What is the point of spirituality?
It’s never what we think!
This is an article about the preliminary steps of a spiritual journey. We may wish to skip the basics, but if we are serious about self-inquiry we should proceed carefully, considering deeply (and skeptically) what a “spiritual” endeavor is really all about. Patience and forgiveness are crucial, both with ourselves (as we need to follow our hearts) and with others who have gone before us (who we need as guides).
Our own journey will be unique — no two people are the same — but, ultimately, we may find that the path is not about “us” at all; it is about learning to touch the incomprehensible flow of life itself, from which we are never separate. But, I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s start by simply asking the question: what is spirituality all about?
Spirituality is the process of rediscovering an inner creativity which transcends our power-obsessed, narrow-minded, and ego-driven tendencies. It is an identity shift from isolation and autonomy into (messy) wholeness and continuity.
We start out our spiritual journey with the vague but insistent assumption of an unproven and unlimited depth of personal control; we think that it is up to us to shape the world into a place which reflects our desires and needs. This orientation to the world binds us to a cycle of lonely pride in our temporary successes and bitter shame for our inevitable failures. We cannot really grow within this fantasy land.
But with the gifts of courage, patience, and honesty, we may learn that life is more complex and less predictable than we thought (or than we’d like), and that it includes real perspectives besides our own. Surprisingly, this heartfelt admission of confusion does not diminish us; rather, we become more flexible, less brittle, more open-minded, willing to face the world’s mysteries through our own shifting limitations, even through our fears and doubts. The subtle discovery of spirituality is about the forgiveness of the present moment: it is not us against the world, but rather the world encompassing and accommodating that which we do not yet understand.
This sounds like a passive process of lazily letting go, but we must try to resist such assumptions. The spiritual identity shift is not passive but rather teaches us a new way of living through “action with no attempt at control” (from Rowan Williams’ Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel).
When we no longer see ourselves as a distinct and isolated authoring force (when we no longer usurp the role of existential creator), we are pulled into action by our environment, instead of the other way around. Freed from the self-conscious cloud of guilt and shame, our sensitivity to life is reborn through change and uncertainty.
The role of tradition
As we test their methods and languages, religious traditions can point us persuasively to this subtle idea that you are part of the creative, inexhaustible stream of the present moment. But we must proceed carefully: there is nowhere new we need to go to become a spiritual person, nor some distant revelation for which we must prepare. Rather, our direction of inquiry must turn toward ourselves: who are we, right now? We must look for a connection to the ineffable, source-less, and ever-present arising — the origin of control that cannot be controlled. This re-orientation may lead us down new pathways of behavior and dedication, or to adopt new limitations for the sake of understanding.
Life becomes an ever-opening question as we seek greater challenges to those concepts in us which remain inflexible. Solutions we once clung to are discarded for their lack of consistency; even if we adopt behaviors that appear rigid to our peers, we do so not to impose clarity (a dubious form of wish fulfillment), but rather for the sake of mystery, following our rebellious intuition into the welcoming unknown.
The “God” of this spiritual journey is not a person, thing in the sky, or force among forces that can be manipulated or appeased. Existence itself is not something which we can get on our side (because we are not separate from it). The stream of life, when we see it, is inexplicable. In the words of Wittgenstein: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is” (from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). Though easy to miss, it is closer to us than we are to ourselves (from St. Augustine’s Confessions).
Before our journey begins, we are like actors convinced we can win the play. Gradually we awake to see ourselves fulfilling a brilliant vision beyond our own petty designs. This may sound defeatist, but in experience it feels like liberation (with a dose of fear). Like it or not, we have an indispensable role in the drama — we just don’t know exactly what it is. Our responsibility is to make room for the story as it unfolds through ourselves and others, relinquishing control in compassion and trust.
We become even more open to ourselves, freed from the compulsion to deny inconsistencies and errors. Our past is set in stone, painful though it may be, and we cannot run from it. But we no longer need to. Openness can help us see our past more clearly, absorbing and reacting to the debts we all have to each other. Spirituality is not a cure for the problem of being human, but rather for the hidden assumption that being human is a problem in the first place. We bloom into acceptance of life as it is — not past, not future, but the gratuitous present in its unspeakably strange, ever-changing simplicity.