Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ah, Spirituality, That Great Quest to Nowhere

Just got back from meeting a patient who is having a minor spiritual crisis. In case you aren't familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous or N.A., there are several steps in the 12 step process. Mostly they involve identifying a higher power (God to most Western religions), and then working from there to establish a relationship that will give the addict a chance to begin recovery. But what do you do when you feel nothing? At least, nothing spiritual . . .

The problem was that this patient had a vague idea of what spirituality looked like, but he couldn't get there. Spiritual people? Oh, those are the guys who have all the answers. They're the ones who have the red phone to God, the ones who always walk around with that peaceful, dreamy look on their faces, and the ones who can help everyone else at all hours of the day and night. Or some B.S. like that.

That's right, it's B.S. Mainly because it can't be done. No one walks around with a starry-eyed, blissful look on his or her face all day long without a heavy dose of pharmaceuticals. And the red phone? Doesn't exist. No one has one, no matter how much they want to convince you otherwise. And don't even get me started on the whole available to save the world day or night. Superman, we most assuredly are not. There's a reason there's a high rate of breakdowns and depression among religious types, and it's not because we're mourning the suffering in the world - although that is a serious downer.

We spend all our lives running around looking for something, but we have no idea what it is. We give it names like "peace," "understanding," "enlightenment," or "faith." We spend tons of money travelling to supposed holy sites, most of which are cratered with bomb blasts because people are fighting over them (not very holy, then, are they?) trying to find something, anything, to make us feel different, closer, connected. And we come back feeling exactly the same as we did before we left. Even if we did feel something different while we were on that journey, it never lasts. The high ends, and the low is just as low as before, if not worse.

I told this particular patient that maybe he should put aside the spiritual quest for the time being. He's stuck here for a while, anyway, so any hope of travelling to shangri-la or wherever is out of the question. Rather, I suggested, maybe he should look for something that made him happy.

He said that it's been so long since he's been happy, that he didn't know what to do. Well, what better quest is there than to find happiness? Do something that makes you feel alive. Paint, dance, help people, work, play, write. Do something positive, even if you feel a little selfish or silly for doing it. Start there and see where you end up.

That, I think, is what it's all about, after all. Not travelling trying to find something that isn't there. It's right here, right now, in this place. Spirituality is a state of mind, where you're locked into living in the moment doing something that brings health and wholeness to yourself and those around you. Don't complicate it by trying to be something you're not. That's a sure fire way to make yourself miserable, not spiritual. And don't try to base your spirituality on someone else's. You can't fit into a cookie cutter, and neither can your spirit. That's just silly, but it never fails to amaze me how many books and tapes come out each year telling us exactly the opposite.

As it is written in Philippians, Chapter 2:12-13, "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose."

Or, as the Buddha said a few hundred years earlier, "Work out your salvation with diligence!"

Or even, as Joseph Camblell told his students long before he wrote The Power of Myth, "Follow your bliss." Same difference.

As I was writing this, I found myself thinking of a song that appears in the movie Pink Floyd: The Wall. So I leave you with that, as an example of our current state of post-modern existence:

What shall we use to fill the empty spaces
Where waves of hunger soar?
Shall we set out across this sea of faces?
In search of more and more applause?
Shall we buy a new guitar?
Shall we drive a more powerful car?
Shall we work straight through the night?
Shall we get into fights?
Leave the lights on?
Drop bombs?
Do tours of the east?
Contract diseases?
Bury bones?
Break up homes?
Send flowers by phone?
Take to drink?
Go to shrinks?
Give up meat?
Rarely sleep?
Keep people as pets?
Train dogs?
Race rats?
Fill the attic with cash?
Bury treasure?
Store up leisure?
But never relax at all
With our backs to the wall.

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