The Peculiarly Spiritual Life

I doubt that path ever ends. I didn’t used to know this.

In my line of work, I’ve met a lot of wise spiritual souls. I’ve had long talks with more than a thousand, I’d bet. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who is truly free in every domain of their life. Some come across as peaceful but are covertly withdrawn and afraid. Some come across as sociable but secretly avoid being alone. As Jung put this:

I cannot possibly tell you what a man who has enjoyed complete self-realization looks like, and what becomes of him. I never have seen one.*

I suspect we can come pretty close to freedom in several life-domains. But we can always become freer in some areas, if we keep at it, though the process is more humbling than we like to acknowledge and calls for mastering wider skill sets than we expect. Effortlessness in each domain represents its own kind of mastery, and we do not become multi-capacity wizards through any one set of skills.

Yet in one arena, the shift in our relationship to objects, there really are a few singular leaps.  Consciousness really does shift in structure. It may mature slowly, like an electron increasing in energy, but at some point there comes a leap, sudden and whole. I cannot imagine you can miss it.  You really do become a different kind of being. And it is not insignificant. A shift in consciousness really does change things in quiet and long term ways. Indeed this may be the core change.

But again, and this I know from countless interviews and from my own life experience, it does not change everything. You can shift your consciousness and still be anxious or foolish or silly or sad. An existential shift is not a personality transplant. By itself it just is not enough.

What is enough is a lifetime of multi-hued transformation. Learning to live a soul that is free — deep and wide, horizontal and vertical — takes determination and a whole toolbox. Finding these tools is part of our life’s work.

What makes a life spiritual is freedom’s range in it. The truly spiritual can flow any-emotional-where without any hesitation whatsoever. The real spiritual freedom I think we’re really after these days can go deep and serious and funny and raucous and thoughtful and can plan with a spreadsheet, each when the time is right. It can play alone, with another or in a group, each without holding back.

Real spiritual freedom lives unhindered, wide open in the juicy paradox that is being a poly-modal human being. We are beckoned by nearly endless possibility.

Lord, let me dance with abandon to that old rock and roll music and sit comfortably on the meditation cushion and weep with mourning and brainstorm unabashedly with my buddies and enjoy the gentle curve of a woman’s back, each at the right moment.

Don’t get me wrong. True human freedom, I’m coming to see, is not some return to a teenage dance-till-you-drop hedonism. Most of us have known how to dance since we were kids and learned to screw long ago, though perhaps not as lovingly as we might. What is new here is the depth. Most of us cannot fathom the spacious emptiness to which the monastic Zen Roshi or the wizened Christian Friar has dedicated their lives. Most of us, frankly, cannot connect with our own depths very well and can connect even less with the depths of another. Most of us run away from the secrets hidden in silence and hide from the divine spark.

The truly spiritual person can access the deepest silence, the most critical intellect, the most painful psychic memory and the sexiest kiss, each equally and each without hesitation.

What I think we should be after, what I’m after, is freedom, deep and wide. Or as Søren Kierkegaard puts it, “The true good is freedom.”  I call it “Enlightenment Plus.”

To the extent that we sense it, silence may be a strange attractor in all this.  It is so very unassuming, yet so very insistent. You fight it and you disbelieve it and you struggle to disprove it. But once present, it simply remains.

“You are trying too hard,” it hints. “You do not walk with me here.”

You ignore it, you long to become famous or rich or beloved, and still it remains, beneath your feet, unbowed. You work and you scheme and you fantasize and you hope. And all it does is whisper: “Be. Flow. Simple.”

If you’re lucky, you learn haltingly to stand up fairly straight in it, silence in your spine, and play.

And then it calls you again.

*C.J. Jung, Letters, Letter to A. Tjoa and R.H.C. Janssen, quoted by Thomas Moore, The Education of the Heart (NY: Harper Perennial, 1997) p. 25. What makes the human distinctive is our range.

This article is excerpted from Enlightenment Ain’t What it Is Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul by Robert K.C. Forman.