Learning in the realm of Spirit

by | Apr 17, 2006

Spirit. No wonder I don’t write about this stuff more often. I truly don’t even know what to call it. Spirit? Consciousness? The Divine?
I know that, for me, characterizing the ineffable Isness/suchness/whatever of All That Is as the Universe feels like wimping out. I’ll do it, when that’s the native tongue of the listener, but it doesn’t cut the mustard for home use. The somewhat embarrassing truth is that God is the word that comes most naturally to me, but what God means in this point of light’s experience bears little resemblance to the anthropomorphized super hero cum meanie of my childhood. Except when it does, and that is where things get really interesting.
But that’s another topic for another day. For now, I’ll use the term Spirit to encompass those unseen forces, patterns, relationships, phenomenon that we cannot fully credit with the tools of objective science but that we cannot fully dismiss.
Here’s what’s interesting to me right now: learning in the realm of Spirit.
If you have a meditation or prayer practice, you are on one sort of learning path in this realm. With or without a Deity at the end of the path, you are presumably learning something. How to sit still, if nothing else. But what else might we learn in this realm of Spirit?
I suspect we might learn a great deal. We might, for example, learn to see each other in profoundly different ways. We might learn to apprehend what it is we have in common with at least as much perceptiveness as we use to apprehend our differences. I’m not talking about the syrupy and sentimental glaze that sometimes passes for agape or acceptance. I’m talking about something more muscular and discerning, a sense that can penetrate to the absolute shared ground of our being without being deluded by wishful thinking or despair or cynicism.
How would it be to learn to live as if our every move were an astonishing, sacred variation in an ongoing dance of creation AND to live as though this were also true of each of our fellows AND to do this with our senses wide open to reality. Perhaps this is something like the sense/sensibility with which Krishna exhorts Arjuna to go into battle and be the terror of his enemies.
Why does this interest me?
Because I’m beginning to see myself, the world, other people, even thought itself in a new way. In some senses, this new way isn’t new at all. It bears a fractal resemblance to my first-grade understanding of the Baltimore Catechism (Who made the world? God made the world.) and to my teenage passion for non-violence, ending racism, and feeding the hungry, not to mention my fascination with Jungian psychology through my 30s and early 40s.

Irresistible digression: Fractal Food

What’s different, is that these and countless similar predecessors of what I’m noticing now were myths, beliefs, or theories that explained life reasonably well (or not). What I’m noticing now is more like direct perception, and I have to tell you, it doesn’t look like anything I might have expected.
Which leads me to back to learning. When I learned to walk, all I knew was that other people used a method of locomotion that appealed to me. At some point, I realized that walking was best approached with one’s feet on the floor as opposed to, say, one’s head or hands. Eventually I realized that moving would require some action on my part, and I went about the lengthy process of figuring out how my feet related to my ankles, etc., and how one might cause them to move. Oh, and then there was the move and don’t fall down part.
In other words, I was not an overnight sensation in the walking game. But I’m realizing that I’ve expected that spiritual advancement or so-called higher levels of consciousness are attainments that you either have or you don’t. You’re either enlightened or you’re not.
If there is any real progress to be made in the realm of spirit (and I might apply this argument to other metaphysical domains such as telepathy and precognition and remote viewing), then isn’t it likely to be made clumsily, slowly, and by learners who don’t have a theory to guide them? (Yes, my mom knew how to walk, and she helped me practice. But she didn’t teach me the theory first, thank God.)
I’m not entirely off my rocker, so I won’t claim that having a theory bars one from spiritual progress. The theories I’ve had have kept me trying and have, for better or worse, suggested some strategies and tactics for moving forward. The difficulty is that these prior theories each seemed to point to an end to the road, which ill prepares us for the reality that this journey has more stages than a cat has lives.
Reading the mystics in my Catholic-Christian tradition helps, but even their firsthand descriptions of the spiritual life belie aspects of my roundabout experience. Take the dark night of the soul. St. John of the Cross* did a great service by writing about it, but geez, did he really experience just one? Have things changed that much since the 16th century?** (Well, just possibly. Maybe someone should tell the Pope.)***
My experience with spiritual growth has been akin to the life cycle of a monarch butterfly, which sheds its skin five times during the larval phase alone. Then it hangs upside down by two legs (the monarch equivalent of hanging off a cliff face by one hand) as it passes into the pupa stage, during which it is encased in a chrysalis of varying degrees of hardness. Finally, the butterfly emerges through what I imagine to be a terrifying crack in the chrysalis. It has tiny wings and is very vulnerable until the veins in its wings have been pumped full of fluid (conveniently provided in the butterfly’s abdomen) causing them to expand. During this astonishing and doubtless disorienting process, the butterfly hangs upside down.
Yes. I am anthropomorphizing. But my flights of imagination regarding the butterfly are based on my lived experience. This was not what I expected when I made my first Communion (now called Eucharist). It’s not even what I expected after Confirmation. If anything, I’d rather expected these sacraments to protect me from disorientation, fear, and confusion.

Digression: Monarch Movie

As I wrote in my newsletter last week:

Just as there is sense and nonsense in the world of essential oil, there is sense and nonsense in the realm of the Spirit. In the case of the oils, I recognize that there is a learning curve. In the realm of Spirit, I’ve tended to be less tolerant of learning, quick to sort what can’t be seen into tightly drawn categories. That’s hocus pocus; that’s God. It has seemed important to know which side of the line I was on.
… The distinction between what I can reliably and consistently witness or produce out of diligent practice and the haphazard, seemingly random, results of magical thinking, might be at least in part due to a learning curve I had failed to perceive. What if, at least in certain respects, the difference between sense and nonsense is practice?
I’m in a learning curve now, and that means I am gloriously lost (except when I feel terribly confused). I find myself at the ripe young age of 52 enchanted by the world around me and wondering why on earth I would resist or reject or doubt any of the incredible goodness that is available all around me. I am studying all the ways in which Life supports life, from the marvels of breath, gravity, and wind to the magic (there, I said it) of light, emotion, and community. (Uh oh. The C word.) And then there are the times when I simply wonder if I’ve lost my mind, not to mention the times for doing laundry, answering email, petting the cat.

I was a bit nervous about sending that out, and thus I’m especially grateful for blogger Tammy Vitale’s response:

Molly Gordon’s Authentic Promotion ezine came in yesterday. I credit Molly with my winding up here typing. I believe that she was my first ever ezine which lead to many others which lead to myspace (actually Husband led to myspace – he said I’d like it), which lead getting a website (two, the first one having gone obsolete with the absence of the webmaster) to here.
Anyway, this came in yesterday from Molly, Volume 8, No. 5, April 14, 2006 and also fit pretty well with some of the discussion I’ve been having around art as well as the title of this blog: Weaving it All Together, so I’m sharing a piece of it with you and urging you not only to go get the whole thing, but also to subscribe as Molly’s take on life is “right on” (for those of us of a certain age)(I’m older than her).

Snip. At this point Tammy quotes the same bit I’ve already quoted and goes on to say,

“What if the difference between sense and nonsense is practice?” – That’s one I’m taking to the bank!

Tammy, I couldn’t have said it better myself. 😉


* When I looked up John’s dates, I also discovered that he his work on dark nights was unfinished (by his own lights) when he died. Nice to know.
** For an excellent contemporary exploration of the Dark Night experience, see The Dark Night of the Soul, A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth by Gerald May, a psychiatrist and senior fellow at the Shalem Institute. You may also be interested in Putting on the Mind of Christ by Jim Marion.