Photograph of a wooden fence with a tree and vegetation behind it.
Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

It’s a Just World (Not at All?)

I was talking recently with someone who’d received unexpected negative news in relation to their employment. As I spoke with the person, there was a distress evident in the sense that the person could not link up how, after giving so much effort and care to what they were doing, they were still experiencing loss and frustration. I had a hard time knowing what to say in response, because to me the connection between effort and outcome has always been extremely tenuous at best. In other words, I was confused as to why they thought meeting a high standard meant they were going to receive a positive outcome. I live out this principle on a daily basis—I try hard in life—but I do not actually believe in it at my core.

The name for the belief that effort and outcome are strongly linked, especially in relation to morality, is the Just World Hypothesis. In this worldview, good things happen to good people and, if your life sucks, it’s probably your fault. There is a convenient absence of digging into systemic oppression and undue privilege; here, we’re all born on 1st base and the distance we make it in life is solely dependent upon how true and hardworking we are as a person.

A related phenomena is the Law of Attraction. With this philosophy, what happens to us is believed to be the result of our intentions. Some core concepts include: 1) think good things, and that’s what you’ll get, 2) unhappy people bring their own misery, 3) do not speak of hope, speak of actuality even though it is not yet your reality.

We will explore these psychological biases in for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. For trauma survivors, I wonder if the Just World and Law of Attraction are more easily perceived as the shams they are, given how quickly and thoroughly we tend to be taught by life that, despite all our efforts, we can be harmed and, no matter how tightly we control our thinking, it can happen again. At the same time, because of the compulsion to repeat our traumas, we may find ourselves trying to resolve our core dilemmas by thinking “this time” we’ll get it right if we just keep trying. Please feel free to share your perspective on how this plays out for you as a trauma survivor in the comments!

Where I’ve personally run into the most problems is in relating to people who buy into one or both of these “theologies,” as it is typically very challenging for them to show empathy. I was once told that perhaps I’d “signed up” for the abuse I experienced before I was born. I’ve also encountered many people who can’t handle acknowledging that anyone has abused as a child as it seems too “unfair.”

To quote Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s, “life is hard.” It is groundlessness and mist, but we insist the shaking soil of our current state must become marble. Believing that the world is an unfair place where no amount of mental sanitation can cure all ills does not make me feel hopeless. Rather, in allowing myself truth instead of denial, I feel more ready to roll up my sleeves and try to fix it up my little corner of things as best I can in the time I have. It is when we insist that everyone gets their dues and that hoping equals outcome that we stifle and avert-eye ourselves into a narrow corridor from which there is little recourse, when, as happens in nearly every life, SHTF and we have to deal.

I find it more challenging when I try to extend this philosophy to relating to others who are going through difficult times. The best approach I’ve been able to muster is to 1) ask them how I can be there for them and 2) identify and share the feelings I have in hearing their story in a way that empathizes with their plight and 3) if possible, become involved in dismantling the systems of injustice that are contributing to their difficulties. In relation to sharing my feelings, I typically find that, in response to unjust and depressing circumstances with which others are dealing in their personal lives, I feel helpless. I share this with them at times, not to center myself, but to let them know that I perceive the injustice and wish to right it, but that, if it is of an interpersonal nature, there is little I can do directly to rectify it. For instance, if a friend is having a conflict with a romantic partner, it is not my place to step in the middle of this.

I desire to integrate a more active response to situations where there are institutional and systemic injustices. I have little experience IRL with encountering others who openly name these injustices, and, when I look back on the few experiences I have had, I’ve failed miserably. Rather than responding to these instances from a state of helplessness, I now plan to act in solidarity by contributing to social justice causes. Our world can become more just and our perceptions brighter only through dedicated action in which those who have been systemically wronged are able to take the lead in seeking justice and when privilege, where it exists, is leveraged in order to disrupt the power structures that keep many people marginalized and oppressed.

What is your take on the idea of a “Just World” and the “Law of Attraction?” In what ways do you see these concepts being used to undermine social justice causes? How do you respond to those around you who are going through difficulties over which they have little control?

Embodied Heart, Goddess Thealogy

Alternatives to Hatred and Hopelessness in the Face of Immortality

In the midst of the migrant crisis on the U.S. Southern Border, I found myself baffled by people’s responses. People whom I thought had at least a basic moral core responded with flippant rationalization and indifference to the suffering of children. I floundered around, unsure of how to process the experience. Finally, as I was listening to one of my favorite radio personalities, Bill Press, I heard him state “This isn’t a political issue; it’s a moral issue.” It was as if someone had flipped the proverbial light switch; I saw in stark and exposed grain what before had been only edges and the feel of a bannister.

