Sacred Spiritual Growth

Mistaking the Familiar for the Safe: On Whose Path are You?

There was a major snow storm in my area this winter. My Yorkie, despite his diminutive size, typically vies for the lead with me when we go for a walk, ambling wherever his little heart desires. After the snow, however, we ended up with snow drifts three or more feet deep after shoveling the driveway and walkways. As I walked him, I became nearly claustrophobic as I sensed how much his world had temporarily shrunken. He could only go where I had cut a path for him. As I observed his behavior, I wondered about the extent to which each of us might engage in similar behavior in terms of our life choices. For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring the implications of making decisions based on what we’ve known, rather than in relation to what is possible.

In another post I have coming out soon, I wrote something to the effect of “mistaking the familiar for the safe.” This line brought chills to me as it hit at the core of much of my existence. How often do I make decisions that are comfortable because they line up with previous choices I’ve made, only to later realize that I was unnecessarily limiting myself? Or, alternatively, when might I try the opposite of a frequent course of action, not because I really buy into it, but because it allows me to rebel against my own norms?

Psychological theories of social learning and conditioning provide ample explanation as to why we might act in ways that curtail or cut off the truly revolutionary choices and actions in our lives. We can easily become habituated to a particular series of events, ones that to an outsider would appear frightening or “crazy.” This is of particular concern for childhood abuse survivors, who may allow individuals into their lives who act harshly or in a demeaning manner, simply because that is what they have come to expect from people. In addition, the rewards offered by individuals who are abusive in the form of “sincere” apologies, contrition, promises to do better and literal gifts are often sufficient to entice survivors to believe that this time will be different or to question even their own perception of the abusive incident that now seems dulled under so much “love” and hope.

How do we go about making decision and interpreting events in ways that expand our horizons rather than contract them? A concept on which I’ve been mulling for some time now is that of an “Inner Goddess.” This is one of many ways of stating that I believe there is a wisdom in the universe into which we can tap that is greater than the sum of the parts of ourselves. Something about perceiving it as housed inside me reduces my fear of it, although thealogically I see Source/Self/God(ess) as both within each of us and intertwining through every piece of existence, permeating space-time without the normal adherence to the laws of classical physics. The nature of this energy can be endlessly debated; my interest instead is with the practical lived experience of centering myself in Her and instantaneously being granted a clear-sighted vision of my life that I know at my core shreds my normal limitations of habit and conditioning. My main obstacle is that I return repeatedly to living without accessing this higher consciousness. I follow the path that either my own fear and anger or another person has decided to carve for me, tracing and retracing the same worn footfalls. My earnest hope is that I can now root myself in Being that is somehow the trajectory of path itself, the sum of everywhere I’ve already wandered, the birds-eye view of the pattern my wanderings have and will whittle out, and the ground on which I walk.

Where has your path in life led you to mistake the familiar for the safe? Do you have a sense of an energy that transcends your own learning history? If so, what has been transformed in your life as a result of the guidance that this energy has provided to you?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Resourcing Our Spiritual Needs: Interconnectedness

For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, we’ll be exploring ways we can meet our spiritual need for interconnectedness. As I reviewed my thoughts, I was struck by the concrete nature of most of my proposals. I believe this is only one layer out of many through which we can tap in to the heartbeat of the Universe. I welcome learning from your experiences and ideas on this topic!

1. Observe the Threads

Many phenomena in our environment include intricate links. As I spent a recent frigid morning raking leaves, I was reminded of the relationship between trees of the same species. Consider making it a priority to witness natural points of connection like spider webs and waterways. The narrow culvert or stream near your home likely feeds into a larger body of water. As you run your hand through the water, allow yourself to sense the pulsation of the whole in the single artery you are touching.

You may also want to trace your family, cultural or spiritual roots. Placing ourselves within an historical context mitigates our sense of specialness and aloneness. Who each of us is and the rituals we treasure are intricately linked into a chain of human history, some of it beautiful and some of it grim. We tug on the ribbon, making a small movement forward, when we both honor and critically evaluate the origins of our beliefs and practices.

2. Volunteer

By participating in a cause that reaches beyond yourself, you create space for connection and the flourishing of our best achievements as humans—empathy and compassion. Nearly every time I volunteer for an event or organization, I am surprised by how quickly the experience enables me to move beyond my own concerns. The opportunity empowers each of us, through collective human action, to achieve something more significant than any of us could do on our own.

It is of course best if our motivation for volunteering comes from our wise inner self. However, even an act of kindness done for show can at times portend an internal reckoning where upon we come to see that the cause for which we are giving of our time and energy is worthy of more than mere pity. Especially with tasks that require physical labor, taxing our bodies and our spirits, there may be splinters of insight that prod us into understanding that sheer fate is all that stands between us and the individual whom we see as needing “charity.”

