Staying true to a message of living meaningfully by bringing together the creative, spiritual and communal selves can be a challenge. The word “spiritual” works like a spell, casting assumptions and questions over people. People often assume when I say “spiritual” I mean religious. I do not. There are times I want to forfeit the word “spiritual” and exchange it for something more universally user-friendly. Then, any other mystical word invites similar responses. Transcendental? Divine? Metaphysical? Sacred? Should I go more secular in my efforts to express my enthusiasm in living a creatively meaningful life? — Secular humanist perhaps? How about philosophical?
Yet, there is something so rich, so invitational when exploring our spiritual natures, especially how they are intertwined with our creative and communal lives.
Personal Awakening There is a noticeable increase in people writing “spiritual memoirs,” to the point where publishers and agents are closed to such queries. I get at least one query a month myself wanting help on writing a book about one’s personal spiritual journey. I believe this is happening because more people are awakening to their spiritual life. (Eckhart Tolle refers to this as “the flowering” and believes such flowering is on the rise). More people are finding happiness in ways that are provocative and meaningful to them. This is wonderful! However, there is a danger to these personal awakenings when ego gets caught up in its spin on our experience.
Evidence points to how we want to come to understand our spiritual experiences and in our search for its meaning we involve others. Much like when someone experiences a miraculous healing. They want to understand how this happened and recruit others help in discovering this “truth” and then share in this found truth with even more people. This then results in some kind of religion or formulaic healing program.
The greatest miracle would be to allow for these personal spiritual and healing experiences to exist without searching for its meaning; then once a meaning or method is “discovered through experience” not forcing these revelations on others. Instead we could make our own meaning from our personal experiences and share these through story, art, song, poetry or other forms of respectful sharing (even spiritual memoirs). This could include some spiritual or healing process as long as the offerings are fluid and flexible and allow for a diversity of experiences.
The One and the Not One The shadow side of personal spiritual experiences is that we come to believe others should have a similar (and familiar) experience. Look into the history of religion and you will find individuals having a meaningful spiritual experience, perhaps transforming the very fiber of their life, only to set out on creating a formula (religion) for others to follow. Now, with the Internet there is too much competition (and diversity)—too many having revelations and spiritual and healing experiences to claim convincingly “this one is the one.”
Each spiritual experience is “the one and, not the one.”
There is nothing inherently wrong when someone wants to share a powerful spiritual experience with others. It is when they become insistent that “their way is the way.” This will never, ever be. There will never be one way for all. This will never be because the diversity that exists in our internal and external landscapes cannot be perfectly repeated. This is true with any successful and powerful personal experience – there will always be something unique about the conditions and causes of such an event. I see this in the writer’s life too – so many books and instructions on how to write the best-seller! (Or even on how to finish the damn thing!) Yes we should freely borrow from those before us but it will always come down to some personal and unique process that gets us to enlightenment or to the completion of a beautifully crafted book.
One size never fit all. Never will.
The Uncommon Conversation If, instead, we could come to respect our own experiences and that of others, the world would be a much saner, safer and beautiful place. This would actually make room for more spiritual and creative fulfillment both individually and collectively. We would be giving permission to a variety and diversity of spiritual experiences.
In a recent teaching given to the public by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he spoke on how we must “respect each other’s traditions.” This respect for other traditions is a way that we in turn respect our own tradition. He spoke briefly on the importance of action over prayer – that a spiritual practice that does not hold in its core a way to benefit others is shallow. He spoke of finding the “common conversation” between and within traditions.
In the end, it is the ego (the devil on your right shoulder, the self-centeredness) that insists others “see the light” in the same way you did, or agree with your understanding of what Jesus did. It is the ego that insists that only certain people are ready to sit under the Bodhi Tree and become awakened to their true nature.
Giving up the Spiritual Quest As Joseph Campbell and Black Elk reminded us – life is the meaning we bring to it. We must give up our search for meaning to experience the meaning of our life. Too many people hold themselves and their lives ransom by “searching for” happiness, purpose and meaning. Or tragically, plugging themselves into some “formula for happiness.” My work is about being meaning makers (a term borrowed from Black Elk) – living life fully from our side, from within, and within the circumstances we find ourselves. Again, the old myth of traveling away from home and family in some spiritual quest is outdated and results in additional suffering. More on this is in my next book, The Zero Point Agreement: How to Be Who You Already Are. This book helps you give up the outward search for meaning and instead create meaning from within. (I promise, no formulas; just pointers.)
We do this “questing” in many ways beyond the traditional one of “leaving home.” People quest outside themselves at new age shops for that special item, or they go to church while leaving the love and forgiveness in the pews; people attend empowerments by Tibetan masters but know little of training the mind towards awareness and compassion; while others believe they have to get certified or get that Ph. D. before living their life to its fullest. All these are wonderful avenues of exploration but when mistaken as the path to happiness and fulfillment a person continues to be in “search of,” rather than make meaning within their life circumstances.
In my practices as a meaning maker, I recommend for creative, spiritual, and communal integrity through diversity. Even at the risk of being misunderstood I will continue to invite us to explore how we can make meaning within our creative and spiritual lives, both personally and in community as a way of respecting our differences.
“Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit—such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony—which brings happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected to religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a highest degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.” –The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium
The official site of His Holiness the Dalai Lama: https://www.dalailama.com
More Resources I recommend any works of Parker J. Palmer — author of A Hidden Wholeness and Healing the Heart of Democracy. He’s been writing on creativity, living the active and purposeful life for decades. Click on his name to go to the Center for Courage & Renewal.
Huffington Post is a great on-line resource: http://www.huffingtonpost.com. From one of their articles on Pope Frances: “Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point,” the pope said in a hypothetical conversation in which someone told a priest: “But I don’t believe. I’m an atheist.”
For a wonderful study of the development of conceptions of spirituality in the United States, see Leigh Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (HarperOne, 2006).
To preorder The Zero Point Agreement: How to Be Who You Already Are, click on title.
“The question we need to tackle is this: How does one get from mystic experience to an established religion? My one-word answer is: inevitably. What makes the process inevitable is what we do with our mystical experience is what we do with every experience, that is, we try to understand it; we opt for or against it; we express our feelings with regard to it. Do this with your mystical experience and you have all the makings of a religion.” David Steindl-Rast, ReVision, 1989