Thursday, February 12, 2009

Regarding Spiritual Growth

What does spiritual growth look like? There's an old Zen saying:

Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

It's hard not to love those amazing, quirky Buddhists. The wonderful thing about this saying is that, besides being an implicit statement about the inherent sacredness of the world itself, it speaks to several different aspects of the spiritual life on a more practical level as well. The very first, and in some ways most important, is that regardless of one's spiritual growth, the mundane world goes on. Wood will still need to be chopped, and water carried, food cooked and houses cleaned, baskets woven and bills paid. The spiritual life cannot exempt us from these responsibilities, nor should we expect it to. A life devoted to the Sacred must lead us more deeply and lovingly into a relationship with our "ordinary" lives, not drive us to reject or disparage it. A spiritual life must ultimately be an integrated life, a life in harmony with itself as well as with the larger world. If we imagine, as Dion Fortune and others have described, that the manifest world emanates and expresses Spirit in a vast diversity of forms (as illustrated, for instance, in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life), then the spiritual path is not only a journey "upwards" back to unity and wholeness, but also a journey "down" to fully realize, express and integrate this Holy Unity in all aspects of our lives.

The second aspect that this saying captures is the nature of spiritual growth as cyclical. In many ways, spiritual growth is often imagined as a linear, progressive process. We are born, we mature, we deepen and age, and eventually we die; and as we travel this one-way road, we hope that our pasts will shape us and help us to become better people in the future. This is just as true in all areas of our lives: our education, our social and interpersonal relationships, our job skills and hobbies, and especially our spiritual journeys. We might feel uncomfortable or insecure if we sense that our relationship with the Sacred has stagnated or become redundant. So in many ways, this conception of spiritual growth as linear is healthy and helpful, it is one way that we hear the calling and sense the longing to deepen our relationships with the Divine in world, and to work to move towards that desire. But we soon find out that when we reach (or reach for) "enlightenment" or relationship, or however we conceive of the journey's meaning and purpose, we find ourselves firmly rooted back in our own histories and our own natures. We return to old memories with new insights, and cultivate familiar experiences with new perspectives. We take the Fool's Journey and arrive at the beginning again, with a new arm of the spiral to traverse and explore.

Or perhaps it is better to say that we arrive, not at the beginning, but at the center, the Source. A Source which is timeless and nonlinear, which is always available in every engaged present moment of the here-now. I like Ani DiFranco's take on it, when she sings about how she had to "learn to be new in an instant, like the truth is accessible at any time," because this is exactly the case. Most of us will experience these moments of newness, these "peak experiences" (as Maslow calls them) that punctuate our spiritual lives, when we feel a sense of wonder and innocence, as though we have become children again. Christians call this kind of experience a moment of divine grace; mystics from all traditions refer to it as a kind of union with the Sacred. But of course, we cannot exist continuously in these moments of timelessness and blessing--we inevitably move on, we cycle, we progress, we learn and we forget and we relearn. This is why the spiritual journey is a cycle of growth, and not merely a stopping point or final end. We do ourselves no favors if we try to cultivate "peak experiences" with the intention of staying in such states permanently; we are more likely to end up chasing fleeting experiential "highs" than cultivating real growth, not to mention all those bills that won't get paid, those baskets that will be left unwoven, those songs unsung and stories untold.

Which brings me to the third aspect that the Zen saying expresses: in many, many ways, spiritual growth doesn't look like anything at all, it is not something that is always obvious or visible to others. A person who has reached "enlightenment" or moved farther along their spiritual journey will probably appear very "normal" in some ways. They will be working and exerting effort, and sometimes struggling and stumbling, just like everyone else. They will still be chopping wood and carrying water, and probably muttering to themselves occasionally about calluses and damp socks. So in some ways, I realize that the question, "What does spiritual growth look like?" is not really the right question to ask, or at least not the most illuminating at times. Nevertheless, thinking about how the fruits of the spiritual life manifest, how we recognize them in others and in ourselves, and how we develop goals and seek out role models that can keep us motivated and inspired, are all vital in their own way.

