I Don’t Understand Spirit

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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.

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The Peace That Broken People Know

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Your wound is like the purposeful flaw in Native American pottery – it’s there to let spirit in. We all need to heal through life. It’s in the healing we connect with spirit. Spirit reaches us through the wound.

I used to believe that addiction was a form of wounding, that we hurt ourselves and others through addiction. That’s true. But it’s also true that the wound was there before the addiction. The addiction was our way of trying to cope with our wounds. At first, it works. Then of course it doesn’t. Things get worse and soon we’re struggling with greater wounds. When we get sober, we find we still need to heal the original wound.

What is that original wound? Does it come simply from being alive on Earth? We don’t know. Over time, we come to be aware that something within us is broken. The cure is our connection with spirit. Many of us discover this simple truth after trying everything else to ease the pain.

Many of us come to feel gratitude for the discomfort that so vividly prompted our attention to healing. This is good. Our spiritual journey begins as we try to heal the wound.

The Wisdom Within

Reading books and blogs on spirituality, listening to talks, watching YouTube videos, all of it brings calm and reminds me to pay attention to the soft hum in my chest and arms.

It doesn’t bring wisdom.

Stepping into spiritual writing and discussion draws me closer to a place within and gives me ways to express what’s inside.

If I’m not careful, I can go years without any awareness of the language within.

Some time ago, I attended a spiritual talk with a friend. Afterwards I asked what she had learned. “I didn’t learn anything,” she replied. “I didn’t expect to.”

“Then why did you go?”

“I need to be reminded.”

I need to be reminded as well. When I put myself into the stream of spiritual language, I am reminded of the presence and I awake yet again to the guidance inside.

For me, access to the wisdom within requires continual reminders, and I am grateful for each one.

From the Gutter, the Stars Shine Brilliant

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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.

Watch The World Come Home

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When we get these feelings of spiritual connectedness, when it seems we are one with all that’s around us, even at one with our own lives, maybe we’re seeing a crack into the next world. Or the in-between world where spirit breathes for a moment before we enter a new earth with new skin.

Or maybe the world is spiritual in its essence and the connectedness is a brief view of what is actually true.

We wake up with needs, we wake up with pain, we wake up and choose to see the connectedness behind the pain and need. We wake up and see the need and pain of others and our own troubles subside. We attend to the needs and pain of others and the connectedness seeps in and the needs and pain drift away.

And what world is here before us?

Trees and houses and moons and clouds and dogs and wind and water. Is our pain among these?

Is our connectedness elsewhere or is it mixed into the world before us? Is our connectedness taste and skin and smells and the weight of air? Is our connectedness relief from this world, a reminder that our mammal life is just a moment along a curve of outrageous beauty?

For now, I am here among so many people, alive in the exquisite presence of love that doesn’t even know it’s love.

Healing Through Forgiveness

Forgiveness is an easy virtue to praise. Forgiveness is psychologically healing. Many believe it is absolutely necessary for spiritual growth. That’s all great. But when you are struggling with some very real wrongs that have been perpetrated against you or those you love, forgiveness can seem nearly impossible.

How can you forgive without actually accepting – nearly condoning – the offense or crime? Some say, we should forgive the sinner but not the sin. That thought is nearly worthless in the face of brutality or deep betrayal. Some offenses are so hurtful, so permanently damaging, that forgiveness seems a trite and wholly inappropriate response.

I was in a group recently where forgiveness was discussed. Out of 30 people, about a third insisted there are some wrongs that just can’t be forgiven. Those who rejected forgiveness were emphatic, deeply offended by the thought of forgiving grievous wrongs.

Yet not forgiving means you have to hold bitterness, resentment, and even hate. When you hold these dark emotions, the perpetrator in effect hurts you over and over and over. There’s one simple fact that argues for forgiveness, that makes forgiveness an imperative: forgiveness heals the forgiver.

Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Mandela couldn’t get his 27 years back – the best years, the most fruitful years of a life. Yet if he kept his bitterness and hatred, he would be useless as a man and worthless as a leader

Some say forgive, but don’t forget. That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness must be unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all.

