I was recently listening to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in which Terry Gross spoke with Bishop Gene Robinson. Fascinated, I listened as Robinson spoke of the role of prayer in his everyday life. His words were honest and simple when he spoke of how he had grown in prayer, that he (and most people) had started praying at first with words and requests, often repetitive, but as he aged and matured spiritually, his prayer grew into a deeper, non-verbal experience. I’m certain I’m not doing justice with my paraphrasing, but how he described this experience struck a chord…
Now I’m not a Christian, though I was raised in a Christian household, have studied it in-depth, and find it to be for the most part a noble philosophy. I have been struck time and again by the common experience of those walking a spiritual path. By spiritual path, I should clarify, I don’t necessarily mean a person who goes to church or temple or whatever motions designated as devout by their chosen religious group. A spiritual path, to me, is a commitment to challenging oneself and one’s ideas, of not taking anyone else’s (or any book’s) word for it, of living spiritually within this life, this world.
Such a path often leads to a common experience, and regardless of whether one calls it prayer or meditation, it is described with the same evocative images by people of all religions and paths: to be surrounded by a sensation of lightness/goodwill/peace/contentment, to feel that you are more expansive than your physical body, to rise above the mundane chatter and discomforts of the worldly moment, to gain a simple sense of clarity and objectivity and wordlessness, a sense of unity. One of my favorite authors, Phyllis Curott, describes it as a process of “unnaming.”
This led me to a thought: If so many have had this similar experience (putting aside the variations of vocabulary), why are so many convinced that theirs is the one True or Right way? Here’s the conclusion I drew.
We all start somewhere. Most of us got some early spiritual notions from our families, either conforming to or rebelling against their beliefs (or both!), but either is a reactive development. Our first independent spiritual experience is a coming of age, our first moment of being filled up to overflowing through prayer or meditation or just looking up into the vastness of a starry sky – it wells up, and we are changed. I’m certain there are people who go to church and never experience this bliss (to use Joseph Campbell’s term), as I’m certain there are people affiliated with no religious group or belief system that have nonetheless experienced it as profoundly as anyone.
Where we are when we have that first experience shapes our footsteps from that moment on. If we are in church, well, it stands to reason that it’s because of the Church or because of God’s love. If we are walking through the woods, it must be the encompassing energy of Mother Earth. Whatever we are doing, whomever we are with, whatever our affiliations or beliefs at that moment of lightness, like a duckling we cry out in recognition of that as our Mother (or Father), assuming that this is the reason this wonderful gift has been bestowed on us.
I think that everyone who attains this bliss, in that moment, is walking a True path, their personal True path, because it is what led them to that moment in the first place. Their path is not necessarily going to work for anyone else, and there is a beauty in that thought.
What a delightful thought, all these roads circling a globe and yet, in an impossible feat of physics, finding the same space and time, time and again!
Declaring a particular philosophy or dogma or religious group to be Right and True (generally to the exclusion of all others) is like plucking a flower. It is beautiful when first picked, but the very nature of the act separates the flower from its life force, its connection to that moment; it must be forced between the pages and trapped in time rather than continuing on in its own vital and vibrant cycles and seasons. Let the moment be. Nurture it gently, prune it occasionally, but let it grow, roots reaching deep into the earth of experience, leaves thrilling in a spontaneous wind.