me, I strive for personal evolution.  I want to be more effective, more able, more wise and knowledgeable each day than I was the day before, and to then use what I gain to push that evolution forward.  The investment I make in my spirituality pays off in my own inner development: greater confidence, more patience, the ability to make good decisions.

Then there is a portion of what we hope to get back which comes from outside ourselves.  We affiliate ourselves with others who are on the same path so that we have access to support and guidance.  We want social connection to those who share our views.  Whatever it is we are passionate about doing for spiritual reasons will guide us to those who share our beliefs.  My practice is personal, but through it I have found others who are on similar paths and with whom I can openly discuss my beliefs and often get inspiration.  

And finally there are the ultimate spiritual payoffs.  This is the part which is promised to us from the divine or the universe, like salvation or enlightenment or peace.  There is usually some goal, some reward at the end of our spiritual path which we strive for through our personal efforts.  I believe that my spiritual work will pay off in a positive legacy after I am gone.  That is the reason I write, but it’s also what shapes how I interact with others and what I find important to fight for.

The thing is, just like a financial investment, there is risk.  When we pick a path and a goal, we commit to a worldview or a series of truths.  There are an awful lot of beliefs and religions out there, and we invest in hopes that we’ve chosen the right one.  And the more we focus on the divine return, the less we invest in the inner or social rewards.  

And I think this is where so many people go wrong with religion.  

Faith is great, but not if it drives us to neglect ourselves and those around us.  There must be some purpose in our earthly existence beyond jumping through hoops to ensure an ephemeral reward at the end.  The inner development and the relationships built with those around us should be the most important thing while we are here.