Context For Being Yourself

Context For Being Yourself November 3, 2016

There’s a post going around Facebook this week titled Spiritual People Don’t Say F*… or do they? It’s over a year old but I’m just now seeing it, and from the dates on the comments so are a lot of other people. Blogging can be odd like that. Anyway, it’s getting rave reviews from the people who are commenting. I think it has some very good advice and I agree with about 85% of it.

But that other 15% can be critical.

Here’s an excerpt from the post. I’m editing a certain four-letter word not because I don’t use it but because using it in a casual manner like this drains the power of profanity for when you really need it.

It starts with the silly F* Spiritual. Be You. picture in the sidebar.

So why is that so shocking?

Why should that, of all things, make any difference to anyone?

Because we’re all afraid to reveal who we really are.

And because “spiritual” people don’t say f*.

We’ve been handed this idea of what it means to be spiritual… Peaceful. Transcendent. Free from emotion. Free from ego personality.

It’s easy to be “spiritual.” It’s easy to be pleasant and peaceful and unaffected.

It’s easy to pretend.

It’s easy because it’s safe; and it’s fake; and it comes with a roadmap.

All we have to do is follow the stereotype and project the right image. (When in doubt, just smile placidly and say Namaste.)

Being authentic is scary.

The post is from Zach Herbert, a “spiritual coach” who’s promoting something he calls “open source spirituality.” He had what strikes me as a genuine, life-changing spiritual experience, he doesn’t like organized religion, and he ridicules New Agers (something I may have done a time or two). And he’s very fond of one-sentence paragraphs.

“Spirituality” is one of those words that no one can define but everyone knows what it means… or at least we think we do. We have ideas about what a spiritual person is and does, and many times those ideas are unrealistic and even harmful. They tell us that if we were just spiritual enough (or magical enough or devoted enough) bad things wouldn’t happen to us, or if they did it wouldn’t bother us. Those are two pernicious lies of religion and spirituality.

Herbert is right to rant against this kind of upper middle class, Whole Foods, pop culture faux spirituality. He’s right to advise people to be authentic and not what someone else tells them they’re supposed to be. And he’s very right when he warns that being yourself is hard and scary.

But there’s a major problem in his approach.

Discussing his life-changing experience, Herbert says:

I developed a savant-like ability to perceive consciousness as a stream of shifting geometric patterns.

These patterns helped me look past the conflicting beliefs of the old spiritual traditions. And I could see that the sacred experiences of every faith fit together like separate movements in a single symphony.

I could see which practices worked, which didn’t, and why…

We’ll skip the question of whether claiming “savant-like ability” and speaking of “consciousness as a stream of shifting geometric patterns” belongs in the dumpster with the rest of the New Age lingo Herbert derides. The problem is when he claims “the sacred experiences of every faith fit together like separate movements in a single symphony.”

No. No they don’t.

The foundational experiences of Buddhism are very different from the foundational experiences of Christianity. The sacred experiences of the devotional polytheism I practice are very different from those of Humanistic Pagans. What works and what doesn’t depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Trying to transcend the world, trying to be a part of the world, and trying to be saved from the world are three very different goals.

More importantly, raw experiences are literally meaningless – they’re a combination of occurrences and interactions. They only gain meaning when we interpret them: when we locate them in the context of a worldview and a culture and decide what they mean.

A Pagan, a Baptist, and an atheist can view the same sunset in the same place at the same time. They will all have the same experience but they will interpret them in very different ways, based on their beliefs about Gods, Nature, and our place in the order of the universe.

Deep down it’s not all the same. All paths don’t lead up the same mountain. Our religious diversity is a beautiful thing to be celebrated and respected, not melted down into meaningless mush.

We need religious beliefs and traditions to provide the context for interpreting our spiritual experiences. Otherwise, we will interpret them in the context of the only culture we know: the mainstream, materialist, consumer culture we see on TV; the very same culture that produced the upper middle class faux spirituality Zach Herbert rightly ridicules.

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Since I was a small child, I’ve heard adults complain about teenagers who say they “want to be themselves” but end up copying all their teenage friends. The details have changed over the past 50 years, but the concept hasn’t. When teenagers say “I have to be myself” they really mean “I want to be different from my parents” – that’s a normal and healthy part of growing up. Not being like their parents is easy. Figuring out what to be instead is hard… which is why most teenagers (but not all, as many readers of this blog can attest first-hand) grab on to what they see their friends doing and wearing and listening to.

Zach Herbert has rejected mainstream religion. He’s rejected New Age spirituality. But when it comes to an alternative, all he’s got is “be yourself.”

Now, that’s been good advice ever since γνῶθι σεαυτὸν (“know thyself”) was carved over the door of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Know yourself, be true to yourself, do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Learning who you really are and how to truly be that person is good and necessary work, and as Herbert points out, it’s hard and scary.

But it’s only the beginning.

“Who are you?” is an important question, but so is “whose are you?” Where do you belong? Who do you belong with? These are questions our communities – religious and otherwise – help us answer.

What do you want to be? Who do you want to be? Our mainstream culture constantly tells us we aren’t good enough, so it can prey on our insecurities and sell us stuff we neither want nor need. But accepting and even celebrating that you’re good and fine just the way you are doesn’t mean you don’t want to be something more. Stagnation is death – how do we keep learning and growing all our lives? Our religious and spiritual traditions help us with this.

Most importantly, what does it mean to be you? What does it mean to do the things you do and to have the experiences you have? What does it mean to live in relationship with the Earth and all her creatures? What does it mean to interact with Gods and spirits? These are the questions of context that our various Pagan and polytheist traditions help answer… and that our mainstream culture is woefully ill-equipped to address.

So, should you be you and not try to conform to some New Age idea of what a spiritual person is supposed to be? Of course you should. Be you as only you can be, in all your magnificence and glory.

But John Donne was right: no person is an island – you will be you in the context of something. Make sure that context is in alignment with your deepest values and virtues, and not in the context of what Madison Avenue – or some blogger – is selling.

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