Right Relationship: Embracing a solid, yet flexible spiritual doctrine

As Christianity and the other theologies that have dominated the past several centuries wane in their dominance–while also engaging in a messy separation from the culture with which they have merged–people are craving something to fill the hole of meaning left by the absence of the myths of their former spiritual lives. And for those who never had a well articulated spirituality to begin with, the times in which we all find ourselves beg new stories to explain the what, the why, and the how.

In Twitter threads and Facebook groups people are finding resonance with those who share their history, their story of spiritual becoming. No longer is connection to meaningful stories and community confined to churches, mosques, and temples. Many have traded in their Imams, Pastors, and Rabbis for thought leaders who stand at the helm of a more loosely defined community of believers.

Having been raised in a Pentecostal church, I spent some years sitting in the in between space of having discarded the need for Christianity’s unsolicited salvation and the nihilism of agnosticism. I never really rejected either. But, it took time to unpack what was of value in the doctrine I was brought up on.

Right relationship means to find the appropriate context, outlet for, and perspective on a particular aspect of life. This is what all spiritual and religious doctrines seek to do; provide a framework within which you can understand your life experiences and the world you live in.

The challenge, however, is that we change, our lives change, and the world changes. We tend to value things that stand the test of time, even when they don’t support us in the work of living. At certain points in our lives we inevitably have experiences that don’t fit in the framework that has been established. This can be due to crisis, supernatural phenomena, or some other perspective altering experience.

Rather than grounding our spirituality solely in the rigidity of inert truth, what kinds of ideologies can we adopt that encourage right relationship, a solid, yet flexible relationship with:

  • Personal power – providing perspective and an honest appraisal of what is and is not in our control
  • Community – embracing justice and accountability as a means to an enduring happiness
  • Desire – reckoning with human desire and emboldening the discovery of one’s purpose and its fulfillment

RIGHT RELATIONSHIP WITH PERSONAL POWER

There are many doctrines promising prosperity and happiness. Perhaps if you give a certain amount of money, or maintain effortless control of your thoughts God will bless you with money or you will attract and create the reality you desire. But there are some serious problems with this way of seeing the world. Doctrines that focus on escaping rather than managing and coping with the common fate of humanity are deeply disempowering.

Death, illness, sadness, and the existential reality of loneliness are our common fate. At many points in our lives we each find ourselves wrestling and reckoning with our mortality. No one, no matter their station in life, escapes death and the reality of separateness and solitude. But this is not something we must succumb to, neither is it something we can or should seek to escape.

Prosperity doctrine and the Law of Attraction dogma purported by books like The Secret and the author Abraham Hicks place blame squarely on the individual, effectively divorcing her from the reality of her economic, political, social, and familial station in life, none of which she has control.

There are things that happen to us that are outside of our control. And reckoning with that powerlessness requires a humility that bootstrap notions of success and happiness gleefully reject. To preach that salvation lies in the hands of a grifter preacher who stands as the gateway to prosperity, or that our thoughts are solely responsible for the reality of our lives—even for the tragedy and good times that befalls us—is spiritual violence.

Where are the doctrines that empower the individual and provide tools for coping with life’s difficulties without spiritual bypassing? Where are the ways of understanding the world that provide language to articulate our powerlessness to the uncertainties of life? How can we accept and intimately explore our loneliness as a means to embrace our humanness?

RIGHT RELATIONSHIP WITH COMMUNITY

I use the term sin to define anything that demonizes isolation and reinforces separateness from others while disregarding the need for community, a sense of belonging, and validation from others.

Solipsism is sin; it serves to isolate and estrange the individual from the community and the accountability and interdependency that is responsible for creating a legacy of joy.

Modern spiritualities, like the ones preached on social media and in the teachings of many contemporary thought leaders, reinforce the loneliness that the rise of social media has seemed to both augment and remedy.

To say that happiness is an inside job is saying that if you cannot find happiness in your loneliness, then there is something wrong with you. Your loneliness is a malady of your own making; your happiness is to be self generated. This is another form of spiritual violence.

Contrary to the self generated happiness promulgated by bootstrap spiritualities, right relationship with community teaches us that happiness is a byproduct of a collective effort to convict systems of oppression. It is something available to us through the process of dismantling the systems that block our access community.

Justice is essential to right relationship with community. Justice in this context is speaking truth to power, accountability towards the poor and disenfranchised, and demanding righteousness from the institutions that govern us.

In community we learn that our struggles are not unique identifying factors, causes for self loathing, or an illness for which we must find a cure. In community we learn to discern the difference between those struggles born from our own poor judgement and those struggles that are burdened on us by inequality entrenched in the systems that uphold our society.

RIGHT RELATIONSHIP WITH DESIRE

Desire is an itch that begs to be scratched, a hunger that begs to be satiated. Satisfaction quenches desire, it extinguishes it. But purpose and fulfillment are a circular dependency. Fulfillment fuels the fire of purpose, and purpose craves the fuel of fulfillment. When we journey to discover and maintain the fire of purpose we begin to develop right relationship with desire.

Purpose and fulfillment are terms generally used to describe one’s vocation. Rarely are they used to describe one’s character development and path of growth. Instead, purpose is something we seek in what we do. We seek to satisfy desire through an externally defined and lived purpose.

When journeying to define a spiritual doctrine that encourages a solid yet flexible relationship with desire, we must understand purpose as the internal journey towards greater self knowledge. It is the work of bringing our underlying motivations into conscious awareness. Knowing what drives us is the essential work of unearthing fulfillment fueled purpose.

Giving word to the motivations silently undergirding not only our desires, but also the ways in which we choose to satisfy them, is deeply empowering. The Law of Attraction doesn’t encourage the questioning of desire. And the dominate institutionalized religions tell us things like “desire is the root of all suffering” (Buddhism) or that it’s the cravings of our flesh that are at war with the Holy Spirit that lives in us (Christianity). Both lack a nuanced approach to understanding human desire.

These doctrines don’t empower us to contextualize our desires within our individual lives. They provide the motivation for us, effectively silencing the kind of self-awareness that right relationship with desire can provide us.

Purpose is a fire that requires tending. The circumstances we encounter in life and the experiences we have can lead us to greater awareness of self. We generate a dynamism that leads us to that self awareness when we work to put those experiences into perspective, interpret them, and then craft a narrative about what they all mean together.

This is something that we do as a matter of human nature. You come into the house and see the bread bag on the floor, ripped to shreds and the dog hiding his face beneath his paws. You then believe that the dog jumped on the counter, pulled the bag down, ate the bread, then felt ashamed when you found the evidence of his mid-afternoon snack. You didn’t see it happen. But the evidence for the story is there

Neither you nor I are not omniscient. But we make do with what we know. We gather the information we perceive and have language to articulate, then we either consciously or unconsciously write a story. We use that story to not only interpret future experiences, but we also use that story to define the parameters of what we believe is possible.

For the first parts of our lives that story is given to use. We adopt the stories of our caregivers and our religious doctrines. We embrace the legacies of our mothers and fathers. But at some point we must become the authors of our own stories.

Our purpose is the story that defines our becoming. Rather than a meaning that we find in doing, purpose is the meaning we find in being. When we are present to the stories that define the possibilities of who we can be, then we become dynamic participants in our lives and our stories. We become the scribe of our own personal scripture.

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