I’d figured I left behind concerns about morality with the dissolution of my fundamentalist upbringing. I realized that I am still very much concerned with it, but that the calculus has been rewritten. My version of morality is encircled by the degree to which any particular behavior causes the suffering of a human being, and, to a lesser extent, any part of Nature. What compunction do we have to compel people to care about others if there is no threat of hell or reward of heaven at the end? This article hit home for me my feeling of helplessness in the face of an unwillingness to consider the needs of others who are different, and it was written a full year before the latest horrors. Rather than turning away from my feelings, I sank into them to contemplate, for today’s #Thealogy and #EmbodiedHeart post, what morality means from the perspective of my pantheistic Earth-based Goddess Spirituality belief system.

Owning Our Own Moral Failings Before They Own Us

I cannot deny the wisdom of taking the plank out of our own eye before we look for the speck of sawdust in another’s. I believe we need to clean our own house of hypocrisy and lack of heart towards those with whom we struggle to empathize. I do not think this means we need to devote all of our energy to reaching the very people we struggle the most to humanize. Rather, we can at least refuse to dehumanize anyone and can refrain from stereotyping others. I’ve been surprised at my own willingness to write off entire states, for instance, as places I view as “less than.” Unrelenting passion for each person’s worth as a human being builds the strongest bridges. When we realize we’ve fallen short of this idea, self-compassion can keep us from shame and can allow us to make fertile compost of the scraps of our failure.

Conscious Compassion

I’ve pondered this topic previously in response to sexual abusers. I do not think we owe everyone the same offering of compassion, especially if we were specifically victimized by them. We can spend our time trying to force drops of love out of stone, or we can unload the buckets of it that overflow from places where we’ve been wounded. In other words, most of us have people in the world with whom we readily empathize and for whom we care deeply; I do not think channeling our compassion towards these individuals is cowardice. Trauma survivors, in particular, risk re-traumatization if we continually frustrate ourselves in attempts to win over those who are cutouts of the ones who abused us or the ones who allowed us, through their indifference, to be abused.

At the same time, if it isn’t our own life’s purpose, we can welcome and support those who are able and willing to walk the long road towards those we see as “enemy,” flowers of hope in hand. Some are here to seek out the most vile beings in order to seed and water the tiny, crusted nugget of humanity in them, and I wish them well in their work. This story, for instance, of the blues musician Daryl Davis who convinced dozens of Klan members to leave and give him their robes speaks to this type of mission and inspires me.

Even the Monsters Are Human Beings

People can be evil, but the people who frighten me the most are those who explain away the evil ones. Knowing that a person finds it acceptable to worry solely about “me and mine” and cares not for anyone who, by sexual orientation, gender identity, ableness, race, religion, national origin or age is outside of their circle terrifies me. There is no level of atrocity that is “too much” if we write off entire groups of people. I do not think we need to force ourselves to beg and plead for these people to see the light, but we cannot discount them as being worth less or worthless. My heart tremors with the knowledge that each of us as humans can dim our light of morality if we do not give it careful and sustained energy.

We need people to rise above blind outrage and hatred; some of us to pour ourselves into caring for the victims, and some of us, with tears streaming down our faces, to compel the hard-hearted to soften to the suffering of the least of us. Anger is a wholly appropriate response to victimization; even in our anger, I believe the tender spots in our heart, raw and bleeding, will not be healed if we slip into a caustic hatred that degrades and dehumanizes our oppressors. Instead, anger must galvanize our feet and our hands and our voices to protest, to hug, to write, to do whatever it takes to scream our demand that no one is outside of the family of humanity; we harm ourselves when we kill, maim and imprison each other.

Moral Character Is A Work in Progress

All that we can ask of ourselves, I believe, in terms of our own morality is to be willing to examine and re-examine ourselves, bathing our wounds in the warm light of compassion and prying from our frightened hands any sticks of bloodlust with which we wish to bash the oppressive forces that seek our submission. No one arrives at a place of enlightenment from which all decisions and all impulses are purified. We are primates who, through whatever evolutionary quirks, can see or hear the cries of other primates we’ve never met and, on a soul-level, wish to tear apart any barriers, wire by wire, in order to free them. Let us, in our desire to rid the world of pain, be ever vigilant and careful not to fall for the cheapest form of self-esteem—the Light found me and I’m better than I was yesterday, so I must be better than you. Goddess as Earth surrounds each of us; we are all part of Her world and deserve to be treated as such.

