Intellectual Curiosity as Holy Devotion

A significant part of my spiritual practice involves exploring the tension of opposites  – learning to create and grow in the space between polarities without feeling obligated to choose one over the other as my truth. Immanent or transcendent? Both. Embodied or abstract? Depends on the context. Intellectual or spiritual? Yes, please.

My panentheistic view of divinity means that I find truth, wisdom, and spiritual insight in the manifest universe, how it works, and the principles that underlie its transformation. This makes my spiritual worldview embodied, in the sense that the divine is found in my body, in the bodies of those I meet, and in the cosmos as the body of God. It also brings sacred meaning to intellectual pursuit and development…

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Read more at Feminism and Religion.

What I Believe: Panentheism

I’ve always felt that our personal narratives shape how we come to know and understand the Divine, and that our theologies cannot be examined apart from the stories and experiences that lead us there. I’ve recently explored Carol Christ’s work on embodied theology, and have found a model therein for weaving personal narrative with theology. I’m by no means an expert at this model.

Although I’ve blogged about spirituality for years and am comfortable talking about my beliefs and practices even from a stage, the only people I really talk about my beliefs with one-on-one are people I already know think similarly to me, and they’re usually people who already know the basic outlines of my story. Recently, someone reached out in friendship and dialogue, and I realized a few things about myself. First, I can’t begin to explain my beliefs apart from the experiences that gave them life – a heart crudely removed from the body to explore it closer stops beating, stops giving. Secondly, speaking of beliefs with someone new – someone for whom the story, the me, is reasonably new as well – is a radical act of willing vulnerability. It gets me out of my comfort zone and zaps me at my core with both the fear of rejection and promise of potential. And finally, I don’t even know where to begin. Usually the story and its accompanying beliefs sneak through organically in blips over the course of friendship; when I found myself trying to express what I believe – something, anything – it all ran together in a jumble of thoughts and ideas. This post is an attempt to begin to clarify and put words to what I’ve come to believe, in an orderly fashion. It is not a complete work or a perfect expression of my ideals, and I can assure you that over the coming years it will continue to evolve, shift, and change. This is a snapshot of this particular moment in my spiritual development, and a partial and somewhat blurry snapshot at that.

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I grew up in a mostly non-religious family. While my grandparents scrambled to sign me up for Vacation Bible School and took me to church with them during visits (Presbyterian with my mom’s parents, Southern Baptist at my dad’s), my mom and stepdad weren’t religious, didn’t attend church, and regularly expressed private scorn for anyone who was passionate about their beliefs. They mocked “holy rollers” and “Bible thumpers” for their backwardness and “New Agers” for their blissful ignorance of reality. I didn’t live with my dad, but when I’d visit with him he’d take me to his church – which usually meant a charismatic, evangelical, conservative Christian church with a rock band for music and people passing out in the Spirit.

Neither of these approaches fit for me, even when I tried to make them my own.

From the time I was little, I struggled in my dream life with sorting out issues of meaning and spiritual direction. As a small child, I was awakened when I fell out of bed during a dream in which Jesus and other holy men were meeting to discuss whether or not I was ready to be one of them. “Not yet” seemed to be the consensus; I was more hung up on the “at all,” having never thought of myself as either religious or a leader. Throughout my childhood, teenage, and young adult years, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was on a tour bus through time travelling through Memphis in 1968. In the dream, I see Martin Luther King, Jr. get assassinated, and watch in horror as nobody is able to save him. I know I can jump out of the bus and possibly help, but that then I’d never be able to get back to my own time, my own place. I would always wake up at the point where the decision must be made, sweaty and trembling with questions of courage and calling.

This tension – between the holy drive toward service and the fearful insecurity that paralyzes and disrupts – played a significant role in my spiritual formation. Moments of absolute bliss and connection were offset by fears of inadequacy beaten into me by dysfunction and abuse. I read John Bradshaw and learned mindfulness and relaxation techniques at the suggestion of a compassionate high school teacher, and dabbled in Paganism when I wasn’t hanging out with the evangelical Christian youth group on visits to see my dad.

