Granted, the monastic life is foreign territory for most of you - but is it really that foreign? Anyone who is interested in deepening their understanding of their personal spiritual life is wading in essentially monastic waters. Eventually you will find yourself reading sacred literature, maybe out of curiosity or maybe for more significant reasons. But the ways, teachings, and inner world of mainly the Christian and Buddhist monasteries of the world have penetrated mainstream society.
One of the given practices within traditional monasteries is to seek the guidance of a spiritual director as you prepare for your inner journey. Why? Think of it from this perspective. Imagine your inner Self as unknown territory. You do not really know who you are from the inside out. You know who you are from the outside in. You know the outer reactive you, but not the inner proactive you. You know the frightened you far better than the courageous you. You know the part of you who clings to the world as you want it to be far better than the inner you, who understands that the world is in constant flux and that you must learn to flow with the change and flux that is the nature of life. Learning to let go, not once, but again and again, is the path of learning to live in harmony with the laws and ways of life instead of living in opposition to life.
Love Is the Only Currency of Life
The inner Self is a truth-seeker. The outer you is driven by the personal illusions we all create for ourselves, illusions we will do anything to maintain. The outer you fears looking at the truth whereas the inner you cannot rest until it sees the truth. The outer you holds selfishly to love, using it as reward and punishment currency. The inner Self recognizes love as the only currency of life. Our outer and inner worlds, our external and interior domains, are two separate spheres of consciousness, that of the ego and the soul. Our outer self, our finite self, exists in the illusion that somehow the accumulation of material objects - money, status, fame, power - will assure its longevity.
The ego tells itself that the laws governing "the finite" will yield in the face of enough piles of stuff. Moguls of power have attempted to negotiate with the "finite self" since the beginning of time, only to be met with defeat - always defeat. Imagine that between the domain of the ego - our external self - and our interior self, is a second ever-beating heart that pulsates the eternal paradox: an endless attraction for this physical life is ultimately met with endless frustration or disappointment. We can never finally achieve ultimate control over everyone or everything. Someone will always escape our manipulative tactics. We never really find what we are looking for - is it love? And how much love would that be? And where will we find the supply source for all this love and attention we crave? Is it really another person? But what if that person leaves you? Then what? Will the search begin again? Well, maybe it’s not another person. Perhaps it’s stuff. How much, then, and where do I get stuff? How much is enough? And then comes the dilemma: Where do I put all my stuff? Stuff needs storage.
The spiritual journey is the long and rigorous path of entering into the eternal paradox that exists between your ego and your soul, that center point at which your appetite for the finite confronts your longing for the part of you that is capable of comprehending the nature of the infinite. Through that comprehension, you experience your own infinite Self. Your fear is that if you touch your infinite Self for even a second, your appetite for your finite world will evaporate. When you return to your mundane consciousness, your ordinary five-sensory world, you will see it for what it is: illusions built upon temporary illusions. Then how will you now exist in a world that you so clearly understand to be driven by fear?
So the question is this: How does a person prepare for a journey he or she fears taking yet cannot resist?
People often say that their spiritual journey began as a result of an illness or a trauma. It was, in other words, crisis-motivated. Pain, loss, isolation, and/or the need for personal healing drove the individual to seek out a path of personal healing, comfort, or self-empowerment. But ask that individual, "What are you actually seeking?" Most often, that individual will give a vague one-word reply: happiness, health, peace, tranquility, and joy are very common answers. None of them actually "means" anything. They are not really arrows pointing in any specific direction. They are just words that float in the air, leaving the person uncommitted to any path of spiritual discipline or devotion whatsoever. What type of spiritual discipline and daily practice is actually required to achieve joy? Or happiness? In general, happiness is associated with other people and more often than not, a person assumes all those other people are responsible for making his or her happiness happen.
I was intrigued for a long time at the consistency of these vague answers. At first I could not figure out how people could say they were "seeking" something yet have no idea what that something was. Then I got it. The majority of people who experience a life-crisis experience are actually going in search of why events happened to them as they did. They step into spiritual waters looking to feel better, looking to heal, but the true inner goal is that they are seeking a way home, a way back to what they lost. Because that is an impossible goal - one can never go home again - it is impossible for them to see anything at all. They can’t bring themselves to look forward, to release the past, to acknowledge that their marriage is actually over and that they are middle-aged and single, or that healing requires that they acknowledge that they are 60-years old and must work to heal a 60-year-old body. They have to finally confront their age and not a fantasy image of themselves at age 40. Healing does not include the return of their youth, but their health.
Thus, they can only respond with vague answers when I ask, "What are you seeking on your spiritual path?" They are seeking what does not exist - the past. They want to go where they cannot go and thus, they remain in chaos.
Entering the spiritual path with crisis as the motivation is entering into a psychic field of chaos. What are you entering into and why are you calling this chaos your spiritual path? What exactly about it is spiritual? Are you calling it spiritual because the chaos is inspiring you to read a few spiritual books? Or because in the midst of the chaos, you’ve decided to utter a few SOS prayers? The journey into widening the length, width, and depth of your consciousness and inner spirit is a well-directed, "conscious" endeavor. Though it may be initiated by chaos in the form of an illness, or loss, or whatever earthly trauma falls upon us, the first wise move is to harness that trauma and direct the flow of its power, lest the power of that trauma direct us.
And so, with that in mind, we begin the conscious preparation of the journey into your inner Self. (The image occurs to me of Jules Verne preparing for the journey to the center of the earth…ha).
