Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spiritual Wincing

I pay attention to what makes me wince- words in my head or those that are spoken that make my toes curl a little and my shoulders head for my ears in a defensive posture.

I’ve figured out that in matters of spirituality there are two things that my radar regularly picks up and shies away from: spiritual cheerleading and harsh admonishments disguised as spiritual truths. Of course these are both easier to spot when they come from another, but I’m not immune from using either on myself. Depending on the day, either one can make me want to hide out.

The cheerleading of spiritual ambition is in the slogans that focus on what You Can Achieve Now! In writing they're usually like that- short phrases with lots of capitalized words most often punctuated with multiple exclamation marks. Even on the page they generally make me feel like someone is shouting at me. Things like: Live Your Ultimate (or Most Authentic or Biggest or Greatest or Grandest or Wildest. . . . ) Life!!

It’s not that I don’t want to live authentically. It’s just that I don’t find general slogans helpful for navigating the challenges of the human heart and daily life. More importantly they seem to exacerbate a push that is all too prevalent in the rest of the culture, urging us to try harder, do more, run faster, work longer, climb higher, get more. . . . when maybe- from a spiritual perspective- what we need to do (at least some of the time) is slow down, sit down or drop down more deeply into our experience of just this moment. These kinds of slogans feel all too in-tune with an economic system built on convincing people to buy what they don’t need and can’t afford to maintain a way of life that is basically unsustainable for us and the rest of the planet. They make me weary.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for supporting each other's dreams and celebrating each other’s successes- although I am more likely to define success in terms that include things like not internally or externally growling at the driver who cut me off in traffic, or opening my heart to a person or myself when one of us is behaving badly because, in a moment of pure grace, I'm able to perceive the fear or pain behind less-than-stellar behaviour.

I’d like my spirituality to have a little less cheer-leading and a little more cherishing of the moment- whether or not it is an extroverted moment of sharing or an introverted moment of solitude. When Jungian analyst, James Hollis, was in Toronto he mentioned that the Jungian Association was lobbying against a move to include "introversion" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Really! Now the DSM has always been a reflection of the culture (at one time homosexuality was listed as a mental illness) and certainly the culture in North America over-values extroversion. And maybe that’s why so many of these slogans feel like cheerleading to me- because they feel focused on outward achievement even as they claim to be about an inner journey.

Closely tied to notions of spiritual achievement is the intolerance for the pacing of slower aspects of the self. I’ve come to recognize it in the hard edge buried beneath the seemingly benign advice to “accept and move on;” (reflecting a fear that without prodding one might not move on according to some ideal and speedy timetable) “forgive and let go;” (which similarly, as one FB comment pointed out, can be a way of saying- we’ve had enough of hearing about your pain/grief) and the judgement laden language of-“let’s not have a pity party,” “I don’t like to wallow,” and “you’re only a victim if you choose to be”- all of which point toward an underlying harshness toward our sorrows and losses.

Rereading Stephen Levin’s book Unattended Sorrows, I’m reminded of the real long-term cost to our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health when we do not give ourselves permission to tend our sorrows and grieve our losses. Stephen chronicles how these unattended sorrows are held in the body and heart and are sometimes triggered by small daily losses, leaving us bewildered when we unravel in the face of a missed deadline or a failed recipe.

The thing is, the overwhelming majority of us we will move on, forgive, let go, move out of self-pity and recover our sense of agency in the world, if we allow ourselves to heal from the inside out. And that takes whatever time it takes. Most of us are already dancing as fast as we can. Urging more speed will not help.

It occurs to me that the both the achievement-oriented cheerleading and the admonishments to pick up the pace of healing are about the same thing: a lack of faith in how we are made.

I have faith that we are made for life- for healing, for continuing and deepening and expanding our capacity to live from compassion and kindness, and for the co-creativity that will find new ways of sustainable living. I know we get stuck sometimes but if, in our fear of getting stuck, we keep pushing and pulling ourselves and each other it becomes difficult if not impossible for us to slow down and hear the life that is calling to us.

I have faith that our essential nature is capable of holding it all: the joy and the sorrow; the births and the deaths. So, maybe a quiet “nicely done,” or “I love your ability to be with him/her/yourself,” or just a silent companioning of each other is all that is needed.

As I write this I have an image and a body sense of us all taking one long full breath together and allowing our shoulders to just drop a little as the breath leaves our bodies.

Ready? Inhale. . . .exhale. . . . Ahhhhh. . . .


  1. I love the bit about introversion being reconsidered in the context of mental illness. Some time ago, a friend of mine told me that during one of my peaceful periods of solitude and introversion he had 'said some bad things' about me. In other words he had judged that my quietness and choosing not to be sociable on a daily basis was an indication that there must be something wrong with me. We live in a hurried and frantic world where reflection is too often considered an unhealthy waste of time. Thanks for helping me think positively regarding my current snail pace, Oriah. :)

  2. Was language originally a form of creation? A deep 'namaste' to nature, things, and people in our lives? Now word usage often feels like advertisement. I'm fine, good, well.... when inwardly I am also sad, harried, worried, cheerful, confused and so on - but I know others do not necessarily want to hear my complexity. Perhaps it isnt the words per se- rather how our consumer society shallowly uses them. If I am not doing, will I still 'be?' Hamlet asked a deep question! Your writing offers heart nourishment to me. You speak from a commitment to connection. Connection to our human be-ing, to the earth as living being, to spirit - however that manifests in each person. Thank you.

  3. Thank you Oriah.
    your heart is not mushy and your strength is not rigid. I hear the voice in this as assertive and clear. Thank you for showing me what strength is.

  4. I do lack faith in the way we are made. Not because I want to. But because in the midst of the ange,pain, fear and sorrow, I wonder if such depths can truly be survived without drastically altering the course of my life; whether the moments of joy, or even just free flow are enough compensate the discomfort and pain and whether there really is any meaning in this earthly existence. Once I step out of the romance of life, death or celebration I observe a planet as it revolves around the sun, full of organisms striving to survive. Here today, gone tomorrow. I guess life is about suffering. Suffering as we are driven forward by the basest of instincts, to survive and procreate and ensure the continuation of the species. There is comfort in the reality that soon enough, I too will pass back to the earth that formed me. Blessings.

  5. Mureed, I hear you despair- and there are certainly times when I share this feeling of bewilderment (what does it all mean? does it mean anything?!) and discouragement. You write: "I wonder if such depths can truly be survived without drastically altering the course of my life." No, I don't think we can be with the depths life brings without having our lives changed- and change can be painful and difficult and. . . it can lead to a life where we discover and live more of who we are at the deepest level. Life involves suffering- but for humans (who have been "made" to have the capacity for insight and learning) I think it is about what we do with that suffering- what meaning we make of it for our own lives. Not easy, but I think we are made to do more than survive, to find again and again what it means for us, individually to thrive.

  6. Thank you Oriah. Today in meditation I connected with a place within myself that was much more than myself. It enabled me to see how as I allow this "spirit" to flow through me, there can be relief and healing. I think I sense the potential to heal and to thrive. Thank you for being so down to earth in your journey, it helps me become more grounded in mine.