The struggle to be spiritual is the struggle to be authentic, to be genuine, to be transparently real in every moment. Of course, by this definition, any two year old is the most spiritual person we know. Maturity adds compassion and awareness to the mix, and the decentralization of the ego, and the corresponding reduction in the power of the raging sea of desire to a quiet pool of preferences. The overriding spiritual quest is not to be authentic at the expense of other people, but to be authentic in relationship with other people, to be a self connecting with, relating to, self and other selves. To be a self in relation to other selves. A two-year-old can have an authentic melt-down at the candy counter. A spiritual master, on the other hand, can take no for an answer all day long, really for an entire life time, as the Dali Lama has done in regard to the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
We think being authentic has to do with saying what is on our minds, but it has to do with the connection between ourselves and our circumstances, being who we are in a way that meshes with what the situation calls for. It does not have as much to do with what we say, or even with how we say it, as it does with what needs to be said, or left unsaid, in the particular context of our living. There is a difference between stuffing our feelings and choosing not to say something, or waiting until it can be said.
We stuff our feelings because we are afraid of speaking, because we are afraid of putting truth on the table. When we do it that way, we pay a price, emotionally and physically, over time. But, there are times when it is not in anyone’s best interest for us to say who we are, where we are, why we are, when we are, what we are, how we are. You have never heard the Dali Lama say anything disparaging about the Chinese. He has not vented. He has not ranted, raved, threatened, remonstrated, demonstrated, demanded retribution, restitution, and apology. You might say he has not put truth on the table. You might say he has been stuffing his feelings. You might say he has not been honest, authentic, genuine, transparently real. But, if you said that, you would be not understanding the situation.
When the Pope spoke a couple of weeks ago, indirectly, about his ideas regarding Muslim propensity for violence by quoting from a centuries old manuscript to that effect, he enraged a good portion of the Muslim world. You might say he was being honest, authentic, genuine, transparently real. You might say he was putting truth, however veiled, on the table. You might say he was only telling it as it is and the response proves his point. You might say at least he wasn’t stuffing anything or pretending things are different than they are. You might say at least he had the courage to sort of say what needed to be said. Even if he sort of took it back. But, if you said that, you would be not understanding the situation.
When I trip back to the Mississippi Delta, or to the Mississippi Hill Country, to visit the cousins and the aunts and the uncles and the assortment of parishioners from the past, I don’t wear my Gay Pride tee shirt, or carry my anti-war banner, or take the suitcase with the pro-choice and the gun control now bumper stickers on it, and I don’t say much about politics, and religion, and race relations. You might say I’m being dishonest, and two-faced, and a fraud. You might say I’m stuffing how I really feel, and hiding my true feelings, and failing to be authentic, genuine, and transparently real. But, if you said that, you would be not understanding the situation.
In my defense, I’ll say I didn’t hide much of anything in the 20 years I spent talking to folks in Mississippi about my take on the gospel. And, I replaced the Dukakis For President yard sign almost as often as it disappeared. But, there is a point at which what you have to say cannot be heard. Beyond that point, if you keep talking, you suffer as much psychological and emotional (Where DOES that line lie?) damage as you would if you swallowed it all and stuffed everything. You become the weird relative in the backroom, about whom everyone says, “You know how he is.” Being excused in this fashion is not much different from being beaten, and speaking out is not much different from holding it in. What is the strategy for being heard in a world that cannot hear?
The Dali Lama does not talk about the Chinese, or about the Occupation of Tibet. He does not talk to those who cannot hear. He isn’t stuffing anything. He isn’t pretending anything. He isn’t denying anything. Jesus recommends that his disciples leave those who cannot hear them and go to those who can. It isn’t stuffing to recognize what can be heard and what cannot be, and to consciously choose to accommodate yourself to your audience, even as you search for those who can listen with acceptance and understanding to what you have to say. Authenticity, genuineness, and transparent realness do not require tantrums, venting, protests, or rage. They do require the realization and awareness of what we have to say and what those around us are capable of hearing, and where we have to go to find eye-to-eye-ness and commensality. The spiritual quest is as much for those who can hear what we have to say as it is for knowing what to say, or for hearing what needs to be heard. We cannot grow much beyond the capacity of our audience to hear what we have to say. When we find ourselves talking to blank expressions and empty eyes, we have to seek out other people to talk to.
