Category Archives: Spirit

The Road to Character

New York Times columnist David Brooks has made his living observing and commenting on the political and cultural developments of the day. In The Road to Character, he turns his attention to the annuls of history to explore a moral ecology that stands in sharp relief to the prevailing focus on the self. He writes:

crooked timber“My general belief is that we’ve accidently left this moral tradition behind… We’re not more selfish or venal that people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built. The ‘crooked timber’ moral tradition – based on an awareness of sin and the confrontation of with sin – was an inheritance passed down from generation to generation. It gave people a clearer sense of how to cultivate the eulogy virtues, how to develop the [better] side of their nature. Without it, there is a certain superficiality to modern culture, especially in the moral sphere.”

Brooks explores this terrain by providing real-life examples of how the shaping of a human soul worked. His intent was to allow his readers to glean important lessons and insights by bearing witness to these extraordinary lives. I found each of these biographies riveting – well worth the time it took to engage them.

While Brooks is loath to suggest that there is a twelve-step program to lead interested parties to a moral life, he identified a number of “threads” that seemed to run through the lives of the individuals that he highlighted in his book. The associated prescriptive for righteous living might read something like this:

  • Lead a life of purpose, righteousness, and virtue, not just one of pleasure
  • Recognize our innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence as well as our propensity to see ourselves as the center of the universe; use this awareness as the starting point for moral and spiritual development
  • Engage earnestly in the struggle to overcome our baser instincts and grow in moral strength through a lifetime of effort; sacrifice worldly success for the sake of inner excellence
  • Practice humility, recognizing that we underdogs in the struggle against our weaknesses
  • Be vigilant over prideful tendencies that ignore our failings and deceive us into believing that we are better than others
  • Be more attuned to the internal struggle against our deficiencies than the external journey up the ladder of success
  • Become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment
  • Build enduring character traits – e.g., courage, honesty, humility – through sustained attachments to worthy people, causes, callings, and convictions; be faithful through thick and thin
  • Leverage redemptive assistance from the outside – faith, family, friends, ancestors, exemplars, traditions, institutions – to achieve self-mastery
  • Recognize and surrender to the saving power of grace – from love of family and friends, from the assistance of a stranger, from God
  • Be a grateful recipient of the endowment of practical wisdom, traditions, habits, manners, moral sentiments, and practices from our forbearers, recognizing that experience is a better teacher than abstract reason
  • Serve work that is intrinsically compelling and commit to its pursuit, ever mindful of what life is asking of us
  • Be good stewards of organizations over which we are called to be leaders, passing them along to others in better condition that when we found them
  • Attain maturity by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation, sure-footed in pursuit of noble purpose, and clear-headed amid reactions from admirers and detractors

For those who might find the narrow path to righteousness stringent, Brooks provides a comforting and salutary observation:

“There is joy in a life filled with interdependence with others, in a life filled with gratitude, reverence, and admiration. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to people, ideas, and commitments greater than oneself… There’s an aesthetic joy we feel in morally good action, which makes all other joys seem paltry and easy to forsake.”

Read the book and have a vibrant discussion with friends about it. It just may change your life.

True Community

I dusted off another of M. Scott Peck’s books this week to continue pursuing the theme of spiritual wellness. It’s called The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace.

Peck defines spiritual healing as the process of becoming “whole” or “holy.” In part, it is a call to individuate – to take responsibility for our lives and actions, to deal with others in integrity, and to make full use of our gifts and talents. Yet we are social creatures who need one another to survive. So “wholeness” also carries an expectation of living harmoniously in community and serving the common good. In fact, Peck argues that we cannot fully become ourselves without sharing the commonality of the human experience with others – e.g., our strengths, weaknesses, triumphs, failures, our self-sufficiency, incompleteness, etc.

true communityA spiritually enriching community isn’t just any old collective of people. According to Peck, it has very specific characteristics.

True community is, and must be, inclusive. It is always reaching out to extend itself and accepts individual and cultural diversity. To that end, the members must be willing to empty themselves of bias, prejudice, and expectations to make room for the other. They must be willing to co-exist in peace, surrendering themselves to the shared journey.

