I don’t believe in a spiritual path any more than in a bird or a fish who maps out all of its wanderings in advance. I also don’t believe in the unassailability of spirituality any more than the pretension of a pedophile priest. Just by saying “spiritual” in some context, one can allege to be immune to criticism and reproach. It’s the hope of light without shadow. It’s all sky without the gravity of the deep dark earth forever shifting beneath our feet.
Annie Dillard wrote in For The Time Being, “ ‘Spiritual Path’ is the hilarious popular term for those night-blind mesas and flayed hills in which people grope, for decades on end, with the goal of knowing the absolute.” The problem is that a path implies a linear progression from the depths upward rather than simply being curious. Supporting this is the idea that a person can pay the fees or be educated into spirituality; through workshops, retreats, a meditation practice, religion, whatever. As a result, a whole industry has been created with the same underlying belief as everyday advertising—that none of us will ever be good enough without some sort of help or by consuming more things and experiences. The self-help world is on the same trajectory with perfection as the goal rather than discovering or “knowing the absolute.” Do I really have to be perfect to have a feeling towards the Divine?
“Meister Eckhart radically revises the whole notion of spiritual programs. He says that there is no such thing as a spiritual journey. If a little shocking, this is refreshing. If there were a spiritual journey, it would be only a quarter inch long, though many miles deep.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara.) It’s like sensing into a dream upon waking, by diving into the waters in the hope of coming up with a pearl. Is that pearl an indication of forward motion, a seductive detour, or a reminder about my own wisdom? To what extent are any of us willing to delve into our depths at any particular moment? Is it in the silence of those depths where we can find the sacred?
In this sense, a spiritual path implies that our identities and egos can be brought forward with enough guidance. Like most self-help, there is no acknowledgment for the existence of the unconscious or the soul. Once you add the element of the unknown, the path vanishes. It is easy looking back on my life to notice a passage through the turmoil of my father’s rigidity, sibling competition, escape to college, codependence, becoming a parent myself, creating a business and hitting the wall when it all crumbled. I was just doing what I thought was expected of me. Or was my soul orchestrating these random experiences so that I could finally come home to the holiness of myself?
Around the age of seven, my son used to say, “That’s how you don’t do it.” Pure wisdom. Of course, he was talking about something functional but there is a defining quality about a path which belies the difficulty and subtlety of coming to terms with our anger and grief as well as expressing our compassion and forgiveness, for instance. I’m still working with, not on, these places inside of me for no particular goal outside of not liking the feeling of being stuck. And I know that whatever I don’t resolve inside will show up as an external situation in my day to day life or as body symptom later on. Either way, I have to do the work.
Is there a progression towards understanding and having a relationship with God? I don’t know. I used to believe, like many, that if I prayed enough and tried to be a good person, my prayers might get answered. That ultimately felt like a Puritanical God. Then I started to find glimpses of another approach in the poetry of Hafiz and especially Rilke. His poem, “Give Me Your Hand” was one of the most reassuring. Here’s my translation.
God speaks to each one of us as we’re created
then goes in silence with us from the night.
As if through a cloud, these are the words we faintly hear.
“Sent out by your senses,
go to your longing’s edge,
give me clothes.
Burn like fire bringing shadows
that cover me completely.
Let it all happen to you: beauty and terror.
You must go on. No feeling is too far.
Do not separate yourself from me.
Close to here is the country called Life.
You will know you have entered
by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.”
Even with the presence of my parents, my siblings, my teachers, my friends, and my lovers, there can be a loneliness, on one hand, or a solitude that arises. The solitude is a refuge. My loneliness is a feeling of being stranded far from the world. Crowds can be the most difficult with so many people and so little connection. “You must go on.” When I let the loneliness exhaust itself, a calm arises. That calm is a deep knowing that I am not completely alone because there is always the endless sky, earth to hold my feet, the water of my blood and my temporal breath.
For me, it’s about being alive to the fullest extent possible. Give me the blues so I can learn compassion. Give me some music so I can dance. Give me some windows into what my deepest self wants and I’ll oblige. What I’ve discovered is this—that growing into a soul by directing my loving towards the challenging trials of living is the most difficult and glorious work of all.