A woman named Rajie who has just read The Aspiring Mystic emailed me with these questions:
I’ve prayed to god and the universe to help me find a mentor, teacher, friend, group, community…really anything…and although some opportunites have arisen, they just didn’t feel right. Any suggestions? I really don’t wanna go at this alone, I have so many questions and just really would love to bounce different ideas and thoughts off of another mind.
How does one maintain/find a balance between confidence and humbleness?
Also, did you find it difficult to find a balance between your inner and outer worlds?
I’m reminded of the old Moody Blues album, A Question of Balance. Even the first question is about balance: balancing the need for community or mentoring with the need to be true to one’s self. First, regarding community: when I made my most recent change of spiritual community (entering the Catholic Church in 2004-2005), more than one mentor suggested that I “shop around,” i.e., visit several churches to see what felt right. This was wise advice, not only in terms of finding the right parish, but on a larger scale, if Catholicism really wasn’t the right path for me, the easiest way to find out would have been my seeing all the various ways in which Catholicism is practiced. I’ve been fortunate in that I found a church (highly multi-cultural, with a theologically progressive pastor) that really did feel right. So my suggestion to Rajie would be, “enjoy the journey.” While it takes some effort to do this, making a commitment to visit 2-4 different religious/spiritual communities each month can be a profound learning experience. At first it might just involve shopping around online: taking the Beliefnet “Belief-o-matic” quiz to see how your values line up with the world’s various faith traditions, or reading Wikipedia entries on different faith communities to get a sense of where they’re coming from. Or, read a non-biased book like Who Is My God?: An Innovative Guide to Finding Your Spiritual Identity from the interfaith publishing company, Skylight Paths, which can help to shed light on what community might be the best one to explore.
Eventually, though, reading books or perusing websites has to give way to going out there and visiting actual communities. Rajie is blessed to live in a major metropolitan area, so there should be many options available to her. If she’s interested in something really off-the-beaten-path, she might have to find the community online (via a discussion group or email list). Visiting a church, synagogue, ashram, coven, or mosque can be scary and intimidating, but in my experience all healthy spiritual communities are delighted to have guests, and often if you phone ahead and speak to someone, you can make a connection to a person who will meet you, answer any questions, and help you to find your way through the meeting, service, or worship experience. Incidentally, Skylight Paths (which is a great publisher) has another wonderful book called How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook — a guidebook to what to do (and what not to do) when visiting an unfamiliar faith community.
Incidentally, I think it’s important to look at non-traditional forms of community: pagan groups, house churches, teaching organizations like Shambhala, even political or service organizations often can be places where spiritual community happens. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find a setting where we share values with the community. For many people, traditional religion no longer works because of concerns about authoritarianism, patriarchy, heterosexism, or other values-related concerns. The temptation is to decide that all faith communities are flawed (hence the proverbial “I’m spiritual but not religious.”) But I think plenty of alternative communities exist that can be profoundly soul-nurturing. It’s important to be creative: look at traditionally liberal communities like the Quakers or the Unitarians, or explore an artist’s collective, dance troupe, new age classes, or vegetarian club. Spirit can show up in surprising places.
I realize that the question was not just about finding the right faith community, but also finding a mentor. But I think finding a community is probably the best place to start, in that for many people, finding their mentor is a natural outgrowth of their community life. The single most important quality to look for in a mentor is accountability: does he or she have responsibility to a larger group or community? If no, that’s a major red flag. When we look for potential mentors in community settings, usually that issue is already covered.
Finally, some general advice: the perfect community doesn’t exist; nor does the perfect mentor. Looking for a faith community or a spiritual teacher is very much like looking for a life partner or spouse: we have to let go of the romantic pursuit of perfection in order to address humbler but much more important issues like, “can I truly relax and just be myself with this person (or in this community)?” “do I enjoy spending time with this person/group?” “can I live with their weaknesses, while enjoying and learning from their strengths?” Answering these questions will supplement that all-important intuitive feel that will help to identify the right match.
To repeat the first thing I said: enjoy the search! It can be quite an adventure, learning about different faith communities and groups and what they believe and how they conduct their spiritual lives. The more you learn, the better. Nothing is wasted: even if you spend 6 months with a group but then decide it’s time to move on, that is all grist for the learning mill. When you finally do find the place where you belong, your experience will be all the richer for all the searching you have done.
Now, on to the question of confidence and humility: I think when we find true confidence and true humility, we find we are inhabiting the same space. Confidence, etymologically, means “with faith.” In our secular society we usually interpret this to mean “faith in myself,” and while that is a good thing, to anchor your faith in yourself with an even deeper/larger faith in God is even better. Theodore Roosevelt said “speak softly and carry a big stick,” but I think for the aspiring mystic, confidence means speaking softly and carrying a deep and profound trust in Love, the Universe, the Divine, however you name it. It’s all about trust. In a similar way, true humility (not the humiliation of self-contempt or self-belittling) is a way of living authentically, of acknowledging that no matter how gifted or talented I may be, I’m also very little in terms of the universe as a whole, very small compared to the splendor of the Sacred. I do not have to be in charge, be in control, always be the best, the winner, or whatever. Of course, true humility means humbly acknowledging that many gifts we have been given, but always with an eye on the Giver. The more truly humble I am, the more space I create within my to nurture that true confidence: faith in the Love who created me.
Finally, balancing the inner and the outer: For me, this (like all other “balance” issues) is always a dynamic question: from time to time I might have to re-think how I am emphasizing one dimension of my life over another. For my own practice, I have learned a lot from the integral theory of Ken Wilber, who has done a lot of work trying to bring together the complementary wisdoms of mysticism, science, systems theory, cultural studies, psychology, biology, etc. I would recommend Wilber’s ideas on this topic to anyone, of any faith tradition. For the aspiring mystic, the “outer” is just as luminous with the presence of the Divine as the “inner.” So a true spiritual practice ought to nurture both. Wilber talks about an “integral life practice” which involves nurturing four key areas:
- Inner spiritual development (a practice such as meditation or centering prayer);
- Outer physical development (weight lifting, aerobics or tai chi);
- Inner cognitive development (learning a foreign language or a musical instrument);
- Outer social development (psychotherapy or spiritual direction);
An effective integral life practice sees all of these as equally important. Each practice actually supports all the others, so the person who is doing all of these modalities will make further progress, faster, than anyone who is just concentrating on only one of them. Of course, this only is about the “practice,” but I think when we balance our practice, it spills over to living a more balanced life in general.