Sunday, December 30, 2012

in the spiritual shallows

Elsewhere, a blog munchie took on the 'relevance' issue within American spiritual settings. The writer, Mumon K, took as his springboard, a New York Times article assessing the rise of the just-folks approach to spiritual life.

Formal churches that once held a sturdy place in the American community have dwindled, dwindled, dwindled. Their glue has lost its sticking power. Now, there are yoga studios, cafes, and art galleries to mask and puree spiritual messages. People may be 'spiritual,' but they're not sure they want to be 'religious.' Churches, understandably, are panicked. What if you had a belief system and no one believed? Let's re-wrap the package, make it a little more sparkly, and bolster our own vision of ourselves as relevant and caring.

Curlew in the shallows
I don't mean to be dismissive of these tactics. In one way or another, the trend has always been the same for institutions. But what interests me is how much the institutional morphing resembles the morphing that anyone might do within ... seeking out palatable ways in which to address and untangle the questions and uncertainties of their lives. If the spiritual section of the bookstore is a bit too hard core, get to the self-help section, where things are nicer, kinder, gentler ... and require less. Feel-good feels good so ... turn up the music.

I am in no position to be critical of such tactics. I too have wandered in the shallows of spiritual life and for all I know still wander there. Anything else was too hard at the time. It demanded too much. I had no taste or strength for more than belief and relief. Even if it were not the Real McCoy, it was the best McCoy I could muster. Pureed roast beef was what I could swallow, so ... I swallowed it.

At a Zen retreat, or sesshin, I remember a very good-natured fellow once complaining from his heart, "They want to take everything!" It wasn't enough to eat fish on Fridays or refrain from idle chatter or steer clear of harmful sexual contacts or any of the other precepts that defined the spiritual environment. That wasn't enough ... there was more and more and more and more ... until there was no more. This was scary shit. This was deep water ... and how was anybody supposed to swim when they were not entirely sure they could swim? The shallows of belief and relief were benign and kind. But in deep water...? No one wants to drown.

No, I have no criticism of shallow waters. Shallow waters can lead to deeper places ... or ... and this important ... or not. But I do think that people can extend themselves a kindness from within their benign and believing spiritual world ... make a space for the times when the demanding questions can no longer be veiled and soothed. Those times may never come. Belief and relief may be enough to soften the harsh light of daily life. OK. If that's what floats your boat -- yoga studios and art galleries and wise nostrums issued from out of the past -- then float.

But have the courtesy to allow the no-fucking-around questions to rise up and be heard. They will be demanding and full of a pedal-to-the-metal brightness ... a brightness that requires courage and doubt and patience. Each person finds his or her own serious questions. There is no one-size-fits-all ... but the seriousness is the same. "Who am I?" for example. Or, "If I don't know who God is, by what stretch of the imagination can I go on prattling about 'God?'" Or, "If belief rests wholly in the past and if no one can grasp the past, where can I find peace with the fact that I live in the present ... which also can't be grasped?"

Serious questions don't have to arise, but they may. And to the extent that they do, I think it is better to grant them access ... kindly, firmly. There is nothing wrong with the shallows, but not acknowledging the deep is like pretending the blue sky isn't blue. I just hope people will be kind to themselves.

Toe in the water. Ankles in the water. Shins in the water. Knees in the water. Thighs in the water. Genitals in the water. Belly button in the water. Nipples in the water. Shoulders in the water. Neck in the water. Chin in the water ... until, at whatever speed and in whatever time, it is just time to dive.

Kindness works best.

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