Is it possible to follow a spiritual path without the guidance of any organized religion? I certainly think so. But I’ve learned the hard way that there is no easy way. I’ve been wandering around for years looking for clues to guide me. I’ve tried easy fixes, pat little formulas like “Be here now” or “This is It” or “God is Love” or “The Path of Least Resistance”. Nothing makes living with quality and integrity easy. The only real choice you have is how you learn and grow from your experiences.
Organized religion offers a tested path. Sometimes it’s better to seek a known path rather than potentially getting lost finding your own. On the other hand, getting a little lost is a sure way to learn the territory well. As with any solution, one size doesn’t fit all. Perhaps a hybrid mish-mash of the best of all paths would be more adaptable to different needs. My exploration has certainly exposed me to wisdom I would not have “invented” on my own.
What I’ve found in my search for spiritual growth are a few simple rules (patterns*) which have no particular religious affiliation, but which can be found in almost any religious prescription. I like to think they are deeply thought common sense. (*since writing this, I have decided that the word “rules” has too strict a connotation- please allow me to call them “patterns“)
Pattern 1: The existence of a “soul” which lasts after this life is impossible to prove. Yet, though there may be no “spirit” after life, the fact is, our energy is never born and never dies. A cloud is water vapor, which may become rain, then a river, then steam or ice. So there is in fact a continuation of “me”, albeit in a different form. One could even deem this “continuation” of energy a spiritual axiom, though few would find it comforting. Consider this. No matter how important or “everlasting” you wish your personal self to be, your life will inevitably pass into some other form which can never really be known. So the bottom line is that we need to make the best, best, best possible life we can with the one we have.
Pattern 2: The fact is, we are not separate from the rest of the world. Our bodies are only minimally separated by porous skin from the air around us and from the rest of the physical world. Because of this illusion, it is incredibly easy to believe that we are alone and separate from the world. If we believe this long enough, we make it true. Our minds will make it true. Many of us live in this lonely hell. But if we can stay open to the idea that we are part of something greater than our individual self, we can, with lots of patience and persistence, thrive on our intrinsic connection to the world. Everything we do affects more than just ourselves. Caring for our bodies is caring for the world. Caring for a family member is helping all humanity. Caring for a plant or animal is embracing compassion. Helping planet Earth helps yourself. A smile felt from your heart goes to someone else’s heart. On the other hand, anger at one’s self is harmful to the world, and on and on through all the emotions of the lonely, false self. (this rule is the hardest for me to realize, by far, yet it is perhaps the most important)
Pattern 3: Accept your uniqueness and begin by loving yourself. You are the beginning of the rest of the world. Embrace this fact. You cannot love anyone if you can’t love yourself. I do not mean smug self-adoration over all others. This kind of false self love is toxic. It indicates that pattern two, our universal connectedness, has not been noticed. One must be responsible for one’s actions and even one’s thoughts. Only we can monitor our own psychological reality as it occurs to us. Hateful thoughts and words are only a breath away from similar actions.
Pattern 4: Learn from mistakes, yours and others. Life is like music. Becoming spiritual means playing that music more beautifully, with more meaning. Pay attention. No matter how much we read or listen to the teachings of others, we tend to have to “reinvent the wheel” to some degree. Ideas for improving your ability to give meaning to life’s music come from multiple sources: from friends, from books, TV shows, blogs, from a pet’s gentle eyes, a sweet smelling flower, the sound of water, and especially from your own inner voice. Listen to your conscience. A junior High School math teacher once said to our class, “Your conscience is like a pin prick which reminds you of what your gut is telling you. Ignore it long enough and you wear the pins down. Sooner or later you don’t feel the prick.” Don’t ignore your conscience. Don’t ignore your heart.
Pattern 5: Forgive as you go. There is a letting go in this feeling, letting go of impermanence, clarifying your spiritual permanence in a flawed world. Forgive yourself and forgive others, over and over, second to second, day after day. Forgive with each breath. Forgiveness is letting go. Cleanse yourself with forgiveness. If you remain in a constant state of forgiveness, you are much more able to learn from mistakes and to love through suffering. This is a paradox. But the fact is, a clean slate is easier to write on.
As forgiveness soaks through every cell of my existence, an airiness fills me, a porous lightness which allows pain, suffering, fear, anger and resentment to pass through me, leaving more room for growth and love.