(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Last month when I contemplated what my April message theme would be, I intended to focus on spiritual practices that can elevate us – but which most people avoid undertaking.
Two weeks ago on Easter, I discussed how persevering through hardship is a way to renew and even resurrect our spirits. It’s a common cliche, but nevertheless true, that joy comes in the symbolic morning after a hard night’s struggle. For many of us, we learn and grow the most in the difficult times and it is that ironic truth we must remember when inevitable suffering happens.
Last week I examined how embracing inconvenience is another way to grow ourselves spiritually. By using technology too often – to make life more convenient – we can diminish the skills and abilities that make us human – like hard work or pushing ourselves to conquer a task. Technology can whisk us to the top of a symbolic mountain, but what is the satisfaction in that? It’s the challenging hike to the top of any figurative mountain, the road less taken, that provides our meaning in life.
Today, I plan to look at another road infrequently traveled – the one that ventures into our souls to understand and define the essence of who we are. While many of us say we are spiritual, the fact is that few people take the challenging journey of spiritual discovery. To deeply examine one’s innermost feelings and motivations, is to take a less traveled road – one that can be lonely and discouraging.
I’m not describing a mental journey where we determine what we spiritually believe. That road is important, but it remains an intellectual pursuit instead of one that ventures into the core of who we are. This road into our souls is how we transform ourselves into a more enlightened, kinder, peaceful and more aware person.
Almost always, such a path – if it is taken – arrives at a moment of transcendence – an ahah!, ecstatic awakening when scales symbolically fall from one’s eyes and we suddenly see and understand life, death, the universe and our role in them. Christians call this a born-again experience. Buddhists and Hindus say it is arriving at Nirvana – a state of total enlightenment. For Jews and Muslims, it is best described as being completely at one with God and her will.
For Humanists, Atheists and Unitarian Universalists, this journey to find a spiritual epiphany is one we often avoid. I confess to avoiding it simply because I can convince myself that personal transformation doesn’t come through mysterious moments. Spirituality for me is too often, and wrongly, confined to my head – and not my heart or even my proverbial “gut.”
I’ve come to realize, however, that a spiritual awakening is nearly identical for the religious and the non-religious, for theists – and for Atheists. I, along with many others, believe genuine transformation is to move outside one’s mind and body to find the part that is selfless and unconditionally loving to all people – including ourselves. In other words, I believe finding ones soul comes by sublimating one’s ego, needs, and desires.
All religions, and all Humanists and Atheists, share this same goal: being selfless to others is the one transformative, joyful, enduring and true endeavor we can make in life. It’s a road less taken – the difficult journey to let go, accept, be present, and find lasting peace.
I say it’s a hard journey because it involves giving up so much of what we normally think and practice. No matter how ‘others-focused’ we try to be, the truth is that almost all of us are obsessed with ourselves – how we feel, are we happy or sad, who has hurt us, who is our friend, what we think, what we want, what we do. My thoughts always come back to my sense of self and what is helpful or unhelpful, pleasurable or painful.
I know many people believe that unless we take care of ourselves, we cannot help others. Self-love, many say, is the path to love for others. And I don’t disagree with that. But the road to love of self and lasting peace comes not through self-ish-ness, but through self-less-ness. This is a truth I discussed on Easter: real joy comes by denying what one wants to instead persevere through what one doesn’t want. It also comes, as I said last week, by foregoing many conveniences and instead embracing the inconvenience of struggle and work. As a few of you noted in your talkback last Sunday, it is in the overcoming of a difficult obstacle that we find joy and satisfaction.
This is a strange irony to wrap our minds around. In order to truly love oneself and find lasting joy, one must deny oneself. We paradoxically get what we intentionally try NOT to get.
As I said, this is true for people of all religions, or of no religion. For Christians, the example is that of Jesus. By following his example and his teachings, one learns to forgive those who have hurt you, one turns the other cheek to an enemy, one is non-violent and gentle, one sacrifices and serves the marginalized, discriminated against, sick and poor. Every action of a transformed Christian should heed the standard – “What Would Jesus Do?” Let go of self in order to be at one with god – who has sacrificed everything in her love for humanity.
The Jewish faith approaches selflessness from a different perspective, but it too teaches that we are to sublimate ourselves to something much greater. Yahweh, a figure so great and so holy that Jews do not even say her name, is the force of truth, purity and goodness that they honor by doing all they can to live according to her standards. The wants and needs of the flesh are secondary to the dreams of the spirit.
In Islam, selflessness is called “Ithar” and it is the central teaching of that faith. Muslims are taught to sacrifice their needs for those of others and for the sake of being one with Allah. Ramadan fasting, five times daily prayer, modest dress, and charitable giving to others all represent a Muslim’s unselfish submission to Allah and her perfection.
