It’s Not So Different, Really

As I’ve gotten older, the amount of responsibility I’ve taken on in life has increased.  I assume that’s how it’s supposed to be.  I’m still sometimes unclear on if I’m doing this “adulting” thing correctly, although most signs point towards yes.  At the very least, if my ability to adult is graded pass/fail I’m generally confident these days that I’m passing.

Still, the fact that there was a time, not so long ago, where I didn’t quite have the ability to consistently adult to an acceptable level has been hard to get over.  I haven’t missed a bill payment in several years now, and yet I still get nervous now and then that I’ve done math wrong and missed something important.  I’ve faced consequences of bad mistakes and bad decisions, and I still get that horrible, gnawing feeling of anxiety in my stomach when I think my boss or someone in an authority position might be less than happy with what I’m doing.

It makes me wonder if people who have lived a life with fewer struggles and failures have less anxiety because they don’t remember what it’s like to mess up and fail, or if they have more anxiety because they imagine mistakes and failure to be worse than they really are.  

And that makes me wonder if there really are people who have lived a life with fewer struggles, or if we all feel the same worries and anxieties, but over different kinds of things.

Whatever the answer, I still end up some nights with the nauseous, anxious feeling in my stomach.  It causes me to wonder if I’ve forgotten something important that only my subconscious has remembered, or if I’m having some kind of premonition about an impending crisis, or if I just ate something bad and it’s just an upset stomach.  

The really bad part, though, is that there is this part of my brain that wants to do anything possible to avoid addressing what might be the cause of the anxiety.  It doesn’t want to know if I forgot to do something important or if I made a bad choice or even if there’s just some unavoidable thing that’s happened to make my life more difficult for a bit.  It fears the repercussions and therefore doesn’t want to acknowledge that they exist.  It’s the part of my brain which caused me to not be able to adult very well at some points in my life.  

I know, logically and from experience, that what I should do when I feel like my stomach is twisting itself into knots is to sit down and get as many tasks done as possible.  Plan for contingencies.  Go over my schedule and my budget.  Make to-do lists.  Do things on the to-do lists.  Clean something.  

And yet, real action is hard.  Real action requires that real consequences be faced.  Real action requires honest assessment of the situation with all its potential downsides.  It’s so much easier to retreat into actions that feel good but don’t require that much effort and honesty.  It’s so much more tempting to play distracting games or focus on making myself feel better about more superficial successes so I don’t worry about mistakes I might have made.  

As humanity has grown and advanced, life has become more complex and difficult to understand.  It’s the way it’s always been and always will be.  There’s no real way to know if humanity is headed in a good direction or if we will destroy ourselves, although for all the times we’ve ever predicted our impending demise we’ve yet to be right.  At the very least, we still have the ability to make the right choices for the future of our descendants and the planet.

Still, we’re consumed by concerns over the darker parts of human history.  Though the data tells us that we are becoming more educated, healthier, less violent, more prosperous, we have a hard time seeing past all the horrible things that are still part of human behavior.  We’ve been through wars and catastrophes and plagues and genocide, and we still worry that the next horrible chapter in human history might wipe us off the earth for good if we don’t stop it.

It makes some of us imagine that there is a life beyond this one where there is no reason to worry about the future because there is no disease or death or suffering.  And it makes some of us imagine that, if we only do the right things, we can fix what’s wrong with humanity by ridding the world of whatever causes us to suffer and creating a perfect life here in reality.  

And it makes some of us wonder if there ever can be an existence without suffering, or if we just wish there could be to make us feel better about the suffering we experience now.

Whatever the answer, we are still consumed with the idea that humanity needs to be fixed or saved.  We wonder if humanity was designed to be this way, or if it all went wrong somewhere in the past, or if we’re inherently flawed.  

The really bad part, though, is that there is this part of all of us that wants to do anything possible to avoid facing the ways in which we, personally, might be part of the problem.  We don’t want to think about how we might be causing others to suffer or how we might have made choices in the past which contributed to conflict and destruction and oppression.  We fear the judgment of others and therefore we don’t want to acknowledge that we might sometimes be wrong.  It’s the part of human nature which causes us to perpetuate destructive and harmful ideas and behaviors.  

