Monday, March 21, 2011

Seeking for Spirituality: The Seekers Guide by Lesser

The Seeker's Guide (previously published as The New American Spirituality)The Seekers Guide by Elizabeth Lesser was recommended to me, so I thought I would give it a try. The book claims to "honor your unique religious roots, your need for discipline and morals, and your desire to belong to a community of fellow seekers."

The book is not simple or clear cut, but deep and soul searching. You have to struggle with this book like you might struggle to find God in your life. Instead of giving you all the answers, the book wants you to answer the spiritual questions yourself by following your heart. The book teaches you to work out your own salvation before God and to follow your hearts promptings. I didn't agree with everything in the book, but there were a lot of valuable lessons, including the following: 

America's brash materialism and excessive individualism often seem at odds with the spiritual impulse. How do I make daily life a meaningful spiritual adventure? By turning my attention to self-understanding and self-forgiveness. My spiritual goal is to be my most vibrant, peaceful, and grateful self, not to be right or to control others. It is to have a changed inner-heart that radiates outward.

The author teaches to use your own inner longing as your spiritual compass. Slow down, quiet the mind and allow yourself to hunger and thirst towards the abundant well of spiritual longing. It is human nature to hunger for the sacred.

She instructs us to unravel the garden-variety twine that is wrapped tightly around our hearts and minds.

Open your mind by experiencing many different cultures and learning about their religious traditions. Value every person equally.

In her 20's the author joined a community of saints that set themselves apart from the world. Singing and dancing were part of the spiritual rituals, as well as study, meditation, prayer and right behavior. They studied sacred texts, worshiped with each other on Sunday, adhered to a strict moral code that set to secure marriages and families (as early Americans had done in the founding years of the country). Straight living, hard work and daily prayer were important. They shared their possessions with everyone equally.  They gave themselves unselfishly to family and community. Selfless service and dutiful work ethic were vital. They farmed, cooked, delivered and raised babies, repaired and built homes, etc. "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God"  was the motto. For her, the path to God centered around children.

But then she felt there was something missing. She realized that she wasn't happy. She felt that she had completely cut herself off from the real world. She wanted to know if she could live her spiritual ways into a regular daily life. She realized that she couldn't be the perfect wife and mother. Something was going to give. In her search for another spiritual path she found that many who call themselves spiritual seekers are so irrational and hold so rigidly to their beliefs, that it is like they are trying to win a competition. She advises people to respect personal resistances as acquired opinions, not sacred truths.

We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.
--The Talmud

She found that it was erroneous to separate spirituality from everyday life. While spirituality is about bliss, it is also about balance. Without some degree of sacrifice for the greater good, spiritual self-discovery eventually leads to plain old self-indulgence.

Spirituality is an attitude of fearlessness...a growing acceptance of life on its own terms. A humility that we acknowledge what we do not know.

When we have an overload of information we tend to speculate and exaggerate and treat it as knowledge. Admitting that we don't know something doesn't come easy. Voicing innocence and a sense of wonder is difficult for us. However, it is often wiser to say, "God knows, I do not know." Better to admit not knowing and to relax in the mystery of life than to try to force our minds (speculate or add our own opinion) where they can't (and maybe shouldn't) go. Be patient to all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions. Be always ready to receive light and knowledge from heaven, but don't make stuff up based on what you think.

To long for peace or God or spirituality is quite natural. We pretend to be fine, strong, smart, hip, amused, or disinterested even when we are not. Most of us have become habituated to hiding our weakness and wonder. We construct brilliant masks. Revealing to ourselves and others our deep and soulful longings, our fear and sadness, our joy and wonder is the critical step on the spiritual path. Our spiritual longing is a gravitational pull in the direction of wholeness and truth. When we acknowledge that we don't know everything, the path home lights up from within.

Spirituality is an attitude toward everything- a daily choosing of a way to approach the different textures of life.

We live in a culture that is seriously split off from the nourishing pace and values of soul. Consider how you relate to family and friends. How is the health of your community? How is your personal health? How is the health of your environment? How do your children spend their time?

Our culture has also improved with time, such as with women's rights and other freedoms. We need to learn how to include the new freedoms and diversity while we transcend the bad in our modern world.

We need to let go of an unforgiving and judgmental attitudes towards family, friends and strangers. We need to let go of our blind faith in scientific progress. We need to stop our compulsive striving for material gain. We need to let go of the lack of community and civility in daily life. We need to slow down.

Americans often avoid the discipline work of real spirituality though an unrealistic and wasteful pursuit of shallow happiness. There's a disturbing underbelly of spiritual materialism in the plethora of self-help literature and spiritual-growth programs available today, so much so that it can appear that Americans' spiritual inclinations mimic our love of fast food and superhighways. Avoid anything that offers a quick fix, magical cure or eternal youth...anything that sounds like superstition. Do not cheat yourself on the spiritual path. Give yourself time and patience in pursuit of the truth. Spirituality takes hard work and the grace of God.