Seeking progressive religious community when I was 19, I discovered the Episcopal Church, and a few months later I struggled free of the immediate grip of depression and anxiety with the support of the Order of St. Helena, who became my chosen family and spiritual home. Their approach to God was full of compassion, with room for the masculine divine, the feminine divine, and the gender-fluid beauty of mystical union. Their God was clearly transcendent – above all and beyond all – but very much present in quiet moments of heartfelt confession and gentle prayer. It was there that meditation, walks through nature, ritual and routine, and allowing the space for mystical dissolution of self all became part of my practice.

In the late 1990s, as the Episcopal church headed toward crisis over the ordination of women and gays and more churches began to call themselves “Anglican” in protest, my home church brought in a theologically and socially conservative priest whose teachings directly countered all I’d come to expect from and love about Christianity. It was during that time that I discovered the Unity church, whose “practical Christianity” offered direct tools for mindfulness, mental health, exploring the power of optimism and language, new understandings of “highest good,” and the very presence of God within and around me at all times. Throughout this time, as I explored Unity in depth, I sensed the Divine as both transcendent and immanent, but had no philosophical framework within which to reconcile those two seemingly contradictory views. It was a knowing brought about through personal experience, but not a particularly well-articulated one.

Eventually, I took on full-time work in religious leadership and enrolled in a small, private New Thought seminary. While in seminary, I had the incredible good fortune to study under and learn from Deb Whitehouse and Alan Anderson. Deb taught me the fundamentals of counseling with choice theory, a way of relating to others that, while imperfect, still informs my interpersonal communication. Together, they introduced me to process theology and panentheism, although at the time I did not dig deeply into their theology, as I was so enamored of the monistic idealism of the traditional Unity teachings – that mind is the fundamental and only ground of being, with the physical world remaining subservient to the will of the mind.

When circumstances forced a break from the Unity church a few credits shy of completion of seminary and ordination, we moved into a small town in which “alternative spirituality” meant you left your Baptist family to attend a Pentecostal church. During that time, we church-hopped, never fully committing to one church – attending nondenominational, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, and Anglican churches, each offering something needed and ideal submerged in a mix of otherwise problematic teachings and beliefs.

In 2009, after we moved to a small, progressive enclave in my natal North Carolina, I abandoned organized religion in favor of embracing a private, solitary, nature-based practice that drew upon some of the Pagan influences that had remained a thread in the weave of my spiritual self-understanding since my teenage years. In this practice, I have come to believe that the Divine is present in the material world – not as a spark or impetus, but bodily and in manifestation. When I encounter the Divine in nature, it isn’t a feeling I’m experiencing (although it can certainly be affective in impact) – it’s a presence, a fullness of wisdom so expansive and powerful that it flows through my very bones and flesh, which also carry and embody the Divine.

When I think of what is me, what is self, I’m aware that I have a body, and that it is me. The flesh, the skin, the cells and eyes and brain – these are all undeniably part of the manifest me. But there’s more. There’s also an animated energy and spirit and mind of me – a nonphysical, conscious self that could never be explained away by the mere firing of neurons, complex though they may be. Correlation does not equal causation, and the firing of neurons that accompanies the activity of memory and emotion might more rightly be relegated to the realm of the mechanism of manifestation rather than its source.

When I think of what is God, a similar model emerges. The cosmos, stars, and nebulae; our atmosphere, waters, and land; rich earth and dry sand, river-flow and ocean tide, cloud and wind and breath – these are all Spirit manifest into the material, but of the same substance. God manifest into the physical through nature is of the same basic substance as God yet unmanifest into the physical. God manifest into the physical through our bodies, our hands, and our lips is of the same basic substance as the God who exists non-physically in reality through our spirits, our love, and our ideas.

This changes how I view traditional mind-body dualisms, as neither of these is privileged over the other in my understanding – our minds don’t universally control all aspects of our realities, and events in our everyday realities don’t universally and uniformly control all aspects of our mental, emotional, and spiritual responses from person to person and culture to culture. They’re the same substance in different form, working in partnership, and my goal isn’t to strengthen one so it can dominate the other – a metaphysical model which emerged out of patriarchal histories in which the mind was said to have dominance over the body just as men dominate women.