Druids Great and Small

I mentioned in a previous post that there is a definite difference between developing a particular talent or set of skills, and growing spiritually. Of course, they're not mutually exclusive, and sometimes, I believe, whole-hearted devotion to particular work can lead to personal spiritual growth in a kind of round-about way. Brenda Ueland once said that, to become a better writer, you have to become a better person, and I've found that to be generally true, with myself and other writers I know. Commitment to work--especially if it is the creative work of honest self-expression or communication in one form or another--can often demand attention to and appreciation of the world beyond the individual ego, which is an important lesson for the spirit, as well.

Druidic work in herbalism and gardening, poetry, music, dance and writing (whether creatively or philosophically) all have the potential to lead to meaningful personal growth by encouraging us to engage with a substantive and lively world beyond ourselves; however, pursuits in Druidry that are more expressly "spiritual" in nature--such as ritual, magic and divination--don't seem to have the same transformative effect with any consistency. For some individuals, they do; for many, they're skills or activities but little more. Hit or miss. Perhaps this is because some pressure exists in the community to be somewhat good at all of these, instead of devoting oneself completely to being really good at just one or two. (It's like the Pagan version of a performer's "triple threat"--singing, dancing, acting--even if we'd really just prefer soul-wrenching cathartic honesty in a role, more than someone who can break out into song and a quick soft-shoe when it's scripted.) When I look at the Druid community, and at Paganism more generally, I find a number of great scholars, talented musicians, passable poets, laudable ritualists and impressive oracles. But rarely do I see anyone who stops me in my tracks with the inspiration and wisdom of their insight, or who moves me deeply with their loving-kindness towards others or devotion to the Divine.

Another factor might be Paganism's tendency to reject hierarchy, which doesn't always stop at the damage of repression, but can go on to downplay any notion of "becoming better" (even if the only measure is oneself and one's personal goals) in the name of equality and tolerance. For all the discussion of the wisdom of the ancestors and their ancient ways, there is very little talk of how Paganism can help someone become a better, more loving or ethical person in the here and now of everyday contemporary life. Judy Harrow, in her book on Pagan mentoring, does not even bother to discuss the "highest" levels of personal, emotional and spiritual development in the psychological and sociological models she cites because, she explains, they are unrealistic ideals out of reach for the common practitioner. Yet the role of unattainable ideals is an important one that can serve to guide us, and avoiding discussion of them entirely is unlikely to inspire anyone. Harrow herself points out that often a society's or community's leadership sets the cap on the highest acceptable level of personal or spiritual growth, above which individuals may be ignored or even punished. As important as equality and realistic goal-setting is, it is also important that we not fall into the trap of actively or passively discouraging a deeper pursuit of the spiritual life, especially when such pursuits may take more time or involve processes more obscure than the overt talents of ritual and magic.

A Hero Lies in... Who?

If I cannot, for now, find many real-life role models of spiritual growth in modern Druidry (and it is, relatively speaking, such a young tradition that this isn't entirely unexpected), then the question I ask myself next is: what kinds of role models have I found inspiring in the past, and what can they still teach me about my own spiritual growth today?

As a young(er) girl, I devoured books about saints and mystics, reveling in the kind of sacred, overjoyed (and sometimes dark and struggling) poetry and contemplations their spiritual experiences inspired them to write. During a few years in grade school, I became obsessed with angels as perfect spiritual beings and used to dream about becoming one myself; that is, until a teacher at my Sunday school explained to me that angels, unlike people, did not have free will but were basically "built" to love God: they couldn't help themselves. After that, I lost interest in these creatures that seemed more like inevitable forces of nature than willing, struggling beings, and I began to admire the monks and desert-dwellers of Christianity, as well as Jesus and the Virgin Mary as powerful role models of a "divine family." In high school, I held in high esteem social activists and progressives like Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton as examples of how the spiritual life could be brought back into the public realm with vitality and relevance.