Forgiveness is a psychologically healthy act. In an article in Unity Magazine, Carla McClellan, quotes psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky saying that forgiveness “is a shift in thinking toward someone who has harmed you. It has nothing to do with reconciliation, forgetting, excusing, or justice. When you are ready, forgiveness is a powerful choice you can make that can lead to greater well-being and relationships. This choice carries with it an intention to heal yourself.”

Even more than a psychologically healthy act, forgiveness is spiritual cleansing. In his book, “Radical Forgiveness, Making Room for the Miracle,” Colin Tipping explains that ordinary forgiveness is letting bygones be bygones – letting go of the past while still holding onto the idea that something wrong or bad happened. He believes that’s a difficult task and that it usually takes a very long time before we begin to feel the forgiveness.

Instead, he suggests trying “radical forgiveness,” which he describes as a deep commitment to releasing the past. The release is more total since it involves a shift in perception that allows us to see that what happened was actually perfect from a spiritual point of view. It is experienced as a profound insight and can occur in an instant.

Tipping says that radical forgiveness enables us to see the spiritual meaning in any situation. We are able to recognize that life is divinely guided and unfolding for each of us exactly how it needs to unfold for our highest good. We are able to surrender to the flow of life and to learn that, ultimately, there is nothing to forgive.

When we receive this insight, we can let go of being a victim and find peace, even in the most unpleasant memories of what happened. Our hearts open and we are able to experience spiritual oneness with the world.

Forgiveness is necessary to relieve ourselves of the dark and damaging emotions of bitterness, resentment and hate. Those emotions will eat us like cancer. We can – and must – purge these destructive forces with true forgiveness. We can forgive and be healed. When we allow forgiveness, the world changes. The veil of darkness is lifted and we can see we are surrounded by light.

Find the Bad, Honor the Bad . . . Then Let It Go

Only when we are spiritually awake, can we really help others. And only by helping others can we stay spiritually awake. But to help others and stay in the light, we must be willing to confront our own darkness.

A true spiritual awakening is more than just positive feelings about God or a higher power. In order to live in sustained spiritual light, we have to process our darkness and turn even that into spiritual wellness. We have to dive into the darkness of our inner self and come out into the brilliant light on the other side. The other side of darkness is always light.

To keep our spiritual life whole, we have to see and acknowledge who we really are, all of it, every little piece of our torn and suffering self. We have to uncover our trapped grief, our hurt child, and release it before we can heal ourselves and be of any real use to others.

In the 1960s folk song, “Pack up Your Sorrows,” Richard Farina sang, “If somehow you could pack up your sorrows and give them all to me, you would lose them, and I know how to use them. Give them all to me.”

The idea that you can use your difficulties or sorrows and focus them into purpose is not unique. Farina is also the author of the novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which further celebrates authenticity gained through the rough side of life.

Unless we accept ourselves, even the parts we instinctively hide, we cannot be happy, we cannot be whole. That means accepting even the bad, and that involves digging deep inside ourselves to uncover the hidden darkness.

There’s a passage in All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, where the narrator is talking with his friend who is also the governor of Louisiana, Willie Stark. The narrator says, “You did some good things, building bridges, building schools and hospitals, but there was always corruption as part of it. Why did you have to bring in the bad?”

And Willie replies that he didn’t bring in the bad. He insists that the bad was always there, that he used the bad to create the good. “You have to make the good out of the bad because that is all you have to make it out of.”

In another part of the book, the narrator says, “We students of history always learn that human beings are very complicated contraptions and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil takes the hindmost.”

Carl Jung noted that “if a doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is.” In order to do so, Jung insists that the doctor must accept himself. But in order to accept himself, the doctor must confront the most despicable aspect of himself, the darkest recess, and then forgive it.

There is no virtue in seeing just the good and accepting just the good. Praising just the positive and denying the negative is a form of willing blindness. And the truest place to face darkness is within ourselves. That’s where the real work of growth begins. Jung said. “I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

Our unexamined attitudes, our uncovered darkness, our unhealed grief, all bind into a wall that holds us back from our most authentic self and keeps us small. To awaken, to really grow, we must drag our darkness out into the light where it can dissolve, where it can shrink to a manageable size and haunt us no longer.