True community is realistic. It encourages many different viewpoints; it does not force conformity or smooth over its rough edges. It doesn’t expect easy answers to challenging questions or circumstances.

True community is contemplative. It is attentive to its health and growth. It acknowledges its fallibility and takes action to affect remediation. It is also keenly aware of the world outside, the world within, and the relationship between the two.

True community creates safety. It creates the space for members to explore their vulnerabilities and brokenness. It provides the breathing room for genuine healing to occur. It is accepting of one another’s limitations. And it supports members as they experiment with new kinds of behavior.

In true community, there are no sides. Alliances interfere with the group’s functioning. When conflict arises, a core of mutual respect and concern governs resolution. (I call it “disagreeing without becoming disagreeable.”) The members are committed to struggling together, not against each other.

True community decentralizes authority. Ideally, decisions are reached by consensus. Leadership flows freely among different individuals as the need arises. In fact, the so-called “natural leaders” refuse to take charge and tell people what to do. They want to avoid creating unhealthy dependencies.

Community-building takes time, intentional effort, and commitment. It takes time to empty ourselves of all the prejudices that impede our ability to be attentive and compassionate listeners. It takes conscious effort to communicate effectively while resisting the temptation to “fix” everyone. Rather, we’re called to be present to their experience while fostering individual and collective learning. It also takes effort to establish mutually agreeable “rules” and governance. Finally, it takes a commitment to hang in there through thick and thin, even when things get chaotic.

Peck warns against the formation of “pseudocommunity.” It’s a place characterized by forced politeness and a pressure to conform. In such communities, niceness crushes individuality, intimacy, and honesty. It fosters a quick retreat to organization as a vehicle for minimizing chaos and uncertainty. It is akin to building a house on a foundation made of sand. It won’t withstand stress and strain.

Community is always something more than the sum of the parts. It is never painless. It does not avoid conflict but rather reconciles it. In so doing, community lowers walls and creates pathways for growth and understanding. It exists for the purpose of inculcating love and harmony among us.

We are ultimately interdependent. Why not find ways to live together in peace?

The Power of NOW

Once dubbed by the New York Times as “the most popular spiritual author in the United States,” Eckhart Tolle helps people awaken to lives of purpose and presence through books, television appearances, membership in his on-line community, and face-to-face gatherings. One of my good friends counts herself among an international cohort that has embarked on a six-month training program jointly delivered by Tolle and Kim Eng, creator of Presence Through Movement. Given her enthusiasm, I went to the library and checked out a copy of The Power of NOW: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment to see how it might speak to me.

It’s safe to say that Tolle’s book is not designed to be a quick read. In fact, he inserts “pauses” in each chapter to encourage readers to stop and digest the content. While I couldn’t begin to capture the richness of the material, I’ll share a few concepts that I found especially meaningful.

live in the nowTolle defines true wealth as “the radiant joy of Being and the deep, unshakeable peace that comes with it.” Enlightenment is a state of felt oneness with Being.

Our minds prevent us from attaining enlightenment when we’re inundated by our internal chatter – i.e., commenting, speculating, worrying, judging, comparing, complaining, pondering. We may be stuck reliving and acting from old pain that still live within us (a.k.a., “pain bodies”). We may be steeped in anxiety about future events. We may escape reality by daydreaming.

When we are caught up in our internal chatter, we give our power over to our thoughts. They’re driving us. We aren’t free.

As an antidote, become identified as an Observer of thoughts, not a Thinker of them. In that state, we notice when moodiness, anger, resentment, unease, fear, and other emotions well up, but we aren’t driven to act on them. We make conscious choices that benefit ourselves and those around us. We aren’t feeding our “pain bodies” or calling others’ “pain bodies” into action. We make room for love, joy, and peace. So long as we are invested in emotional anguish, we will resist or sabotage attempts to help it.

Focus on the present moment. On the NOW. Let the mind be what it is without getting entangled in it. As Tolle says, “In the now, you leave behind the deadening world of mental distraction… You feel a presence, a stillness, a peace.” The NOW is all any of us really have.

