As I begin this reflection, I’m aware that I bring with me a basic assumption: our spiritual life is intimately connected with our psychosocial life. Yes, the spiritual dimension extends beyond/deeper than the psychological, but they are often intertwined. (Or as the title of my book suggests, there is an “interplay.”) So inner “divisions” may permeate both these dimensions of our lives.
That said, I suggest that if we are aware of particular “divides” that can shape our spiritual lives, we may be able to respond more skillfully.
Conflict between old and new
For some of us, there are inner and/or outer conflicts among different religious traditions and teachings. If we were raised within a particular tradition, and then find ourselves exploring and connecting with a different path/practice, we may feel torn, confused, perhaps even guilty. This tension (which can feel like a daunting chasm) is accentuated if our exploration or choice of a different path leads to conflict with our family of origin and friends. Some who leave their religion-of-origin may do so because they experienced religious trauma. This complicates the experience of conflict, and calls for special attention. (While spiritual guidance does not include trauma therapy, it needs to be “trauma-informed.”)
But choosing a different path doesn’t always lead to a painful clash– not at all. An exploration may naturally, simply, open the way to a new choice and a new journey. When it does result in an internal or external “divide,” this can be deeply painful to live with and navigate. Spiritual guidance offers a safe space for exploring the challenges involved, without judgment. There is no “goal,” such as reconciliation or “return” to the original tradition. What is offered is an invitation to reflect together, support for meeting a range of thoughts and feelings with compassion, and a possible opening to inner spiritual guidance from the Divine/Holy/Mystery.
Transcendence and embrace
Some spiritual seekers find a way to deal with difficult life circumstances by following a path of transcendence and denial. There is daily life – which includes personal pain, social and political challenges, disputes about social justice, the threat of climate change. And then there is “my spiritual life,” which seems to offer comfort, escape from pain, and reassurance. This is a division that invites serious exploration: there is no single right path here. I am only pointing to a separation that can develop between the transcendent and the embodied spiritual life, between the ideal and the actual, the perfect and the human reality. Spiritual guidance offers a supportive container within which to meet our emotional, mental, and somatic responses to these challenges – and to explore the possibility of “both/and” paths.
Another common experience of spiritual division emerges in our interior world, in the course of daily life, as our spiritual longings, aspirations, hopes, and goals bump up against the challenges of “how we are.” I’m talking about our conditioned behaviors and the habitual thoughts and feelings that seem to lead us in directions that we don’t want to go any more (which typically means away from our spiritual focus and commitment). This is a familiar inner conflict for many of us!
We may respond to these inner divisions with commitment to spiritual practices. Some paths encourage us to battle these habits, to exercise discipline. We may use the repetition of a familiar phrase (sometimes known as a mantra) to refocus our attention. We may pray. Other approaches encourage us to be aware of these distractions and “temptations” – observe, witness them – and simply practice returning our attention and intention to the deeper path we are following.
This is an important question: is it possible to be witness/be present with these inner visits without following them out the door to far-off places? Here is one possible response, in the words of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
A similar invitation is offered by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any mystery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? *
We are invited to bring our open-hearted attention to make space for these “visitors” and for the patterns they reveal, the possible insights and openings they offer. This response may feel challenging, but it also creates a kind of bridging space in which we are able to glimpse beyond the “divisions.” With practice, we can deepen our capacity to witness them, to be aware of them without fully identifying with them. We practice remaining both present and “free.
For many of us on a spiritual path, there is a deep longing – for peace, love, truth, “home.” Along the way it seems that we are often called upon to practice bridging…
* This quote is taken from Dropping the Struggle: Seven Ways to Live the Life You Have, by Roger Housden (p.41). I recommend the whole book!