One of the great ironies, which is quickly metastasizing into a tragedy of catastrophic dimensions these days, is in our certainty that taking control and pinning things down will solve the major problems that beset us. By major problems I don’t only have in mind the national and global challenges of poverty, racism, and the cascading collapse of Earth’s biosphere. Also included are the psychosomatic distress and interpersonal conflicts that undermine our day-to-day quality of life.
Since it sure feels like things are out of control, it’s easy to believe that taking control is the answer.
So maybe it will come as a surprise to learn that taking control is what’s generating many of our problems to begin with. It’s not just that our efforts are failing to address and resolve them, but that many of our problems – and probably most of our suffering – are actually the result of our dogged determination to get things under control.
In Beyond Happiness I referred to my years in pastoral ministry, during which time I would frequently witness – and find myself occasionally tangled up in – very uncharacteristic behavior of church members. Relational strife, stress related illnesses, erratic outbursts, aggressive resistance to change, even to relatively minor things like interior decorations and perfunctory routines, seemed to come out of nowhere.
These are the sorts of things that drive many pastors to leave ministry – and I did eventually leave, but for a different reason.
What I came to realize was that something deeper was going on, a kind of vertical dynamic where all these disturbances could be understood as surface symptoms of an underlying spiritual crisis. The human spirit is what in us is constantly seeking to emerge, to grow and expand, to express and fulfill (or actualize) our essential nature as human beings.
Just as the essential nature of an apple tree expresses itself in the production of apples – or as Alan Watts would often say, just as an apple tree “apples” – so the evolutionary purpose of a human being (and of the universe insofar as we are its latter-day manifestations) is to become fully human.
If we imagine the human spirit as an energy-flow from deep within us, becoming embodied as us, and moving through us to others and the world around us, then the unimpeded process of this spiritual current finds its fulfillment in the human being who is firmly grounded, fully awake, and fearlessly free.
Over the years since leaving pastoral ministry, I have continued in my contemplative study of our spiritual fulfillment as humans, and of the various ways its upward/outward flow gets blocked and diverted. It has indeed become something of an obsession in this blog of mine.
Religion happens to be a moralistic and ideological system that inevitably, it would seem, impedes, and can even extinguish, our spiritual life. Ironically, something that developed for the purpose of supporting, shaping, facilitating, and inspiring our journey to the liberated life, too frequently becomes (in the words of Jesus) a “whitewashed sepulcher” where the human spirit is held hostage. When that happens, the resulting spiritual frustration can break the surface in irrational, desperate, damaging, and destructive behavior.
Spiritually awakened religious leaders can be encouraged in knowing that, as long as such symptoms are evident, there is still some life underneath.
I’m not suggesting that a formal (i.e., name brand) religion is the best and only facilitator of our spiritual growth and fulfillment. It is my contention, nonetheless, that whatever system of beliefs, values, practices, and commitments serves to facilitate our personal construction of meaning and clarifies our purpose in life is, de facto, our religion, according to the etymology of “religare” as tying back and linking together a coherent and meaningful worldview.
The very design intention of religion is to provide a scaffolding of symbols, stories, and a guiding vision for a world developmentally suited to our spiritual progress.
My best representation of the channel of spiritual flow identifies five natural gifts that need to be nurtured and developed throughout our life – especially during the vulnerable period of early childhood when we are dependent on the “religion” of our taller powers, who are its functional (or dysfunctional) deities.
These five gifts are: (1) faith, or the release of existential trust in reality; (2) spontaneity, or a full engagement with life in each moment; (3) imagination, or the creative construction of meaning; (4) curiosity, or the searching interest to explore, discover, and learn; and (5) wonder, or radical amazement before the mystery and grandeur of being.
Obviously, a healthy and relevant religion will need to evolve and transform along with our growing spiritual capacity. When it doesn’t (and won’t), it becomes a blocking obstacle to our freedom and fulfillment.* In my experience, the one telltale sign and chief obstacle to spiritual growth is conviction, by which I mean a belief so certain, so closed and inflexible, that it effectively kills spiritual desire, creativity, and joy.
Instead of supporting us in the cultivation of faith, bad religion plants “seeds of anxiety” in the ground of consciousness, which compels our retreat from present reality, uproots our creative imagination, enervates curiosity, and arouses fear instead of wonder in the face of mystery.
If you feel that my definition of conviction doesn’t give it a fair shake, I invite you to look closer at its deeper etymology, of being “overcome and held captive” (like a convict in prison) – exactly what happens to all those natural gifts when anxiety caps off the flow of spiritual life instead of opening us inwardly, in faith, to its creative uprising.
I have acquired what could be called a “responsible vigilance” around individuals who identify themselves as persons of conviction, having learned too many times already just how truly dangerous such persons can be.
Along with that responsible vigilance, another sensitivity has evolved in me over the years as well, albeit more slowly: an almost clairvoyant ability to feel the anxiety, hostility, depression, and despair that lurk and languish beneath another’s (as well as my own) dogmatic convictions. I’m sure there must be some kind of compensatory principle in play, where the squeezing resolute certainty of our conviction is proportional to an eroding doubt and insecurity we feel deep down within ourselves.
If there is hope that these “whitewashed sepulchers” can open to release the creative energy and joy of the human spirit – in what is likely the psychospiritual origin of the Christian symbol of Easter – it won’t come by way of holding fast to what we believe and convincing others of our “truth,” but rather by altogether dropping our judgments, learning to be present, and living faithfully in the flow of life.
* For a meditation on the relationship between our repressed natural gifts and “the shadow” in our personality see Taking Back Our Light.