Taking Spirit Personally

January 31st, 2012

When I was a kid I thought my school was haunted because the teachers kept talking about school spirit. I kept a close watch over my shoulder during school assembly. Even for adults, the word “spirit” can be confusing because it’s used in so many ways. We talk about the Christmas spirit, the spirit of the age, the spirit world, a free spirit, being with someone in spirit, the spirit leaving the body, the strong spirit and the weak flesh, to name just a few. As I discussed in the first piece, when it comes to body, mind and spirit, spirit is like the third tenor, “the other guy.” We have a good idea what a body is, we’ve got some ideas about what a mind is, but when it comes to spirit we don’t know how to name or define it and end up using the same word to describe many different things.

Some people don’t use words like spirit or spirituality at all because they bring to mind other worldly or even guilt laden ideas from their upbringing. When you hear stories like the one I heard this week, I’m not surprised. This is horrific and it’s the sort of situation that makes me question whether I want to be associated in any way with religion. A local family moved to our area about 5 years ago from San Francisco. Their daughter walks with a frame. When they first moved here, their daughter was playing with some neighborhood kids. One of them took her aside and asked her what school she went to. The kid then said, “I’m sorry but I only play with kids from the Christian School.” The daughter was upset as you can imagine and told her parents. The mother was talking to her neighbor soon after and brought this conversation up. Sure enough the mother confirmed that her kids were only allowed to play with kids from the Christian school. That is bizarre enough, but it gets worse. She then went on to tell the mother that her daughter’s disability was a punishment for her sin. That’s quite a welcome to the neighborhood. A basket of muffins would have sufficed.

As Anne Lamott said,

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

What a demoralizing worldview, and self righteous too. It’s strange enough to imagine a divine being sitting somewhere out of harm’s way, poking and prodding at our lives, pulling strings from beyond. Its stranger still to try and guess what each event, illness and recovery means. It’s downright cruel to manipulate someone else with one of these “messages”. And it’s confusing when these messages clash with each other. For example, we had a flat tire a few nights back while driving a group of students home from a function. The parents came to pick up their kids while I waited for AAA. Unbeknownst to me, one of the kids left his backpack in the car. The mother came back to pick it up and told me she had been praying that I would still be there. That’s odd because I had been praying that I wouldn’t be there. IT WAS COLD and late and I was missing Desperate Housewives.

The basic problem I have with this sort of worldview is that it’s narcissistic. You create a spirit world in the image of your personal hopes, and it feeds the need to feel special and cared for. Therefore you end up looking for validation and meaning in all the wrong places. It’s even more elusive than looking to your partner, or parents, or authority figures for validation. (read on for more about spirit)

Ask a different question instead. Whatever you think spirit is, do you think it’s personal? Does it have an agenda, a preference for how your life unfolds? Even if you don’t use the word “God” but replace it with other words like universe or consciousness, ask similar questions. Does the universe have an agenda? Is illness a punishment from God or the universe, and is being cured a gift from God or the universe?

Let me be very blunt here. And this is one of those truths that will set you free, but may first piss you off. As I see it, spirit has NO preference for whether you are sick or healthy. As the Mad Men Ad man, Don Draper said, “I hate to break it to you, but there is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

For me the issue is not so much whether there is any such thing as divine intervention. That’s an unanswerable question.  A more fruitful question is whether we NEED divine intervention from outside of ourselves and whether a belief in divine intervention lets you off the hook when it comes to taking personal responsibility for your life and choices.

This may disappoint some people. Maybe you comfort yourself with the thought that even when you feel very alone, or if you are struggling with challenge, there is some invisible force holding your hand. I prefer to see spirit as an inner sense of wellbeing. It creates the sort of inner peace that feels surreal, as if it’s coming from beyond you. But its not. YOU have access to it ANY time. In the first article I wrote about body, mind and spirit as something close to lock, stock and barrel where you dive into life wholeheartedly. Another way to think about body, mind and spirit is something close to cool, calm and collected. Those three words all mean something very similar but when you put them together, there is a sense of being thoroughly at ease.

Some might say, “just let me have my external God. It’s a harmless belief and it gives me comfort.” But it’s elusive and dependent on circumstances. I believe that both the personal responsibility and the inner mastery to conjure your own comfort are more sustaining and sustainable than a belief in an external force. This is the key point. What may seem like an inconvenient, and uncomfortable, truth that spirit is NOT personal will actually set you free because you will stop taking things personally. You’re not suffering as part of some cosmic plan, and you’re not well as part of some divine reward program. You are what you are because of all sorts of genetic and environmental factors and life choices. The young girl has a walking frame because she likely has a spinal problem. Period. It means nothing about who she is as a person, or who her parents are. You have gout, coronary issues, a bad back, fading eyesight and every other frailty under the sun because you are a human being who is getting older.

