By Marlene Winell
This is a transcript of the keynote address at the annual meetings of the Eremos Institute of Australian Spirituality in Sydney, Nov. 19, 1996. In the talk, Dr. Winell addressed the need to understand spirituality more broadly and to find ways to experience spirituality in daily life. The monopoly claimed by fundamentalists is rejected in favor of personal responsibility and creativity when defining what is spiritual.
I’m here today to share with you my thoughts about spirituality and wholeness. However, I want to be clear that I am not speaking as a guru with grand conclusions. I think we share in this task of looking afresh at spirituality after the trauma of rigid religion. So, forgive me if I do not have answers. I have become a healthy skeptic and prefer to simply discuss evolving thoughts on the matter.
But first let’s go back and look at fundamentalism for a minute. My book, Leaving the Fold, was written for people who have decided to leave and recover from an authoritarian religion like Christian fundamentalism. Yet the attractions of the fold are very strong. It’s a comfortable cocoon where you are taken care of in some wonderful ways. You are given answers to all of life’s difficult questions, you are reassured about death, offered safety and protection from the world and Satan, you have acceptance and intimacy with God, and you have a tightly knit community for social support and constant affirmation of your worldview. For many people, surrendering to an all-encompassing external system of authority is a huge relief and comfort. Being saved gives you a giant stamp of approval from on high so therefore you can accept yourself and that feels great. Are there people here who know what I am talking about?
Yet there is a price, and it is this price that often propels people to leave. Membership in an exclusive group which is right while everyone else is wrong requires obedience and relinquishment of individual identity. In exchange for the benefits I just described, you give up your right to your own thoughts and feelings. You are taught to completely mistrust yourself. The system also denigrates the rest of the world and teaches you to mistrust anyone outside the group. In essence, there is a high cost of separation–from other people, the world, and the self. Other people are objects, either objects of fellowship or objects of conversion. Your purpose in this world is only to prepare for the next and to warn others. There is so much dichotomous thinking and judging and dividing into right and wrong, godly and worldly, that life itself is fragmented and repressed. Creativity and spontaneous feeling, not to mention animal instincts, are woefully suppressed.
For many of us, this package deal just became impossible. We matured and craved the personal integrity of believing our own experiences. We wanted to be alive now, and connect with other people with appreciation instead of judgment. We ventured out, despite the fear of becoming lost, and eventually found our own paths. In my book, I have gone into various aspects of recovery, centering primarily around trusting yourself again.
In my own case, it took many years to shed old beliefs and develop a new approach to life. For a long time I knew I felt better but I worried about the arrogance of going my own way. Then one night I had a dream in which I found myself in heaven. I was confused and said, “But I’m not a believer.” Then I gradually felt the presence of God and realized that he liked me. I was surprised and wondered why. He told me that people are misguided about the criteria for heaven. He said, “You’re here because you dared to live.” When I woke up I was amused at first and then deeply reassured that I was on the right track. And for a long time I had ignored and avoided any semblance of religion or any mention of God. My fundamentalist religion had monopolized God for so long that I couldn’t conceive of any other kind of faith or spirituality. I still have trouble with church services and religious vocabulary.
Many of my clients have also talked about spiritual damage where they feel they have been robbed of the nurturing and healing potential of a spiritual life. It’s hard to turn to a “higher power” if you feel that is the source of your injury. However, for many people who leave a rigid religion, they return to the idea of spirituality after a time, wanting meaning and connection with something profound beyond their individual lives. People who have been religious often retain an interest in broad issues and a consciousness of deeper levels of experience.
As one man put it: “It’s funny, I don’t think I’ve quite quit praying, though there was a time when I fought a religious orientation. Sometimes it feels depressing. Sometimes it feels okay and I do some reading. Periodically I go to church. I feel less of a need to tie everything up in my life now, and make sure that I know where everything fits. I still have this abiding faith inside of me that transcends the situation and the circumstances and churches and experiences I’ve had in my life. It feels like an anchor. All this other stuff swirls around that I react to and respond to, and I might even move away from that anchor periodically, but I always come to the realization that it’s still there–an abiding faith. But I get confused about what I believe, what the deity is–if it’s this kind of Judeo-Christian god, or some other. I don’t know that part.” In my way of thinking, reclaiming spirituality is like other areas of healing and growth after fundamentalism. It becomes a matter of taking responsibility for one’s own spirituality. It needs to be redefined and personalized by each individual.
Unfortunately, the word spirituality is often laden with old meanings: obedience, religiosity, piety, ethical or moral behavior, denial of worldly pleasures, concentration on matters of cosmic concern, or a focus on mystical experience. Usually the implication in church circles is that spirituality is special and separate from ordinary everyday life. The danger is that creating a category of sacred also creates the unsacred and thus another dichotomy in which one part is superior. In my experience and that of others I have talked with in my work, there is a strong need to stop judging and to embrace all of life. Spirituality must be life-enhancing, not an escape from life. It also must be honest, which means a recognition of what is, not what we wish life to be, or how things should be.
