There is a psychological experience known as “obviousness in retrospect” that I probably experience every other day. Particularly in matters related to my white privilege and social justice issues, I feel like I’m waking up from a long nap. Many of my clients experience this as they go deeper into their exploration of the spiritual dimension of their life.
How did I not recognize this before? How come nobody told me? How did I miss that connection? Why couldn’t I see this until now?
I believe one of the casualties of living in a hyper-individualistic secular society is the loss of spiritual literacy. When I sit with my Stoicism teacher and he lays it out for me, I feel both relieved and stupid. It feels as though there is a formula for this and everyone knows but me.
Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but it’s often how I feel. I feel as though vital information is being withheld from me. Information that would help me become more human. That would enrich my journey. Might even speed it up. That might help me better understand how I can fully mature into the kind of human I want to be or am meant to become.
So here’s some obvious information that may not have been simply laid out for you yet.
You need four things in place to develop a rich spiritual life:
Joseph Campbell once said, when asked about his personal spiritual practice, “I underline books.”
Not much more needs to be said about this, but I want to validate you if you’re a voracious reader: a rich spiritual life requires a tremendous amount of research.
One of the reasons we undertake spiritual development is to help us metamorphose from a nascent to more mature way of being. In other words, for transformation. And if it’s going to be transformative, it’s going to be dangerous. Seems like a good idea to be well prepared then, right?
Naturally, our thoughts and philosophy will evolve over time. When I was a teenager, I devoured the works of Joseph Campbell and I searched for answers of a philosophical kind in the novels of authors like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Maya Angelou. In my twenties, I watched videos and went to conferences all about Abraham-Hicks, Caroline Myss, Oprah and Deepak Chopra. In my early thirties, I focused on “big picture” concerns like conscious business, environmental activism, neuroscience, transpersonal psychology and the works of Jungian authors.
Now in my forties, I find a lot of what I used to love is highly problematic when viewed through a new lens; now that I’m more aware of privilege and oppression, white supremacy and misogyny, I really can’t stomach much of what I was told.
And frankly, I’ve given enough of my time listening to defensive white men who can’t seem to handle questions like, “Where are the women in your stories?”, “Who are you speaking for exactly?”, “Why do you hold so tightly to your narrative of inevitable redemption?”
And so the study never ends because there are always new perspectives to consider.
I used to meditate every day as a way to maintain my connection to spirit. I used to work with tarot and oracle cards frequently. I used to consult my pendulum regularly for business and timing decisions, pricing and general universal feedback. Nowadays, I don’t have to reach for connection so much and the answers come easily.
These days, my practice is nature.
Sometimes, only ocean can relate to the depth of my grief. Only forest or fire can process my rage. Only mountain can hold the immensity of my despair. Only our rabbits and our dog can return me to the core of peace and love. Only my cut flower garden can inspire my hope. Only the rushing of the creek can reveal the vision of my future. Only owl can remind me how to see in the dark. Only the silence of the wild can tell me where I belong.
In other words, your practice can be whatever you crave.
3) A guide.
My greatest leaps forward on my spiritual path have come after great conversations with people farther along the path than I am, who really see me and get me. Sometimes we’ve been in their office talking. Sometimes it’s been under the stars around a campfire in a wilderness retreat setting. Sometimes it’s been in a mystical place with drums and the rain pounding and a scene unfolding in my mind’s eye as the shaman guided me to the underworld.
Your guide is the one that you consult during times of growth, impasse and crisis, and return to periodically over time for the long view. Inevitably (or hopefully), you’ll outgrow your teacher. You may diverge philosophically or simply lose resonance.
Then it’s time for a new teacher, one who knows the way of the new path you’re on.
This one has been really tricky for me and the element where I’m least comfortable. But I can’t deny that the ceremonies and rites of passage in my life that have been witnessed have been the most potent.
I also can’t deny that the cosmos seems to be made up of components that depend on each other, that the universe is relational, and that being incarnate seems to have a lot to do with learning how to be part of a collective while retaining my uniqueness, power and agency. (That last one really seems like a biggie.)
I’ve managed my resistance to community by drawing on the resources I gained from the other three pillars I’ve listed. I studied the Quakers for a long time before I joined them. (I basically stalked them for a decade). For a while I worked with my teachers around abandonment, attachment and trust issues. I mentored under them and through both training and practice, I learned ways of understanding and working with group dynamics.
Eventually, I began to convene gatherings and create the community I craved. The people who attend my gatherings often find a spiritual companion, (what in Gaelic the Celtic peoples would call “anam cara”, or “friend of my soul”), because if they’re attracted to me and my style, chances are pretty good they’ll jive with other folks who like my style, too.
And I believe another reason we’re drawn to a spiritual path is that each of us carries an existential kind of loneliness that yearns to feel a sense of belonging. Sometimes even a short-lived experience of community can provide relief. I’m often surprise how long-lasting the effects are for me.
Over time I’ve learned that I need something like that – a retreat, a quest, a ceremonial gathering, the form doesn’t matter so much so long as the content includes deep, incisive exploration of the nature of spirit with one or two people I know and a few people I’ve never met – at least once a year.
The few people I’ve never met are key to the whole experience of community for me. They’re the ones who provide the new perspectives. They’re the ones who can see me with fresh eyes. They accept me however I show up. They reflect back to me how I’m showing up. And because they witnessed it with their own eyes and ears and hearts, they carry my story of transformation back with them into the wider world. They carry that vision for me when I forget or can’t carry it for myself. They provide a kind of spiritual service that my close friends and loved ones simply can’t.
It’s interesting to me that when I try to make friends starting from a superficial place like shared hobbies, I can’t seem to find good connection. But when I start from a more intense place, a place of real depth and complexity, I find the immediacy and relief of shared humanity.
That’s how I learned to trust in community: start where it’s risky.
And there you have it, folks. Just four things. So now when you look at your spiritual life, how’s it looking? Anything missing?
Registration for The Numinous School is open until June 15.
It is structured to provide study, practice, guidance and community: the foundations of a rich and full spiritual life.