My goal is to explore the points at which the nonphysical enters the physical and where the firm boundaries of the physical dissolve, even temporarily, so that I might have greater understanding of the relationship between the manifest and the unmanifest, and to allow myself to connect with the all that is me, contained within and expressing the all that is God. In my model, spirit is sacred and so is the manifest universe in all its parts, and the liminal spaces where the boundaries between physical and nonmaterial blur and blend are holy spaces, providing opportunities for greater understanding of ourselves and of God.

iStock_000002083840SmallWhat this means practically is that my God is immanent and transcendent. My God physically enfolds me when I dive into the river and gently holds me when I lie weary and seeking on a soft bed of leaves under a canopy woven of trees and stars. My God comforts me through the voice of a friend when my heart is breaking, and celebrates with me in dance and play when I’m bursting at the seams with new joy and vibrance. My God is present with me in my journey and speaks to me through birdsong and laughter, but also has an aspect that is fully removed from the short-sighted realities that come from limited human understanding and the boundaries of physics. This, for me, is the beauty of panentheism: in God’s immanence I find ever-present friendship, solace, comfort, and joy; in God’s transcendence I find reassurance, wisdom, and the optimism that pours forth from potentiality.

This view of Divinity has direct impacts on my ritual life and prayer practices, but more importantly, it shapes how I move through and exist in the world. With a worldview that sees all of manifest reality as an expression of the Divine, curiosity becomes a spiritual practice and education an act of ritual devotion. Seeing God in nature leads to the kind of ecological mindset that refuses to separate the human from her context, and makes holy the acts of growing, gardening, hiking, and tending. Seeing God in myself leads to greater self-acceptance, the ability to love quirks and “flaws,” and a dedication to self-care (by which I mean mindfulness, health, and forgiveness) as an act of sacred reverence.

Seeing God in every person I meet leads to explorations of intimacy as sacred art and radical compassion as mystic devotion. It also leads logically to the practice of authenticity as a rule of life, and to acts of social service, activism, and advocacy as heartfelt ministry. Seeing God in bliss becomes ecstatic communion; invoking God in the crushing darkness of depression, trauma, and fear provides the unseen light – transcendent and otherworldly – that lights our way until we once again set foot on the solid ground of brilliance, love, and hope. In the manifest, there is One who is lover and friend and playmate and teacher and water and food and life; beyond the manifest, that One supports and sustains and heals and cleanses me when my personal physical experience reeks of brokenness and shame in spite of whatever material balms I’ve used to bathe my wounds.

I read all that I’ve written above, and feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Perhaps in future posts I’ll continue to unpack my beliefs, practices, and things I’ve learned in the humble hope that it might speak to someone in perfect timing and perfect trust, that they might be inspired to seek out the God of their own being in a way that is authentic for them.

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Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown on an ancient, fertile plain
You hold the title to.

Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy

Even if your mind is now
A spoiled mule.

A life-giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come –

O look again within yourself,
For I know you were once the elegant host
To all the marvels in creation.

From a sacred crevice in your body
A bow rises each night
And shoots your soul into God.

Behold the Beautiful Drunk Singing One
From the lunar vantage point of love.

He is conducting the affairs
Of the whole universe

While throwing wild parties
In a tree house – on a limb
In your heart.

– Hafiz, “In a Tree House,” translated/interpreted by D. Ladinsky

The blessings of cycle — managing the depths

Early in 2012, I had the good fortune to go to a weekend workshop led by Matthew Fox, focusing on ecospirituality, social justice, and environmental awareness as a catalyst for spiritual growth. It was an amazing weekend, and I was impressed not only by Matthew’s vibrance, sense of humor, and energy, but also by the depth of his spiritual wisdom. He was not only clearly inspired by and well-versed in a variety of religious traditions other than his own Christian mysticism, but woven throughout his interfaith spirituality were inspiration and spiritual truths drawn from observation of nature.

This is a fundamental premise underlying my own approach to spirituality: whatever the basic physics principles of the universe, whatever biological principles underlie the ecological realities around us, and whatever chemical reactions create destruction, transformation, or buildup — I am a part of that great ecosystem, subject to its laws and consequences, and with the ability to learn more about myself through learning more about my universe. When I read about the mysteries of the pooping habits of sloths, I am fascinated by the sloths themselves, but also wonder which of my otherwise unexplainable behaviors might be influenced by my interdependence with others. When I read about the proposition of the Higgs field and the discovery decades later of its constituent particle, I’m inspired by the imagination and tenacity of some of our world’s greatest scientists and a bit mind-blown at scientific evidence for a field connecting everything, filling all space. I’m also led to wonder what that field might mean to how I interact with others and shape my life, and (metaphorically) what other invisible forces may be changing the trajectory of my life and how I can uncover and explore them. When I think about seasons, I think about how my life cycles through parallel seasons based on the lunar, solar, and human life cycles, and how business, politics, and cultural trends reflect similar overlapping cycles in their expressions.

