There is a whole life happening within us that we don’t often see – spirit moving through our lives. We cannot control it and we rarely get glimpses into its long intention. Yet it carries more influence on our lives than anything we believe is happening before us.
We can experience life as difficult, thwarting us turn by turn. This is disturbing, since we believe we’re entitled to a pleasing life. We become frustrated and disappointed when life doesn’t cooperate.
If we could get a glimpse within and see that our painful experiences sometimes bring great good, we would be able to accept the pain. If we could see that some of our pleasurable activities cause harm, we would cease that behavior. Instead, we fight the pain and seek pleasure.
Painful activities are not intrinsically good. Nor are pleasurable experiences necessarily bad. It’s just that judging the value of our experience by whether it brings pain or pleasure is a faulty metric.
Spirit moves through us, even when we cannot decipher its intent.
We have the choice to surrender and move in unison with the spirit within. Understanding the nature of spirit is not necessary, but willingness is. We can reach guidance through prayer and meditation, followed by listening to the call to active service.
As we learn this, we are guided by peace, a peace that is neither pleasure nor pain. With practice, we can learn to rely on the guidance, even while that which guides us remains a mystery.
I heard a great line: “I understand God about as much as my dog understands my credit card.”
That’s right. Yet it doesn’t matter how well we understand God or spirit or the presence within. Understanding is not possible. It’s also not necessary.
What matters is how we experience the presence of spirit – whatever spirit is. That experience is real and it can have an astonishing impact on our lives.
How we experience spirit is individual. It’s like learning your body. You step here, but not there. You lift here, and you release there. You lean toward this, and you lean away from that.
Some spiritual practices nourish. Some leave you hungrier still. And it changes over time.
Some spiritual practices always help, year in and year out. In this effort, we are not really learning anything about spirit. We’re learning about ourselves and how we connect to spirit.
That’s all that matters. In time, we become more efficient in the process. We learn how to drop a fruitless effort quickly. We learn how to recognize what works. We gain a taste for what effectively brings us to awareness.
After walking in the desert endlessly, we come to streams and forests and gentle pastures. The effort teaches us an understanding of how we connect. With practice, it comes easily. At first, however, that notion seems ludicrous.
I used to want peace. Now I’m not sure what peace is.
The absence of stress? Taking away stress doesn’t necessarily leave us with peace.
So I’ll take quiet as the metric.
The absence of noise in my head doesn’t result in complete silence, but I don’t need complete silence to be quiet.
Birds, the breeze through the bushes, far-off horn honking, the tapping of a woodpecker a few trees away – that’s quiet enough.
Not fretting over the past, not uneasy about the future – just quiet.
My muscles relax and yet I’m not sleepy.
There are worse ways to live.
There are worse ways I’ve lived.
It’s not a long journey to be quiet. It’s right here, and I don’t worry whether it’s peace, whether I’m in the now, or whether I’m all right. It’s just quiet.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
While literary critics have pondered the meaning of that provocative line, anyone pursuing spirituality in recovery knows immediately – and with great personal empathy – exactly what Wilde was saying: Even in the roughest storm of life, we can see the startling beauty of the heavens.
Despite his considerable literary talent, Wilde died an impoverished alcoholic at 46, in exile from England and mostly estranged from his family. He was imprisoned for two years for homosexuality, and for the rest of his life he was barred from seeing his two children from an earlier marriage.
In the darkness of the gutter, the stars can shine incredibly bright.
In a recent song by the metal band, Disturbed, they say, “Sometimes darkness can show you the light.”
The contrast between the dank despair of human decent and the eye-burning shine of spiritual revelation is shocking – sometimes it’s shock enough to lift us up to the world of the living. Other times, it’s merely the faint call of a promising world on the other side of death.
The light-filled world of connection and hope is a blink away. It’s right here in your breath. The path to this warm earthly home is visible through the stars that we see from the gutter. Even in the sour sink of fear, we are always strong enough to climb through. Yet many will die tonight for the lack of seeing that path. Their time will come again and again even so.
How much changes everything? Your thoughts belong to you no longer. They drift into the streets and over the houses. They enter the struggle and spill out onto the lawns with answers that float and bloat. You watch the green that shoots through the leaves and becomes life.
The change is not just you. You’ve known it all along. The world you woke to has become intimate. Moons hide where resentments used to collect. Your resentments, like your thoughts, are not personal. They become human and leave their families, seeking brethren.
You can smell the fresh rain at dawn and feel the trees stretching skyward. How do you live now that the next world is seeping through your skin, making you young again? The whispers in the air are spelling out relief – you were alive all along.
You once stood in these streets, crushed by alienation. Now you return to the very spot and you can’t believe the beauty in the air. Was this spirit always here? Did it always move so easily through your cells? Did these voices always know your name?
The same world that had nothing to do with you has now memorized your dreams. They spill out on these once-bitter streets in hope and kindness. In the end you were right. Some distant spirit backed your losses, every fiber of pain drawn taut in blood.
It’s all a window now that looks out onto the dead as they pick themselves up and walk into their glory.
The awakening is a wave traveling miles of ocean to reach your shore. It was born to greet you, long on the days of near despair. It comes to remind you that life is inexhaustible. A deep sigh that empties your lungs.
This is the beach where children collect sea glass and soft driftwood that toss in the sand and foam. This is your life now, surprised by how much is left. You thought the sand was running out, but it was brimming with colors that had not yet announced themselves.
This new land has turned its love to you. These are not the skies of your youth, with their bland promise and abrupt discouragement. These are not the streets that seemed to reject you in their very essence. You never thought your skin could be accepted by the world, so you hid your skin away.