But, being authentic is more than just saying what you are thinking to those who can hear what you are saying. It is saying what is needed, what is necessary, what is helpful. It is offering to the moment what the moment requires. It is bringing to life in a situation the very thing that is most useful to the situation. To do that, of course, we have to get out of the way. We have to disappear. Offering what the situation needs is not the same thing as offering what we think it needs, or giving it what we want it to have. So there is a sense in which being authentic, genuine, and transparently real doesn’t have anything to do with us at all.
Being authentic isn’t about saying what we are thinking so much as it is about knowing what needs to be said and saying it, knowing what needs to be done and doing it. It is about reading the situation, seeing into the heart of the moment, understanding what is being asked for, and offering what is needed. Authenticity is about the connection between who we are and what is being asked of us. We don’t make that connection by thinking about it.
Authenticity is not a function of cognition, of thought, of reason. It is not a left-brain function. The left-brain plays a part, of course, but it does not take the lead. We do not know what ought to happen in a situation apart from participation in the situation. We live our way to the truth. We do not think our way there. We cannot apply recipes and formulas, design structures, impose forms, provide answers from outside the situation. We have to live in it to know what to do about it, to know how to respond to it. We have to listen to it to have a sense of what needs to happen in it. And, sometimes, the answer is “nothing.”
Sometimes, nothing needs to happen, that is, the situation needs nothing to happen. Sometimes, there is nothing to be done. Carl Jung said, “There are no answers to the big questions, no solutions to the critical problems. They just have to be out-grown” (Or words to that effect). Doing nothing is doing something, and it is always an option. We wait to see what can be done, what needs to happen. We wait for clarity, for insight, for enlightenment, for wisdom, for revelation. But, we have to be intentionally waiting for those things. We can’t just be putting action off because we are lazy, or afraid.
Two things keep us from waking up and living authentic lives—lives connected at the core to ourselves and what needs to happen in the moment of our living. The two things, of course, are fear and desire, and, since fear is really desire in disguise, there is only one thing keeping us from waking up, although desire is not quite the word for it. What is the word for wanting what we have no business having? What is the word for trying to calm our fear and anxiety by giving ourselves an endless array of toys and bright, shiny distractions? What is the word for taking our minds off the situation, for disconnecting ourselves from the situation, and compelling the situation to be what we want it to be, to be what we think it ought to be (“Democracy for everyone!”, for example)? We cannot be authentic and afraid or anxious. We cannot be authentic and want what we have no business having. Sometimes, we have to “calm the troubled beast within” in order to bring ourselves to the situation as those who are awake, watching, and waiting to see what needs to happen, what needs to be done. And, that’s a tall order.
How do you calm yourself, soothe yourself? How do you find peace? How do you distance yourself from yourself and the situation in order to see, and hear, and understand? We have to see what is happening, and what needs to happen, in order to respond appropriately and authentically, in order to bring who we truly are to bear on what truly needs to happen. How do you achieve that sort of “working distance,” the kind of perspective that sees into the heart of things, and knows what to do? However you do it, that is a spiritual practice for you. Keep it up.
We cannot live appropriately and authentically—we cannot be awake, aware, and alive—without enough distance between ourselves and ourselves, and our circumstances to see, and hear, and understand. The creation of the right amount of “working distance” is the product of spiritual discipline and practice.
We are not “naturally” predisposed to live appropriately and authentically connected to ourselves and the circumstances of our lives. Our “natural” predisposition is to get our way or die. We “naturally” think of what we need, not of what needs us. We “naturally” respond with anger and hatred to that which blocks our way and frustrates our desires. It is the easiest thing in the world to melt down at the candy counter.
Spiritual discipline and practice calms “the beast within,” and enables us to consider our circumstances from a perspective other than our egocentric, self-centered, interest in getting what we have no business having—in having what cannot possibly satisfy or sustain us. We cannot live authentically connected with who we are and what our situation requires without the discipline of spiritual practice. Or, without participation in a community of like-minded people, who have no particular agenda beyond seeing, and hearing, and understanding, and responding appropriately and authentically to what is seen, heard, and understood.
Of course, we are working to create that kind of community here. And, we hope that you will be a part of the work with us. It will help to not have to know what you are doing, or by when you have to have it done. There is no recipe and there is no time frame for living appropriately and authentically in the world. But, the time to begin is always now.