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STUMBLING INTO LIFE'S LESSONSREFLECTIONS ON THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
By Louis F. Kavar
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Louis F. Kavar
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhere Do I Begin?
Spirituality is a subject discussed by many people today. That definitely wasn't the case fifteen or twenty years ago. Because there is so much interest in spirituality from so many different perspectives, I am not surprised when people attempting to understand spirituality ask me where they should begin on their own spiritual path.
I suspect most people haven't spent much time reading or thinking about spirituality. Some people go to church because they've always gone to church or because they like something about the church they attend. Others don't find that church, discussion groups, or other things usually associated with spirituality are important to them. How does a person who's never considered him or herself as "spiritual" or has never had much interest in anything "spiritual" or "religious" begin to explore the spiritual dimension of life?
I generally suggest that people begin by making an assumption. Even if you think that there is no such thing as spirituality or don't believe you've ever had any kind of spiritual experience, for the sake of argument try to suspend these judgments. Consider, at least for a little while, that there really is something called "spirituality" or a "spiritual dimension" to life. If you're not open to the possibility of spirituality, you'll probably not find it. The first place to begin is to be open to the possibility of something new.
Second, take some time to look back over your life and consider times when you had a sense of well-being. A "sense of well-being" can mean many different things. It may have been a time you felt good about your life or a time when you felt in touch with something that was larger than just you. Perhaps it was standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and feeling in awe of what was before you. Or maybe it's the experience of calm you feel when you run or jog. It may have even been the experience of being loved by someone. What was that experience?
Third, once you've remembered and thought about a few different experiences where you felt a sense of well-being, ask yourself what you can learn from them. What about those things gave you a sense of meaning, purpose, or value?
When we begin to understand what in our lives provides a sense of meaning, purpose, and value, then we are able to take steps toward understanding how our lives really do have meaning, purpose, and value. We come to understand the larger meaning and purpose of our lives by first finding meaning and purpose in ordinary, day-to-day activities. This is the heart of spirituality.
Spirituality is not the same as "spiritualism." Spiritualism is a belief in a dimension of life with spirits and forces and otherworldly beings. A person's spirituality may include spiritualism. But a person's spirituality is primarily about life in the here and now. Spirituality is that dimension in life where we grapple with issues of meaning and purpose. Spirituality provides us with a sense of value to our life.
Where do you begin to figure out what spirituality means in your life? Begin with your life, how you live it, and how you find a sense of wholeness and well-being. That's where the spiritual path begins.
Chapter TwoWhat Difference Does Spiritual Growth Make?
Walking down Fourth Avenue in Tucson, a street lined with café's and specialty shops, looking at fliers posted on walls and signboards, I'm often struck by the myriad advertisements for things "spiritual." When I read the notices offering peace, healing, and inner light, I often have a sinking feeling in my gut. I get the same feeling when paging through some publications dedicated to inner awareness.
In our consumer-driven culture, spirituality is marketed and sold in much the same way as cologne: as something that will enhance one's life. While that isn't exactly false advertising, it's also not completely true. The pitch seems to be that spirituality magically makes you always feel wonderful. That's just not reality.
By following spiritual practices, over time one will grow to a deeper sense of inner peace and wholeness. But the process is not one of love, joy, peace, and goose bumps. One doesn't move from one otherworldly high to the next. Authentic spiritual growth is a much more complex and-dare I say-human experience.
In the past, I've compared spiritual development to working out in a gym. When a person begins a training program, it often feels exciting. That lasts until muscles become sore. In a few weeks, the boredom of routine sinks in. That's a good time to work out with a partner or trainer. After time, at least a few months, real changes in one's body are noticeable. If you want to be more than toned and aim to build bulk, then diet becomes crucial. A diet for building bulk can be a strict regimen, balancing protein and carbohydrate intake. The training process requires discipline. Anyone serious about weight training accepts that fact.
The same is true for spiritual growth. It requires time and discipline. Engaging in spiritual practices over time isn't easy. The discomfort isn't just a matter of rearranging our lives to be serious about the practice. The most difficult part is dealing with what's inside us: the things we discover on the spiritual journey.
As we learn to really quiet ourselves in meditation, for example, it is not long before the inner shadows make themselves known. These shadows are often the remnants of hurts and pains from throughout our life, hurts and pains that haven't been healed. Encountering them is not pleasant. But working through them is what brings healing.
