Sunday, April 27, 2008

White Knuckles and Transformation

I recently read of someone who said of the spiritual path "I keep falling off the steed in the Valley of Search". O.K. kids, pop quiz: What is the name of that steed?

Almost everyone has had the experience of trying to quit a bad habit -- smoking, drinking and the like -- or trying to lose weight. We begin with a great burst of enthusiasm, but eventually stress overwhelms us into what I call the "Aw, the hell with it" moment when we backslide, and then we feel really bad about ourselves, and that low feeling saps our energy even further, to the point where we just don't have the gumption to begin again. For a loooong time.

Years ago, I went to a training session for teacher's aides that was discussing addiction, and they said it was quite possible for an addict or alcoholic to "white knuckle" it for a period of time, but more than will power is needed for long-term success -- they need to understand their addiction, its roots, the stressors that trigger it, etc.

In spiritual transformation, we aren't giving up a pleasure, we are seeking one -- we want to feel the presence of God in our lives. We are seeking paradise, as it were. But it's not easy -- if one message comes through loud and clear through the scriptures of the world is that the spiritual path is not easy. ("Narrow is the way, and strait the gate.") Except for the times when it is. ("My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.') Baha'u'llah says the same thing -- on the one hand he'll tell us that without effort we have attained the goal while those pious folks who have spent their whole lives searching have missed out, then on the other tell us a true believer is non-existent and lay out conditions for a true seeker that only a bona fide saint could live up to.

Trying to live up to the conditions demanded of us by our faith can bring us to a point of despair. If I remember my religious history, that's part of the reason Luther tossed out the notion that human effort had anything to do with salvation, and came up with his "faith alone" (sola fide) doctrine. That is, he was white-knuckling his spiritual life.

I don't think we can get very far with a grim determination to do "better" -- certainly not to be perfect. I think part of spiritual development is the ability to look honestly at our weaknesses, trying to understand the causes, and at times, admitting to ourselves that we aren't really all that ready to do anything about them. Admitting that we need God's help.

What I think is important is consistency and commitment. We need to have some "God time" every day. I don't think it matters especially what particular technique is used -- and there are a myriad ways of prayer and meditation to choose from. And whatever we choose, there are going to be days when we are rushed and forget, or we just plain aren't "into" it. (I find prayer is better than meditation on those days.) But we keep plugging away at it anyway. I'm a spiritual plodder -- I do it even on days when I don't think it's doing any good. Sometimes, my commitment to the quest is all I have to offer -- or one might even use the term "obedience". I'm there saying my noonday prayer because Baha'u'llah says to do it, which is one reason I can dredge up even if I can't think of any other reason.

So, why do it if you aren't feeling spiritual and maybe you aren't all that sure what you believe anyway? You're waiting. Big, dramatic, on-the-road-to-Damascus moments are few and far between. You wait for God. That's what my "God time" is; I'm just there waiting, faithful to the idea that if I keep showing up, so will He, eventually.

And I have found that, slowly, subtlely, changes begin to happen. Those "not into it" days are fewer, you start getting a handle on your weaknesses, days when you are doing better. Not a complete turnaround, just a little better -- then, a little better, then a slip, then back on track, and so on. Help comes to you eventually, and it really becomes easy, and something you wouldn't want to be without. Baha'u'llah tells us that even if the seeker should continue for a hundred thousand years and still find no trace, he shouldn't be discouraged. This isn't an achievement, trying to get a certain result or reward. It's waiting.

The steed of the Valley of Search is Patience.


Jim Habegger said...

Karen, thank you for reminding me about some "God time" every day. It helps to be reminded some times.

Alison Marshall said...

Hi Karen,

I think you've hit on a very important issue here. This is one I've struggled with for years. I often talk about it on my blog in terms of the Protestant work ethic. You said about "white knuckling" our way to salvation. My way of putting it is that we apply the Protestant work ethic and assume that that's what'll get us there. But as you argue, that alone isn't what gets us there. It's grace. We don't realise that the path is the development of an intimate relationship and our Beloved is going to be only mildly impressed if all we do all day is work! We need to examine our inner selves to find out why we're not the sort of person that God would fall in love with and want to be intimate with.

Another way to white knuckle our way to salvation is to work through the Ruhi books.


Karen said...

Dear Alison,

Thank you for stopping by!

That's just it -- there's no way to impress God, and we shouldn't be trying to impress anyone else. Spiritual work can so easily become ego-invested. We want to do well, to make progress, to feel good about ourselves.

But in the end, the real work is to realize that we aren't in charge here, and to let go of trying to control. The work is for us to create the space for God to do His -- to let go, to surrender.

Surrendering to God, is, of course, a very different thing than surrendering to religious authority figures. I don't think the Ruhi books are even trying to promote spiritual development; they are trying to promote community development -- which can have its merits, but is a very different kettle of fish than what we're talking about.

Love, Karen

Alison Marshall said...

Hi Karen,

Love that talk about not being in control. I remember you saying once that anger was about being in control. I grudging admitted to myself that you were right, and then was reminded of my past failings. But what you taught me helped me to by-pass anger phases. Now I think: no, no, Al, just let it go.

You said: "I don't think the Ruhi books are even trying to promote spiritual development; they are trying to promote community development."

This is interesting. I don't think the community sees a difference between personal spiritual development and community development. They believe that if they give themselves fully all their lives to community work, that will bring them personal salvation. The idea that there is a whole other sphere to the religious experience, which Baha'u'llah wants us to develop, is entirely lost on them.

Baha'u'llah talks about 'degrees' of salvation, which fits in with all this. It's not that working all your life isn't rewarded.