There is such pressure to do everything full on and perfectly – including or especially the spiritual journey – that it induces guilt and even shame in people whose experience is more spotty. Like, most of us. It is the rare person who has an epiphany, an enlightened moment, the moment when everything makes sense now and forever, our life, habits and patterns forever changed. Some strive for it so ardently you can hear the strains of it as they talk about their spirituality, their practices, their connection to spirit. It has a ring of falsity to it and yet it arises from the pressure of perfection.
For most of us the spiritual journey is more like fits and starts. The moment of clarity arrives through some deep spiritual experience – in a meditation, on a retreat, in the presence of great spiritual teachers – or in a mundane moment of living – doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, having a shower (since there is no one way that these moments arrive and no right way) – or in the moment of great life transformations like marriage, divorce, having a child, being with a loved one as they die. Gradually, over time, the epiphany or moment of enlightenment becomes a bit obscured and then more so by attending to life, relationships, work, demands on our time and attention.
And then, something brings our attention back to the moments of epiphany – days, weeks, months, maybe even years later. We are reminded that this is our path. Instead of turning to embrace it, we often give ourselves a hard time – the itty-bitty-shitty committee that sits on our shoulder – for having strayed away from “the path”, for letting ourselves be overwhelmed by life. We give ourselves grief because we don’t light candles every day, or meditate or have some daily ritual that would ensure our spiritual purity. We forget to allow ourselves some grace and compassion in the journey of life.
In a conversation with a friend and colleague who I coach, she said she feels like she is looking away from the work she needs to do. It is a thought that carries weight and heaviness – not just for her but for everyone of us who has had this experience. It occurred to me as I listened that we may also be doing the work while looking away. This does not need to be mutually exclusive. There may be many reasons why we look away.
We might look away because we are distracted. Life has a way of bringing us many distractions as we live into work, relationships, health, dreams. We might look away because it is too intense right now and we need a buffer. We might look away because our body, mind, heart and spirit needs time to absorb what we are learning and experiencing. Absorbing is also part of the work. Allowing is part of the work. Self compassion is part of the work. Finding our way – even or especially in fits and starts is part of the work. Remembering is part of the work.
It is not a straight line between the first steps or awareness and the next or last steps. It is a winding journey that brings us to many experiences. This is part of the reason I wrote my memoir, Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness. It details the fits and starts of my own life journey – the moments of epiphany, the moments of losing my way, the experiences of being drawn back to the journey of openheartedness – because it illuminates the journey of an ordinary person fortunate to have extraordinary experiences that keep reminding me I am human and I am a soul at the same time. It keeps reminding me to focus on the soul journey and not the human tragedy version of the same story.
It is easy to lose our way. It is also easy to find our way back – if we allow that this is all a natural part of the journey of life. And we can still be doing the work – or the work is finding its own way in us – even when we are looking away.