After more time, people break through to a deeper level of quiet. But with that also comes dealing with the illusions we all have of ourselves. This is much like being in a twelve-step program and taking an inventory of our defects of character. We may face in ourselves pride, selfishness, anger, arrogance, and many other qualities we'd really rather not see. When ancient spiritual writers talked about "demons" inside of us, this is what they meant. Spiritual disciplines require us to be reconciled with those parts of ourselves. The darker parts of ourselves may always be with us. We may always struggle with them. The challenge is to learn to bridle them so that they don't control us.
The bridling of these demons is what leads to authentic compassion. It is through growth in compassion that we learn that the pain of others is really our own pain. We recognize that the dark urges, desires, or ambitions that others have are really the same urges, desires, and ambitions we have in ourselves. We learn that while the context of our lives may be different from the context of other people's lives, ultimately all people struggle with very similar temptations, insecurities, and doubts. We all share this darker side of humanity, which limits our ability to live to our potential and also limits the ability of those closest to us to live fully.
As difficult as these things may sound to someone beginning the spiritual journey, the truth is that they enable us to enlarge our hearts and be open, truly open, to life as it is. A spiritual journey will bring us to the point of understanding that the changes needed in life are not changes others need to make but changes we need to make in our own lives. This, I believe, is the real gift of spiritual growth. We no longer have a need to change the world and make it over in our image. Instead, we can accept and be comfortable and in tune with others and with rhythms of life as they are. That's a very radical level of openness that can be very enriching. However, such openness doesn't always feel good. This openness enables us to experience both joy and pain in greater depths. The openness draws us back to who we are most deeply.
As I said, the spiritual life is not about love, joy, peace, and goose bumps. Instead, living a spiritual life enables us to live in a way that is open to all of life's complexities-both the good and the bad-and remain grounded in the depth of the truth that is within us.
Chapter ThreeSpirituality: The Way We Live
I recently attended a gathering of people for what was called an interfaith service. I looked forward to this meeting because I hoped to have the opportunity to share my own spiritual tradition with those solidly grounded in other traditions. While I consider myself Christian, I am enriched and nourished by the traditions of others. However, my experience of interfaith gatherings is that they are mostly designed to not offend anyone. In the end, they usually reflect no spiritual tradition and mostly feel awkward to the participants.
This gathering was different from the usual. The group was small, but clearly most participants had been raised within the Christian tradition. The service included readings from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Native American sources. There was lots of time for quiet reflection as well as an opportunity for personal sharing. The gathering provided those present with an opportunity to consider how a variety of spiritual traditions understood a common theme. To that extent, it was a positive experience. But my participation in the event caused me to consider again what a spiritual tradition is really about.
Many people in our culture were raised in Christian churches or Jewish synagogues that maintained the essential form of religion but did not teach or impart the dynamic depth of the spirituality from which these religions grew. The result is that people today search for that spiritual depth. Some come to understand a human connection with all created things from Native American teachings. Others learn from Hinduism the many ways (yoga) the Divine Presence is manifested. The rigor of Islam and the wonder of Sufi mysticism impart to some the need for spiritual discipline. Many people learn from a Buddhist path to be mindful in the present moment and not be attached to passing things. Yet, as interesting as the variety of spiritual paths may be, many people simply learn some of the unique practices of a spiritual tradition and pick out a few things that seem comfortable to them. All the while, their day-to-day lives are pretty much the same as they were before.
A good friend of mine is fond of saying that spirituality is the way you live. How right she is! Spirituality is the lens through which we see ourselves and the world around us. It includes our worldview, values, and sense of the big picture of life. To paraphrase Christian scripture, spirituality is the way we live, move, and have our being (see Acts 17:20).
What is most challenging for us is the integration of every aspect of our lives with our spiritual belief systems. While we may have great insights and learn many things from books, teachers, or spiritual experiences, most people's lives remain unchanged by their spiritual pursuits. They may believe in a Sacred Presence in all of life, yet find it easy to treat others badly or take advantage of those unsuspecting of their motives. They may believe that all life is connected, but have no difficulty consuming as many natural resources as possible. They may value the idea of living at peace with all, yet find reasons to be difficult with everyone they encounter.
