2012-02-11

Embrace Your Demons

Spiritual fitness is about inner wisdom guided by compassion; equanimity; inner and outer peace; replacing jealousy with mudita (taking joy in others' good fortune); replacing blame with compassionate understanding; replacing the illusion of separation and control with the awareness of connection and flow; a proclivity to periods of self-forgetfulness; and loving reality just as it is, even the hard parts. In yesterday's post, I sounded a cautionary note about the notion of spiritual fitness. If we "should" ourselves, or others, about being more spiritually fit, we undermine the shy spirit we are ostensibly wanting to encourage. If, then, we admire the traits of spiritual fitness and would like to cultivate them to a fuller flowering in our lives, is it possible to be intentional about doing that? Considering that question, I'll begin with the situation in which I find Unitarian Universalism today.

I love Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalists, and have committed my life to our faith. I love us, and I do want us to be all we can be. I know that one criticism of UUs goes like this:
Unitarian Universalists are dabblers and dilettantes -- highly knowledgeable and intellectually curious, but spiritually rather frivolous. They seem to think they understand the taste of the food just from reading the cookbook. They seem to believe they'll get strong muscles by attending a lecture on weightlifting. They may go to the "gym" once or twice, figure they've now "learned" it, and stop going. UUs, by and large, are not serious about their spiritual development.
Some of that criticism is unfair. The criticism results from misunderstanding the way that valuing diversity works. Our commitment to diversity and our appreciation of the rich rewards of a diverse community do not mean that each individual UU is committed only to diversity itself. It does mean that a UU’s spiritual practices include cultivation of, and delight in, affectionate relationships with others with different practices, perspectives, and understandings. "Include" does not mean "are limited to." Unfortunately, too many UUs themselves seem to have accepted the misunderstanding. Too many of us approach religious life as if diverse community were sufficient. Thus, the criticism has some partial truth to it. So here's what I want us to know:

Number one, know that it's not up to you. You can't make it happen. You can't fix yourself. Indeed, you're not broken, and can't possibly be any better. That's the first lesson, and that's also the last lesson, because only in rare moments do most of us manage to truly believe that.

Number two, in order to really "get" number one, there are some things that are up to you. There are spiritual practices that cultivate the attributes of spiritual fitness. "Cultivate" suggests a gardening metaphor, and, indeed, the gardener doesn't make the plant grow. The gardener cares for the soil, waters it, and pulls up weeds: she creates the conditions in which the plants can be unhindered to do what they do on their own. Plant growth, however, is much more regular and predictable than spirit growth. As cultivators of spirit, we are like gardeners who have no fertilizer and no irrigation. The seed is there, and we can till the soil and labor to pull up the weeds of fear, isolation, and anger. But drought, flooding, and the fertility of the soil are entirely out of our control. No matter what we do, this plant may grow quickly or very slowly; may grow for a while and then shrink, shrivel and appear dead.

"Meredith," you may ask me, "why would I undertake the discipline of a spiritual practice if I'm already perfect?" It's a logical question. I can only say that I started a spiritual practice because I didn't feel perfect. As contradictory as it is to judge myself for being too self-judgmental, that's exactly what I was doing (and, yes, still do).

I began spiritual practice because I was beset by my various demons. I had been fighting them for years, and was not winning. Apparent victories were temporary, fleeting. The fighting just gave the demons a good work-out and made them stronger.
There's nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight -- nothing that confuses them more than our embrace. (Philip Simmons, UUWorld)
Spiritual practices are ways to stop fighting. If I embrace my demons instead of fighting them, then they aren’t such a problem for me, or for the others in my life.

Embrace your demons
I can't make this happen, but what I can do is practice stepping back to see what my fears, my insecurities, my judgments of inadequacy might do on their own if all I do is steadily acknowledge them. What they do is start to fade away on their own. Of course, they don't entirely leave. They come back for visits. They send me a card on my birthday. They're so thoughtful, these demons!

I sit and try to notice the thoughts and feelings that arise: "There's judgment. Again. There's the judgment that I shouldn't have judgment. Again."  Don't resist. Just notice.

Will this do anything? Ah, this is why we call it faith. I take the leap of faith of opening myself to all those demons, opening my heart to the unknown, trusting that they will sort themselves out as they need to. I can't make myself be at peace. What I can do is pay loving attention to the things that give me turmoil. What I -- and so many others who have walked the path of spiritual practice -- have discovered is that the turbulent waves gradually get smaller, and further apart.

Tomorrow's Lake Chalice will look at the variety of spiritual practices and how you can determine what your Primary Spiritual Practice is.

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This is part 5 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."

Next: Part 6: "Finding a Spiritual Practice"
Previous: Part 4: "Being Judgmental About Being Judgmental"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"