Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hitting a spiritual stumbling block - lack of commitment

Have you ever had trouble picking from various options? Have you ever started to go with once choice, then switched back to another? And back again? If you have then you know how much of a problem persistent indecision can be. Even the act of making a choice that you later decide was incorrect can be used constructively. As Thomas Edison noted, "I have not failed, I've just found 1,000 ways that won't work." But fear of failure, fear of humiliation, or a hypercritical reluctance to commitment (which need not be mutually exclusive) can lead us to be spiritual dabblers flitting from path to path. There is always more information that needs to be gathered, more assessment that needs to be made, more of whatever can keep us near but not too close to the gravitational pull of any one choice. We don't want to waste our time and energy on something we may end up ditching, and we can always find some problem or inconsistency or inconvenience to use as a escape hatch even if we do occasionally allow ourselves contact or involvement with a particular religious group or tradition.

Yet there are some things we can consider to help us get over these hang-ups.

Every second brings you closer to the inevitable conclusion of your life.

There is nothing like urgency for sparking motivation. In you want to live well, various natural philosophies, spiritual paths and sacred traditions concur that first you must be reconciled to death. To the fact that death is simply a part of life, not its antithesis. Many traditions also point out that we never really know who we are, let alone what we really want from life, because we are so wrapped up in identifying with our social roles, our possessions, etc. Ask someone who has been abandoned by everyone, or who lost all their material goods, or who was right on death's door after a long illness. I bet they will tell you that in some sense they felt like they had lost a "part" of themselves, that there were scary moments when they didn't really know who they were. If you never devote time to seriously asking who you are and what your life (and by extension death) really means, then your identity is a house of cards waiting to collapse in panic and despair when tragedy strikes or when the hour of your death approaches. Even many (but not nearly all and not nearly enough) who consider themselves strictly irreligious and non-spiritual have recognized the seriousness of this task (which at times can lead to a reconsideration of spirituality, but that is another topic). If, as Socrates proclaimed, "The unexamined life is not worth living", then you need to ask yourself: What kind of life am I living? Does it include what really matters? Is there something in a spiritual path or religion that can help me to focus on these things? To aid me in my development in a way that will offer a richer and fuller sharing and experience of these things (for example family, friendship, peace, understanding, etc)?

Are you really interested in a life of greater depth or do you simply find some aspects of certain sacred traditions aesthetically appealing?

If you aren't really interested in a life of greater depth, or if you have not even a serious hunch that any spiritual path would have anything at all to offer in that regard, then the obvious question is why you are even flirting with religion or spirituality anyway? Maybe it is residual guilt from a previous religious indoctrination, or maybe a particular tradition seems kind of trendy - possibly "alternative", "retro", or "rebel" - a way to stand out and associate yourself with imagery that you think is cool or that makes you look smart or profound. Or maybe the loose association is an act of defiance (Hey mom and dad, I won't be going to our conservative white evangelical church anymore when I visit from college, I'm a Muslim!). Have you really considered that possibility? Quoting Clark Strand from a 2007 issue of Tricycle magazine where he is contemplating the thought-process of someone looking for a loose affiliation: "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist." That's not to say (in my reading of it) that this is the literal thought that enters someone's head, but rather it is more like a gut reaction. There is nothing wrong with that instinct, and it could lead somewhere fruitful if followed upon, but for someone interested more in image over substance that may be about as far as things go. So Buddhism, or Christianity, or Wicca may suit your tastes, but you are only really looking for a sip or quick bite, maybe a new spice, but not a new way of cooking and dining. Well, bon appetite, but recognize your interest for what it is (and isn't) and allow yourself to enjoy it.

If you are looking for Mr/Ms Right you will be looking forever.

One major secret to any major personal commitment is that perfection is not only impossible, it isn't all its cracked up to be. Here are some basic tips for a long and productive relationship that can be applied to spiritual paths as well as partners and spouses:

  • Things change. People certainly do, and sometimes religions do to. These changes can affect the whole system, like the Reformation, or it can be more localized, such as a change in the music selection at your local parish or the retirement of your favorite priest or rabbi. You are going to change as well. If you expect things to stay the same, or worse, attempt to keep things from changing, or keep trying to recapture some past situation, such as the honeymoon phase of a new romantic relationship or the rapture of recent conversion, you are asking for things to fail, or at the very least, you are looking to bring a font of constant frustration and disappointment down on yourself.
  • You are signing up for the whole package - change and problems included. In a committed relationship, if your criteria for success if that you and your spouse or partner must continually make each other happy, we can all start the break-up pool about how long your relationship is going to last. Did you ever notice how Western wedding vows traditionally have that part about "for better or worse, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health"? Obviously if you are in an abusive or co-dependent relationship where you are suffering harm, you should end it. But how often do we break up with person (or a church) because of some rough patches? A realistic (and yet oddly romantic) way of thinking about such commitments is this: "I know you are going to change, and I will too. I don't know what the future holds, but I want us to find out together. I want to see how your life turns out and share mine with you. I realize we may grow closer or apart at different stages of our lives, but I want to make this journey with you." Now, it takes a little tweaking but the relevant idea for sacred traditions is still there. Of course there are bound to be risks and disappointments, but who do you want to face them with?
  • You are a part of every problem and every solution. In other words, either passively or actively, in a committed relationship you have influence and therefore responsibility for what happens in that relationship. Being passive-aggressive or an enabler is still making a contribution to "his" or "her" problems. Passing all of the blame on to the other party is neither fair nor productive.
  • What about what the positive stuff? As the authors of the book The Buddha In Your Mirror as well as therapists and counselors have noticed, it is really easy to focus on the 10%, 15%, or 20% of what we don't like in our spouses or partners rather than the 80%, 85%, or 90% we appreciate! If only we could, you know, fix that small part we don't like. So we focus, and complain, and nag instead - using negative reinforcement, rather than trying to cultivate and expand on the positive qualities. Again, if you find the 10-20% to be irredeemable or dangerous, or if it's more like 60-80% you really dislike, then it's time to bail. But how often is that really the case when we boil it down to serious things and not superficial or petty concerns?

The idea is that we generate productive and useful relationships as much by our attitude and our determination as much as by finding the "best possible fit", especially since that is a moving target as we grow and change. When it comes specifically to spirituality and religion, a couple of quotes shared by the blog Dharmakara's Prayer (here and here) drive such points home and so I will conclude with them:

To embrace a faith that fits us comfortably is a poor way of accepting religion; more than that, it is in a real sense a wrong and pernicious way, for it reverses the true order of things, placing the people who are to be re-formed into the position of the Truth that is to re-form them. It is an impiety that transposes creature and Creator. Faith must be a continuing challenge to which we respond, a discipline to which we must submit, not a feather bed to protect us against the sharp edge of living.

Edgar B. Castle, 1961

In true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with lives!…

Community reminds us that we are called to love, for community can break our egos open to the experience of a God who cannot be contained by our conceptions. Community will teach us that our grip on truth is fragile and incomplete, that we need many ears to hear the fullness of God’s word for our lives. And the disappointments of community life can be transformed by our discovery that the only dependable power for life lies beyond all human structures and relationships.

Parker J. Palmer, 1977

Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity by Catherine Whitmire

[While the quotes are Quaker and hence reference God, the larger points are still relevant in virtually every sacred tradition.]

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