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?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Developing A Personal Spiritual Philosophy of the World

As part of my own spiritual evolution, I decided to create and then answer a series of questions in order to help me further articulate my faith journey. My goal here on this #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday is to promote individual self-exploration, not to proselytize. I’m quite nervous to share my take on things, in part because I want to ensure the environment I create on my blog is welcoming, inclusive and diverse; statements of faith can quickly steer things into a more divisive and charged space. At the same time, I felt a sense of reclaiming my spirituality as my own when I articulated the specifics of it, knowing full well 99.9% of what I’ve written would be rejected by the religion of my youth.

I would love to see your responses to the questions I’ve proposed; feel free to select a few questions that most deeply resonate with you and respond in the comments, or create your own post by tagging this post and then describing your own spiritual philosophy by answering each question in response.

The Big Questions

What is the purpose of life? Why are we here in this time and place? I don’t have inner clarity over whether life has a purpose or not, but, if it does, I think it has something to do with our lives unfolding as an expression of love to ourselves and others.

What happens after death? I felt certain for years that death was the end and there was no afterlife. Through theories like quantum physics, I’m willing to speculate that there may be more after we die in some sense. I do not believe in karma or heaven and hell, but I’m can wrap my head around reincarnation on some level.

To what extent do humans have free will? I think we have varying degrees of free will, depending on the extent to which our frontal lobe functions properly as adults. I think there are many, many factors that influence the effects of our will.

Are humans basically good/bad/something else? I do not believe humans are inherently good or bad. I think we have varying degrees of healthy or unhealthy behaviors and characteristics. I think many of our behaviors are the result of our natural tendencies. This is contradictory to what I just wrote, but I do think some people are at least very close to being evil as I’ve been on the receiving end of behaviors I can’t classify any other way. I hope I develop a more nuanced view in these instances as I grow and heal.

What are the implications for those who view the world differently than you do? I think it is none of my business how others choose to conceptualize the world, with one exception. I believe in certain absolute human rights, and I think we need to do all we can to change beliefs that undercut basic freedoms all humans should have.

Can people control their circumstances (such as will something to happen or not happen) through mental intention? I do not believe we can directly control our circumstances through willpower, although I think we can subtly influence our own unconscious mind in ways that may lead to different outcomes than would have otherwise occurred. I have experienced a few moments of coincidence that really made me think magic is possible.

What is the nature of justice, and what is the role each of us plays in ensuring it occurs? I’ve blogged about my thoughts on this. I do not think the world is just and I’m not convinced true justice exists. I think we can each hold each other accountable if we are in close relationship, but I also think there is a place for letting go and accepting the unfairness life holds.

If you conceptualize Deity…

What is your conceptualization of Deity? Who is Deity? I believe in Goddess as a reflection of my Inner Wisdom and the collective human unconsciousness. I think we are all intricately connected through Her. I celebrate Deity in Her feminine form, but I also see avenues beyond this. I do not rule out masculine divinity, but I also do not give energy towards it at this time. I also envision gender-fluid or gender-less spiritual practice at some point in my future.

I do not adhere to a particular viewpoint on Goddess but am eclectic in my approach. I see nature as a direct reflection of Goddess and do not see an inherent difference between the inner and outer worlds or the natural and spiritual worlds.

To what extent is Deity involved in humans’ individual lives? I think Goddess pervades all of human experience but allows us to make our own choices. She provides guidance to the extent to which we are open to receive it.

How can you communicate with Deity? I believe each of us can approach and communicate with Goddess without an initiation or training. At the same time, I think we can learn from each other the ritual and practice that most easily and deeply connects us with her.

What affects your relationship with Deity? I think my relationship with Goddess is affected by my relationship with self and others. I will experience alienation from Goddess to the extent to which I experience alienation from myself and those around me. I also think that carelessness towards the Earth and natural resources will disconnect me from Source.

Can your Deity directly change your circumstances (miracles, etc.)? I feel ambivalent towards this idea. If it occurs, I think it is a highly unusual and rare experience and does not occur for personal gain.

If you do not conceptualize Deity…

              What elevates your beliefs and practices to the level of the Sacred?

