How Is It With Your Spirit?
As I began to write this sermon called “How Is it With Your Spirit?” two things took place, grist for the mill, as we say in the preaching trade. First, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska announced that he was retiring from the Senate. He said that he needed to attend to his “spiritual side” (I can imagine that it would be difficult to do that in the Senate). And, second, the electrical power went out. I’ll get back to that later.
This sermon actually has been in the note stage for awhile. It began at a spiritual retreat a couple of years ago. During a break, the leader of the retreat came to sit with me. She didn’t ask, “How are you?” Or, “How is it going?” She asked, earnestly, “How is it with your spirit?” I was struck by the profound simplicity and deep caring of the question, “How are you?” after all, is just a minor social ritual, a casual greeting. We tend to avoid people who don’t understand that and actually tell us how they are. But, “How is it with your spirit?” is not a question one asks on the fly. It clearly calls for a response.
I must admit, I was a bit flustered when my colleague asked. I doubt if many of you have had such a question posed before, neither had I. How were things with my spirit? And what did that mean, anyway? Apart from some occasional angina, a little shortness of breath, arthritic twinges — apart from the physical stuff of an overweight aging male, how was I? How was I? We tend to identify with our bodies, so when we are asked how we are we answer in terms of our physical state, physical health. We say “fine,” meaning we’re not ill — or meaning simply that we know well enough that a catalogue of our ailments is not being called for.
So, “How is it with your spirit?” Not “How is it with your body?” And also not, “How is your mental health?” We’re not asked if we’re depressed or anxious. No one wants really wants to hear if our paranoia is acting up again.
With a little coaching, I gradually began to look into the state of my spirit, about the extent to which I felt — or did not feel — in balance, in harmony, at peace. Is that, then, what the spirit is? Is the spirit that part of us, that place in us, that experiences harmony or disharmony, peace or conflict, balance or imbalance?
Senator Kerrey says he feels the need to attend to his spiritual side. But the spirit to which we need to attend, to which my colleague-mentor was calling me to attend, is more than a “part of us,” as if we are part spirit, part body, part mind. The spirit is more than, as the Senator says, a “side of us.” We are not put together like jigsaw puzzles, with pieces and sides. The spirit is the core of our very being. The spirit is what we are, truly, purely.
Here’s where the power failure comes in.
My evenings — like the evenings of many here — are usually spent going to meetings, working on sermons (or whatever is in your briefcase), working through problems (or not). But, somewhere during the wee hours of that Sunday morning, the power went down, and Sunday evening was a different kind of evening. No computers to work at. No telephones. My wife and I pulled our favorite chairs up to the fireplace. We lit an old oil lamp and lots of candles. We read.
I remembered an old cassette tape player, retrieved it, and watched the fire while listening to a tape someone gave me awhile ago that I hadn’t yet taken the time to sit and listen to: It was the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass talking about “conscious aging.” In speaking of creative, conscious aging, Ram Dass also spoke so clearly to me that evening of the nature of “Spirit.” I say he spoke clearly and, of course, he did that — but it must also be said that I was listening clearly, attending, focusing — not thinking of where I needed to be, because there wasn’t anywhere to go, nothing else I “ought” to be doing.
So I listened.
I heard Ram Dass say that, when we are born, we are conscious only of being “one with all.” Our awareness as infants is awareness of “Perfect unity.” As newborns, we have no identifications. No roles. One with everything. And then we go into training to “be somebody.” We are trained for years by parents, teachers, society, corporations and colleagues, to “be somebody.” We do become somebody, of course. We do have to become somebody eventually. But the process of becoming somebody is the process of pulling further and further away from that original consciousness of wholeness and unity. We become particular.
Again, we do have to — as the psychologists say — “differentiate.” We do have to distinguish, have an identity. But many of us strive with such intensity to become and remain so particular, to become and remain that “somebody,” that we lose touch with the whole. We lose touch with the unity, the harmony, into which we were born.
That which was the awareness of harmony, that which was the awareness of the wholeness and unity, is the spirit. In becoming somebody, we separate from spirit. We create aspects of self — “parts” of self, “sides” of self — which are in conflict with the spirit’s natural state of wholeness and harmony. To maintain that “somebody” we think we are, the “somebody” we think we need to be — that others assume that we are or demand that we be — to maintain that “somebody” we disunite from the spirit.
The more desperately we cling to the “somebody” — the role, the image, the persona — the more we strive to defend and maintain it, the more the spirit suffers. Rather than living in wholeness, we live fragmented, in stress, in anxiety, in fear, and in the despair born of the growing sense that something real in us is being sacrificed and is slowly perishing.
“Success” often means satisfying someone else’s expectations. Most of us get paid for satisfying other people’s expectations. Very few have the luxury, or have achieved the spiritual power, to live purely by their own expectations. If we satisfy the expectations of others, they applaud us, elect us, tell us they love us, maybe send us to college. In popular terms, it’s known as “selling one’s soul.” Jesus said we should not fear those who can only kill the body. Fear those who can kill the spirit.
Only we know the extent to which our “success” has been gained at the expense of our spirit, gained at the expense of our awareness of unity, harmony, and relatedness. Eventually, we may manage to almost entirely obliterate the inner yearning of the spirit for a return to wholeness, shutting out what one of my colleagues refers to in the title of her book as, “The Cries of the Heart.”