1. Harness Your Energy
|By harnessing your energy, I mean that we can all list the personal events or traumas that caused us to take up the spiritual path. Take time to reflect on their present role in your life. Are these events primary to who you are now? Are past wounds, or a divorce, or death, or an act of betrayal, something that you continually or fairly often bring into your present life? Is it a wound you keep ripping open? This is an example of how the power of a trauma directs us rather than we harnessing the power and redirecting our lives instead. It is fair to bring up illness as a crisis, as a person might wonder, "How do you harness the power of the trauma of an illness?" - especially when an illness is by its very nature so depleting. That’s a double if not triple challenge and one few can rise up to as this one is "in" you and not just "around" you, as other life crises are. You really can’t walk away from an illness. In the case of chronic syndromes, like arthritis or lupus or other long-term illnesses, it is wise - and again, it is difficult - to ask, "Is there anything else I can and should be doing?" Or, "Is there anything I should not be doing?" Helplessness and victim consciousness feed illness, and at the very least, we can ask ourselves those two questions on a regular basis.
2. Pick a Day to Separate Past from Present
|This is your day of ritual, an official day of entering onto your path. We thrive on rituals. We need them. Rituals are invitations for the Sacred to bear witness upon our actions, to stand beside us as we initiate a new course of action in our life. A ritual is a request for a blessing, a prayer invoking the holy. Pick a day that represents a new point of beginning for you, a separation from the old and an entry into a new consciousness. Don’t overdue your ritual, by the way. Don’t burn down your house with candles or turn your backyard into a mini-Stonehenge. But do one small thing that makes the day stand out between you and heaven. Light one candle. Spend ten minutes in solitude, releasing the past and wrapping yourself in the present. Let your eyes slowly absorb everything that fills the present that is your life. What are the contents of your life? What meaning do these things have for you, and Why? How conscious are you of them? What does and does not contribute to your life? Who is important to you as you enter into the deeper content of your life? These are the questions that change the direction and depth of your life.
3. Leave Something of Your Ego Self Behind
|A journey is a turning point, a recognition that you are consciously standing at a crossroads and in full awareness, choosing a path of transformation. You are choosing to know yourself on a deeper and more authentic level, to shred illusions that stand in the way of becoming a whole human being. These are mere words, meaningless sentences, until you animate them with actions that engage their power. The journey needs an action that marks its point of beginning, something that notes, "I am new because of this. I was that. I am now this." Thus, you need to release some part of your outer you that is no longer essential to your life. You need to select an aspect of your ego self that you recognize as an obstacle, a false part of yourself that interferes with you seeing yourself clearly. Nothing in this domain is insignificant. For example, the choice to walk twenty minutes a day as symbolic of your journey is an enormous choice. It requires discipline of mind and body. It requires that you be present each day to that one choice, that your life attend to the accomplishment of that one choice. In attending to that one choice, you are introducing into your life the template of discipline. You are taking command of your will. I repeat that there is no such thing as a small first choice as each one will engage the full fury of your excuse mechanisms and that is also the purpose of this exercise. You need to become conscious of how your shadow self sabotages your efforts to become whole. Another example, one that is more internal and therefore more complex, is the choice to release personal acts of betrayal. "I will no longer betray myself in words or in deeds." This is a choice to live at a high level of truth. I don’t recommend this as a first choice because most people are not prepared for the full consequences that "truth" brings into their life. But let me suggest that you reflect upon the fear of that choice just to give you an idea of how much "non-truth" or illusions you surround yourself with. In doing that, you come to understand much better what the mystics meant when they described the Divine as "truth itself." Reflect on this and select one aspect of your ego self that you will leave behind as your marker for your journey.
4. Introduce a Personal Devotion
|The inner journey requires an inner spiritual devotion. Often time spent in prayer, contemplation, or reflection is referred to as a "practice," but I personally do not like that word. I associate that word with sports. And "practice" does not invoke thoughts or much consciousness of the sacred. It is a neutral word that suggests, "You better do this until you get it right." Get what right? This idea that one prayer is better than another is preposterous. Devotion, on the other hand, offers you the imagery of connecting to holiness by gradually piercing through the wall of the reasoning mind, that part of you that is always in search of logical answers from God. "Why is this happening to me?" "If I only knew...." The endless search for answers that will never be given often forms the core of a person’s prayer life, and such prayers are not worth devotion. You become devoted to releasing that type of prayer, to ceasing the need to ask for what cannot be given and to receive that which can be given. This is the true nature of prayer: Listening, accepting, learning to identify the distractions of your ego world and then separating yourself from their authority over you, absorbing the tranquility of the graces and quietly, gradually learning the subtle and sublime differences in their sensations. And finally, absorbing others into this growing field of tranquility, transmitting the silence of the soul to others - for healing, for counsel, for wisdom, for peace. This is the true nature of prayer.
5. Keep a Journal
|It’s not necessary to write pages and pages daily. But I highly recommend that you journal your own journey, if only to take notice of how you are changing. Writing something down, committing words to paper, makes change real. Writing captures thoughts and perceptions that would otherwise continue to float away and evaporate into thin air. You will not forget that you were visited by a wondrous thought or a beautiful insight. Some of these are worth writing down and revisiting for the rest of your life. As you are preparing for your journey, you may have to get a journal and confront the challenge of the blank first page. Many of you are not writers but journaling does not require that you be a skilled writer. No one but you will read your journal. You can draw, write one-word thoughts, or copy a poem that reflects what you are feeling that day. The point is to record something of each day, or every other day of your new life. But start now.
These are your instructions for the beginning of your journey. They are few but they are potent. They contain enough "charge" to initiate the reordering of your life - trust me on that.