What are some areas of areas of your spirituality over which you have less clarity? How can you go about growing in these areas? I do not have a lot of exposure to some of the more traditional pagan viewpoints, such as Wicca. I have a general conceptualization of Maiden-Mother-Crone, but when I’ve attempted to write about it, it falls flat. I am going to be doing more reading and seeking Goddess on an experiential level to deepen my understanding in this area.

Another area of disconnect happens when I read the original mythology of a Goddess; it is a struggle at times for me to see Her through a contemporary lens. I want to sink into the stories in Her presence more fully so that I can emerge with a richer understanding of Her journey.

Personal Values

What labels, if any, do you give to your faith journey? Why? I consider myself to be a practitioner of Earth-based Goddess Spirituality. I consider myself part of the community of Pagans. I am currently a Solitary Practitioner but I am exploring the role of Priestess in my life. These labels help me to identify others with whom I share common beliefs.

What are the spiritual values that you espouse? The core spiritual value I strive to uphold in my life is to do whatever I can in my life to become the best version of myself, with the knowledge that this will then lead me to relate in the healthiest possible ways with those with whom I come into contact. My best self is loving, kind, graceful, patient, bold, wise and balanced.

Articles of Faith

How do you show your affiliation with your Deity, and with the community of like-minded individuals? What are the implications of these behaviors for those who think differently from you? I am starting to both wear and surround myself with symbols of Goddess. I think the more important identification is the way in which I present myself and my participation in Pagan/Goddess events. I try at all times to speak about my experiences in a way that makes clear I do not see my path as the only path, while also honoring the deep impact it has had on me.

What rituals and rites do you celebrate to mark important holidays and moments of transition? I celebrate the Pagan Wheel of the Year. I also want to become involved in celebrating certain aspects of womanhood such as pregnancy, birth, and menopause.

What sites are sacred, and how do you show them reverence? There are some places I would love to visit such as the White Spring at Glastonbury. My practice is to see every place as potentially sacred, especially in natural settings. I think ritual to honor Goddess, as well as a simple mindfulness practice in a sacred site, are acts of reverence.

Relationship Implications

How do you share your views with others? What is the purpose of sharing your views? I share my views here on this blog as well as with those I trust in person. My main reason for doing so is to create a conversation, because I know that I have much work to do to reclaim my faith as my own, and I need to bounce ideas off others and hear their perspectives to grow.

How should you treat others? How should you expect to be treated? I would tend to follow the Wiccan Rede here: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” I believe I should respect others’ ability to make decisions for themselves as well as support them, and I hope for the same from others. I do not believe in sacrificing who I am or what I stand for in order to maintain a relationship.

What is your responsibility to nature? How can you uphold it? I have a long way to go here. I want to respect nature and conserve natural resources. I’m trying to take small concrete actions and make incremental changes that reflect my beliefs in this area.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

“Am I There Yet?” 5 Signposts That Indicate You’ve Arrived at Your Spiritual Home

Millennials have been on the receiving end of many forms of ridicule, including the idea that they are spiritually “flaky”—permanent seekers dabbling in a multitude of religions and spiritual practices, with no real awareness and understanding. As an “Xennial,” I disagree with these viewpoints for several reasons. First, I think spending time in the wilderness is an authentic part of the developmental process of forging a spiritual identity. Second, while there may be an exploratory period that appears shallow and superficial, for many people, this is followed by a rooting into a particular framework by which they view the world. Lastly, at least for some of us, the only way to find our spiritual home is to look for it, as the one in which we were born is ill-suited and unfit for us.

As we continue on our spiritual journeys, I think at least some of us arrive at a place of feeling like the trek has arrived at its destination. Or at least a destination for the time being. Some signals I’ve found that have let me know that Goddess Spirituality is my home are the alignment that’s happened to my beliefs and behavior, the desire I have to share what I’ve learned with others (more on how to handle this below), an ability to see outside my own situation, a passion to better the world, and an understanding that, although I may have found my place, I’m now at the station of creating hearth and sustenance from the dwelling in which I find myself. I’ll be examining each of these signs on today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday.