One thing I notice immediately upon reviewing this collection of historical and contemporary figures, is that none of them were priests, and in fact many of them found themselves repeatedly in conflict with the formal religious leaders of their communities. This trend probably reveals more about me and my personal passions and drives than anything, but it might also serve as a reminder that the role of a priest or priestess is more often about service to the religious community than his or her own advanced spiritual growth. Sometimes such service, when undertaken with commitment and a certain amount of modesty, can open a way for a deeper engagement with spirit as well; likewise, spiritual development in an individual almost always expresses itself in service to others (though not always formally through leadership roles). While the priesthood is certainly a valuable and important goal, the model it provides is not inherently or essentially one of personal growth.

So what else is it that these mystics, saints and activists all hold in common? What is it that seems to guide and shape them as they grow into examples of human beauty and potential? The response, echoing gently out of my Christian childhood and insisting on being heard in my Pagan present, is this: love.


  1. This is an extremely thought-provoking post. I couldn't agree with you more that we need to set our sights as high as possible -- and that the prospect of failure should be ignored as irrelevant.

    However, the question of role models in the pagan tradition -- extraordinary individuals such as Gandhi -- is a tricky one. For example, many pagans look to the natural world as a model to follow. In the natural world, virtue arises not so much from constant struggle and effort towards an ideal, but from deeper integration and union with the web of life -- becoming a being at home and at rest in the world -- finding one's true and natural Place. Perhaps this the same thing, really; I don't know...

    One thing I will add, and feel somewhat on firmer ground: the Hindu tradition has four paths to Source, and Love is one of them -- commonly said to be the easiest path for most, but it's not for everyone. The others are essentially selfless service, philosophy, and mental discipline. The paths can of course be combined for greater effect, and they all lead to the same place. I haven't been able to find a nice terse article about this on the web, but at the bottom of the "yoga" article on wikipedia is a list of four "Classical" yogas, and these are the four disciplines I'm referring to.

  2. Jeff,

    You raise some really good points in your comment, and I had actually started writing a rather lengthy response to you when I realized that I was getting into a lot of what I'm planning to talk about in my next post... What I wanted to get into next (and what you kind of bring up) is that there are tons of models for process, aside from how closely they might all agree on the kind of general "end goal" of, as you put it, "deeper integration and union with the web of life." On the other hand, "end goals" themselves can differ even when the process of reaching them is the same....Is "love" a process, or an end goal, or both? Part of the purpose of these writings recently is for me to figure out what values and ideals are important to me personally and develop a working understanding of how to pursue them as a Pagan.

    Every time I try to get more specific in this reply, I end up writing what will essentially be in the next post, so I'll leave it at that for now.

  3. There is a lot to this post. The fact that you end with love is, for me, very right on. Speaking of the four yogas, it is Bhakti that concentrates on love as a means of revelation. One of my favorite touchstones for Bhakti is "The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion: A Modern Translation of the Narada Bhakti Sutras" by Prem Prakash. Some amazing insights into love and devotion, regardless of your religious or spiritual tradition.

  4. Colorado,

    I was planning a post for Valentine's Day that was going to be all about "love, love, love," (in terms of the spiritual life, of course) but Jeff had to go and ruin it by bringing up some really important points that I want to address as well! ;-p But yes, I've been working all afternoon on that.... :) I'm glad you and Jeff both brought up Hinduism because I think that kind of conglomeration of religious/spiritual traditions serves, for me, as a really fascinating example of how complex, diverse and truly all-encompassing a "pagan" culture can be, and yet there are definite places where East and West pursue their own unique areas of emphasis. I only have a broad but not very deep knowledge of Hinduism in general, so I think I might look into that book you suggested. It sounds like it might be very pertinent to some things I'm wrestling with right now. :) Thanks!