Spirituality simply is the way we live. That's the true heart of the matter. Take a moment and think about your real day-to-day life: the way you work, drive your car, and relate to those closest to you. Based on your actions, what do you really believe about life? When we pay attention, I suspect many of us are surprised at the great gap that lies between the way we live and what we say we believe about life.
Chapter FourWhere Can I Find Something More?
Does my life have a purpose? Is there some plan for me? Do I have a particular call or mission?
At different times in life, many people ask these kinds of questions. The field of developmental psychology maintains that there are times in a person's life when these questions are a natural part of the life cycle, particularly when moving from adolescence to young adulthood and again during midlife transition. These are times of major life transitions when we take stock of our life direction and make decisions about what we are doing and who we are as individuals. During the early adult and midlife transitions, people often make decisions about work, career, and relationships. The decisions made at these times give shape to how one lives during the years between the transitions.
There are other times when some of us experience a sense of searching for something more than what is already in our lives. We work, go to school, and have relationships of various kinds. We're mostly satisfied about what we are doing with our lives and aren't really looking to make major changes. Yet we want something more than what is there. We want our lives to mean something, to have a sense of purpose. We want to belong to or be a part of something that's bigger than just ourselves. This "more than" dimension of life is the transcendent aspiration that is often called spirituality.
At times when we are looking for ways to respond to the desire to fulfill the transcendent, "more than" dimension of life, we may find that we begin to struggle more and more frantically for answers. We read books, attend classes, and try to find answers that are right for us. Sometimes, people who call themselves "spiritual teachers" of one sort or another are more than willing to provide an answer as long as we do it their way. Yet, in the end, the resolutions of our transcendent aspirations are deeply personal and unique. No other person can provide us with answers. Those who provide authentic assistance help us find our own way.
At times when I've wondered about my life and what I am doing, I've learned that the last thing to do is to become frantic and be stressed about it. Instead, it is important to stop and take time in quiet solitude and listen to what's really going on inside. Taking time to be quiet and listen to what our hearts are telling us is very difficult because our lives are fast-paced and filled with lots of noise. Yet we learn more about ourselves in silence than by talking, reading, or doing things.
Making the time and finding a place to be quiet on a regular basis helps us understand what's happening inside of us. But just spending time alone and silent in itself doesn't provide the answers to our questions. Instead, once we've become comfortable in the silence, it's valuable for us to reflect on our past. We need to remember those times in our lives when we felt a sense of being "spiritually connected." Often we describe such experiences differently. Perhaps we've had a sense of being whole in ourselves, at one with the universe, or in the presence of God. Remember those times and think about what was happening. It's often helpful to write down all that we can remember about those moments in our life in a notebook and then read through them at a later time to understand if there is a pattern to them.
The foundation of our sense of meaning and purpose in life is already within us. Most of us have had experiences of it in the past. When we take time to listen to our hearts in silence and then reflect on the spiritual moments from our past, we arrive at a much better place to understand the way we need to journey into our future. Understanding life's meaning is often a matter of paying close attention to our past before heading into our future.
Chapter FiveBeing Spiritual ... Not Doing Spiritual Things
Introductions in a group are usually pretty routine things. Everyone takes their turn, says their name and something about themselves. Most of the time, what people say about themselves is easy to forget. It's only after further discussion in a group that most of us get to know the others.
At a particular seminar I facilitated, the introduction of one of the participants caught me off guard. She was an older woman, perhaps in her seventies. She had come to the workshop as a companion to a younger friend. Each of us introduced ourselves and said what kind of work we did. When it was her turn, she spoke in a quiet but strong voice: "My name is Mary. My work is done now. The only thing worth my attention is being something beautiful for God." Not surprisingly, there was a prolonged pause before the next person spoke.
The people gathered for the workshop were individuals who worked in the area of spiritual development. Mary's comments weren't totally out of context given the nature of the group. Yet even those of us who are comfortable talking about spirituality were caught off guard.
Most of us are focused on what we do. We introduce ourselves in relationship to our professions. We are administrators, customer service representatives, students, systems analysts, and so forth. Our identities are deeply tied to our work.
Excerpted from STUMBLING INTO LIFE'S LESSONS by Louis F. Kavar Copyright © 2010 by Louis F. Kavar. Excerpted by permission.
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