Better?

I aspire to evolve, to develop myself through my spiritual pursuits.  But this concept isn’t without its problematic aspects.  Exactly what do we envision when we are told to strive to become a higher or better version of ourselves?

Having taken up social justice as a focus, I’ve been having more and more conversations with friends and acquaintances about our own unrecognized biases.  And as I was contemplating a response to a question recently posed by a friend, it became suddenly clear to me how much of our assumptions about what constitutes “bettering oneself” carries the taint of prejudice and privilege.

If you think about the goals to which you aspire, how accessible are those goals to others?  Do you think the skills you aspire to learn are as valuable to and of use to others as you believe them to be?

Of course, many of our goals and aspirations may be entirely private and self-focused, but in the spiritual arena we often hope to make a difference in the world through our own betterment.  But are we called to be heroes and saviors?  Or are we just called to be of aid?  How often have we contemplated the difference?

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Spiritual Cartography

 

It would seem logical that those who are seeking a path to follow would be more compelled to explore new spiritual experiences as a method of searching, and that those who are settled on a path would be less willing to explore.  And perhaps that’s generally the case.  But I find that now, as I’m pretty settled and sure about what I do believe and what I don’t, my curiosity about others has increased.  The exploration now, however, is not in pursuit of guidance and instead is in pursuit of context.

I no longer want to find my way, I simply want to fill in the map.

In fact, I believe in many ways the need to understand the context of spirituality in both a global and historic sense is what is missing in much of what constitutes spiritual learning today.  A full understanding of where one stands in the vast array of thoughts and beliefs and manner of worship is something which enhances and enriches one’s view of the universe, and if through learning those things you find your beliefs uncomfortably challenged then, well, you’re probably finally getting somewhere.

 

Crutches

I wonder often whether many people really think about what they need spirituality for, how it manifests in their life, or if they just pick a path and go through the motions because it’s part of our culture.

I wonder often whether most people think about how much they expect spirituality to assist them in ways that other resources might do better.

To be honest, I think most people don’t think about this at all.

We think about it when we see others making choices which offend or confuse us.  Like when parents rely on faith instead of science to heal their children and thereby endanger their children’s lives.  At that point we see that, clearly, spirituality isn’t the proper resource to turn to for physical healing.  We have medicine for that.

But what about the lesser things?  The personal ways we lean on spirituality when we shouldn’t?  Like when we use spirituality to explain away things for which we ought to take the blame?

Let’s Get Together

I think an oft-ignored aspect of our spiritual lives is how our beliefs shape our choices, especially when it comes to careers or important hobbies.  And it’s not just that our beliefs preclude or encourage certain activities, though that is usually a factor.  It’s also a matter of groups of people with similar convictions spending time together and aligning themselves.  The more time you spend with a group of people, the more likely you are to begin doing and believing similar things.

I actually think that, for me, that pattern has occurred in reverse (which is also probably fairly common).  As someone with a decidedly solitary spiritual practice, it is my social circle which has helped expose me to spiritual ideas and, therefore, influenced the direction my path has taken.

Interestingly enough, I think this has occurred more since I stopped participating in organized religion than it ever did before.  Perhaps it’s an indicator of how deeply your spiritual life has become part of your existence, how deeply those beliefs resonate with you at a soul level.

Or maybe it’s just because we have a need for community, for connection.  If our practice is solitary, perhaps we are more likely to seek like-minded companionship in other areas of our lives.  In other words, maybe the extent to which we find ourselves gravitating to activities and pastimes shared by others with similar beliefs is a matter of needing that community support but not wanting the interference of others in our spirituality.

 

Choosing Your Own Spiritual Adventure

As far as I’m concerned, there are very few things in life which must be done one particular way.  A “right” way rather than a “wrong” way.  There are “effective” ways and “efficient” ways and “preferred” ways, but there is very seldom one single objectively “right” way.

Interestingly enough, there are usually a lot more “wrong” ways than “right” ones.  If a methodology is ineffective, it’s wrong.  But just because a methodology is effective, that doesn’t mean it’s the one, singular “right” way.  In other words, there are more things which disqualify a manner of approaching a project than there are things which define a way as “right” or “best”.

This is especially true in spiritual terms.

