Many years ago I shared a large apartment right across from the Zen Buddhist Center in San Francisco with an assortment of other idealistic young spiritual seekers who drifted in and out of my life. One of our more colorful roommates was Luis, a likeable, worldly fellow from a wealthy family in Columbia who had experienced a powerful call to an otherworldly spiritual life. One day he went to the town near the Zen monastery in the mountains, ate his “final” steak dinner, drank his “last” bottle of fine wine, and enjoyed the company of one “last” beautiful woman. The next day he shaved his head, as Buddhist monks traditionally do to symbolize their renunciation of the world, put on a robe and presented himself to startled folks at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center to begin a new life of extreme ascetic rigor. We all laughed when Luis when he told us this story because this was, in somewhat less dramatic form, our common story. We had read about enlightened sages who lived in cosmic bliss and harmony, and now we wanted to achieve such spiritual perfection for ourselves ASAP and had renounced our worldly lives to walk this very serious spiritual path!
At the monastery Luis was told he’d have to go through some training before he could enter the monastery. So, he had joined us at the city center where we meditated in the early morning and evening and held down mostly low paying day jobs. Even that proved to be too rigorous for most of us. I stuck with this kind of practice for a few years – longer than most – and I was derived more lasting benefit than I realized at the time, but slowly, over the next few years I began to slack off in my spiritual practice. It took so much discipline and dedication and I didn’t feel I was any good at it!
It seemed like such a hard path. Not knowing what else to do I returned to the university to get an undergraduate degree, and I fell into the fun and comfortable life style of a young American lad of that era out to savor the various pleasurable offerings of life. I had changed gears. As far as my spiritual life was concerned, that gear was neutral.
I thought about this phase of my life a few years later in theology school when I studied the 19th Century philosopher Kierkegaard and learned about his characterization of an “aesthetic stage” of life (sounds promising, doesn’t it?). This aesthetic stage of life” does not refer to a time when a person is deeply into the arts but rather when a person is essentially devoted to the perennial pursuit of pleasure.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with pleasure, but if the quest for it provides the only wind in your sails on your life’s voyage you’ll just randomly drift from one isle of indulgence to the next with no larger goal or purpose in mind. Seems to me that some folks do manage to make most of their lives one long, meandering pleasure cruise. Still, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? The problem is, as Kierkegaard pointed out, those perennially pursuing pleasure will also be perennially fleeing an underlying sense of spiritual emptiness and anxiety. Why? Because ultimately the human heart yearns for more substantial fare than all too fleeting pleasures to find fulfillment.
This yearning for something more profound than fleeting pleasure is expressed in the third principle of Unitarian Universalism wherein we “encourage spiritual growth in our congregations.” It was a yearning for such growth that originally compelled me to leave my home in Georgia and hitchhike out to San Francisco as a young fellow to seek enlightenment, and yet this didn’t play out exactly like I expected. I imagined I’d be enlightened by the time I was 30 or so, but instead, I found myself in an aesthetic stage cul-de-sac – “cul de sac” being French for “dead end” – and that’s how it felt: Dead.
It was not a happy time for me. And yet, that’s not altogether a bad thing because if you are unhappy with the way your life has turned out you are prompted to reflect and see if you can see your way out of your dead end. That’s where spiritual growth comes – you begin to explore new, more expansive ways of being. This time, being a bit older and maybe wiser, I realized that this was not going to involve sudden radical shifts – it would be less dramatic and more of a pedestrian one step at a time, one day at a time, kind of journey.
What kind of a journey is it? Each person has her or his own spiritual path to discover that fits his or her unique temperaments, talents and inclinations. I appreciate the way the Hindu tradition breaks it down, recognizing that there are different paths of spiritual growth for those who intellectuals (the thinking types), contemplatives (the meditative types), activists (the doers), or devotional types (the overs). My hunch is that most of us are a blend of several types. I’d say that my own path seems to be the contemplative one with a complementary elements of the lover and activist. But what do I know?
Well, I know that all paths of spiritual growth have some things in common: they lead away from a sense of isolation, alienation, bitterness, fear, despair, greed, anger, hatred – all those toxic states of mind and habitual ways of being that can imprison us –and move us toward an awareness of how interconnected we all are and thus you naturally seek to honor other beings, serve the common good, bless the world.
In some religious traditions of an authoritarian, dogmatic bent, you will be issued a spiritual map howing you the one true route to spiritual growth. In our liberal, non-dogmatic tradition, we don’t hand out copies of one path because we trust that our spiritual yearnings will lead each of us will wisely to choose our own unique way. Not that you have to do it all alone – you can share your story with others and compare notes and ask for counsel, but finally, it is up to each one of us to decide how to walk the path of spiritual growth.
As you walk your path it’s helpful to be aware of which of the three existential zones you’re in. First, consider the comfort zone – that’s place where you habitually reside in daily life. Actually, it may not be that comfortable, but it’s the life with which you’re familiar and since we tend to be averse to challenge and change there is a tendency to stay there. The problem with the comfort zone is that it not only confines and constrains you – it shrinks over time. If you always stay in your comfort zone you’ve effectively thrown in the towel as far as spiritual growth is concerned. Then too, it’s easy to fool yourself and get stuck in your comfort zone, as a music teacher once discovered when he
wondered why his students weren’t making progress. He observed their practice and discovered that they were playing it safe in their comfort zones – they weren’t taking any risks by attempting new, difficult passages. Which is to say that to get out of your comfort zone you have to bump it up a notch, take some risks.
This is not to suggest you go bungee jumping or try to make sudden, radical changes because that lands you in the stress zone – (sometimes, alas, life gives you no choice). The stress zone is so uncomfortable that you can’t absorb new learnings and experiences and you’ll finally just want to retreat back to a comfort zone as I once did many years ago. Which is to say don’t expect to achieve sainthood or become fully enlightened overnight.
Just pay attention to the natural risks and stretches that life invites you to take – the ones you know you are called to take that will move you a bit beyond your comfort zone. Welcome to the stretch zone, different from the comfort zone and the stress zone– it’s the place where you grow. Find your path and stretch on it a little day by day. If you make it a practice to stretch a bit further down your path of spiritual growth little by little one day you’ll discover that you’ve actually gone some distance. The mere passage of years does not insure spiritual growth. Getting older does not necessarily mean getting wiser. Recently, a writer was interviewing older people about their lives – a common refrain was that none of them regretted taking too many risks but many of them wished they had taken more – gotten out of their comfort zones and stretched a bit more.
One day, a sitar player who was discouraged with his meditation practice and went to the Buddha to ask for instruction:
“What happens when you tune your instrument too tightly?” the Buddha asked.
“The strings break,” the sitar player replied.
“And what happens when you string it too loosely?”
“When it’s too loose, no sound comes out,” the musician answered.
“The string that produces a tuneful sound is not too tight and not too loose.”
“That,” said the Buddha, “is how to practice: not too tight and not too loose.”
Make it a practice to stretch your heart, your mind, your will. Do that and you can make some beautiful music as you practice the art of living.