And lastly, Buddhism perhaps perfectly teaches selfless ideals. They follow from three noble truths Buddhists believe: first, all things and all life are impermanent and will change; second, we have within us a “no-self” – a part of us that is similar to the soul – something connected to the wider universe instead of a personal identity; and third; suffering is unavoidable – we will all feel and experience pain.
These three Buddhist truths teach that we should stop taking happiness for granted. Once we each accept that we are a part of a universe that constantly changes – and with such changes pain will inevitably happen, then we will naturally let go of fear and resistance to suffering. We’ll stop worrying about life’s insults, bruises, illnesses and losses. We’ll simply BE. We’ll see ourselves as part of the endless flow of existence. No longer will my thoughts be about “me, me, me” – but about nature, other people and the cosmos – of which I’m just a minor part. And when I understand that truth, I’ll have arrived at an epiphany – a no-self – a place of pure and lasting peace, a state of Nirvana.
Each of these spiritual paths – Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – are of course unique. But they are also each valid – as is humanism and Atheism. They are all valid because, as I’ve said, each seeks the same destination. Whether one calls that heaven, Nirvana, total Love, or awareness of the universe, they’re all identical goals. We all want to find eternal peace. And that, each form of spirituality believes, comes only when we let go of ourselves to find oneness with all. The self transforms into “ALL-self.”
To undergo this transformation, to take this less traveled spiritual journey, is easy to talk about but so very difficult to practice. LIfe, I’ve learned the hard way, is not about me. It’s about ALL. It’s about the well-being of everything and everyone. It’s about being gracious in all things – in the joys I’m given, and the insults I receive. No anger. No self-pity. No ego driven desires.
To take a journey into the soul, I believe there are five practical steps that are each more difficult to practice than the preceding step.
- First, spend as much time in nature as possible. In doing so, we will come face to face with mountains, forests, oceans and things greater than ourselves. And we will come to see ourselves as part of all things. That is a major part of true spirituality.
- Second, we must be in community. When we intentionally join with others, we learn give and take. Mostly, we understand our need for others, and their need for us. In community, we discover other opinions and lifestyles. Being in community helps us spiritually grow – not for our sake – but for the sake of all.
- A third practical step on the journey into our souls is to confess, forgive and be compassionate. If we intentionally do these, we will be genuinely gracious and spiritual. When I hurt you and you forgive me, you’ve let go of self-focused feelings. When I confess my mistakes, I let go of my ego. When I’m compassionate, I prioritize your needs over mine. These are difficult tasks to always practice – but they’re essential for honest spirituality.
- Fourth, we should be grateful for the joys and pleasures we have. When I’m thankful, I realize that the well-being I enjoy happened not because of me, but because of external forces of goodness and love. I’m blessed not by what I’ve done, but by the kindness of others and that of the universe.
- Finally, and most importantly, we should meditate. We must spend intentional time to deeply reflect and ponder the diminishment of self and the empowerment of all. If I meditate on the truth of suffering, on the truth that my desires are all ego based, on the reality that my fears are all based on selfishness, I can let go. I can find my ahah! moment and move into a much more peaceful and contented state.
Five practical steps for the road less taken into one’s soul: Spend time in nature, be in community, forgive and confess, be grateful, meditate.
Dearest friends, the journey into the soul sounds easy. But as I’ve said, it is not. It is hard and trying. It is discouraging. I do not naturally want to let go of feelings I have toward those who hurt me. I don’t want to let go of my desires for pleasure and happiness. I don’t want to forego my desires, my pride, my little wounds every time you disagree with me.
And for that reason alone, it seems that achieving true selflessness by individuals or even societies is not possible. Some vestiges of self-interest must be an innate part of us. But that discouraging fact does not mean selflessness is not a worthy spiritual ideal – one comparable to what a god or goddess would be like – if they exist. It’s an ideal we should pursue even if we may never fully achieve it. Complete self-denial is likely an almost impossible goal.
But our souls, oh our souls, I believe they yearn to be free of the worries and fears of the flesh. Our souls yearn to rest in the silence and peacefulness of all things – of a universe whose rhythms beat with goodness and love not for any individual, but for everything. We sense these yearnings of our souls, but our minds and bodies rebel. I pray, I hope……that one day we will each summon the courage to plunge headlong into our souls and come out on the other side much more
And I wish you each peace and joy…
In the spirit of this morning, Michael will now play some music for meditation and in just a moment a nature video will begin. Use this time to reflect, meditate or pray. As you do so, reflect on what is your soul, your essence, your inner most being that defines you – not how others see you but how you truly are. Find, if you can in these moments, some peace….