Establishing a spiritual tradition for oneself is not an endeavor which lends itself to “best practices” necessarily.  What works very well for one person may not work at all for another.  Certainly there are many things we should absolutely all avoid: blind devotion to a spiritual leader, for instance.  And while I think we can often glean wisdom and guidance from those who have similar beliefs and goals and outlooks, there are probably as many good ways to build a spiritual practice as there are people looking for meaning in the world.

So on the “wrong way” list, perhaps we should add “letting someone else tell you the best way to find your spiritual path”.

When Ritual is Monotony

For whatever reason, I want to be a creature of habit.  I’ve always seemed to aspire to that ideal, trying to work some kind of task into my daily routine as a spiritual quest, or working out specific systems or routines for doing certain activities.  Perhaps it’s a psychological leftover from my childhood, from a family which seemed to glorify the steady march of regular routine.  Maybe it’s a cultural thing, as we seem to hold a great reverence for people who manage to succeed at such endeavors.  Daily meditation, regular workouts, never missing certain gatherings, a strict and unvaried diet…  There’s something appealing about these things.  Something many of us see as virtuous.

But in my own spiritual life, I often get into such systems and then find myself frustrated at my inability to execute without failure.  And eventually, much of the time, I find myself asking, “what the hell is the purpose of this, anyway?”

I find that my level of satisfaction with my life, especially in spiritual pursuits, is inversely proportional to the amount of effort I’m putting into being strictly disciplined.  As much as my subconscious thinks I would benefit from regular patterns, structured routines, checklists of purposeful actions executed with precision, it has never worked out that way.  Because to be successful at those things, I would have to be one hundred percent committed to declining opportunities which get in the way.  To be successful, you have to commit so much to that routine, that activity, that goal, that nothing else matters quite as much.

But those things I seek to ritualize are not the vital core of my spiritual practice.

I know people so devoted to a fitness goal or lifestyle that daily workouts easily routine.  The goal is so important to them that it’s easy to put the gym as their highest priority.  And we all have read of holy men and holy women who have given their lives to daily prayer or meditation or acts of consecration so demanding we can’t imagine it.  But their spiritual practice is the core and singular main focus of their lives, and as such it’s easier to place a great deal of importance on those acts of spiritual faith.

It’s not that my spiritual practice is not important to me or an important part of my life, but nothing about my spiritual practice requires such ritualized action.  Ritual for the sake of ritual is not, for me, particularly rewarding.

That’s something it’s taken me a long time to realize.

My natural state of being is not one of routine and ritual and repetition.  If I have to work so hard to inject those things in my life, it means I’m doing so because something outside myself has told me I should.

My spiritual practice is much more rewarding for me when I allow it flexibility.  When I allow questions and inspirations to lead me in different directions as they arise, and I don’t feel guilt over breaking some imposed ritual to make time for something new.  It’s when I can chase ideas and try new things that I feel most satisfied.

Brothers and Sisters

For many people, spirituality is a way to become part of a community.  You find acceptance and validation with people who believe what you believe.  Sharing a path with someone can be the foundation for a very deep bond.

There are a great many people who walk their spiritual path alone by choice.  I’ve largely been such a person for most of my life.  Even when I was part of larger, mainstream religions I chose not to participate in a lot of unnecessary gatherings or activities.  I needed personally relevant experiences, and for me those tend not to happen in groups.

Certainly now I can’t say that I know anyone whose beliefs mirror my own very closely.

Still, as I’ve contemplated the question of who out there believes what I believe, I’ve realized something possibly profound.  My spiritual beliefs, as I’ve talked about some on this blog, link strongly to my social activism.  And so, if I look at it from that perspective, I know many, many people who believe what I believe.  I stand at protests with them and organize with them.  Though our beliefs about the existence of a deity or what it means to be spiritual may differ, our beliefs about the value of humanity are the same.  And though I may elect to search alone for answers about what lies beyond and beneath our mundane existence, the type of personally relevant and transformative experiences I have in gatherings with this larger community are equally important to my spiritual self.

Perhaps we all do ourselves a disservice by seeking spiritual community only in spiritual settings.  Perhaps the communities we will benefit from the most are found when we put our spiritual beliefs into practice for a greater good.