How do you sit with instances of immorality when you see others suffering? How do you respond to those who are indifferent or who are committing evil acts, and to what extent do your actions retain the acknowledgement of their humanity? How do you direct your compassion?

Embodied Heart, Goddess Thealogy

What Goddess Spirituality Means to Me

I will soon be hosting a free Self-Compassion Summer Camp Virtual Circle for individuals who are interested in deepening their practice of Goddess Spirituality. I’ve written in the past about why I believe Goddess Spirituality has resonance for trauma survivors. As I’ve worked on preparing the circle, I realized it would probably be wise to share about my own belief and value system on a more granular level in order to give my offerings within the circle adequate contextualization. For today’s #Thealogy post, I will be delineating the specific way in which I define my spirituality as well as the core principles to which I adhere.

Labeling the Intangible

My spiritual identity is that of a person who engages in pantheistic nature-based Goddess Spirituality. I owe a debt of gratitude to Molly Remer’s Practical Priestessing class for elaborating upon the various belief systems within Goddess Spirituality to the point where I was finally able to put a specific terminology to my values. The pantheistic aspect of my practice means that I see the Divine in everything. In addition, Nature reflects spirituality and Deity to me; I would say that the core of my faith is touching the Divine in all Her forms through the natural world. Given this, scientific discovery and inquiry spurs on my spirituality, rather than standing in opposition to it. Lastly, I respond most fully to the Divine in the form of the feminine and female (both the psychological and physical aspects of womenhood).

I have found a few points of distinction within areas in the wider Pagan and Goddess Spirituality worlds that I think bear consideration. I very much value historical conceptualizations of female Deities, but I do not worship a particular Goddess per se or see Goddess as entirely separate from myself, for instance, as an entity whom I must placate through sacrifice. I also do not venerate both God and Goddess as some Wiccan practitioners do. My practice honors and values the developmental processes of those who are biologically women, such as menstruation, childbirth and menopause, but these transitions are not the center of my devotion. Instead, I incorporate a systemic view of natural cycles into my conceptualization of the Divine–Goddess as reflected in ecosystems. As a result, although I’ve limited my Summer Self-Compassion Camp to women as participants, I view Goddess Spirituality as accessible to all people, regardless of gender. Likewise, although I connect with each face of the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone, I do not limit myself to viewpoints of Goddess or of my own development to this presentation alone. Finally, I do not believe in anything resembling the Law of Attraction or the idea that I can alter reality through magical means alone.

As I’ve sat with a desire to communicate my values and beliefs, five specific core concepts have emerged. If you are interested in the virtual circle, I think you will find the most resonance if you identify with them as well:

  1. Embracing all of nature
  2. Living in compassion and love
  3. Appreciating the interconnectedness of all beings
  4. Attending to the margins
  5. Creating conscious community

Please see below for a full description of each value.

Embracing All of Nature

The heart of embracing all of nature is to me to acknowledge the dialectics within life. There are moments of beauty, but there is also death and decay. Similar to the darkness that is as much a part of the world around us as the light, I believe each of us has shadow—areas of our inner lives we’d rather avoid that in fact hold the key to our deepening relationship with Self. We needn’t have it all together or be “positive” at all times; making appearances of doing so is often a cowering from reality rather than an authentic state of being. Moments of experience where everything is going wrong or our best-laid plans result in failure are as vital to our spiritual journey as triumphs.

Embracing all of nature lends itself organically to practicing mindfulness. Living in the present moment is the surest way for us to access our experience as it is instead of as we’d like it to be. Contemplation of the past and future is also welcome and necessary; I seek to integrate my ideas of what has been and what will be into who I am in the present rather than to spend my time pining for past losses or future not-untils.

Walking with nature also includes physically experiencing it to the fullest extent to which we are able. We need bodily, emotional, mental and spiritual stimulation as humans, and there is almost always free access to it the moment we spend time with organic matter (I say this instead of green because I think there is something to be said for being around plants, etc. after the harvest has passed as well). Instead of using technology to perk us up or keep us interested, we can substitute the real thing for the artificially-generated. I value a slow and sustainable pace to life whenever it is feasible; my progress in this area is unsteady at times but, as it is rooted in my ancestral path, I know I will continue to open to it.