3. Travel

When traveling, observe human-made webs such as airline connections and interstate highways. Most places on Earth are only a few plane rides away, something that would have baffled our ancestors. As you explore a new place, it is easy to find the differences from your native land. Take time also to see the similarities and strands of influence from one culture to another.

I’ve always marveled at the mingling of cultures. For instance, although not without critics, some experts have recently claimed that a Viking burial cloth contained Islamic writing. Bearing in mind the fact that cultural appropriation is a genuine issue that is often overlooked within religious contexts, I do think there are valid ways in which multiculturalism can lend itself to progress in our practices. As we travel, either literally or through learning about other cultures, we deepen our appreciation for the tangle of peoples and customs from which each of us makes our way in the world.

4. Weave Together Stories

Attend to similarities as you write and vocalize your life experiences with others. Knowing that someone else has been through a situation like ours places our experience within a systemic context, instead of leaving it alienated as an isolated experience. There can sometimes be a slight sense of the rough edges of our jagged existence being rounded off as we bump into each other’s liminal spaces. Although I can experience this as a limitation, I then often go on to see the benefits of the reciprocation of my experience as it comes back to me through the eyes and voice of another person’s anecdote.

From the pieces of our own accounts, we are able to co-create shared narratives. For instance, we can have the story of women or the story of our culture or the story of people with a particular disease or mental health condition. Again, the rich personalization of listening to each individual person is lost in this type of sharing, but, when used judiciously, it enables us to expand our narrow viewpoint into a panoramic visage of faces all shining in a chorus of communal chronicle.

5. Accept Internal Cycles and Patterns

As soon as we observe ourselves repeating a cycle or behavior pattern, our first impulse is often that we need alter what we are doing if the behavior in questions is “unhealthy.” Although this can definitely have its merits, I find myself wondering at the transformational power we may encounter if we instead give ourselves time and space to fully appreciate the internal bouncing from one behavior to the next that we may be doing. Our inner world is just as replete with connection as our outer world.

Where do you experience a sense of interconnectedness most fully? The examples I’ve included are mostly tangible and literal. How you elevate the experience to a psychic dimension? What insights about the human condition have you derived from witnessing the fact that each of us is innately part of the whole?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

What’s the Lesson In This For Me?

Throughout human history, many people have tried to make sense of why negative events occur in our lives. One idea that is sometimes proffered and with which I take issue is that we should “learn a lesson” from these kind of experiences and that they will invariably serve as a source of strength for us. On this #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I’ll elaborate on our ability and cause to seek insight through difficult trials. I do think there is some truth to the concept that we can learn and growth through, rather than despite, minor unpleasant life events.

To me, experiences that rise to the level of trauma are not necessarily or inherently good for us nor do they always make us stronger. I would give back much of what happened to me in my childhood in a heartbeat; I don’t think I’m a better person because of it. If you’d made sense of your own trauma in a different way, I completely support you in this as I think there are multiple valid perspectives we can hold towards suffering.

Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic experiences are those events that threaten our life or our sense of safety in a major way. They may leave us feeling betrayed, broken, lost and without hope. They shake the core of how we see the world and our sense of right and wrong. Life may seem unfair and unjust as a result, and we may feel alienated from “other people” who we perceive to wear rose-colored glasses in their assessment of how life tends to go.

These kinds of experiences can lead to a sense of spiritual growth; in fact, there is an entire body of research on “post-traumatic growth.” One moderating factor in enhancing development after trauma is social support. In other words, my take is that people are most able to grow after a tragedy when they feel supported by others during and after the trauma. For example, if a natural disaster strikes and causes issues with housing and employment, people may gain strength in their faith if lots of people are there to assist them and to lend aid during recovery.

Where trauma is especially likely to cut a ragged wound is when we go through it alone, and when we experience others as turning against, not towards us, as we try to recover from it. The individual who is rejected from every possible place of refuge, and whose life begins a downward spiral after a natural disaster is less likely to emerge from it, at least for a long time, with a sense of a deeper spiritual connection. On some level, I think the Divine becomes conflated with other people for most of us, so that to the extent that we feel distant from people, we are likely to experience a breach between ourselves and the Divine.

Everyday Obstacles

I think there are minor inconveniences and everyday types of problems that come our way through fate that we can use as a catalyst for spiritual growth. There is no clear dividing line between traumatic experiences and everyday obstacles. What one person finds minor may be a major trigger for another individual. I am not concerned with deciding for others the types of life experiences that fall into this category of “growth fodder.”  Discern for yourself the bumps along the way that you can use to make meaning and to draw out the character traits you seek to display.

