A Moment in Time

The biggest difference between my spiritual life now and my spiritual life as it has been on other paths is that my primary focus is on the present.  What can I do now?  What needs to change now?  How am I doing right now?

Sure, I make plans for the near future.  Ongoing routines and rituals which won’t see completion for a while.  Actions to be taken now which I intend to have certain impacts later.

And I do think of the past.  I don’t believe we can ever advance ourselves without knowing and coming to terms with our past experiences.  Some of what I do in the present is a method of working with the past.

Still, I believe the most important focus in our spiritual lives should be the current moment in time.  If we remain too much in past traditions and past ideas, we grow disconnected from the power of the present.  If we’re not part of the present, how can we hope to understand or prepare for a future?  Likewise, if our entire spiritual existence is centered in a specific future, how is it benefiting us or the world around us right now?

The More You Know

These days, information on just about anything is easy to find.  An argument over the lyrics of a song can be settled in seconds with a smart phone.  Rare, age-old documents can be read online even though the original sits protected halfway around the world.  If we want to know something about spiritual views different from our own, that information is likely very few clicks away.

Truth, however, is more difficult to locate than ever.  And if, as I would imagine most people believe, religion and spirituality is about finding truth, the glut of info can either help or hinder that search.

Now, I’m a big fan of the glut of info.  But our approaches to spiritual truth largely still rest on the old idea that once you’ve found what you believe to be truth, all falsehoods need to be avoided.  If you’ve found THE TRUTH, poking about in dangerous misinformation might destroy that connection.

I grew up in such a tradition.  Not only were certain topics taught as wrong or mistaken, but reading about them was a grave misdeed.  If we wanted information on those paths with which we were unfamiliar but curious, we were to trust the judgment and assessment of those on our side and never listen to those who walked those paths.

It should probably be no surprise to anyone that I ended up spiritually where I am now. I was the kid who checked out books on the paranormal and claimed I had to read them for a class if they were found.  I’ve never liked knowing information was being withheld from me.  In fact, even when I was a committed believer, I knew it didn’t make sense to simultaneously claim that our beliefs were objectively true and undeniable, that our faith would protect us from evil, and that it was wrong to learn about other belief systems because we could be lured away or something.

Censorship is never beneficial.

Knowledge is always desirable.

How much do you know about the spiritual paths which diverge from your own?

Welcome to the Real World

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been part of a handful of spiritual paths over the years.  I was raised in an evangelical Protestant family, became Catholic after graduating college, began studying Wicca and neopaganism a few years after that, then became something of an atheistic pagan.  I think religions and spiritual paths, much like jobs, are left out of dissatisfaction.  Very rarely are people lured away.

As a boss, I know that for the most part employees quit when they reach a point where the negatives of a job outweigh the positives.  If they’re out searching for new jobs, they’ve already decided to leave.  And very rarely do new jobs pop up that are so enticing that satisfies employees are willing to take a chance on a job change.

Similarly, I’ve known a lot of people who leave churches and religions because they reach a point where the questions and disagreements and discomfort outweigh the benefits of staying.  If they’re actively searching for a new church home, they’ve already decided to leave the previous one.  Very rarely do new spiritual paths lure committed and faithful people away from a spiritual path they find to be fulfilling and true.

I left the familiar Protestant faith I was raised in not because the Catholic Church was offering me a better deal, but because I realized that, without my family there to provide me special opportunities and incentive to participate, I had no personal desire to continue attending that kind of church.  It didn’t fit me.  That church was centered on the idea that it was our responsibility to center our lives entirely on god, to throw ourselves into church activities and seek to convert others.  Even then, I felt it was irresponsible and counterproductive to push a faith on others, if not dangerous.  That faith did not paint a realistic picture of what I thought it should mean to be a Christian.

I left Catholicism not because paganism looked so much better, but because I stopped feeling that I was getting anything out of my church experience.  I’d lost interest in going to Mass because I didn’t come away feeling like I’d really benefited from it.  I disagreed with too much of the Church’s doctrines and felt that it did not paint a realistic picture of how humans should be treated and respected.

I stopped studying traditional neopagan spirituality because I started feeling rather silly pretending to call upon deities and beings I didn’t thing really existed.  I didn’t feel that it painted a realistic picture of the workings of the universe and the relationship between humans and the planet.

And I think I’m pretty normal in that regard.  People leave religions when they start questioning too much.  They leave when their perception of reality stands at odds with the teachings and dogmas they’re being asked to embrace.  And this is important right now because there are so many people leaving organized religion these days.  Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s very clearly a sign that religious teachings as they stand are not proving to be accurate when measured against the experience of current reality.

If religion fails to speak to reality, what good is it?

In Someone Else’s Footsteps

All through my long spiritual life journey, I can’t say I’ve ever really had a guide, teacher, mentor, or instructor.  Even when such relationships are purposefully arranged (for instance, when I became Catholic I had a sponsor who was supposed to guide me through the process), I don’t tend to use that person as intended.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met anyone who seemed to be further along a specific spiritual path along which I desired to tread.  Perhaps it’s because I’m too arrogant to accept that someone else can teach me more than I can find through my own research.