Being present means that wherever you are, be there totally. Complaint suggests non-acceptance of what is. It may well be that we find ourselves in persistently difficult relationships and/or circumstances. We are not called to simply surrender to them. We have three choices in the NOW: accept what is without complaint, take action to effect change, or leave. Persistent grumbling should not be an option!

There’s nothing wrong with thinking about the future and setting goals to move toward a desired outcome. Focus on the immediate steps to be taken, not the hundreds or thousands of steps in the journey ahead. Don’t get attached to outcomes. Ask: Is there joy, ease, and lightness in what I am doing right now? Be open to course correction if it seems right to do so. Don’t fall into the trap of attaching self-worth to outcomes.

Finally, nothing “out there” will ever provide deep, lasting satisfaction. There is no salvation in anything that we do, attain, or possess. Rather:

“True salvation is fulfillment, peace, life in all its fullness. It is to be who you are, to feel within you the good that has no opposite, the joy of Being that depends on nothing outside itself. It is felt not as a passing experience but as an abiding presence.”

Life, Truth, Love, and Grace

I’ve written a lot of posts covering our physical, mental, and emotional well-being since starting this blog nearly 2 years ago. I suppose it’s time that I cover some thought leaders in the spiritual realm.

spiritual journeyI read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth years ago and decided to reacquaint myself with his words of wisdom. The following captures some of his ideas, recognizing full well that I can’t do his work justice in this post.

Peck begins with a sobering reality: Life is difficult. We all face a steady stream of problems to be solved. We may be tempted to avoid these challenges because it’s painful to confront them head-on. Yet meeting and solving problems gives life meaning. It creates opportunities for physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social growth. Besides, it’s better to solve smaller problems before they snowball into bigger ones!

We must accept responsibility for problems before we can solve them. That acceptance presupposes accurate perceptions of the world and our places in it. Peck says that our views of reality are like maps for which we are the map-makers. We use them to navigate the terrain of life. The most useful maps are those forged with considered effort, dedication to the truth, and a willingness to make revisions as we gather new information and accept constructive feedback from others.

We must be dedicated to the truth. Peck admonishes us to never speak falsehood. Of course, occasions may arise where we might choose to withhold information rather than cause needless harm to others. Thoughtful disclosure presumes an accurate assessment of another person’s capacity to make use of information for his or her spiritual growth. We can only make such assessments from a place of genuine love, and then only imperfectly. Should we opt to maintain silence, our decision should never be rooted in personal gain – e.g., a quest for power, a concern for popularity, or a need to protect our views of reality.

Love provide a compass for right action and serves as a powerful engine for spiritual growth. Peck defines genuine love as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. This definition packs a lot of punch:

  • It presumes a level of individuation and emotional maturity sufficient to manifest selfless action and attention. Love based on neediness (e.g., loneliness, insecurity) has little to do with spiritual development and rests upon a shaky foundation.
  • Genuine love maintains the distinction between myself and the other.
  • Love is an act of will. It is not dependency; it’s an exercise of free choice. Two people can be said to experience genuine love when they are fully capable of living apart but choose to be together.
  • Love takes attention. For example, listening well takes focused concentration and a sincere effort to experience the world from the speaker’s point of view. It also takes regular investment of time and effort.
  • Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. Growth is fostered through a relationship of constancy.
  • Love is not a feeling; it is an action. It demands that we order our behavior to contribute optimally to our beloved’s spiritual growth.

Real love is a permanently enlarging experience. In order to truly understand others, we must make room for them within ourselves. As they take up residence, we also experience growth by stretching and thinning our ego boundaries. Genuine love is self-replenishing.

With an awareness of the limits of our time, we want to live and love well. Loving always carries the risk of heartbreak. But if we shy away from love, we shy away from life. While there are no guarantees, the most successful strategy for finding genuine love is being a person worthy of love.

Peck allows for the presence of grace which delivers life-producing or growth-enhancing experiences in our lives. He believes grace is accessible to everyone; however, most of us fail to acknowledge its presence or appreciate the value it brings. We cannot will grace into our lives, but we can prepare ourselves to be fertile ground.

He closes with these thought-provoking words:

“The journey of spiritual growth requires courage and initiative and independence of thought and action. While the words of the prophets and the assistance of grace are available, the journey must still be traveled alone. No teacher can carry you there.”