Living in Compassion and Love

I placed compassion before love in the section title because I think what the world needs is a greater capacity for compassion and empathy more than anything else. Liking is typically a prerequisite to love, but, if we open ourselves to it, we can feel for anyone, even those who are very different from us. Telling people that they are only acceptable to us, that we can only feel compassion for them if they change their beliefs, behaviors or other aspects of who they are to fit our needs is cheap grace—again, it is often easy to feel for those with whom we have much in common. Loving all whom we are lucky enough to have as close and dear to us and showing compassion to everyone we meet are intertwined reflections of Goddess for me.

Appreciating the Interconnectedness of All Beings

Gratitude grounds me in the realization that I am but one small part of the ecosystem of the Earth. Both on a physical and a spiritual level, I think everything and everyone is held in the Cosmic Web of life. No matter what my feelings of depression or trauma-based beliefs may tell me, I am not only a part of humanity, I am also in intimate relationship with all aspects of the universe, from the tiniest ant to the farthest galaxy. I hold that this is true for all humans without question. In this sense, we are all welcome and we each have inherent worth. My actions, then, take on heightened importance as the decisions I make affect everyone. I have a responsibility to the wider world as well as to myself; at the end of things, they are one and the same.

Attending to the Margins

Most of the individuals with whom I’ve interacted in the Goddess Spirituality world are very socially aware and care about society’s inequality and injustice. Some of these individuals, myself included, do not think the world in its current state is just. In other words, we don’t think individual people are solely responsible for everything that happens to them nor do we believe that people always get what they deserve. I am strongly opposed to the notion of karma on the scale of a human lifetime—we may not see things righted in each person’s life. Survivors of child abuse, for instance, did not cause their own victimhood, and their abusers will unfortunately not always be brought to justice. Likewise, people can be born into misery through no fault of their own.

On a cosmic timescale, I think there are discernible patterns of growth and entropy and that, even within the limited framework of human history, there are streams feeding the river of progress. Although justice is elusive, I believe actions such as tending to those who are less fortunate and speaking truth to power serve as outflows of the wellspring of hope and compassion which Goddess Spirituality provides for us. I hold that the feminine characteristics of empathy, cooperation and nurturance are vital contrasts to systems which focus on rightness, domination and conquest.

Creating Conscious Community

Having been raised in (by American standards) an extremely restrictive, patriarchal and collectivistic community, communally-focused activities can feel threatening to me. I’ve stumbled my way towards a recognition that my skills at instantly dissecting a group’s leadership and desiring to expose their inherent flaws need to be redirected to developing my own abilities in creating community for others. I expect to be humbled and have my “you’re doing it wrong” radar toned down a bit by the experience. There is a knowing in me that there isn’t a perfect community into which I will walk with a place carved out that suits me just right. Instead, I need to handcraft the vessel myself and pour out the libation to others who are like-minded.

Goddess spirituality practices are often egalitarian and focused on developing each participant’s inherent abilities. I hope to partner with others who hold a desire to become teachers and healers and spiritualists—those who want to cultivate their own leadership skills. The community model to which I am drawn asks and invites each individual who partakes to contribute that which they know is theirs to give and to take from the group that which is needed, trusting that most people will respond thoughtfully to such an offer. The innate effort, generosity and empathy of which most humans are capable is perhaps best elicited, paradoxically, by sharing with newcomers, rather than by demanding they earn their seat.

These five principles, along with the labels under which I feel comfortable placing myself, have taken me a few decades to collect and to then digest sufficiently to where I can begin to open myself up to others in their offering. I am certain they will change a bit as I continue my spiritual journey. I would love to hear from others who consider themselves practitioners of Goddess Spirituality, pantheism and/or nature-based spirituality as to their resonance and meaning for you personally, as well as the additional guiding philosophies to which you hold allegiance in your walk with Goddess.

Embodied Heart

The Mind of Trauma: Everything’s Preventable?

“This is painful, therefore, there was more I could have done to make sure it didn’t happen.” My constant mantra whenever something—unexpectedly or expectedly—goes wrong in my life, especially if it’s a repeated stressor. I’ve been processing my trauma history directly as of late, and have come away with the knowledge of a core belief around which I have centered much of my interaction with the world. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I will be delving into the ways in which this belief has colored my life as well as acknowledging the falsity it contains and tracing the evolution of my self-talk in relation to it.

