But something about this paradigm fundamentally does not harmonize with the most basic Universalist teaching- that all people will eventually be reunited with God. Or as I like to say - if there is a God, she loves everyone. Think of how diverse humanity is: folks who have been to school and haven’t. Folks who run marathons and folks who can’t walk. Eventually it dawned on me- whatever the spiritual journey might be, at its core it must be so simple that even I could do it. What kind of cruel God would require obstacles and hurdles that excluded even a single person from participating in the journey? I began to look at the spiritual journey in a different way. Instead of wondering how I could win the spirituality Super Bowl, I began to ask “what is the spiritual journey we are already all on?”
If you are part of an exclusively theist community, the question has an easy answer; the journey is the spirit’s desire to be closer to god, to return to god. But Unitarian Universalists are very diverse theologically. We are Atheists, Agnostics and Theists, We are Humanists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Pagans. What kind of spiritual journey could include all of us?
Recently I went to visit a friend and noticed that her beautiful oriental rug was gone. It turns out, hidden under the bookcases moths had been gradually eating away at it for years. Professional rug cleaners told her the wool rug was irreparably damaged, and that she should look now to saving the smaller wool rugs she had around the house. This shook her. These beautiful rugs she had loved were being silently eaten away, were un-salvageable. She said “have you ever noticed how often moths are mentioned in scripture?” I looked it up myself when I got home. For example, the book of Matthew says: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” One way of looking at the spiritual journey is this simple- is there anything that neither rust nor moths can destroy, that thieves cannot steal? [Matthew 6:19]
And so we look inside ourselves, inside our lives, to see past our small, separate self, to see if there is something larger there. Many religious traditions talk about this journey from the individual to something larger of which we are only a part. In the Western psychological tradition, Jung talked about moving from the ego to the Self. The separate self, the ego is the part of us that believes that we are doing this on our own. Life is a problem to be fixed, a race to be run, and our ego is going to fix it all by itself. The spiritual traditions hint that when we are able to let go of our ego’s grasping, we realize that we are not separate at all, that we are inexorably connected to something larger than ourselves.
All the paths in the classical traditions begin with observing ethical precepts. An early meditation teacher of mine said this is particularly critical if we are trying to grow spiritually, not just it helps us create a better world, and live a meaningful life, but because meditation can be very painful when your conscience is troubled, when your life is out of alignment. So living an ethical, compassionate life is recommended for everyone on the journey, and if that’s your only spiritual practice, that is plenty to work on and learn from.
For folks who want more, there are many paths that have been described (Useful resources include Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, or Caroline Myss's modern interpretation thereof, Entering the Castle, Fowler's Stages of Faith, and Huston Smith's section of World Religions under Hinduism "Four Paths tot he Goal". ) But the two most common paths are work and love.
Our society values work very highly, and specifically our culture values material success- a large salary, a prestigious job title. The Buddhist precept of “right livelihood” encourages us “ to engage in compassionate activity, and to make [our] living in a way that does not cause harm and that is ethically positive.’[i] At the most elemental level, this involves choosing an ethical type of work- Assassin, for example, that’s an easy one to rule out. But even if we have chosen work in an ethical field, whether paid or unpaid, we must continue to ask -- do we do our work each day in an ethical, honest, compassionate way?
But the we apply the moth test. Nothing we build will last forever. Even the great pyramids, the great Empires crumble. The gardens we plant will be reclaimed by nature if we leave them be. No matter how many times we help with the backpack program, there will still be hungry kids. According to Huston Smith, the Hindu practice of Karma yoga is not, as we often say in the west, about doing kind and generous acts, but in fact is about doing any kind of work with a detachment from the outcomes. Can we build the new building with equanimity knowing that it will one day crumble? Can we fill the backpacks knowing we have not cured hunger? Can we write that report our boss asked for knowing that no one is ever actually going to read it? The Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita (IV:1) says: “he who does the task dictated by duty caring nothing for the fruit of action, he is a yogi”
Whenever we experience a setback in our work, it is a huge blow to the ego. We feel like we played the game of life and we lost. At the moment when we lose a job, or don’t get into the college we most wanted, our simply have a low turnout at the event we planned, this is a turning point on our journey inviting us to ask “what is the meaning of my life when my plan is shredded and torn, when I have not achieved in my work what I hoped to achieve? Am I more than my work and my accomplishments?”
So the path of karma yoga is not to finally end hunger, but to loosen the grasp of the ego, and find the Self that is unchanging whether or not they are ever completed. What feels like a failure to the ego, is an opening for the soul, a separation between what we achieve and the larger nature of ourselves. Even in profound disappointment, in the discomfort of uncertainty and not being in control, it can be such a relief to see that I am not my work, I am not my job or my bank account, I am something much more expansive. And each time we put our hands to a task, we are all on that journey.
