Where did I leave off from? Right here with Part 1: Leaving the Church of Self-Improvement for the Temple of Me.
To read the entire feature now, click HERE to download the PDF and tap into the designed reading experience.
I was waking up. I noticed that some very public people preaching tolerance were actually profoundly intolerant. I recognized the same evangelical forcefulness in the holistic community as could be found at any Baptist rally, despite the progressive, rainbow-colored branding. My disappointment and disgust spurred me to look for authorities who were The Real Thing.
Because I was such a self-help keener, I made concessions for the general uptightness—and deadly boringness—of many of the teachers I came into contact with, which is to say, I sat through a lot of dry lectures feeling odd about being underwhelmed.
As fascinating as they potentially could be, I didn’t find conversations about the constructs of reality very useful for decreasing emotional pain or increasing my everyday happiness. I deeply comprehend that time is an illusion, but my mortgage payment has a due date. And we’re all aware that waiting on a dream feels like forever. Peace started to have more appeal than metaphysical cool. When it came down to it, I just wanted a sense of ease in my being, not an intellectual challenge.
“Note to all you fellow seekers: Ease will elude you if you’re forcing yourself to be interested in things you’re not really interested in.”
I thought that learning to tolerate my foibles and desires was an achievement in self-compassion. But tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Tolerance keeps you on guard—you are, effectively, only managing degrees of agitation.
“Acceptance is the gesture of surrender that unleashes your real power to truly love—and keep on creating more love.”
I began to long for another way of aspiring, a fuller way of worshipping. I wanted to create an ecology for my life that included the rapture of meditation and guilt-free guilty pleasures, a way to live from pure intention without forsaking my primal preferences for, say, telling someone off, sleeping in, the occasional smoke after dinner, and staying up too late to watch stupid movies. I wanted a sophisticated devotion to life without sublimating my human wants—I wanted to lighten up.
We want a path that would not be opposed to our life, a life that would not be opposed to our path. We want to attain a plentitude without denying life’s marvelous effervescence; we want a light and moving joy that would bring us to a larger, more all-encompassing experience of reality.
—Daniel Odier, Tantric Quest
I became interested in a different type of spiritual story—the ones of departure and rebellion. Zen roshis who loved their liquor, nuns who left the convent for romantic love. I was on my twelfth year of vegetarianism when I heard that the Dalai Lama had started eating meat at his doctor’s insistence. Rad! I thought.
Enter my favourite dark angel, Leonard Cohen:
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Thomas Merton, a much-respected American Trappist monk, fell in love with a nurse who was tending to him. “I am humbled and confused by my weakness, my vulnerability, my passion,” he wrote of their connection. After ending the relationship, he recommitted himself to his vows.
“This got me thinking. What vows have I taken that I am unconscious of? What unspoken promises have I made that are restraining me? And it dawned on me: “Holy fuck. I’m trying to impress God.” Holy fuck indeed.”
Fully realizing the absurdity of trying to impress God took a while to process. That striving behavior was all tangled up with Fantastically Flawed Premises. I knew “God” to be the Life within all things. And that being the case, I concluded that there is no beneficent being outside of myself who is keeping score.
Steadily, as I have given myself permission to want what I want without backing away from the intensity of the desire or apologizing for how it could be categorized by others, I’ve stepped into truer inspiration for spiritual exploration. Most simply put: I want to know Love, be Love, give Love—all for the sake of Love.That makes the metrics of enlightenment pretty simple.
THE BRILLIANCE OF JOY
There are times to purify, times to rectify, and times to sanctify. We should do these things for our consciousness, our bodies, and our environment with faithful consistency. We should seek to be more, but only if it is to be more of ourselves and there is rapture in the seeking.
So how do we liberate ourselves from chronic striving for self-betterment? It’s complexly uncomplicated.
Own your desires.
Make joy a priority.