On a superficial level we all acknowledge that what we should do when we are troubled by the state of the world around us is to do something positive for others.  Give of ourselves.  Help those in need.  Push for positive change.  Fix something broken.  

And yet, real action is hard.  Real action requires that real consequences be faced.  Real action requires honest assessment of the situation with all its potential downsides.  It’s so much easier to retreat into actions that feel good but don’t require that much effort and honesty.  It’s so much more tempting to distract ourselves with our own hobbies and interests or argue over ideas and beliefs and how other people should act so we don’t have to face the ways we might be harming others around us.  

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I Need To Feel Wanted

I’ve always expected my spiritual path, no matter which one I’ve been on, to provide me some kind of outlet for my talents and interests.  That’s actually how I tend to pursue all things, spiritual or not, so I know I can’t expect this to be the same expectation held by everyone else.  

But if your talents and interests and abilities aren’t aligned somehow with your spirituality, how do you occupy your spiritual time?  

I suppose for some it is sufficient to have a set of spiritual beliefs by which to live.  Active practice or integration into mundane life isn’t necessary for everyone.  Personally, though, I don’t see the point if there isn’t something to do.  It’s not really a spiritual life or a spiritual path if it is simply a set of things to believe.  

Of course, if the beliefs include evangelism or some other call to action that becomes the thing to do with your time and effort.  

But is a life devoted to converting others (or attempting to convert others) worthwhile?  For me, that would be like being forced into a career in telemarketing.  Yuck.  I’d feel like my talents were wasted, that my aspirations and abilities were of no value in that role.

I wouldn’t stay long in a job or a relationship where I felt that my personal contribution was unappreciated or unwanted.

So why remain in a spiritual path when you feel that way?

 

As I Look Back On My Life…

“As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being redirected to something better.”

The funny thing is that we never know what might have happened if something in our past had gone differently.  Whether we assume that it would have turned out great or awful has a lot to do with what has happened to us since.

If we are essentially happy with how our lives are unfolding, we’re more likely to look back and see missed or denied opportunities as something that happened for the better.  We’re more likely to assume it wouldn’t have turned out the way we hoped at the time.

So, yeah, if you think your life has gone great, it’s easy to look back and see that these doors got closed for a reason.

But if, for instance, your life had sucked after those opportunities passed you by, you’d be more likely to see them as tragedies, that every time you wanted something good it was denied to you.

So, every time you think you’ve been rejected from something good, go look for something better.

A Worthy Sacrifice

One of the most fascinating and, in some ways, attractive rituals involved in organized religion is that of the willing sacrifice, fast, or committed abstinence.  Sometimes it is something expected as part of a pious lifestyle, as in celibacy for some in religious orders or vegetarianism for Jains.  Sometimes it is a fast performed ritually such as Lenten sacrifices in the Catholic church or during Ramadan for Muslims.  In some cases it is the avoidance of specific behaviors and substances which are contrary to the doctrines of the religion.  In others it is an act of sacrifice meant to demonstrate a follower’s faith and commitment.

But there’s another aspect to these acts which, I think, is the reason we still embrace these traditions today: they are a challenge by which we test our mastery over ourselves and our capacity for positive change.  

Interestingly, there are some who think that looking at fasting or sacrifice as a way to improve oneself is contrary to the spiritual nature of the practice.  In other words, it shouldn’t be about us, it should be about joining in, for instance, Christ’s suffering.  Others say it should be a way to somehow push the divine to give you what you want.  

The bottom line, though, is that the sacrifice is supposed to be something you otherwise very much want.  There is a judgment made about how much you really need something, how much you want it, and, most importantly, how hard it will be for you to go without.  It’s about denying desire.  It’s about telling yourself no.

I suppose there’s something to be said for simply developing the ability to tell yourself no when you otherwise desire something.  The development of willpower is a commendable pursuit.  Even outside the realm of spirituality, humans regularly participate in fasts and sacrifices to try and train their desires away from things in which we think we overindulge:  diets, cleanses, New Year’s resolutions, decluttering… And invariably in these acts there is a judgment about which things and activities are good for us and which are not.  