Love is another path all of us take just by being humans. Every tradition I have studied acknowledges that love is also one of the best and most direct paths on the spiritual journey. Love is a very direct way of opening to something larger than ourselves. But once again, the question is: how do we loosen the grip of the ego which gets attached to individuals and to outcomes? I’m reminded of the tears and drama of the dances I attended in High school- who had asked who to dance, which couples had broken up, which friendships were true. I feel like now in midlife I’m not as overwhelmed by this drama, but I still want to be loved, and the ego wants to be loved by a specific person in a specific way, so the spiritual journey invites us to ask, can we give love away without predetermining what we want in return?
That’s easy compared to the hardest challenge in this human life; everything we love we will lose. Losing someone we love can be excruciating. Some of us have been hurt so badly that we have reinforced the walls of the ego, of the separate self, looking for a safety from that pain by breaking or numbing ourselves to our connection to the web of life. But the spiritual path of the heart invites us to stay open and awake. Sometimes even in the deepest grief, especially in our deep grief, we touch a deeper love- The Buddhists call this Bodhicitta the “kinship of the suffering of others”[ii]. Even when our hearts are broken, we learn on this journey that even without that dear one, we still are, and we are not alone. This is enough practice for a lifetime.
But some folks really want to their spiritual journey to be at the center of their lives, they want to be more conscious and intentional about their spiritual growth. We can study meditation, prayer, we can study the subtle currents of energy that move in our bodies and in the world, there is a huge richness of diverse practices. Many folks start on this conscious path of spiritual practice and awakening because they are in pain, and they want the pain to be taken away. They want to rise up and out of the discomfort of ordinary life. We meditate to find peace. We pray to find comfort. And I will tell you from my own meditation practice, that sometimes there is peace. And sometimes there is comfort. But not always. So if spiritual practices don’t always make you feel good, what is the point?
Even on this intentionally spiritual path, the end is the same- to relax the grasping of ego. A Buddhist teacher I studied with in seminary shared with us a text that included a list of powers that could be gained with certain meditations, powers we might raise our eyebrows at in the skeptical rational tradition- for example in the Theravadan school of Buddhism adepts are taught that through the practice of the akasa-kasina one “is able to discover objects that are concealed, … see into the midst of rocks and of the earth, penetrate into them and create space therein and pass through walls and other solid masses.” [Buddhist meditation p. 164] When we gathered in class after that assigned reading we UU students asked our teacher with some skepticism what he thought of that- he said the development of such powers was a distraction from the true goal of enlightenment, or dissolving the separate self into the larger consciousness. It’s just as easy for the ego to be hooked by the idea of passing through walls as it is to be hooked by more ordinary goals.
Let’s take something more familiar to UUs. For folks who have had a numinous glimpse of something beyond ourselves, of peace, of love, the ego immediately clings to the experience, doesn’t want to let it go, and asks “how can I get it back” when it is gone. The Christian mystics call these moments of beauty and peace and grace “consolations” and the tradition is clear that these are not the goal of the journey. They can be welcomed, and cherished, but held loosely, because they, like all human experiences must end. The same traditions[iii], also talk of “aridity” the times when the soul feels dry like a desert, where there are no consolations to be found. These arid times are part of the journey too. Like the stumbling blocks in the paths of work and love, these arid places, some teachers say, help us relax the grasp of the ego. So if you are not finding such consolidations in your spiritual practice, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, it is yet another moment for the separate self to soften its attachments to its own plans and expectations, so that we can glimpse the real nature of what lies underneath.
Fortunately, no matter which path we take, life is teaching us. Our work will teach us, our relationships will teach us, our aging body will teach us, our spiritual practice will teach us. All of us are always on this journey. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says “the path is the goal” So if our spiritual journey is not a mountain to climb or a state to accomplish or a problem to solve, can we do anything to help it along? The monk I studied with said the 2 core pieces of the journey were equanimity and love. We bring, as we are willing and able, a non-judgmental compassionate awareness to whatever life brings us.
And, in keeping with our Universalist tradition, whenever we are lost and not sure where the journey is leading, we return to love. As the Christian Mystic Teresa of Avila wrote “…we should really be loving our neighbor; for we cannot be sure if we are loving god, although we may have good reasons for believe that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor. And be certain that, the farther advances you find you are in this, the greater the love you will have for God” [Interior Castle p. 78]
So if there is a desire for the spiritual journey in you, just begin by following that desire wherever it leads you. And if you don’t feel like meditating or praying or ritual, that’s okay too, you are still on the journey as you work and love. The journey is unfolding now and in every moment. Don’t worry if your friend can walk through walls and you cannot, just open your heart to love and you are on your way.
[ii] When Things fall apart p. 87