In any case, I know many of my friends in pagan circles have turned to mentors and teachers to guide them through initiatory paths.  It’s a spiritual process I’m intrigued by. What would I look for in a spiritual guide or instructor if I were to seek one?  And what would have to happen to make me want to seek one?

If spirituality is a journey, organized religion is something like being part of a tour group. You don’t have to worry about getting lost, the path is established and secured, and all you really have to do is get on and off the bus when told and stay with your group.  What you don’t see, though, is all the really enriching off-the-beaten-path stuff.  It’s safe, but it’s also pre-packaged, and you’re thrust together with people you may or may not wish to travel with.

In the same analogy, studying under a mentor or spiritual teacher is like hiring a guide to show you around a foreign place.  It’s not something most of us would do as travelers unless we anticipated having difficulty communicating, navigating, or avoiding danger.  A guide can take you nearly anywhere, if they’re willing to do so, and their job is to facilitate your progress more than direct it.

And that, I think, is the crux of why I’ve never felt the need for a mentor or guide in my spiritual life.  I’m confident in my own ability to pick a direction and navigate the path without assistance, and, in fact, prefer to do so.  I don’t want to be led along a well-traveled path, stepping in the footsteps of those who have gone before.  It’s not the kind of traveling my spiritual self prefers.

Do you have someone you consider a guide or a mentor on your spiritual journey?  How did you find them and what made you choose them?

Where do you expect them to take you?

A Higher Purpose

The final thing on the list of characteristics of religion is the idea of sacredness.  In most religions, some things are sacred and some profane.  There is a division between things which are of or related to the faith, the deity or deities of the religion, and those things which are of the mundane world.

This is where it’s a little bit difficult to draw a parallel between activism and traditional religion.  Activism doesn’t involve worship, per se, only a communal agreement and commitment to particular action.  There’s an end goal, a unifying purpose, but no deity to follow or please.

On the other hand, there is an obvious sense in these times that there are activities which are productive, progressive, involved, and those which amount to avoidance and escape.  There are ways of living which contribute to progress and the elevation of humanity, and those which contribute to maintaining the oppression of the status quo.  There’s even a clear division between action and those things which we are supposed to do when we feel worn out and stressed by the weight of reality.

I think, perhaps, the clearest parallel to the sacred/profane dichotomy in religion is the duality between things which serve a greater purpose and things which serve only ourselves.  That is not to say that to partake in self-focused activities or self-indulgent things is bad any more than religion condemns paying bills or watching television.  But just as religion absolutely condemns (in most cases) a focused dedication to the mundane world which results in an abandonment or rejection of faith, activism calls for us to speak out very loudly against a focused dedication to one’s own existence in order to ignore the larger problems faced by humanity.

Here’s Your Sign…

The seventh element of religion is material expression.  In other words, religions tend to have “stuff” which adherents use in their practice or to identify themselves with the faith.  Rituals involve certain items and specific settings, even sometimes costumes or modes of dress.

Personally, I’ve noticed that the more deeply involved and committed I get to a cause, the more my collection of tshirts and sweatshirts grows.  People knitted and crocheted thousands and thousands of pink pussy hats for the recent Women’s Marches, and are still knitting them.  We paint signs and carry bullhorns, wear stickers and buttons and bracelets and flags.

Much like many traditional religions, most would say no one needs the “stuff” to participate, but the stuff is nevertheless ubiquitous and common.

We like the stuff.  It reinforces our allegiance and message visually as a way to attract those who are with us and confront those who are not.  It amplifies our voices.  It lets us say what we wish to say even when we can’t get our voices heard.

#woke

The sixth element common to religion are “characteristic emotional experiences”.  Inner peace would be one example.  Profound conversion experiences are another.  Essentially, religion weaves a practice and philosophy around a series of experiences which have high emotional impact.  It’s those experiences which draw us into the faith and provide a common ground on which to relate to other adherents.  And continuing to have those experiences, to feel those extremes of emotion, keeps us engaged and invested.

Since last November I know a lot of us have had frequent and similar emotional reactions to what’s going on around us.  Anger.  Fear.  Motivation.  Solidarity.  Urgency.  Most of us have gone through the experience of realizing that there was so much more hate and discrimination and oppression in the world than we thought.

And, yes, most of us should have had that experience a long time ago, and there’s a lot of people who have battled this on the front lines relentlessly their whole lives, but even they had times in their childhoods when the reality of the world was revealed to them.  The lifting of the veil of naivete is one of those characteristic emotional experiences.

So are the events which bring protests and the birth of movements.

So are the protests and rallies themselves, where the communal release and expression of emotions gives way to a sense of motivation and optimism.

That’s what drives movements and religions alike.  We are pushed forward by the power of our deepest reactions to what we witness and experience.

And I think we all want a bit of that inner peace stuff.