The modern spiritual journey
A life crisis can be the thing that sends us on a spiritual journey. Through crisis we may realize that we have become attached to something – a relationship, an identity, even life itself.
Crisis gives us a taste of loss, and thus also a glimpse of liberation; off we go, seeking transcendence – from attachment, from ego, from the bonds of our old life. Up and away we soar, away from the dense matter of worldly stuff, up into the light of pure consciousness.
There is a particular flavour to the modern spiritual journey. It has its own ideology and its own language. It is secular, although tinged with eastern mysticism, and while practiced globally it is quintessentially American with its fierce individualism, emphasis on self-determination, and market-friendly accessorization.
The modern spiritual journey (MSJ) is built on self-empowerment, transformation, and perhaps above all, feeling good. Trouble may arise, but we’re told that it is always, ALWAYS, within our power to choose positive thoughts and transcend (if not transform) any circumstance.
The emphasis on feeling good is, interestingly, completely aligned with the desires of ego. It’s our ego that wants to feel good. And so here we encounter one of the fundamental contradictions that seems to run through the MSJ – we’re supposed to at once transcend the ego, AND use it as our compass.
We run into other problems on the MSJ. It simultaneously asks nothing of us – The universe made you absolutely perfectly. You deserve (and can manifest) anything and everything you desire. Everyone is responsible for their own feelings… And it asks everything of us – You and you alone are entirely responsible for everything you experience.
Consider this quote from a prominent leader of the MSJ –
Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.
In this view complex family systems, political and social systems (and systems thinking altogether) are all neatly dismissed. Your relationships with people, over time, in various circumstances, your relationship with the world, trauma you have suffered – none of this has any bearing on your choices. None whatsoever. The absolutism is punctuated at the end for effect. “Period.” Discussion over.
Another quote, typical of the MSJ –
You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.
What an incredible ideal to promulgate! You can control what you feel? Emotions? Desires? Fears? The entire world of inner experience is under your control? And not sometimes. Always. This is zealotry and fundamentalism at its extreme. There’s no curiosity here, no exploration, no “Please experiment, test this statement yourself and discern its truth.” It would be one thing if these kinds of ultimatums were meant (and taken) in the context of metaphor, but they are not. They are, amazingly, pure literalisms.
I’m not arguing against the modern spiritual journey per se. I have practiced it extensively in my own life and supported it in the lives of clients and other people around me. We all have a variety of tasks to attend to throughout our lives, and when our tasks align with developing personal responsibility, dropping negative beliefs, simplifying, letting go, and lightening up in general, the modern spiritual journey can be a valuable path. But like every path it has its shortcomings.
The MSJ seems to ignore certain troubles that come with being a human being. It also creates its own share of troubles, troubles it is inadequate for attending to. Such as – What if you discover that you can’t always control what goes on inside? What then? What if what goes on inside has its own designs for you, beyond your control? This question is not the domain of the MSJ. This sort of question, if we dare ask it, leads us on a somewhat different journey.
The soul journey
We could talk about a soul journey as something distinct from the modern spiritual journey. The soul has its own designs. It’s different from spirit, and different from ego. The soul cares nothing for feeling good. It only insists that you FEEL. The soul isn’t interested in controlling what goes on inside. It’s interested in EXPERIENCING what goes on inside, showering you with it in all its colour and texture.
The soul is not into transformation, transcendence, or the light at the end of the tunnel. It is content in darkness if that is where it finds itself. In fact, if the soul is hanging out in darkness and it feels that you are avoiding it because you don’t want to enter its realm, guess where you might find yourself? You then face a choice. Will you look for affirmations to get you into the light as quickly as possible? Or will you risk exploring the darkness on its own terms? This is what the soul asks, and, I believe, what poet Robert Bly alludes to when he writes “The candle is not lit / To give light, but to testify to the night”. Thomas Moore puts it in clearer terms, “It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.”
If spirit is lightness, soul is weighty.
If spirit is airy and fresh, soul is earthy and musty.
The spiritual journey asks you to pack lightly; soul collects steamer trunks.
Soul runs deep and is not afraid of getting dirty. If spirit loves a clear and empty mind, soul is a collector of images and meaning. If spirit’s interests are oneness and connection, soul’s interests are in the particulars of what defines you as an individual different from everyone else. If spirit seeks liberation from attachment, soul seeks a deeper exploration of all that we are attached to.
Why does this matter?
The modern spiritual journey is clean-cut and friendly. You can take it to work. As I’ve pointed out above, the modern spiritual journey is aligned in many ways with conventional American culture (positive thinking, self-determination, meritocracy, individualism, sound-bites and meme-length philosophy). The MSJ has also been commodified through books, television, yoga apparel, tea boutiques, sacred vacations, spiritual breakfast cereal, one-minute power meditations and zen everything.
Followed too far, the modern spiritual journey provides a customizable life alternative for those who can afford it. I know people who are so far on the modern spiritual journey that they can not tolerate the slightest conflict or discomfort. Their spirituality has become a kind of compulsion. Everything must be organic. The feng shui must be flawless. Their aura must not be darkened by any negativity… “It’s not bathed in white light, get it away from me!”
The soul journey contradicts the modern spiritual journey, at least in appearance. It can also be the antidote for the MSJ that has reached far enough and become blind obsession. But if we have internalized the ideology of the MSJ, we we may not recognize the soul journey when it comes calling. We may dismiss and resist it as non-spiritual (which it is, sort of). We may starve ourselves of soul in order to be faithful to spirit.
Soul does not care to lift you up, it wants to take you deep
Contrary to popular belief, the soul doesn’t want chicken soup (it doesn’t care about feeling good, it just wants to FEEL). The soul journey may steer you in the opposite direction of the modern spiritual journey. This can be disorienting. The soul is often inappropriate for work. You dress it up nice and it gets drunk and throws up on itself. You tell it I’m in charge of what goes on inside! and it responds with a heart attack and six months of depression.
While the MSJ lets you pick up and leave, soul nails you to the spot. It doesn’t let you go. The soul can be cumbersome and contrary. Passive aggressive. The soul is not “in the moment”. It has TONS of baggage – crates of dusty old family photos that it insists on showing you. No escape. Remember, it cares not for transformation. It knows who you are and holds you to it. This can be really annoying at times – frightening, embarrassing, or deeply fulfilling at others. But again, soul doesn’t exist to make you feel good, or to control or transcend feeling. Soul does not care to lift you up, it wants to take you deep.
In session, I work with clients who are immersed in either their modern spiritual journey of ascension, or their soul journey of deepening, or both. Or neither. It isn’t the terminology that matters. What’s important is feeding the parts of ourselves that are hungry. A hungry soul and a hungry spirit want different nourishment. If we listen, we may get to know the difference.
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