And therein, I believe, lies the real value of these activities.  The most important outcome is not letting your spiritual path make you feel guilty for certain habits, not feeling deprivation as a spiritual lesson, not getting your way via dramatic spiritual demonstration.  It is the development of a keen understanding of how you hope to become better for having sacrificed, and it can go far beyond the ability to say no to yourself.  

The choice of sacrifice is the key.

It is that choice which begs the consideration of the role you’ve allowed certain behaviors and habits to play in your life.  It presents an opportunity to think deeply about your own values and the extent to which you allow those values to guide your life where they stand in opposition to those imposed by your cultural environment.  It asks you to evaluate your existence and decide for yourself what would improve it and yourself.

It’s Not About You

Empathy is the key to all sorts of things, as it puts our focus not outside ourselves and expands our understanding of human existence.  It’s exceptionally important and, I think, is probably the single most important ability we can develop as human beings.  

I was thinking the other day about the incredible benefits which have resulted from the rise of the technologically connected world in which we live.  While some like to poke at how disconnected from reality and engrossed in our devices we have seemingly become, the reality is that we are more easily connected than ever before.  Everyone with a phone or computer access now has a voice which can be heard around the globe.  Those who are marginalized, ignored, oppressed can put their point of view in front of the world and be heard.

And that’s great.  It should, and in many cases does, promote empathy.  It takes far more effort, now that content can reach us from anywhere, to willfully ignore the voices and experiences and presence of others who live different lives than we do.  Our technology should make us more aware, and it does.

But there, naturally, another side to the coin.

Everyone who now has a voice which can be heard by the world is now tempted to use it to try and make people see things from their point of view.  If the world becomes aware of the suffering of others, we wonder why our suffering isn’t also noticed.  

The problem is that you cannot teach or promote empathy towards yourself.  It doesn’t work that way.  Trying to get other people to understand how you feel isn’t empathy, it’s selfishness.  You can only teach or promote empathy by putting the focus on others.  Not you.  Not those whose empathy needs developing.  Someone else entirely.  We have to model the behavior, not place ourselves at its focal point.  

I Think

My spiritual practice is simple.  I study.  I think.  I write.  Those things enrich my spirit.  I observe a personal habit of focusing each week on one of the four alchemical elements and try to accomplish things during that week which relate to that element.  That keeps me balanced.  On every solstice and equinox, I get a massage.  That’s really just to benefit the body, but it also marks the turn of the seasons.  I gather to discuss things with like minded people and I celebrate various smaller holidays here and there with decorations and gatherings of friends.  That supports the social aspect of my practice.

And that is it.  It’s nebulous and flexible because that’s what works for me.  The whole point of it all, for me, is the development of my spirit.  It’s about elevating that part of me that questions and ponders and searches for answers.  

I could do just fine without the gatherings and celebrations if I had to.  The social connection helps feed my practice, but it would live on without it.

I could do without the spa days.  The solstices and equinoxes are not sacred, and the massages are a luxury.

I could get along perfectly well without a routine to observe.  I like patterns and order, but I can live with a fair bit of chaos, too.

But I cannot do without the thinking.  That is what drives me and inspires me.  That is the only way there is to really truly elevate your spirit, to connect with your soul, to do something truly significant with your life.  

Spirituality without thinking means nothing at all.

Spirit:  the nonphysical part of a person regarded as a person’s true self and as capable of surviving physical death or separation

(above definition from OxfordDictionaries.com)

In part one, it was posited that spirituality involved activities meant to shape the spirit and soul, building character and managing emotions.  Here, the definition adds two more elements: the idea of the true self, and the persistence of the soul or spirit apart from the body.

First, the idea of the spirit as the true self is interesting, especially paired with the concept that this true self can be shaped through spirituality.  Certainly science tells us that some parts of us are either unchangeable or very hard to change.   But undoubtedly we can’t claim that our personality and character is entirely unchangeable.  Therapists and psychiatrists would be out of work if that were true.

As for the persistence of the soul past death, the jury is still out on that.  But whether there is a part which remains in coherent form somewhere or not, the impact we have on those around us does last past our lifespan and is most definitely determined by how our spirit shapes our actions and interactions.