In many religious traditions, a spiritual practice is an effort to find a place of no conflict. Peace of mind is the goal, at all cost, including massive denial and withdrawal. Yet life is not like that. Life is messy, with chaotic surprises, difficult times, and painful disappointments as well as times of triumph and celebration. So living fully must involve courage. And we use the words courage and courageous when there is an element of fear. You have courage when you have fears and you act anyway. You may not have the certainties of a fundamentalist religion, but that does not keep you from having faith, faith in life.
Joseph Campbell said, “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.” He recommended finding your life’s true passion and following it. “Follow your bliss,” he said. You have a right to your bliss–to any form of spirituality you want. But to reclaim it, you need to explore it yourself, and find out what it is for you, making it personal and nurturing. Spiritual has the word “spirit.” A “spirited” person is a person full of life. Not shrinking. Taking responsibility for co-creating one’s life. Willing to reflect honestly, examining values and making choices.
For some people their spirituality may include retaining and reaffirming portions of their faith that are still valuable for them. Because of prior indoctrination, it can feel like high heresy to value and cherish only certain portions of scripture or to relate to Jesus or pray to God in your own way. Thus it may help you to know that there are many, many people who would support you in your desire for a more accepting and nurturing Christianity. Spirituality is not simply obedience to a code, no one owns God, and no group owns the Bible.
One woman described it this way: “I still believe there is some promise there. When I look at some of the things that Jesus said, they seem brilliant to me, like “Love one another,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I find the church I attend is all right for me now. I can go there and most of the time I don’t come out of the worship service all screwed up. . . I enjoy the liturgy and the rituals involved with it. And nobody tells me what I have to or can’t believe. . . So that’s why I still consider myself a Christian, but not a Christian in the way that people wanted me to be. I believe in the best, and the stuff that’s not the best, I just leave by the roadside. I just don’t listen to it. “Sometimes I feel myself starting to slip back into fundamentalist things again, and then I’ll go through a period where I just hate God and I hate Jesus and I don’t want to hear another word about this nonsense. And then I finally come to what I hope is equilibrium, which is that I need spirituality in my life and that the form of that spirituality which happens to fit with me is a belief in God and Christ.”
Many church groups respect a wide range of individual interpretation of scripture and worship. Doubts and questions are encouraged as part of the quest for integrity. They often value things like love, joy of living, and social change much more than conformity to doctrine. There is comfort with ambiguity, with not having all the answers, and even with celebrating the mystery of it all. In your quest for a new, personal spirituality, you also have the option to explore new religions and philosophies. People who have been raised with only one way to think are often amazed when they start reading widely. However, this does not mean you simply replace one dogmatic system with another. An important part of the process is learning to trust your own judgment and your own need for information.
Some former fundamentalists tend to continue looking outside themselves for guidance on spiritual matters. Yet even the most enlightened system can become rigid and dogmatic, robbing you of your self-reliance. The search for another guru, another personal growth workshop, another author, can be endless, and the dependency continues. Another common reaction is the feeling of having been “burned” by adhering to a rigid belief system and thus finding it difficult to benefit from any kind of organized group experience. Your new found trust in yourself can feel like a precious commodity, and you don’t want to give over your thinking capacities to someone else’s “truth.” At the same time, you may want to incorporate the wisdom of others in your spiritual growth. A fine source of guidance on this point appears in Ram Dass’s Journey of Awakening (1978), in the chapters on picking a path and finding your way. Here he explains that there are many paths, no formulas for enlightenment, and that the real goal is liberation. He recommends that you learn from whatever teacher or group that you wish, even submitting to that leadership for a time, until you have learned enough and need to move on. He reminds us of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”
In the language that I use, this approach means you are taking responsibility for yourself. Your adult can be sensitive to the needs of your inner child and actively draw lessons from your environment without losing yourself in someone else’s journey. Ram Dass also points out that if you stay grounded, there is no need to fear the influence of teachers or groups. In fact, all of life can teach you. He quotes Suzuki who says, “When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.” Finding your spiritual path is a personal creative process. Father Leo Booth emphasized this in Breaking the Chains (1989): “God is understood as the Creator: We need also understand that God is creating–and He/She is especially creating in and through our lives. We are co-creators with God. We are not puppets on a string waiting for “something to happen.” We make things happen. We create the difference. In our determined choice, the miracle exists.”