Can this possibly be that same world? You see that it is now made of new substance, warm to the touch. You can taste it from a distance; you can taste it on your lips. It sings a sustained nourishment.
The awakening wave has moved back out to sea, but you have been touched by a love and cannot turn dark. Darkness has lost its grip and dissipated. Light now the fabric of your being.
When night comes, the sky goes purple and the woods come to life. You are welcome here finally, right in the middle of your life. Even your bones feel the deep hum. Stand tall into this new air. You are everything the world has hoped.
I watched a panel discussion on YouTube with Eckhart Tolle and Ram Das that was recorded in October 2011 on Maui. The discussion by was great, but a funny thing happened at the beginning – the first question posed to these NOW gurus was about love.
The response was awkward. You can’t answer a question about love until you define the term, and that’s not easy. Tolle and Ram Das managed to get through the question, but it was not an easy navigation.
Love is such a troublesome word in spirituality – it comes with so much baggage. The notion, “all you need is love,” is fraught with misunderstandings about what love actually is.
So many times I’ve heard this statement by spiritual teachers: “When you strip away everything and get to the core of our true being, what you have is love.” What the heck does that mean?
Spirituality discussions work best with words like acceptance, presence, peace, well-being, or contentment. We have a general notion of what these words mean. Not so with “love.” Part of the problem is that love is commonly used as an action, such as “I love you” or “I feel loved.” Probably the closest synonym for love in spirituality is acceptance.
When you experience oneness, it is often described a feeling of acceptance. There are aspects of “love” that include acceptance, but a mother’s love or a father’s love is not necessarily acceptance. Romantic love with all its varieties, its passion, its insecurities, is rarely experienced as unconditional acceptance. Romantic love nearly always comes with a list of conditions.
When spiritual teachers use the word, love, they usually mean acceptance, for acceptance is a large part of our experience of the presence within.
The world can seem inhospitable, or the world can seem a beautiful place that is getting more beautiful yet. The difference, of course, is perception.
In his song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Bob Dylan sings:
Now the rainman gave me two cures,
Then he said, ‘Jump right in.’
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin.
And like a fool I mixed them,
And it strangled up my mind.
And now people just get uglier
And I have no sense of time.
For many years, I could relate perfectly to Dylan’s words. My mind was quite strangled up, and indeed, I had no sense of time. In that negative view, I thought I had a clear understanding of the world. I thought life was “nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbs described it in 1651. I also believed spirituality was an intellectual fantasy. And I was drinking quite a lot.
Much has changed in my life since then. I’ve come to believe the world is charged with spirituality. I now believe the very molecules of reality are spiritual. This change didn’t happen because I was influenced by a book or by a teacher, but simply because I started to see that it was true. It became self-evident, just as waking from a dream makes the events of the dream intrinsically unreal.
Books and teachers have since supported what I see, and they offer ways to articulate what came to me through a crisis. I suppose my new view could also be seen like an intellectual fantasy. And I do expect I will wake up from this round of consciousness as well.
In the meantime, people just get prettier and everything seems so well timed.
When we have a spiritual awakening, it’s natural to ask the question: How do I live now? How does this change my life? Does the internal breakthrough come with external responsibilities?
The simple answer is no, nothing has changed.
The more complicated answer is yes, everything has changed.
The title of this blog comes from William Butler Yeats. In his own spiritual development, it became clear to him that great dreams come with responsibilities. Your response to the world will change as your view of the world evolves. This works both ways. Slip into a dark place, and you will see an unforgiving world that is hurtful. Your actions will follow: hurt people hurt people.
But when your spiritual life expands, you see more and you will begin to understand you are part of everything and everything is part of you. As the small and ever-pressuring self begins to break apart, you will see that your presence itself begins to have a healing effect on those around you.
Dark, constricted vision produces after itself. Light likewise, produces light. As you develop spiritually, you will automatically pull away from hurtful behavior as from a hot fire. You will gravitate toward healing behavior because it is nourishing and feels right.
Detachment from worldly pressures does not mean separation from others. Quite the opposite. It means freedom to do what is lovingly needed. In the dream of a greater, more spiritual existence, you will see where you can be helpful, and it will be your pleasure to serve.
You will see the thorn in the other’s palm, and you will remove it – not because you have new strength to take up this weighty task, but because you will see that it is so easy to do.
You’ve been through some changes. Something has happened in your life – either gradually or abruptly – and now everything is different. You can see, hear, feel, and touch a new world, right here where you’ve always been. The very molecules of your body and everything around you seem charged, bright and alive.
You see your life that came before as dreamlike. You’re seeing the world as if for the first time, and it’s infinitely larger. You can taste eternity in this new air.
So now what?
Do you still have to vacuum and take out the trash now that you see your old life seems just an illusion? Do you still have to do your taxes? With fresh joy in each breath, do you still have to do what your stupid boss says?
There is a Zen saying: “Before enlightenment you must chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, you must chop wood and carry water.” But our world is a bit more complicated than wood and water. What if the wood and water involves humiliation? Can you be enlightened while working the takeout window at Panda Express?
Of course you can. You cannot be humiliated any longer. Gradually – perhaps suddenly – the takeout window becomes an opportunity to serve and meet each new beautiful face that drives up.
I had a friend who was a Unity minister. Before becoming a minister, he did door-to-door sales. At first it was soul-killing work. With all his heart, he wanted to be a metaphysical minister. As he grew in understanding, he came to realize all his comings and goings in the world were charged with spirit. His attitude about his job changed. As he went up the walk to each new door, he sincerely asked himself, “What will the face of God look like this time?”
Needless to say, soon enough he was a Unity minister.