For Fox’s Creation Spirituality, the cycle follows these four basic elements of our journey: the Via Positiva (“awe, delight, and amazement”), the Via Negativa (“uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go”), the Via Creativa (“birthing, creativity, and passion”), and the Via Transformativa (“justice, healing, celebration”). Many parallels to everyday life, as well as to nature, can be found in this cyclical understanding of spirituality, and all four elements are given space and expression in Fox’s “Cosmic Mass.” Even in more traditional liturgical settings, these four elements can combine to foster self-exploration and healing.

Well before I was familiar with Matthew Fox’s fourfold spiritual journey, I was already following a similar cycle of spiritual development. While cyclical models of spiritual growth, inspired by the earth’s seasons, are a common element of many nature-inspired traditions, the model that spoke to me personally (and has brought about tremendous change and growth in my life) is laid out by Jhenah Telyndru in her book Avalon Within. The cycle begins with the Station of Descent, corresponding to the transition from fall to winter, from evening to night, from third quarter to new moon. This is a time of discerning what shadow issues are in greatest need of attention, and choosing a focus for the coming cycle. Descent is followed by the Station of Confrontation, corresponding to the transition from winter to spring, from midnight to dawn, from new moon to first quarter. This is a time in which the key shadow issues are addressed through meditation, art, prayer, activities, and journaling, to achieve a greater understanding of how they subtly influence your life with the goal of reducing unconscious influences on our thoughts, words, and behavior.

Confrontation is followed by the Station of Emergence, which corresponds to the transition from spring to summer, from dawn to day, and from first quarter to full moon. This is the time when you take what you’ve learned about cycle, life, and yourself during the preceding two stations and begin to put reclaimed energy — energy that had previously been tied up in preserving the status quo and hiding the shadow — to new use manifesting your good and your goals. Emergence is followed by the Station of Resolution, which corresponds to the transition from summer to fall, from day to evening, and from full moon to third quarter. It’s a time to rest in the bountiful harvest of your spiritual work, enjoying the benefits you’ve reaped and joys you’ve manifested even as you begin to look ahead to the return of Descent. Throughout the cycle, and specifically at the transitional times between Stations you enter the Station of Integration, during which you integrate each aspect of the cycle into how you’re living and understanding your spiritual life. (This explanation of cycle is my retelling of how I’m using Telyndru’s model in my own life, not official teaching; for more information on her specific teachings, check out this helpful article, or learn more about the Sisterhood of Avalon.)

So, if we take these two models of cycle spirituality and match them up, we find some similarities:

viasstations

 

Part of the beauty of this kind of intentional cycle is that you can choose to practice it in whatever way works for you. Some people follow an annual cycle that parallels the seasons; others base their cycle spirituality on the transits of the moon, completing one cycle per month. Some follow both — for example working the cycle on a personal growth level on a monthly basis, but on a career or outward goal level on a yearly basis, or vice versa. Some incorporate all elements of cycle into one ritual or liturgy. There’s not a right or wrong way to work the cycle; it’s simply important to realize that it can be worked intentionally.

This is the point in this post where I remind you that if what you’re doing is working perfectly, keep doing it. If you’re focusing only on the ups of cycle — the Via Positiva — and are finding that to be fulfilling and effective, stick with it! For me, however, I found that the aspects of me that would be worked on during an intentional cycle came up over and over again whether I made space for them or not. Each winter, I dealt with what felt like seasonal affective disorder, feeling somewhat powerless over the feelings and past traumas that were working their way into my consciousness. I used affirmations, positive visualization, and meditation, and while I found that they helped, they ultimately provided more diversion than healing. While spring and summer brought relief from intrusive thoughts and depression, I was more aware of their absence than their resolution, and never enjoyed a full sense of peace. And each time that the negative feelings and memories of past trauma would return, it was frequently the same issues that had not been dealt with or resolved in the past (not new issues, or a sense of forward movement). Counseling helped me to explore some of those darker parts of my deep self, but counseling alone did not bridge the space between psychological trauma and spiritual despondency.