1. Coalescence of Beliefs and Behaviors

When we are in harmony with our beliefs, our behaviors naturally start to align with how we see the world. We may find ourselves making lifestyle changes or decisions that simply didn’t occur to us or seemed out of reach previously. As I’ve settled myself into Earth-based Goddess Spirituality, I’ve begun to reconsider my relationship with the natural world, including the foods I chose to eat such as red meat. I’m also paying significantly more attention to the seasons, moon phases and the outdoors. I’ve wasted less money and spent less time binging on TV and movies. All our vices do not magically dry up the moment we find ourselves spiritually, but I do think they are less reinforcing because our energy is devoted to things that flow from our heart-center.

When we’re at our spiritual home, we may feel like we are being true to ourselves and authentic in our stance. My previous religious path forced me to condemn many people who I really didn’t see as evil, which felt unnatural and judgmental. I felt sheepish at times as I tried to “pretzel” myself into explanations that lessened the harshness of what I was taught. Now I feel no shame in holding up my viewpoint to the light. The spiritual framework by which I live aligns with my philosophical and moral views of the world, which has led to inner tranquility.

2. Evangelizing Tendencies

Much to the chagrin of those around us, we may be so excited by our new outlook on the world that we decide they also need to come along for the ride. Even though I know how annoying this is, I still find myself engaging in it at times. Please note that I see this as totally different from trying to tell people they need to believe something or their mortal souls are at risk. What I’m referencing here can even apply to things like lifestyle improvements such as what we eat, how we exercise and where we travel.

We find something that seems a bit off the beaten path but so “us” and so satisfying that we wish everyone could feel as good as we do. If we play it out long enough, this is typically followed by realizing that whatever we discovered still has some rough spots and scratches and maybe doesn’t look brilliant from every angle. To me, a genuine spiritual home lends itself to at least an initial burst of thrill and joy, with regular boosts of excitement from time to time.

3. Moving Beyond Self

One phrase that’s always brought a twinge of guilt to me is “navel-gazing,” mostly because I’m pretty sure I’m great at doing it. When we find our center, I don’t think this inward focus stops, nor do I think it should. Most things that get labeled as “navel-gazing” could also be conceptualized as the labeler’s failure to empathize. Knowing our own wounds, needs and desires is healthy and life-giving. From our home base of self-care where we acknowledge these things and seek to address them, I think the natural sequence is then to look up and out, to take in what others’ experiences also are, and to respond with kindness and compassion.

I’ve always felt defensive in reaction to religious doctrines that preach a loss of self or that self is evil. When I speak of going beyond self, I see it as an act that encompasses and is actually rooted in our Self—our highest Self that has let go of ego and seeks greater values than human adoration.

4. The Greater Good

Reaching further than our own self-interest naturally begs the question of where our focus gets directed. In small or in large ways, I believe the firm ground underfoot upon which we come to stand when we’ve uncovered our place provides a platform from which we can draw on our resources and respond to the needs we see in the world. Some of us are naturally drawn into community and action-based movement; others may do this work in a more solitary, contemplative manner. In either case, our firmness in who we are spiritually leads directly to our strength in responding out of love. An image that flickers through my mind here is of the counter-protests in Charlottesville recently, where people of various faith traditions linked arms and stood together against hate. Taking time to know who you are and what you represent can only deepen the commitment you’ll have to express your voice in an uplifting way.

5. Tending House

Nothing in what I’ve shared is intended to give you the idea that finding a spiritual home means the work’s done. Instead, I think this is where things get really interesting. I actually see a house in my mind when I think about this concept, and it’s in a bit of disarray as I neglected it for quite some time. When we know what’s right for us, and the spiritual part of our identity feels settled, we get to learn, grow and develop in place. I have no doubt that my viewpoints will evolve and gain significant complexity over time, and that the final version of my dwelling will look almost completely unrecognizable once I’m done crafting and letting it be crafted by Goddess. Allowing ourselves the freedom to continue to explore new nooks and crannies, dust off some unused shelves, and declutter can take our sense of spiritual presence from one of stagnation to a lively, bustling enterprise.

Please feel free to share whether you feel like you’ve reached home yet or not, and what your signposts have looked like along the way!