Our lives are lived in a milieu of influences which we perceive as distinct and discrete. From time to time we may concentrate on one or another of these areas, but most of the time we glide along paying little attention to these influences. When there is a crisis we are jolted out of our complacency and become concerned about some aspect of our existence we otherwise blithely ignore.
A fellow was sitting in a dental chair gripping the arm rests so tightly that his knuckles were white. The dentist paused and tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry. Try to relax.”
“I’m not worried,” the patient responded, “just incredibly alert!”
There are times when we pay close attention to our physical well being. There are other times we let that slide and our whole lives may be tied up in religion, or some creative endeavor, or a matter of romance. A religious experience might draw our attention to a new dynamic taking place between us and the transcendental sphere in our life, just as a love affair will pull us out of our relaxed mode into excitement about our social sphere we had just recently been taking for granted.
Our friend is an alcoholic. He is a binge drinker. He can go for a period of time without getting drunk, but one day he will take another drink and he will be helpless. He will drink himself into a stupor and as often as not he will simply pass out wherever he is, at a bus stop, on a sidewalk, in a friend’s house, under the table in a restaurant. If he is with friends they will take care of him. If he is alone, he is alone. At least seven times his cell phones and money have been stolen while he was unconscious in some public place late at night. Why doesn’t he take care of himself? The answer may not be far away. He is gay, his sister is a prostitute, his mother is a widow in an ethnic minority village that specializes in drug traffic. It would be hard to find a person who has had sex with more men in more circumstances in the same span of time as our friend. He is a genius at it, an artist, but not a connoisseur. His tastes are eclectic and varied on many subjects. He has intelligence, wit, compassion and loyalty. But he is tasteless in his choice of self-indulgences and modes of self-destruction.
I have spent time concentrating on our friend and it has helped me clarify a great deal about our physical reality, its vulnerability and survival. My description, however, would probably not be enough for you to be enlightened by him. Someone else, though, might be a victim you come across who calls forth your deepest level of humanity. It is very common for persons to gain their truest insight into the whole world of nature through the agency of some person who becomes its symbol for them. We do not usually find the metaphors that inform us about life’s urgency and reality, those metaphors find us.
In the same way, the transcendental realm of reality will be represented to some of us most vividly by experiences we have had with Mary, or Jesus, or the Buddha, or Rama, or Brahma, or a spirit we encountered in the forest or on a mountaintop. And yet many of us have had no such experience and just have to rely on the testimony of others for the time being.
Most people at more than one point in their lives relate to somebody in such a way that they are transformed by the relationship into beings entirely better than they were before. Lovers tend to do that for us. Being in love with someone is the best way to discover the validity and the power of the whole societal sphere of our spiritual environment.
The inner center of our minds, where our unconscious minds retain images, information, and identities waiting for us to discover, sometimes urgently imposing on us to fathom them, is a spiritual area that is also separate from our daily consciousness to such an extent that it seems “other” to us, a different spiritual sphere.
The silent center is like a different person, at first. It is the well-spring of creativity, although it is a preserve of silence and the absence of confusion. It is the one place a person can be truly silent, completely vulnerable, and absolutely honest. Everywhere else a person is acting or listening. In the silent center, at the heart of a person, life’s priorities are clearer, integrity is obvious; one’s very identity is revealed.
Spirituality is a topic of widespread interest these days. It has replaced religion as an operative dynamic for some. Spirituality has attained academic status as a valid topic for advanced study. I have been working on this for nearly sixty years. One conclusion I have made is that spirituality ought to be more comprehensive than are most discussions of it. Our perception of reality needs to be inclusive. We learn who we are, how we function and grow, and what the rationale behind our existence and trajectory is by being aware of four spheres of influence. They are the transcendental sphere above us; the sphere of our physicality and of the realm of nature which upholds us as our foundation; the societal sphere whose reality is exposed to us most distinctly through our relationship to significant others whom we love unconditionally; and the inner sphere which we discover to be a creative silent center in the midst of our unconscious.
There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. Niggle was a painter. There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder. “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey,” he used to say. Yet he was beginning to see that he could not put off his start indefinitely. The picture would have to stop just growing and get finished. There was a knock on the door. “Come in!” he said sharply and climbed down the ladder. It was his neighbour, Parish; his only real neighbour, all other folk living a good way off. “My wife has been ill for some days, and I am getting worried,” said Parish. “And the wind has blown half the tiles off my roof, and water is pouring into the bedroom. I think I ought to get the doctor. I had rather hoped you might have been able to spare the time to go for the doctor, seeing how I’m placed.” “Of course,” said Niggle; “I could go. I’ll go, if you are really worried.” “I am worried, very worried. I wish I was not lame,” said Parish. So Niggle went. It was wet and windy, and daylight was waning. The doctor did not set out as promptly as Niggle had done. He arrived next day, which was quite convenient for him, as by that time there were two patients to deal with, in neighboring houses. At that moment another man came in: tall, dressed in black. “Come along!” he said. “I am the Driver. You start today on your journey, you know.” [Niggle fell asleep and overheard two Voices debating his fate.] “Still, there is this last report,” said the Second Voice, “that wet bicycle-ride. I rather lay stress on that. It seems plain that this was a genuine sacrifice: Niggle guessed that he was throwing away his last chance with his picture.” Niggle thought that he had never heard anything so generous as that Voice. “I think it is a case for a little gentle treatment now,” said the Second Voice. It made Gentle Treatment sound like a load of rich gifts, and the summons to a King’s feast. They came at last to a place where a great green shadow came between him and the sun. Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them. “Of course!” he said. “What I need is Parish. I need help and advice: I ought to have got it sooner.” [Tolkein]
In Tolkein’s little story, cut all the shorter in this version, are all the spiritual dimensions. Niggle’s identity is defined by his own creativity as a painter, a painter of leaves. The inspiration springs from deep within. He is defined as well by his compassion for those in need, and by his relationship with Parish, who is his only friend. Symbolically, Niggle has to come down from his ladder to help Parish, a cripple, and his ailing wife. This eventuates in Niggle himself becoming like them, sick … hastening the day when “the Driver” comes for him. Strangely, it is this selfless act that accomplishes what Niggle was never finishing on his own: the painting, and a true bond of intimacy with Parish. All this was done, as it were off-stage, but Niggle does overhear two supernatural voices evaluating his life. The Second Voice who decreed “Gentle Treatment” for Niggle, was the representative of the Transcendental dimension for Niggle.
From a spiritual point of view we are conscious of being in a condition where four different types of spiritual forces overlap: the transcendental, the physical, the societal, and the unconscious.
What is your spirituality?
Your comprehensive reality
Your potentiality – what you would be if your potential were fully realized
A conception of the dynamics of who you are with aspects of you growing
A description of what happens when aspects of you become so dysfunctional that all aspects of you are caught into dysfunctionality and deterioration
Tolkein, J.R.R. 1964, from “Leaf by Niggle” in Tree and Leaf. London: Unwin Books.
[Essay 1: SPIRITUALITY. This is the first essay in a series on spirituality.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.