Spirit:  a supernatural being or essence: as in holy spirit, soul, ghost, or a malevolent being that enters and possesses a human being

It is common to think of the spirit and/or soul as something beyond nature, something separate from our physical selves.  But if our spirit is our essence, can it truly be supernatural?  Even if it can exist separate from a body or within different bodies as necessary, does that mean it exists outside the realm of nature?

I think not.

Still, if we consider the spirit as something that isn’t tied to our physical being, something which can, indeed, exist after our bodies are gone, what does that mean for spirituality?  Does it necessarily shift the focus of spiritual life to our post-death future rather than our current existence?  

Again, I think not.  Even if there is a life beyond this one, we are still meant to live this one.  Truly live it, not just use it as time to wait and wonder about the next, not to throw it away in hopes that the next life is a second chance or a perfect reward.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

One of the challenges of being without a predefined spiritual label is that it can be just as hard to define for oneself the purpose of one’s nebulous spiritual endeavors as it is to describe your spiritual identity to others.  When people ask what you are, what you believe, they expect an answer which is concise enough to give them the information they’re after without devolving into a sermon.  

I think most of us find labels to be important to some extent.  Even for those of us who don’t have a religion, finding a name for where we stand is an important communicative task.  And, whether we like to admit it or not, we judge others based on the labels they choose for themselves.  Both the choice of labels and our reactions to the labels chosen by others says a lot about what we want and think others should want from their spiritual life.  And this means that, to choose the most appropriate and most useful label, we have to have a firm understanding of what purpose spirituality plays in our lives.  The more certain I have felt in my life about what I believed and what my religion or spiritual path was supposed to do for me, the more easily I’ve selected a label.  

In the past couple of decades, choosing a label has been extremely difficult.

And it’s more than not knowing what I want.  It’s also not knowing what words will most effectively convey the idea to others.  What we think we are saying isn’t always what is heard.  Especially when we’ve rejected a label for ourselves, we can be prone to assuming we know what others who still use that label mean when they say it.  Those assumptions say more about us than they say about others.

Though I’ve still not settled on a label which I feel is both meaningful and accurately communicative, I labor under the assumption that once I get a firm grasp on what I believe is the purpose of my spiritual endeavors the description will fall into place.  That maybe settling on a label will be the signal that I’ve found my spiritual identity.  

In the meantime, the centerpiece of my personal spirituality is the search itself, the quest for direction if not answers.  I am, if nothing else, a seeker.

I’m Absolutely Certain We Have No Idea What We’re Talking About

I was recently reading an internet list of biggest lies and hoaxes, and it occurred to me that what makes us so susceptible to these things isn’t that people are more stupid or that there is more opportunity to spread information.  It’s not that there are powerful groups who can cover up the truth more easily.  It’s not even that the state of the world makes these stories more believable.

It’s that we’ve come to judge a person’s actions by their perceived integrity, rather than judging a person’s integrity by their actions.  We attach our allegiance to someone and base what’s true and false on how it aligns with that allegiance.

It’s completely backwards.

Whether a statement is true or not has never been determined by evaluating the person who says it.  Liars tell the truth and truthful people lie.  And nothing good ever comes from defending lies as truth or dismissing truths as lies.  

But that is so often how we exist.  We are first taught “truth”, and then taught to judge the world against that truth.  We are rarely encouraged to judge the truth against the world.  We are absolutely not taught that it is okay to doubt the word of the teacher who teaches “truth”.  

And that is not okay.

We need more questions, more doubt, more skepticism, not less.  Our allegiance should never be to one idea, one doctrine, one truth.  We would do much better to live as if all ideas and beliefs and so-called facts, even the fact of our existence itself, have some possible margin for error.  The illusion of absolute certainty has not served us well as a society.  

Be the Good, Forget the Haters

It’s always interesting to see how people react to learning various facts about you, especially when you know that the impression they have of you may contradict the image they will associate with some other aspect of your life.  For instance, when people find out I was a cheerleader in high school they often expect me to be dismissive or ashamed of it because, clearly, I shouldn’t want to associate myself with the cheerleader stereotype.  

Similar things happen when people broach the topic of my religion.  Because I don’t want to enter into long, potentially uninteresting (to them, at least) conversations about my spiritual exploration and philosophies, I usually just fall back on the “atheist” label because it is technically correct.  Technically, I don’t believe in supernatural beings or phenomena which exist outside of the laws of science, so I’m an atheist.  

To some people this helps paint me as a rational, intelligent human being who values logic and the scientific method.

To others, this brands me as hostile to people of faith, misled by evil influences to reject truth.  And they might even think I eat babies or something.  

This could, of course, turn into a rant about how people misjudge other people and apply stereotypes which are negative and damaging to society.  But that’s not where I’m going.

Yes, it’s ridiculous that there is a portion of people on this planet who believe that atheists are evil and lack morals, or that cheerleaders are more sexually active and less intelligent than average, or any number of other unduly negative stereotypes.  But what is more ridiculous is that we put far more effort into trying to convince others to change the way they think rather than demonstrating with action that they are wrong.

Arguing that, as an logical atheist, my beliefs make more sense than religious concepts goes nowhere to convincing a devout person that I am not threatening to them.  In fact, the argument likely reinforces their perception.  Using that effort to be as much a positive force in the world as they expect me to be negative would go much farther.  That is not to say that debate and discussion have no place, but when it comes to those who are judgmental and accusatory it is unlikely that logic and rational discourse will get you anywhere.  