It may seem a harsh truth, but it sets you free to live fully no matter what the circumstances. Once you stop taking spirit, and your health personally, you are liberated to live while you are alive and stop wasting time asking pointless questions like “why me?” and looking for deep and dark reasons for every challenge you encounter. Take responsibility, take nothing personally, take two bex (aspirin), get a good night’s sleep and get up tomorrow ready to live what’s right in front of you. Reality is always there waiting for you, ready or not.

Is there value in continuing to use the phrase body, mind and spirit? In my opinion, yes. It reminds us to think holistically. We are complex and complete beings, with a drive to experience all of life, the whole kit and caboodle, in multiple ways. It reminds us to live passionately; lock, stock and barrel. It reminds us of our inner stillness to remain cool, calm and collected even while circumstances are challenging. It reminds us that there is more to life than meets the eye, and more power in mind and body than we usually imagine. It reminds us of our own extraordinary knowing, the beyond that resides in our own mind and body. This power is mostly untapped and is the subject of the third article.

Aldous Huxley said,

The spiritual journey does not consist in arriving at a new destination where a person gains what he did not have, or becomes what he is not. It consists in the dissipation of one’s own ignorance concerning one’s self and life, and the gradual growth of that understanding which begins the spiritual awakening. The finding of God is a coming to one’s self.

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  1. [...] the next articles, I break the idea of spirit down further to go deeper into the experience. In the second piece I speak about whether spirit has any sort of personal [...]

  2. Phil Mayes says:

    Nice reminder about spirit, thanks. The story about the girl and her frame reminded me that when we moved to Northern Ireland at the age of eight, my new-found friend immediately asked me whether I  went to Protestant or Catholic church. As we never went at all, I was nonplussed by the question, but I guess that gave me a favored status that rose above the fray. (This was before The Troubles.)

  3. Tara Walker says:

    Wow – I’m sorry to hear about that story of the little girl. To say that her condition is punishment is definitely the wrong approach and so hurtful. It would be better to think of what you can learn from your challenging condition or situation, because we are all here to learn something. Thanks for sharing :)

  4. [...] Are you impressed? Do you believe in extraordinary knowledge? I do, despite what I wrote in the previous piece about the nature of the universe. In this series, I wrote first about what spirit is and some of [...]

  5. naomi says:

    I just believe in fate and that someone is watching over me and helping me have the life I want or deserve. I do believe in spirits and am very into  that. I think you either are or you aren’t.

  6. Pat Arnold says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post! It’s wonderful to stumble upon someone in the Balcony of Life who speak Truth as bluntly as you do. Thanks for that!
    Belief in separation from the Divine and failure to recognize the Divine in each of us is the cause of Earth’s drama and scripts each tragedy. In reality, there’s only one thing–and we’re it!

  7. Martin says:

    Great article, Ian.

    Loved the Anne Lamot quote (Tweeted it).
    Hated the story about the little girl (that is, I hated that it happened) and I will be using it in this Sunday’s sermon about the dangers of religion and the difference between religion and spirituality.  

  8. Amy says:

    I think your question pertaining to spirituality is more about trust.  Whether or not something’s holding my hand through difficult times is irrelevant.  What’s important is that I trust it will pass, or I trust that if I do hold myself accountable to the work placed before me that it will pay off somehow down the road…  not that things always pan out on the first try, because they rarely do.  Trusting that it’s okay when they don’t is key.  Place your trust wherever you want.  But, it’s still trust in something. 
    PS…  I’m a christian.  and I hate that happened too, probably even more than you.  Because it burns me that a few bad apples ruin a whole bunch, so to speak.  Her claim was definitely self-righteous.

  9. HopeGenie says:

    I think you are right that a lot of people do create God in their own image – which is the opposite of what the bible says which is that we are created in God’s image.  I think the story of that little girl and what the mother says is sad.  I think it is really important not to tar everyone with the same brush.  There are lots of us who have spiritual views and use them as a positive in this world.

  10. Chris says:

    I’m sorry to hear the story about the little girl with the frame.
     It’s sad that the neighbor would say such an ignorant thing.
    Jesus Christ died on the cross for all our sins,  that neighbor is “demon”.
    The reason why people say cruel, hurtful things is because someone has hurt them.
    Some together nastiest, meanest people are in the church,
     It’s a funny thing about Christians, some go to church all their lives and miss it re: teachings of the Christ. 

  11. Carol Shimp says:

    Thanks Ian,  good subject. A friend once told me, “When I want to talk to God, I go fishing”  We all need to take responsibility for our actions. On this side and the other. (Spirit side.) I’m into that, for me it comes natural.

  12. Donna says:

    Amen!!