Carl Jung, in Psychology and Religion, says:

[M]an is, as a whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts. (Emphasis added. Read more by Jung on the shadow.)

There have been times in my journey when I have avoided intentionally exploring and encountering my shadow self. First of all, there’s a huge amount of shame, guilt, trauma, and fright trapped in there, and it’s a normal human fear that opening those gates will let it all out, and it might be more than you can manage.* Secondly, when I’d had enough of this shadow popping up unexpectedly and uninvited, I dove head-on into positive thinking spirituality, only allowing myself to explore and focus on thoughts I felt produced happiness, peace, wellness, and plenty. I loved it when one of my mentors at the time would say, “When you turn on the light, you don’t have to go chase the darkness out with a broom!” What I didn’t realize at the time was how much furniture and clutter had been building up in my soul over the course of my life. Yes, I could turn on the lights, but there were still going to be parts of the room that I couldn’t fully illuminate until I removed the junk that was cluttering up the flow of the light. The darkness might be gone, in general, but the shadows were still there, underneath all my crap.

Did this mean I abandoned positive thinking altogether and decided it was nonsense? For a time, I kind of did. I knew there were great healings I’d experienced and insights I’d gained in building up my positive thinking knowledge, skill, and muscle. At the time, though, the shadow became a more pressing issue for me, demanding my attention and acting out when it wasn’t addressed. Furthermore, some of the hardline positive thinking methodologies seem to explicitly discourage shadow exploration, and I felt like I was stuck in an either-or situation. It took a few more years of fumbling through shadow explorations (occasionally bouncing back around through a positive thinking phase) to find cycle spirituality so clearly expressed in Avalon Within and realize that it provided a solution for finding balance between shadow work and light work. What it boils down to for me is this: I am drawn to light work by natural inclination. desire, and gifts; shadow work is what clears up the energy I need to sustain a solid light work and positive thinking practice.

The beauty of intentional cycle spirituality is that the shadow is not approached as a wild beast to fear, whose presence you may never be able to manage, but as another part of yourself, in need of love, attention, and focus. It’s not a powerful negative spirit or bully; it’s a sad and angry toddler, saying “NO!” and holding your energy hostage until you at least listen to it’s pains and hurts, and agree to “kiss the boo-boos.” You can ignore it while it screams; you can even wait it out, refusing to listen until it becomes a wounded old part of you that no longer cooperates with your intentions or believes in your dreams. Or you can pick it up, start to listen bit by bit as you’re able, and see what you can do to comfort and heal that angry little one. When you enter the cycle, planning to identify a shadow area to work on during this go-round, you aren’t handing control of your life over to the shadow. You are engaging it in dialogue, intentionally and in a structured way that keeps you focused on your spiritual growth. You are exploring this element of your shadow self with the specific intent of removing its secret influence on your attempts at success. You are giving it a finite, contained time period to air its grievances, with the understanding that when the next stage in the cycle arrives, you will be moving on to the next process. You are not drowning in the depths of your shadow self; you’re learning to manage them.

This is where mind-power philosophies come in: You aren’t focusing on the shadow to manifest more of it. You’re setting the intention to explore the shadow for a limited period of time per cycle with the goal to integrate that aspect of cycle into your healthy, whole self — the self that will manifest success, happiness, health, and plenty, and is (personal) self-aware and (Divine) Self-directing.  When you leave the “winter” aspect of cycle, in which you’ve been working with and confronting shadow aspects of yourself, the shadow no longer needs to scream, kick, and holler throughout the year, interrupting your joy and interfering with your success. It knows that after a time, when the season rolls back around, it’ll have another chance to show you what work remains. And with each cycle, your spiral grows wider, with more lessons learned, more challenges overcome, and more clutter removed, allowing even more light to flood into your being.

*Regarding fears that entering into the shadow will release too much of it, visualization can often help allay this fear. For example, imagine that an atmospheric bubble layer of protection surrounds you and is between your conscious self and your shadow elements, and that this special protective substance will only allow things through one at a time, only bringing up those elements that are most essential to your current needs. Of course, if your wounds are profound or you have a mental health diagnosis, you may want to get the help of a professional counselor or minister to help you work through them. Be gentle with yourself, and only do what you are ready to do.