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.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

What It Means to Wish

I recently came across an Instagram post with the following quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I uttered “YES!” and felt vindicated in terms of my focus on planning and doing as opposed to dreaming. I value hard work and dedication to a near-religious fervor and easily feel scorn towards people I perceive as hoping their lives will improve without making any effort towards what they want.

Soon, though, my inner work during ritual revealed a weakness in my thinking. Goals with plans are indeed more likely to be accomplished, but is the entire point of life to dust off a display case of successes? Is showing ourselves steady and reliable the only virtue on which we should focus? For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring what it means to allow ourselves to mentalize beyond what seems in our grasp, and how this broadening of our thinking, coupled with dedication, can propel us into previously unimagined places on our spiritual journey.

Hope, Trauma and Inner Visioning

Dreaming big often evokes emotions I’d rather not accept or admit to having, including desire, yearning and a sense of vulnerability. If I don’t really want anything that I cannot accomplish in a straightforward manner, and I do not long for things that I historically have been unable to achieve, I will no longer feel disappointment. Or, so goes in my inner reasoning. The reality is that my life can end up feeling flat, empty and unfulfilled nonetheless.

Traumatic experiences, especially those that occur during young childhood as mine did, can cause a devastating loss of hope. I’ve often felt that, in regards to myself and people like me, we have solved a terrible riddle, the answer to which only we are privy—“why do bad things happen to good people?” “Because there is no real justice in this life or any other.” I see myself with the innocent childhood belief in basic trust and connection to the outside world irreparably damaged a few short years into my life. I don’t believe in karma; I don’t believe in family loyalty; I don’t believe we get what we deserve. From this framework, within which I still exist, it has been extremely challenging for me to do more than survive and get by. Thriving has felt like something that others get to do if they are lucky—a level of existence from which I’m exiled.

The profound shift that occurred after my inner work in which I pulled a “dreamseed” card from my Soulful Woman Guidance Card deck was that I realized I can create a vision of myself that does not solely rely on my current reality as its basis. There is nothing stopping me from doing so aside from my own fear of failure and disappointment, and the harsh internalized criticisms of my youth.

Creating the Dream

Where my internal processing led me was to write out a vision of myself. I instantly contemplated an elaborate vision-board but the personal growth I’ve experienced through writing led me instead to a word-based mentalization. I incorporated a focus on the following areas:

  • Who I Am Becoming, including my:
    • Physical Being
    • Thoughts
    • Emotions
    • Behaviors
  • How I Will Spend My Time
  • What Qualities My Relationships Will Espouse
  • What Characteristics My Environment Will Hold

I held nothing back in terms of exactly what I want my life to be, in other words, I did not use my present experiences and place in life as the basis for my vision. I wrote mostly in generalizations as I believe life and fate will fill in the detail for me. I then put in bold typeface all the sentences that feel “aspirational,” meaning I have work to do in order for them to be realized in my life. I already have a list of goals on which I am working, so I am now incorporating aspects of my vision into practical steps I can take to manifest my intentions. I continue to return to the concept of self-compassion as a core principle that must underlie my undertaking. It is possible I will feel just as far from some areas as I am today when I re-evaluate my progress as the end of the year, but I believe simply having an articulated statement of “this is who I want to be” will inspire additional growth and insight.

I feel embarrassed by the judgment I’ve held in the past towards others and towards parts of myself who might want things that do not seem possible. I see now that I’ve been allowing some of my potential as a person to lie untapped because I was fearful of failure and of the bitter pain of disappointment. Dreams and visions are not just for the mystics; they can inspire each of us to become the most evolved versions of ourselves to which we have access in this life.

What is your experience of creating dreams and desires for yourself? What is the relationship between planning, goal-setting and inner vision in your life? What holds you back from dreaming big, and what allows you to open yourself to possibility?

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.