Rules of thumb:
Daily positive affirmations will probably not cure your cancer.
Thinking positively will not keep you from harm.
If you don't always get what you ask for when you pray it doesn't mean that you are praying wrong or that you lack faith. Learning to pray correctly for what you need, doesn't mean you will get it.
Only focusing on self-improvement will not heal society. We have to participate in the improvement of more than just ourselves (this does not mean be controlling, but rather be involved in social awareness and volunteering)
Your genes play a part in your personality. It is a myth that you can completely overcome those tendencies through study and faith. You can improve, but you can never entirely escape your gene pool, so stop beating yourself up.
Never blindly trust a spiritual leader who has double standards.

Your best guide is your own alert mind and sensitive heart.

We enter the realm of the sacred through prayer, meditation and right living. This realm already exists inside of our own hearts. Maslow observed that individuals who were the most healthy psychologically and spiritually had first satisfied their lower motivations - shelter, food, a source of income, etc. and moved up the hierarchy of needs. We must meet our lower needs first.

The author acknowledges that sometimes spirituality isn't enough. Sometimes prayer and study doesn't solve all of our problems and she suggests using a therapist in this case. Sometimes we lack the knowledge that we need to fix our problems and a therapist can help with this.

In therapy, we might learn for the first time that all relationships are difficult, that women expect a kind of communication from men that is rarely possible, and that we need to practice disciplined love and acceptance. We also need to unlearn some of the illusions and myths we have been telling ourselves over the years. Therapy can help you bring out the best female traits (relational, open, sustainable, nurturing, love, courage, wise, feeling, compassion, connections) and male traits (leader, achieve,  invent, independent, visionary, build, steady, rational, intelligent) that are in all of us.

We need to be both powerful and loving, clearheaded and openhearted in order for our voices to be heard and to make a difference. We need to have inner-self confidence so that we can send our energy outwards to others.

In spirituality we need to look for ways to control our thoughts. Meditation and guided relaxation practices can help with this. We need to fall in love with the present (whatever life gives us). This helps us get through the rough times with more grace, stability and dignity. Stop struggling with whatever occurs.

Reduce stress in your life. Do you need to take on that project? Do you really need the income? Could you make do with less "stuff"? Most people's lives would benefit from some degree of simplification. Do you want to have more time for your kids? Do you want enough creative energy to make your home one that nurtures bodies and souls? Can you put down the burden of an overextended life? The point is not to get rid of so much stress that you are bored and boring, but to find that balance.

Diet and exercise are often the simplest and most effective anti-anxiety agents available.

When we pay attention to how we react to situations we learn something about ourselves. Do we project our anger on to others? Maybe it is time to take a break. We need to learn to sit in the chaos of life.

Seek for the rapture of feeling alive. The goal is an awakened heart that feels everything there is to feel. We don't shut down or walk away when the feelings get troublesome. We stay and walk through it- we don't pull back.

Don't worry about what the world wants from you. Worry about what makes you more alive. Your real job is to increase the color and zest of your life. Let yourself be drawn to what you really love. Forgive yourself for your shortcomings.

Stop  projecting your lack of fulfillment onto other people and take your life into your own hands. Stop blaming other people and take responsibility for your own life.

Getting what you want does not mean having everything your way. We are fundamentally good and we want things for ourselves as well as for others. This means that we enjoy sacrificing for others as well as getting what we want. Making others happy is also our happiness.

Life is an opportunity to satisfy the hunger and thirst of the soul, but we shouldn't try to fill it with food, drink, drugs, sex or television. These things can never truly fulfill us. A hungry heart is a tender heart that stays open to the full experience of life. It is fearless. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart.

Trust in the your own values and be strong, don't waver. Have inner strength and courage.

When we don't get along with someone than that person becomes our spiritual path. Ask yourself what it is about that person that irritates or repels you, or perhaps its a group or organization that you despise. (It can also be bad if you idealize people or organizations to an extreme.) Do you try to control the people you don't get along with or who bug you? Do you feel superior to them? Working on this relationship is a priority for your spirituality. Take it slow. Learn to love.

Even as you change and become more understanding and heart-full, there will continue to be difficult people in your life, people who refuse to work on improving relationships. Take responsibility for your own part and let the other go. Sometimes you might have to walk away, not in anger, but in truth. We do need to sacrifice for others, but not at the expense at our own self-dignity.

Seek after the life that you feel good about. If you aren't feeling good about some aspect of your life then figure out how you can get back on the right path. Seek a life that sits well with your conscience. A life that helps you to grow, helps others, and creates a healthy, beautiful you, inside and out.


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