Finding Your Spiritual Path
by Abbie Endres, LMFT, CPRP
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of
Your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will
Tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles
Of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the
Clean blue air
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh
And exciting –
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
Poetry is often used in psychology and spirituality to convey experiences and ideas that are essential yet complex. “Wild Geese” is an especially beautiful comment on the nature of trauma and of healing, highlighting how trauma and the shame it engenders separates us from others and from our selves, clouding our vision of the world as good, as safe, as ours. Nevertheless, healing is possible – it is an invitation offered by the very nature of living among others and in the natural world, asking us to find the courage to come back, to listen closely to those things that draw us into living fully, and to begin to trust that we do belong.
Trauma often affects our sense of the spiritual; the pain and suffering of our symptoms seem to defy sacredness. This is especially true for those who have experienced ritual or religious abuse. Notions of a higher being, of justice, may be deeply wounded. Similarly, our faith in authority or leadership figures may have been injured, making it difficult to seek out new guides. Yet the realm of spirituality holds large possibilities for exploring those ideals and values that make life worth living again, including hope, meaning, comfort, purpose, inspiration, connection, creativity, wonder, awe, reverence, community, freedom, perspective, and love. Spirituality, when reclaimed in ways that resonate for us, can be a powerful resource.
One of the most powerful concepts in healing lies in becoming present – present to ourselves, our experience in the here-and-now, and to the world around us. Mindfulness is a term that describes this in-the-moment quality, and it can be practiced in a variety of forms. Often, an awareness of our breathing is central to being present, but other ways of becoming present include using all senses to take note of ourselves, just as we are, in our current surroundings.
Many of us learned to not be present to survive very painful experiences. We learned to hold our breath, hide our feelings, and stay busy or numb out. We come by these behaviors honestly, and they served us well. However, they also limit us; they limit our awareness of the current moment, the ways that it may be different than the past – safer, kinder, more connected, for example. They limit our ability to be spontaneous and take the risks that we see others take to live a fuller life – the risks of feeling our feelings, expressing our limits, asking for help, and most surprisingly, having a good time. What we cultivate in mindfulness is a capacity for finely tuned listening, so that we may hear what many spiritual traditions call the “still, small voice.”
When we learn how to ground and center ourselves in the here-and-now, just observing with gentle awareness, we begin to find more emotional balance. We learn to discern true danger from the overwhelming feelings that we’ve carried from the past. We learn to have those feelings without getting flooded. We return to our bodies safely and gently, where spirituality really lives. And we begin to know ourselves for who we are – human beings having a human experience. This gift simply of being alive is one thing that is undeniably, uniquely, sacredly ours.
In addition to mindfulness, prayer is spiritual practice that can help us cultivate a deeper relationship with the sacred. While mindfulness embraces listening, prayer is its counter part as inner speaking. It is the opportunity for dialogue with the god of our own understanding, by whatever name we choose. Many people find that expressing themselves in prayer is a comfort and a tool in seeking guidance from a deep source of wisdom.
Mindfulness, prayer, and all spiritual practices are “practices” – they take time, assistance, patience and courage. As Mary Oliver notes in the poem at the beginning of this chapter, we do not need to be different, better, repentant, perfect – we are learning and growing and figuring things out along the way, always. Compassion for ourselves and others is good spiritual medicine. For more information on how to learn mindfulness practices, please see the resources at the end of this chapter or talk with your counselor.
Next Steps – Creating A Personal Spiritual Path
Everyone has a unique spiritual fingerprint – even two people on the same outward path have different relationships to it. And, we each have a right and a set of endless opportunities to explore and become familiar with our own sense of the spiritual.
Often, it is the thing we are most longing for that helps us take a first step in cultivating a personal spirituality. The poet Rumi says the “longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” As we learn to hear ourselves with kindness (mindfulness), we begin to trust that what we want is guiding us toward more fulfillment. We might begin by noticing our inner responses to the following list of words, some of which we discussed earlier:
hope, meaning, comfort, purpose, inspiration, connection, creativity, wonder, awe, reverence, community, freedom, courage, service, power, independence, perspective, love, solitude, devotion, humility, passion . . .
Which evoke curiosity? Which have we seen modeled well? Which do we wish to develop in ourselves and in the world? Knowing our values helps us infuse everything we do with greater purpose and meaning. Values are also a powerful way to measure how well our actions are aligned with our vision for ourselves. They help ground us as adults, working through the difficulties we’ve experienced in the past with purpose, and taking responsibility for the way we live now, in the midst of whatever life brings to us.
For many people, becoming a member of an organized spiritual path may be helpful. While there are multitudes to choose from, spiritual traditions that have been handed down through the generations have much in common. Despite different practices, they embrace common traits, such as a guiding source of wisdom, a shared story, a figure or concept that embodies the highest vision of how to live, and the community within which these values are shared. These values can guide our own questions about paths and practices that might fit us best. We may read about different paths, ask others about their experiences, do some research on the internet, or even begin to visit different communities to get a feel for how we resonate. Internally, our mindfulness practice will help us know which places bring us more aliveness and healing.
Some questions to consider when developing spirituality in our lives:
- When do I feel the most alive? The most curious? The most at peace? The most connected to others?
- Where do those moments lead me?
- What values do I hold most dear? How can I begin to share and express them?
- What questions do I have about spirituality? What fears?
- How might I begin to get more information?
- What spiritual or religious tradition was I raised in? Could that be a resource now? If not, what support might I need to address wounds from my religion of origin and begin to explore another path?
- What do I most long for? And what kinds of people, places, or experiences help me get in touch with the things I long for?
Here is a list of things that some people find to help them know their own spirituality:
Meditation (many different kinds, see writings by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nat Hahn, Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield)
Writing and Poetry
Sensuality and Sexuality
Creating Art – Crafts Therapy
Volunteering – Service Work
Work or School
Relationships and Marriage
Body Practices (such as massage, dance, yoga)
A Creative Journey
Spirituality is ultimately a creative journey that beckons all of us to reach out and within, to begin to cultivate a relationship with that part of ourselves that is deeply connected to all of Life. This journey certainly requires courage, but also offers a growing invitation to imagine, soften, and love ourselves toward resources that help us feel whole again. Through mindfulness, prayer, and personal and shared exploration of spiritual paths, we begin to discover resources for connecting with our core values and our highest vision. We may begin to trust our own unique, personal spiritual path and let it inform our healing through darkness and growing into our fullness and light. Many blessings . . .