By Chance but Not by Choice

For much of my adult life, I’ve conceptualized fate as the lazy person’s excuse for poor choices. This judgment has been aimed both at myself and at others. I’ve held tightly to the idea that it is possible to avoid negative experiences through a three-step process, which I repeat dozens of times a day in relation to current stressors: 1) Contingency plan—If this happens, then this could happen. If that occurs, then what? Continue the decision-tree until all possible events and outcomes are contained; 2) Check on the progress of events frequently to determine how far along the contingency plan has progressed and which possible outcomes can be discarded; 3) As soon as one of the outcomes on the decision-tree is activated, move to the next step. Do not consider alternatives, do not wait for confirmation, do not breathe. Act immediately, as if your life depended on it.

Processing events through this lens contributes greatly to my struggles with anxiety and degrades my physical health by pumping stress hormones through my body. Waves of visceral intensity hit me as the internal cursor blinks, waiting for a line of code in order to move the plan to the next step. Imagine overlapping screens of these scenarios running simultaneously, all with alarm bells going off intermittently and a giant clock (counting down to what?) beeping. That’s how I handle interfacing with daily life.

The entire apparatus I’ve constructed seems aimed at one goal—to keep bad things from happening. What if, though, the seeds of all that terrifies us were planted in the garden of our lives before we were born? What if there are fixed experiences through which we must walk on our individual timelines no matter how much we try to avoid or disavow them? What if I was always going to suffer some amount of abuse and trauma in my childhood, whether I told someone outside of my family of origin immediately, or (as it actually happened), not until I was a fully-grown adult? I have no proof that the answers to any of these questions is “Yes, that’s how it works.” I do realize, though, that conceptualizing at least some of my most difficult experiences through the prism of fate rather than as the result of my own failure to plan is a less shaming and constricting way of approaching life.

Belief So Centrally Flawed

With unlimited resources of time, physical strength, emotional maturity, money, social support and foreknowledge, perhaps almost all negative events in our lives could be prevented. We do not, of course, live in such an environment. As a child being sexually abused in my own house, I did not have any of the beneficial supports listed above on my side. With the limitations I faced, I could not have prevented what happened to me. I had no choice but to endure what occurred until I got myself to a place of safety and freedom where I was able psychologically and emotionally to start to unpack the horror I had faced. It isn’t so much that I struggle with it being my fault as in thinking I caused or elicited it, instead, it seems like it should have only happened once if it was going to happen, because I should have then been able to problem-solve my way out of it happening again. I was genuinely helpless and trapped. All the problem-solving in the world doesn’t work if you are six years old, without a single adult who is “on your side,” trained to see outsiders as corrupt and evil, and extremely socially anxious. My fate was unavoidable at that time.

Where Choice Abounds but Fail-Safes Falters

Thankfully, childhood trauma survivors rarely remain helpless once we are adults. I felt a surge of fire go straight through me when I listened to Kyle Stephens, one of the first survivors to speak out against Larry Nassar, state the following at his trial, “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.” The ferocity of this statement for me is a woman standing in her own power with whom no one dare trifle. By and large, as adults, we get to make our own decisions. We can grow our resources to a place where certain kinds of terror are unable to stalk us. I choose, for instance, not to be in communication with my abusers. In doing so, I’ve removed their ability to dictate how I speak my truth. Layers and layers of shame and self-restriction have fallen from me as I’ve grown in my awareness of just how much freedom adulthood can hold.

There is though, unanswered in me, the question of fate. What if, even as a person who owns my mistakes and takes responsibility for my actions, things are going to happen to me that are beyond my control to prevent? Or even experiences that are my destiny to transit? For me personally, the rebuttal to “everything’s preventable” being a statement in need of many caveats is not “God is in control.” Rather, I’ve settled for now on “life is absurd.” Life is absurd when a person does everything possible to be healthy and ends up with a life-threatening disease. Life is absurd when callous and conniving graduates of privilege abscond with profits torn from the soiled palms of those who toil for their bread. Life is absurd and the world is not just.

My conceptualization of Goddess does not extend to believing She is in charge of everything, that it will all “work out in the end.” Does an entity exist that has my best interest in mind and the ability to bring good to fruition? The child in me, the one that thought it was her job to keep bad things from happening, desperately wants to surrender control of her fate to this belief. The adult in me, however, believes that even if there is no grand contingency plan, no clock in the sky winding down, there may be moments of trouble from which none of my scheming will have saved me, and through which I can endure and even thrive. Life is absurd and I break myself open to its whims, releasing myself from the need to stack the bizarre shapes in which it comes into a semblance of order. I desire to smile at the hand of Fate, whatever She brings me.

 

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.