Spirituality Is a Two-Way Street: (or Suck it up, Buttercup, Part II)

As a culture I think we also struggle with the idea that we might be beholden to anyone or anything else. We struggle with the idea that sometimes service to the Gods might be non-consensual; and most of all, we struggle with the idea of a service-based spirituality. We've been taught that spirituality is all about us—our growth, our needs, our enlightenment—when what we should have been taught is that the fulfillment of those things aren't goals to be sought, but by-products of being in right balance with the Gods and the dead. We've put the cart before the horse and then we wonder why we're not getting anywhere; and always, we convince ourselves that we and we alone are in control.

I really think that our illusions of control come from lack of proper connection, a deeply ingrained disdain for service, and fear. Just simple fear (probably a thousand other things too). I think we all fight it to some degree. My own feeling is that so long as we're engaging with the process of owning our struggles that's fine. It's when we elevate those things that have the potential to lead us into spiritual failings and recalcitrant error, or hubris . . . that's the bigger problem. "Control" is a huge issue though for most of us. Getting it out of the head is a huge issue. The best solution for that is twofold, at least from my own experience: a dedicated prayer or devotional practice, because this will in time teach the type of open vulnerability to the Gods in which hubris cannot thrive and, even more importantly, a strong practice of honoring one's ancestors.

The ancestors can teach us how to do it right. They can teach us how to get over ourselves and moreover, how to establish healthy balance with our dead, with our communities and most of all how to be in right relationship with the Gods. I've been chided before within my own community for using the term ‘right relationship.' It's the best term, however, that I have found to encompass the type of active maintenance that engaging with the Holy Powers properly requires. Right relationship, right balance, I don't really care what people call it save that we learn to work toward it, and even to recognize it as something worth working toward at all!

We have been trained into a sense of entitlement a mile wide. We expect that we will be able to know everything and that it will all be laid out for us (before we commit, of course). When the Gods ask something, we expect that we'll be told why, and the idea of obligation raises our collective hackles. We take such great pride in the idea of our right to informed consent and the sovereignty of our convenience, and oh how our ancestors would have laughed at our impudence. I think it's a particular type of egotism that we've been culturally programmed to expect and to hold up as good.

In reality, we should not need to know why. It should be enough simply to do and do well. After all, for those who are not God-owned, what is being asked other than that they live lives of spiritual connectedness and integrity? For those who are God-owned, it's a little more complicated but the same truism holds: The essence of service is that it is not about us. It is not about our convenience or comfort. But all of us, without fail I think, have been raised to expect that we are entitled to know the whole story, to have a say, to have consent. It takes a very long time to learn one's place, to learn the freedom that comes through discipline and the joy that comes through service. We waste valuable time asking "why?" or worse yet "why should I?" I fault myself here too. For most people that I encounter, even the idea of ‘knowing one's place' is distasteful. We put a judgment call on that hierarchy, investing it with all our cultural ambivalence toward dynamics of power when in reality ‘proper place' is neutral. If one doesn't know what is expected, if one doesn't know ‘one's place,' how can we ever know how to work toward excellence? Spirituality is a discipline and a craft like any other, and it is indeed possible to carefully cultivate the spirit of excellence. Aristotle wrote that excellence was a habit and he wrote this regarding the development of character. Like developing character, developing mindful spirituality is in no way quite so nebulous a task as it might seem.

It is possible to cultivate in oneself carefully and mindfully conscious service, to nip that automatic desire to ask "why" in the bud. It's really, really hard though. Really hard. However, it makes you oh so much more useful when you can do it. Sometimes I will ask, "may I know why? It would help me be more efficient in the doing part of things." And sometimes I'll be told more, but I don't expect it and I fight with myself against my own sense of entitlement when it's not forthcoming.

In some ways it involves a radical paradigm shift: it's not about us. There's something about all our communities that has taught us to approach spiritual work from the perspective that it's all about our growth, our enlightenment; and while that might be part of it, yes, a byproduct as I mention above, it's not the biggest part. Rather it's about service and right relationship with the dead, with the Gods, with the land. This benefits us but it's not about us. That can be hard too, I think, to really fathom. Then there is so much bullshit out there, so much bad advice, and bad teachers; so much telling us that it's all about us, that we have a right to know, that we have a right to whatever, that we should put ourselves first. I wish I knew a better way to counteract that crap but I don't. That is where I turn it all over to the ancestors. They can get us right with ourselves, with them, and with the Gods even when we're ready to tear our hair out over the whole thing! After that, there's just plowing on and doing the best one can to maintain right relationship. But I never underestimate the wisdom of the ancestors. That's been a fairly recent lesson for me: they really can help teach a person how to be in relationship to the Holy Powers. They have a vested interest in our getting it right after all.

1/5/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Galina Krasskova
    About Galina Krasskova
    The author of several books on the Northern Tradition, Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, shaman, and devotee of Odin. She blogs at Gangleri's Grove.