Your own ideas about spirituality might be quite vague now and this is fine. Spirituality can be as simple as connecting with nature, intimacy with others, or appreciating the life force. One way to get a better sense of your present notion of spirituality is to express yourself visually, letting go of words and just drawing with crayons or pastels. You can just relax and let the process unfold without consciously planning a picture or being concerned about the product. I did this in a small group of people who found the process to be reassuring and exciting–they found that they did indeed retain a sense of spirituality. Here are some of their comments about their drawings:
Carol: The thing that comes up for me is how undefined my experience of spirituality is these days. There are no set forms that I am aware of. What stands out here is this dark black ball of energy. It feels like a lot of power, with a wavelike quality to it. Sometimes there’s momentum or intensity. My spirituality doesn’t have any concepts attached to it anymore. It’s coming out of the unknown. But it’s filled with power and it’s filled with creative juice. Out of this comes all of these colors and the colors represent energy. . .energy in motion. There are a lot of emotions I am knowing. It just feels like all of creation comes from this place and I don’t need to be concerned about it taking on any form. Plus, I feel much more open to new ideas, to other people’s experience. Things don’t fit or not fit. It’s not black or white. It’s like everything is included; everyone’s experience of God or nonGod is equal to me these days. If someone has this tremendous realization of God, saying “God is on the mountain,” and someone else is into their booze every night, it’s equal to me. There isn’t a better or worse in all of this. In fact, I question it all and am equally curious about it all. Like “What’s your experience in your bottle?” and “What’s your experience on the mountain?” There’s no hierarchy in this spirituality. It’s very organic and it comes from this darkness of not knowing. This place of “I don’t know.”
June: There’s a sun here. I do feel there is light and there is something of the wonderful heat. I love the sun. And so there is that penetrating deep heat and light that I really appreciate. Over here is the other side which was a black cloud with drops, a lot of movement, and in the center of it is a place of nothingness from which everything else can come–a significant center–and these were like tears too. The whole emotional process is something cleansing, just like after a rain everything is made new. And these are just the first roots. And from them comes growth and expansion and life and healing. This is movement, which feels to me to be very much a part of god and Goddess. This just felt like forgiveness to me. I put some on the sun because it shines on everybody, it’s not discriminating. This was passion and sexuality. . . and this is just the spiraling kind of enfoldment, the nature feeling that God is everywhere. There is something larger, and I am a part of it, but it is all around me. And this is my own female, my own version. And laughter, humor.
Janet: I just kept feeling that where I am at now is to just clear out. I just want to clear out all these concepts–all this right and wrong and all that kind of thing. So for me spirituality is a lot rawer, a lot gutsier, a lot more spontaneous. I kept thinking, clear all the judgments out. I kept feeling energy, all this energy. Spirituality is everything. Doing the drawing felt good. For so many years it’s been a group process–basically thinking the same things, feeling the same things, that it is much more personal now. It almost doesn’t matter if anyone agrees with me. This is it.
Darla: This drawing has an aspect of direction, moving in a direction. This is a center, an intensity, mostly having to do with being present. I don’t want to go through life being half asleep. These things coming out are the creative energies that are coming from that center, from that sense of being present: the involvement, the contribution, the engagement with life, with the world. And then these arrows coming in are the other side of that: The receiving, the openness, the acceptance, the greediness of life, whether it is good, bad, or ugly. Letting it in. Letting life in. And this has a symmetry, an order, a beauty. I am amazed at some of the things we know from science, especially physics. It’s incredible the way things work. It’s almost like a machine wheel where it just fits. The other stuff can be wild and chaotic and full of energy. And at the same time there is this order. I’m still not sure of what words to use for that, except that there is a perfection about it.”
The next question people usually have about spirituality is what to do about it. Over the centuries and in different societies, people have developed various ways to cultivate spirituality. Many faiths include devotional practices, including prayer, contemplation, and meditation. The concept of prayer may be problematic for you if it still feels connected with your old religion, but prayer can mean something entirely different. One person told me: “For years I couldn’t even hear the word prayer; it turned my stomach. But finally I began looking at that. It was a hard period in my life. I felt I needed to pray, and I didn’t know how to do that. Then suddenly it occurred to me that I had been doing it. Prayer was really listening, not talking. That made a big difference to me because it was permission to listen to everything. You know, it’s interesting that Christians are always talking to God. They never shut up, do they? I mean, they never listen or pay attention. They’re so busy building a fantasy about what life is really like. They tell him what he wants them to do.”
As you consider your own newly defined spirituality, you may want to nurture it in some way. For some people, time spent in nature is of spiritual benefit. This may be a daily walk, day trips, or longer retreats designed to connect with the natural world. Other people find spiritual satisfaction through attentive parenting and making sure they have “quality time” with their children when they can be childlike as well. Many individuals make use of music and art to experience and expand their spirituality. In the act of creation, artists will often describe an ecstatic experience of “flow” as they connect with a larger creative force. This brings me to an area of concern that has become more clear and important to me recently.