Ultimately, it does us all more good to focus on being a living embodiment of those positive things we hope our labels will say about us than it does to fight the negative stereotypes through words and confrontation.  It’s much harder to claim that a group of people is destructive and evil when that group is visibly and unquestionably working to help others and contribute positively to the world around them.  

In The End…

“In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”

Sure, most of us could use a bit of encouragement to do those things which, though scary, hold the potential for great reward.  Growth only comes when we step outside our comfort zone.

But what about all those other chances we take?  The ones where we know there could be disastrous consequences but we take the leap anyway.  

And what about times when we choose one path over another and it doesn’t lead where we hoped it would?  

Or those chances we take which force us to turn away from parts of our lives we later wish we hadn’t neglected?

It’s not that we regret the chances we didn’t take.  We regret all the ways our choices didn’t result in the life we hoped we were building.  Sometimes, yes, that means we regret not acting, not risking, not doing.  But it also, maybe to a greater extent, means we are prone to looking back on the things we hoped would be different in our lives and tracing back to the decision which put things in motion, and in the end blaming our choice, our decision, for the outcome.

Sometimes we make good decisions which turn out bad.  Sometimes we make bad decisions which turn out okay.  And in the end, isn’t the important part that we always learn and try to do better the next time we must make a similar decision?

About the Books, Part 3

By my estimation, I’m about one fifth of the way through the initial writing on the book of devotionals.  As I’ve been writing them, a few ideas for final format have come into my head, and one in particular seems to have a lot of potential.  

If you think you might be interested in this book, I’d like to know if you’d also be interested in a companion journal printed with the questions/prompts already there?  I don’t know whether to consider having the book printed in two formats (one as a paperback with blank pages for responding to prompts and as a hardback without any writing space) or to just do the book and then also offer a pre-formatted workbook/journal as a companion book (perhaps with other complementary content such as coloring pages, more related prompts, or related quotes).

Thoughts?  Opinions?

Dark Nights, Inner Lights

Years ago I went through my own dark night of the soul and emerged on the other side with new outlook and new sense of self-honesty.  And I’ve been quite proud of myself since, in that I have steadily improved in my ability see patterns of behavior which have led to struggles and choose new behaviors even if they are initially uncomfortable.  

In short, I’ve become much better at adulting, and doing so in a confident, adulty manner.

It’s that kind of confidence which can make a person decide that maybe, just maybe, they have some insights about life which could help someone else.  But we are never guaranteed no more dark nights, and we should never trick ourselves into believing we have this life thing licked.

Recently I had another low period where I once again found myself too often in tears, looking at myself and my past to figure out why I couldn’t seem to shake the anxiety digging the pit in my stomach deeper and deeper.  I’ll spare you the entire story and all its details, but in the end I realized that one of my deep subconscious beliefs about the world is that I will never be treated the same as others.  That, perhaps, is the root fear which drives all of my other fears.  It is the ringleader of the gang of threats to my sanity and my success.  Other people can do good things at work, can excel at their craft, can demonstrate intellect and talent and humor and vision, and they will be rewarded.  But because of a long list of things which have happened to me in my past, my subconscious mind is sure that I have to be twice as smart, twice as talented, twice as visionary to even be slightly noticed.  

But more than this, there is some deeply buried part of my soul which is convinced that what are chalked up as mistakes or minor transgressions by others will, if I commit the same errors, be my complete undoing.  Other people can have a bad day at work and get upset and still be regarded as good at their jobs, but if I have a rough day and show frustration or emotion then I will be seen as weak and incompetent and be short-listed for termination.  Others can stand up against perceived injustices and be rallied behind, but if I do it I will find myself fighting alone and easily defeated.  

Logically, I know this isn’t true.  Or, well, I know that it shouldn’t be true.  And yet, when I find myself feeling intimidated or feel that I am not being treated fairly I freeze up.  I panic.  Though I am normally very calm and logical, in situations where I feel that decisions are being made about me without my input I become absolutely anxiety-ridden.  

Which, of course, makes things worse.

However, realizing that the root of all of this is a deeply held belief that the world will not treat me fairly, that I will never be recognized for my efforts and will always be more harshly punished for my mistakes, is at least a starting point from which I can engineer change.  It also paints a rather insightful picture of how I see reality, and it raises the ever-important issue of what to do about it.  

Many people, when asked what they do about things that make them worried or anxious, would advise prayer.  Some will say medication.  Some, therapy.  Some people would say that feeling kicked around by the world at large is a mark of being somehow superior to all the “other” people, and that enduring it is something akin to martyrdom for the cause of being “real” and “authentic”.  Some would say suck it up, stop whining, and stand up for what you want.

All of those responses say something about those people’s worldviews and their core spiritual beliefs.  Is the rest of the world good or evil?  Do the opinions of others matter?  Do we have the power to change our place in the world, and if we do, should we use it?  Is it okay to feel these feelings?  

What I do know is that, whatever I learn from my struggle through this period of inner turmoil, my old worldview has not served me well and needs to be discarded.  Letting my inner voice tell me that people won’t trust me, people won’t like me, my work won’t be noticed, all my mistakes will undo anything good I’ve ever done only makes it harder for me to keep moving forward in life.  It makes me react in ways I don’t like and am not proud of.  And this means the story I weave in my mind about the universe and my place in it needs to be rewritten.

I think that’s one of the deepest roots of a spiritual life.  It tells us what we are worth, where we fit in the universe, what our struggles mean.  Our beliefs are what we use to either broadcast or overrule our inner voices.  Times of struggle and doubt aren’t necessarily tests of faith, and neither are they always tests of our inner strength.  But when our lives seem particularly dark, our beliefs get illuminated.  

And that’s when it’s easiest to see them for what they really are.