Saturday, June 11, 2011

Spirit Work, Soul Work

"All politics is local"
~ Tip O'Neil

I would like to paraphrase Tip O'Neil's famous quote to say that all spirituality happens under the roof where you live. Everything else is either preparation or an interesting exercise. There are many systems for spirituality and many opportunities for spiritual retreat. Some of those systems capitalize upon people's desire for a meaningful life beyond the mundane day-to-day existence that they are experiencing. No doubt, many who are reading this can recall "mountain top experiences" which fade and dwindle upon return to everyday life. Sometimes we say things like, "I just need to work harder at it, to be more consistent," "Maybe I need a change of venue," "Perhaps I should enter the ministry so I can occupy myself with spiritual things." Some have even decided they need to change partners. Others may abandon the idea of spirituality altogether. Still others may chalk up their disappointment to the fact that they live in a fallen world, or that people around them just have no desire to seek a higher plane.

Maybe our problem is that in our minds we dichotomize our world. We have a desire to hold onto the things that are sweet and lovely, and to exclude the dark and dangerous. Jon Kabat-Zin, Buddhist writer and practitioner, distinguishes between soul work and spirit. He sees spirit as pleasant, uplifting, having a quality of moving toward the light. Soul work, on the other hand, involves a willingness to connect with the dark, moist, deep places that may involve pain and distress. I think that he is on to something. The Hebrew notion of the soul suggests the totality of one's being.

The ancient Greeks viewed the soul as that pure, spiritual, nobler aspect that is apart from the physical world. That view seems to dominate much of our thinking today. On the other hand, the Hebrew concept of soul embraces all that one is. There is no separating of body, mind, and spirit.

There are times when I know sweetness and light. There are also times when I cause hurt, anger and disappointment. Furthermore, there are times when I am hurt, angry and disappointed. If I am to be honest with myself and honest with life, I must acknowledge all of those negative, hurtful incidents as part of the mix. If I am to truly evaluate myself and my spirituality, I must examine how it all plays out at home.

True spirituality integrates and connects. In order for spiritual practice to be more than just an opiate or a distraction, it must take into account the whole of life. Work place, family, hobbies and social life each represent opportunities for the implementation of spirituality. Every religious tradition offers methods for spiritual practice, the goal being to eliminate distractions and to pay attention.

My own spiritual practice includes watching my breath, praying the rosary, and saying the Jesus prayer. I have also found yard work and gardening to be effective in leading to a meditative state. Any spirituality, however, must have some influence on daily life. If I don't greet my wife with a hug and a kiss, if I don't speak words of encouragement to my daughter, or if I forget to put down fresh water for the dogs – these things tell me something about my own level of compassion and awareness. Those day-to-day details let me know if my spirituality is itself a distraction or if it is helping to integrate my life. Paying attention to those simple acts is every bit as important as any method of spiritual practice.


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