Spirituality in traditional terms, whether in Western or Eastern religion, has not emphasized creativity. This is because believers are taught to bring themselves in line with authority and hence to fear themselves. In the East, you are also taught renunciation of the self in a quest to unite with all of existence. Self-interest and self-centeredness are the worst traits to exhibit, and in traditional Christianity it is the essence of sin. All of our training has emphasized giving and doing for others and guilt for thinking for oneself. Yet concern for self is not only normal and natural, but necessary for health. In my therapeutic vocabulary, this means a person’s adult self must provide for their inner child. This is not to say that self-interest is above concern for others. That would be another dichotomy, another form of either/or thinking. But an unfortunate legacy of religions that teach self-denial is a divided psyche. People are at war with themselves, consciously or unconsciously and unaware of the root of the trouble.
This topic is taken up brilliantly in the book, The Guru Papers, by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. These authors examine authoritarianism of all forms and the ways that dualistic thinking affects our culture. Much of our thinking is still in terms of good and evil, healthy and sick, creator and creation, real and false, living and dying, order and chaos, control and surrender. Most devastating is the way we live with so much inner conflict. We still try to live up to ideals which are often unlivable standards. As a result we judge and disown parts of ourselves. This creates a constant inner tension and a powerful tendency to project and judge others.
We pit our “goodself” against our “badself” in an ongoing battle. These selves are not actually good and bad but are treated that way. In truth, the goodself has aspects one would be far better off without; while the badself contains elements that need to be legitimized and expressed. They typically have the following characteristics: the goodself is responsible, reliable, truthful, temperate, industrious, and productive; works on self-improvement, delays gratification, does not hurt others, obeys the rules, and puts someone or something other than oneself first. The job of the goodself is to remain in control to ensure these values are lived up to.
The badself is the unwanted part of the self. It cares little about future consequences or effects on others, manipulates people, is hedonistic and reckless, more interested in fun than accomplishment, pushes against boundaries and taboos, flirts with danger and when crossed it displays so-called negative emotions and behaviors such as anger, pettiness, and vengeance. People usually identify with the goodself and this is supported by authorities in society. Yet the effect can be puritanical and repressive as the goodself fearfully tries to control the badself. Much of self-centeredness and carnality is relegated to the badself where it is distorted. This also suppresses spontaneity, creativity, and enjoyment for their own sake because these expressions often undermine the goodself’s control mechanisms.
Thus you can see how we develop our own inner authoritarian. We can become driven to be good enough and at a deep level, fear and mistrust ourselves. And then with a world filled with divided selves, it is no wonder that there are deep divisions and wars between cultures. Spirituality can be considered that process of bringing together all the parts of who we are in a loving wholeness. What we need in ourselves and in our world is to accept the oppositions and include them in a continuous, moving process. Each side is necessary for the other and is embedded in the other. There can be an interplay between polar opposites that informs and feeds the whole. We need to be both selfish and selfless, altruistic and egoistic, giving and taking. We need both control and surrender, individuation and merging. We need to act creatively with forcefulness and receive with humility.
In simple terms we need to make friends with ourselves, allowing every part to be acceptable. The inner child needs to be loved in every way, not just for being good. In conclusion, I believe spirituality is synonymous with life. It is not something to search for, it exists in the fabric of the everyday. It is the whole of reality, not something separate or ideal. We do not need to strive and change, but rather celebrate everything that already is. We can open ourselves to the wonder around us, here and now, not in the hereafter. We can reclaim our inherent spirituality. Take it back from authorities who would define it and try to monopolize it. Cherish your spirit-filled life as only you can live and understand.
Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. Frog Books, 1993.
Leo Booth, Breaking the Chains: Understanding Religious Addiction and Religious Abuse. Scp Ltd. 1989
Ram Dass, Journey of Awakening. Bantam, 1982
Exercise: Spirituality Sketch (referred to above)
One way to get a better sense of your present notion of spirituality is to express yourself visually, letting the process unfold without conscious control or planning. Get some paper and crayons or pastels and find a place to relax. Close your eyes and breath deeply, allowing images and feelings to form in your mind that suggest spirituality to you. You do not need clearly defined pictures, only a place to begin. Then take your crayons and draw something to symbolize your feelings. As you work, more images develop. Trust the process, and record whatever arises. This is not meant to create pretty pictures or fine art. Instead it is a representation of intuitions you have from your deepest level of being. lt may not be complete; it may simply be a suggestions of your ideas at this point in time. When you are finished with the visual work, turn your paper over and write some words to describe your ideas about spirituality. The writing will help you get additional clarity and affirmation for your insights.