The journey to sovereignty is spectacularly bloody. That’s why the journey calls for a Hero. You will have issues. You will lose sleep. You will be tormented with decisions of right and wrong and by worries about What will they think? You will be gutted by loneliness. There will be demons of doubt feeding on your insecurities and spitting the past in your face, telling you that you don’t really deserve to be free and that bliss is not possible and that you’ll just fall apart if you get it anyway. You’re gonna have to wield your inner light saber to slay those bastards.
When joy is the aim, you will stretch with your whole Soul to reach it. Your satisfaction will begin to eclipse your need for approval and acceptance. You won’t have time to validate your choices or keep score because you’ll be too busy with pleasure.
You will touch joy and suddenly realize that you have never felt joy because it requires abandon. It grows from gratitude and cannot exist where there is mad cynicism or distrust. You will touch this joy and you will suddenly know it is what you were looking for your whole life, but you were afraid to even acknowledge the absence because the hunger for it was so encompassing.
—Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World
THE POINT OF LIGHT
To be very clear, it’s not the pursuit of illumination that frazzles us, it’s the motivation beneath the pursuit. What’s driving your habit to improve? Are you fixing your flaws, or are you exploring your potential? Are you inviting the real you to emerge, or are you trying to cure your so-called shortcomings?
So many books and blogs and supplements. So many opinions about what’s best for your mojo and your psyche. The “patch up your Soul” approach, and the “look everywhere but at yourself” blundering is part of discovering your authentic spirituality. Traverse the dark to find the light. Leave home to return home.
Of course my sense of self became clearer with many of the theories and habits I tried on for size. (Except for some conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials; those just freaked me out. And the whole concept of Soul Mates—that screwed up my love life for a while.) But so many of my heartfelt preferences and inclinations got muffled along the way. And too often I felt like I was just below the summit of what I was climbing, climbing, climbing for: Rapture. Peace. Freedom.
But do I feel free?
This is where, at the juncture of aspiration and the compulsion to improve, I asked myself a question of reckoning: Is everything I’m doing to be well and liberated actually helping me to be well and liberated?
“You can’t seek approval on your way to sovereignty.
You can’t restrain your way to joy.
Freedom does not come from a checklist.
If liberation is a chore, it isn’t really liberation, is it?”
Here’s what I’ve always known at the center of my center, despite acting otherwise for long periods of time and paying a lot of experts and programs to convince me that the opposite was true:
I am not a problem to fix. And I’m certainly not defective. I am fucking glorious. My darkness always circles back to the light. There is order to my chaos. My heart is broken on a daily basis and for that I am on-my-knees grateful. I am the entitled Ruler of My Own Life, a tender devotee of desire, ancient and newborn, a Medicine Woman Priestess Powerhouse, a Soldier of Love, an Artist of Magnitude. I am important—just because. In a perfect symbiosis of reciprocity, the world needs exactly what I’ve got to give—which is tremendous. My hunger is fierce, divine, and universal. Moreover, it is insatiable—and that is good. I am a portal to Truth, luminous. I am as wide-awake today as I can possibly be. And I am not the only one. I . . . am . . . not the only one.
Truth is a pathless land.
Look, I’m still crazy. I talk to angels all day (not even kidding). I guzzle turmeric tonic. I turn to oracles for business backup. I pray to shine. Some of us will live according to our dosha*, or the Quran, or the Gospel of Saint John. Some of us will study, go to spin class, cook, juice, fuck, marathon, mother, write, create, and fire-breathe* our way to higher potential.
Our fulfillment stems from our motives. It’s not how we seek spiritual growth; it’s why we seek.
May you seek to know the vastness of your light.
*Breatharian: A person nourished by light and air who has no need for food or drink. (Yes, they are said to exist.)
*Cocteau Twins: An atmospheric band from the ’80s and ’90s, not actually twins, best listened to in the dark, especially while having sex in your dorm room.
*Dosha: One of three mind-body types according to Ayurveda.
*Fire-breathe: A diaphragm-breathing technique from Kundalini yoga for cleansing and raising energy.