I believe life unfolding in a way that runs counter to our plans invites us to contemplate certain questions. These include:

  • What do I really need in my life, and what just takes up space? What builds me spiritually?
  • What are my priorities for finding meaning in my life when my goals are thwarted? Do they align with my actions?
  • To what extent do I turn to Divinity and/or to my spiritual home when I am overwhelmed?
  • To what extent do I allow others to connect with me and offer spiritual balm to the raw and vulnerable places in me which negative situations provoke?
  • What are the spiritual rituals and practices that are particularly nourishing to me during difficult moments? To what extent do I follow through on them when they are really needed?

Signs of Spiritual Growth

How do we know if the lessons we are learning from everyday obstacles are spurring spiritual growth? I’ve listed a few signs below. They are not prescriptive or definitive! I found myself feeling like I was coming up short on every single one of them. I urge you to give yourself permission to view even a very small step in the direction they suggest as a sign you are reaching another layer of the spiritual dimension.

  • The first reaction to a negative minor setback is less and less to simply react. We are able to more fully engage the “deep thinking” part of our brain and/or to respond with a wider range of emotions than we used to be able to access. This emotional maturity is intertwined with spiritual growth in my view as it is a necessary first step before we evolve to a place of having our natural response be spiritually-centered.
  • We can more fully stay on track with our spiritual focus even when things aren’t going our way. We continue our daily rituals and meditation. We engage in deep conversations with others.
  • We are more able to own our own role in situations that occur to us. For example, if I act in a hostile, abrupt manner towards others, and then do not get the help I need from them, they are not simply incompetent. I’ve increased their inability to help me by treating them rudely. This place of personal responsibility can then empower us to make more viable choices as to how we handle moments of challenge.
  • We increase our ability to display the values and beliefs to which we ascribe in terms of how we face obstacles. For instance, if we believe being in nature provides an opportunity to connect with the Divine, we seek outdoor spaces as a respite during difficult situations.
  • We expand our focus to include giving attention to the things for which we are grateful and to the hopes to which we hold fast, even when other areas of our life are experiences in suffering.

In examining these concepts, I’ve written only in reference to the impact of external events on us. We are also buffeted by the winds of our internal thoughts and feelings. I suspect there may be a similar division in regards to inner experiences. As someone who struggles with the symptoms of multiple mental disorders, I find these akin to traumatic experiences in that the best I can currently do with them spiritually is to accept them. Some individuals encapsulate their mental health conditions as a part of their identity and see themselves as incomplete without them. As for me, I do not think they have improved who I am and I’m not pleased to have them in my life.

At the same time, the inner shifts in mood and thought that we all experience, such as a fleeting bad mood or a temporary anxious thought, can perhaps lead us to deepen our spiritual walk as we dig in to what it means to be human. We can sit with the negative moment and examine what it has to offer us. I would not want to be perfectly happy and stress-free all the time, because I think life would lose nuance and color in a mono-state.

As I mentioned several times, I have but one perspective on the idea of life teaching us lessons, and I hope to start a conversation about what your view on this is. I am very interested in seeing how the division I’ve made squares with your experience of your spiritual journey, and the extent to which the signs of spiritual growth I’ve shared fit how things have gone for you. Perhaps together we can hone in on some tried-and-true ideas for those moments when things don’t go our way.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

To Do: Ask a Question Every Day

I recently listened to an interview on NPR with Walter Isaacson about a new book he’s published on Leonardo da Vinci. In the interview, he discussed da Vinci’s practice of recording fascinating to-do lists. He noted a favorite, buried within a list, of “describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” Da Vinci was no stranger to dissection and the examination of corpses, so one can only speculate the woodpecker would likely not have been alive if he attempted to study it.

I found inspiration in da Vinci’s practice, if not the particulars of his method. Poking around dead animals is not my forte. For several months, I’d written down a natural feature that I wanted to observe—such as trees—each morning during my morning ritual. The practice was becoming a bit stale, so I’ve decided to take it a step farther by delineating a specific question or curiosity, the analysis of which I wish to uncover during the course of the day.

Da Vinci placed an emphasis on consulting with experts, asking them in particular about the ways in which mechanical processes and structures worked. In today’s world, we don’t necessarily have a “Giannino the Bombardier” to whom we can turn, but we do have the Internet which is replete with information. Something in me balks though, at this process of “asking Google.” We can now install devices in our house to which we can literally ask any question, and they will provide an answer. The human, the physical, the effort is removed, replaced by an automated and unedited response. What would it look like to see the wisdom of our fellow humans and of our own skills of observation, to have to put energy and time into gaining knowledge? How much more fully are our minds shaped and expanded by this type of learning, versus a few second of a search through digital databases?

