Sacred Spiritual Growth

Decay and Rot: The Spiritual Life Cycle

“…Dreaming is nature naturing through us. Just as a tree bears fruit or a plant expresses itself in flowers, dreams are fruiting from us.” Toko-Pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, pg. 18

I’ve dipped my toes into paying more attention to my dreams and trying to understand what they represent for me. Buildings in the form of large complexes, giant Victorian houses, and opulent developments have pervaded my dreams for years. Most of them, though, are not in pristine condition. Instead, the walls are peeling, the roof is cracked open and the moldy floor creaks loudly. The destructive force is nearly always time and water; the structures have sat abandoned and flooded.

After dealing with actual water intrusion years ago, I took the dreams to be a near-flashback of those events. However, the persistence of the theme has caused me to take a deeper look at it. My therapist shared with me that water represents emotions. I’ve read elsewhere that buildings can represent the body or one’s inner life. It may be representative of my fear that my feelings roil me inwardly and threaten to bring things crashing down.

Rather than fixating on a conceptualization of my dream as symbolic of inner demons or self-neglect of my corporal state, I find myself opening instead to a desire to accept the decrepit state of the houses of my mind as a potentially necessary, vital aspect of life on a physical, emotional and spiritual plane. My early fundamentalist training would have rebelled at any mention that something which was not pure, clean and sturdy could be good, so that makes the examination more desirable to me as an act of defiance.

In current American society, we wield destruction as a battle axe. Want to construct a new building? Tear up the earth, hammer in dead trees, slap on some plastic and you’re done. There is little room for decay in this model as there is a pervasive focus on the new, best, fastest and strongest as the goal. My introduction to permaculture has lent me another model of planning, one which has at least elements of the slow and gentle.

These threads of dream and design have woven themselves together in my mind to create a tapestry of a spiritual life cycle. It holds a focus on ecology in that it allows for dissolution—things falling apart and losing integrity—as a key component. Our current cultural life cycle diagram is simply an arrow pointing straight up; we are pressed with the need to maintain the vigor, looks and future-promise mindedness of youth for our entire lives. We can always try harder. We can always look better. Things will always improve; negativity has no place in a mature spiritual life. These statements are false. One of the greatest takeaways I had from Toko-pa’s book is that I finally understand “feminine energy;” the perspective she offered is reconfiguring everything I thought would save me. Instead of striving, there are times where we can open. Instead of force, there are times where we can yield. Instead of progress, perhaps there is room for degeneration as a path to renewal.

The frayed, soiled and ripped edge of the spiritual life cycle fabric my Inner Being’s woven, when closely examined, appears as follows:

  • Sometimes it is okay to cease effort and to instead receive, open and listen for Source. We can rest, physically, emotionally and spiritually, without any expectation of the next step or where we are headed, in the bosom of Goddess.
  • There are times when things are going to completely fall apart. When resting isn’t enough because the water we drink springs right back out of us. Grief is a well into which we pour and from which we long to escape. If we instead allow ourselves to be there, and to be witnessed there, what initially rises to us tinged in sulfurous odors from which we recoil may eventually become a healing aroma.
  • Nature takes back what is Her’s through rot, mold and the curling of green after fall’s last warmth. She takes back to renew and reuse. We can become so concerned with maintaining our façade in clean lines and polished surfaces, refusing to acknowledge that something stinks in us. If we finally notice it, we snap into action and desire to cut it out at its root. The tree, though, when it sustains a wound, does not immediately start carving itself apart. Instead, it calluses off the infection, leaving the bugs and the water and the sun to soften and loosen the contagion from its core. What if we took the same approach to our “sins” by acting in acceptance of our humanity, our flaws, and our eventual collapse as a being? Perhaps we could respond by tenderly acknowledging where we lack, compassionately setting inner boundaries and then waiting in expectation for the ways in which life is going slowly tear from us whatever nails we think necessary to hold together the covering of our innermost needs in order to enlighten and fade the shadows we know we have.
  • We die. I came across a book titled “How Not to Die” and contemplated purchasing it until I realized the basic premise was flawed. We meet our end, at least physically. All our effort and determination to prevent it from happening are useless. I so deeply and desperately want, when that moment arrives, to say “welcome.” Because what else is there to say? If all the energy we’ve put into perfecting ourselves culminates in us ending, why not conserve some of it for facing the task of aging and diminishing? If we live a full life, we almost always stand to lose our independence, our vocation, possibly our wits and must grapple with the recognition of the unfairness of life. Some trees land as seeds in the sun near a river; they want for nothing. Others fall in the shade or dry spots and half-starve their whole lives. Even if our early life is filled with resources, eventually we decay and then we die. What a challenge to our bravery, to stop resisting what will be or is being taken from us with the passage of time, to stop viewing it as a theft or an obstacle we can overcome with bargaining and to instead hold open the door for it, noticing perhaps that the pallor of its shadow leaves us wiser and bolder.
  • What is spiritual decline and death? I assume we must face it, probably multiple times our lives. How can we allow for Goddess/Deity to work it out in us without striving for order before its time? I suspect that often, by the moment we notice what is happening, the roots of it are already interwoven through everything we hold onto and hold up as “the best way;” we set ourselves up for a painful displacement when we believe our current identities are perennial.
  • Spiritual decline can be gradual or fast, partial or total but is always a movement towards disorder and entropy. What once seemed righted and straight is now sloping and cracked. The luster has worn off; our practices show signs of use. We are no longer comforted by the beliefs and rituals that were once soothing. I’ve experienced this at least once on a significant level in my life when I abdicated my previous religion. What I’ve concluded is that my prior devotion was real and deep and that the unmaking of it was a necessity. We needn’t reinvent ourselves at a whim; life will let us know when it is time to shuffle the deck. Courage to me is the willingness to accept that we can outgrow the paradigm under which we’ve ordered ourselves and the tenacity to then step out into the unknown, untethered and uncertain as to which way is up.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve seen that the majority of the images I use are nature photographs I’ve taken. The long winter has been a struggle for me as I found myself judging possible photos as “ugly” because they were pictures of dead or dying vegetation. I believe that these plants are unattractive to us, and, in contrast, that full blooms of flowers can lead us to weep because of the evolutionary importance of living floras to sustain us. After contemplating the nature of the low point on the spiritual life cycle, I want to advance beyond this biological bias to hone in on at least a type of loveliness in bent, brown stalks. From where else does new life arise but from the crumble of the formerly green?

Returning to my dreams, I am also struck by the fact that the buildings I create are being retaken not by inert and inorganic machinations but through a destruction spread by natural forces. The edifices of my life that I’ve so extravagantly decorated, are, despite their complexity, vulnerable. But what seeks to invade them is not a conquering force, instead, it comes for its own. We are natural beings and, to me, Nature is a spiritual entity. The tar, plastic and webbing of “information” we’ve constructed, as well as the facades of our bodies and spirits in perpetual youth that we’ve designed, form the infection. We can either allow Her to decay us as we need to be decayed, or we can continue to build what we see as impenetrable barricades—how not to die—all the while dying and dying again to future growth.

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