I struggled for some time to answer, at least for myself, the question “How is it with your spirit?” Part of what I learned from that struggle is that when I experience stress, when I am anxious and afraid, or angry and impatient, it is because I feel the “somebody” I think I am, the “somebody” I have created, is being somehow threatened. I know that when I feel a threat to my “somebody,” to my role, my position, my image, and feel so desperately the need to defend it, my spirit is suppressed and suffers. I know that I am in distress because I am not trusting my spirit, not trusting that beneath all images, roles and facades — I am. When the God of the ancient Hebrew people was asked to identify himself, he said “I am that I am.”
When I live in stress and anxiety, I am not trusting that there is strength of spirit enough beneath me to uphold me should I let all that go. One of the most appealing images of God for me is in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” I think of God in this metaphor as the center of my own being, which is my dwelling place, in which are the everlasting arms. It requires as much faith to hold that trust in one’s own center as to hold such trust in a divine being.
I sicken my spirit when I put my faith in all the degrees, roles and images I have created in the process of “being somebody” — a somebody, like all somebodies, so fragile, so transient. The Christian scriptures warn against putting our treasure where moth and rust can corrupt it.
In speaking of aging, Ram Dass says that those who age most “successfully,” most contentedly, are those who are able to let go of their “somebody,” to let it all fall away and simply be. What a blessing it must be to retire from the stage.
In his poem, “Burnt Norton,” T. S. Eliot writes of the still point.
At the still point of the turning world,
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
At the still point, there the dance is,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
At the still point of the turning world.
I’m not good at T. S. Eliot. It’s difficult stuff: at least, I find it difficult. I never really understood about the still point, until that evening in the candlelight, by the fireside, listening to Ram Dass. “At the still point of the turning world.” Imagine a spinning globe, the turning world. Time passing in the turning. Place your finger on the surface of the spinning globe. Feel the world, feel time, slipping by. This is how life is on the surface. The surface of the spinning globe, the turning world. Time, spinning by. Feeling life and time, inexorably sliding away. But in the center of the spinning globe, is the still point. The still point is at the center, unaffected by time, unaffected by the speed at the surface.
The spirit is at the still point, the center of our being, the center where there is harmony, unity, wholeness. How far we are from the still point is the measure of how things are with our spirit.
I have come, then, to a tentative, a working definition of that troublesome term — “spirituality.” “Spirituality” is that experience we have, or the awareness we seek to nurture and grow, which is not related to our “somebody” — not related to our striving, contesting, performing collection of “selves.” We experience “spirituality” in those times when what we experience, what we are aware of, is unrelated to what we are. A spiritual experience is an experience of unity, of harmony, of wholeness. It is an experience of the “still point.”
Spiritual work, then, spiritual learning and growing, is whatever we do to bring into our lives more of that experience, awareness, of wholeness, harmony, and unity. “Spiritual growth” is the growth of our awareness of ourselves — and the growth of our contentment with ourselves — apart from body, brain, role, work, or place.
Of course, we live in a culture, in a society, which places optimal value in what we are and minimal-to-zero value in the spiritual. Your boss, clients, students, teachers are most likely not remotely interested in how it is with your spirit. The assumptions of western civilization are dependent upon persons who will devalue and deny the spiritual in favor of the “more productive” pursuit of success. Therefore, spiritual work, growth in spirituality, and spiritual experience, is very, very difficult for us. “Be all that you can be,” is not referring to spiritual growth.
To attempt to grow in spirit is to begin the journey to the still point, to who we are beneath and apart from all “somebodies.” Why do it? Why seek the spirit, do the work of spiritual health and growth? First of all, simply because it feels good! The experience of unity, harmony, wholeness is an experience of inexpressible joy. Unless the spirit is completely betrayed and suppressed, we have moments of awareness of harmony, fleeting recollections of our oneness with all. Spiritual work is the work of enhancing that awareness, making the sense of harmony and unity that which directs our lives, that which our lives value, creating a life that is lived from the center.
And the spiritual journey, the work of living in the spirit, is essential because the more we strive, the more we alienate ourselves from the spirit, the more we experience stress, anxiety, fear, despair. That experience sickens us — literally sickens, dis-eases us. I am more and more convinced that most of our sicknesses of mind and body are physical expressions — symptoms — of the sickness of the spirit.
Ironically, the more we strive to become “somebody,” the more we become, indeed, merely some body, the more we come to identify our selves with the body, which sickens, and dies.
Think of this: Think about what you are– your role, title, profession, work. And consider this: who are you, who would you be, if you were not what you are? How much awareness do you have of who you are beneath what you are?
How is it with your spirit?
We would do well to stop and ask ourselves that question on a regular basis — and wait for the answer. “How is it with my spirit?” Am I content? Am I at peace? Not that everything in my life is under control — but is it all right if everything isn’t under control? Do I trust that, underneath, are “everlasting arms,” a trust that I have a center which will hold as life on the surface spins by? Are there times enough, when I pay attention, that I am aware of an inner harmony, times enough that I know that that harmony is there?
Ask yourself the loving, caring question, “How is it with my spirit?” Ask the question often. Learn where in yourself to look for the response. For your own sake, for the sake of those you love and who love you, and for the world’s sake, care for your spirit as for your very life — for so it is.