If we embark on the quest for a more intimate connection with the world in which we find ourselves, what or who should be our subjects? How do we record our findings? What do we do with the knowledge we gain? I’ve tried on the life of a scientist briefly, and the infighting, politics, scandals and backstabbing quickly showed me the extent to which human flaws pervade even the noblest of discoveries. It was not for me. But, my curiosity about the world beckons, and I desire to intertwine it with my spirituality. I wish to hone my powers of observation to more fully appreciate my place in the Cosmos and to better equip myself during my inner work to flow within the natural energies that surround us.

Where this has led me is to a deeper understanding of a possible use for a Book of Shadows. I do not practice magic with the belief that my thoughts can directly alter outcomes, nor do I believe I can summon forces to do my bidding. As I’ve noted many times, I see my spirituality primarily as a conduit for inner change, as well as a mechanism by which I can better experience the interconnectedness of all of life and existence. With this in mind, I see a Book of Shadows as a place to record those instances in which my observations have transformed my inner being, as well as the practices by which I achieved such outcomes.

The natural world is my primary sacred space, the place where I nearly instantly move on more than a physical plane, the place that causes me to leap for joy and which brings tears of appreciation for its beauty to my eyes. Therefore, detailed study of the plants and the animals and the sky and the moon and all of Goddess’ realm seems, for me, a natural companion to ripe spiritual musings.

Isaacson’s discussion of da Vinci made note of the many half-attempts and false starts contained within his writings and drawings. He demanded perfection of himself, reworking some of his famous paintings for years. Yet, the intricacies of what he didn’t complete are just as revealing as those he finalized. Most of our own observations will not lead to any great insights regarding the world, but I think the idea that, on this day, for this time, a particular person saw, felt, touched, heard, tasted or smelled something that no one else experienced in the same way is, absent of anything else transpiring, a beautiful and brilliant moment resplendent in the sacred.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Resourcing Our Spiritual Needs: Experiences of Awe and Wonder

For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth, I’ll be expanding on my previous post about spiritual needs to discuss how we can meet one of the needs I proposed: awe and wonder. I believe there is something in us that draws us towards experiences that make us marvel. Human creativity is incredible, but I’ve had these desires met more fully in nature, in spontaneous encounters, and through a deeper understanding of biological processes.

1. Spend Time in Nature

Most of my experiences of awe and wonder have occurred outdoors. The most beautiful place I’ve ever been was in the West Virginia mountains, where the lush tree cover, rolling peaks and robin’s egg blue sky moved me to tears. It was more than a pretty place; I felt the presence of the Divine in every direction.

We don’t have to travel far to find these experiences; the ever-changing earth provides a bounty of beauty and inspiration. I’ve grown a bit weary of thunderstorms that seem to come ever more frequently with a threat of tornado damage, but I know as a child I rushed outside at the first hint of wind. The intensity of the smell of rain on the horizon calls up my rawness and earthiness. I’ve been close enough to lightning strikes a few times to feel my hair standing on end; that certainly caused a reaction!

The cycles of nature are also inspirational. Who among us hasn’t savored the sunset or wished to freeze time in the light of a sky full of stars under a full moon? The first blossom of spring or snowflake of winter ushers us in to a spiral of change; we’ve been here before but the experience feels new each circle.

2. Open to Spontaneity

I am not a spontaneous person, but I revel in the unexpected moments of grace. I once traveled through several states on an Amtrak train (highly recommended!). I met a woman upon boarding and we got to talking a bit. We both had to transfer in a major city; once we arrived there, we meandered around taking in the sights. We got caught in a torrential downpour with no umbrellas, and looked like the cat dragged us in as we headed back to the terminal. We laughed at the absurdity of it all. At the end, she asked if she could take my photo and explained she was on a spiritual journey after losing her son, and was collecting memories along the way for a scrapbook. I wish I’d been able to keep in touch with her. There was something in the fleeting nature of our connection that felt divine. The strangers I’ve met in moments like these sometimes feel like time travelers or alternate dimension voyagers who just popped in and out of my life to remind me there are billions of people who I will never speak to or meet, but who are gazing at the same sun and the same moon in my timeline.

3. Detailing the Life-Form

I am fascinated by biological processes, both in individual organisms and ecological systems. The more I’ve explored the nuances of the human brain, or the way in which animals cooperate for survival, the more I’ve been overwhelmed at Gaia’s realm.  Science plays a role here in uncovering natural phenomena that can be mind-blowing in complexity and unexpectedness. Children have a natural curiosity about how things work; for some reason I think many of us this fades with age. Returning to natural phenomena with an adult’s education and understanding allows me to put into perspective how small and short my own existence is, and to see the world around me with a renewed experience of amazement.

How do you cultivate experiences of awe and wonder? What takes your breath away? Where and when do you find yourself swept away in the moment, simultaneously acutely aware of your finite and limited place in the universe, but also settled into a deep awareness of the inner-connectedness of the cosmos?