Greeting Spiritual Setbacks
It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”
~ Wendell Berry
Living a spiritual life, if we are lucky, we will experience spiritual setbacks that grab us by our shoulders, shake us real good, and then ask us: “So, what are you willing to let go of to stay on the path?”
The first time when I encountered this question was about eleven years ago. The setback came with a mighty force like a Tsunami, broke down a few of the many walls that protect my ego and yelled the question loud and clear at my exhausted and willful self. And since then, this question has never left me. It came up again and again. The spiritual setbacks come in different waves and intensity. And most recently, it returned like an earthquake and brought me back down on my knees, feeling lost, baffled, and once again faced with this familiar question: “So, what are you willing to let go of to stay on the path?”
Each setback takes me to my deep seated fear of losing ground.
And if I stay with the fear and feel it with an open heart, I learn to be kind to her and taste her special concoction known as fearlessness. The simple teaching that comes with spiritual setbacks is this: Let go of what you think you know, stand naked on no ground, revolt against your own organized, institutionalized thoughts, beliefs, ideas, projections of what is, and be at ease with not knowing.
I believe to be human is to be spiritual. The human spirit is probably one of the most powerful energies on earth. Spirituality is not limited to monasteries, it exists in every household. In fact, it is in the animal kingdom, nature, and the whole universe.
And I think the wonder of spiritual setbacks is that it brings us back to what is real, and to what is important. It acts like a bomb that implodes in the self when the ego or our grasping, or fixation, or seriousness become rigid and self-important. I feel that sometimes too much education can blind us to see the simplicity and the ordinariness of spirituality. When we are full, it is really hard to take in anymore. When we start to believe in something strongly, it is really hard to fully appreciate someone else’s view.
So what does a spiritual life mean to me now? It means chop wood, carry water. It means going back to the ordinary life and see the extraordinary teachings embedded in the space and moments throughout the daily life. It means making everything about my life as my spiritual practice. It means constantly asking questions. It means staying curious, being creative, challenging any of my dogmatic beliefs, staying wild, staying open, being scared, committing to my practices, loving myself and others, praying to the divine, apprenticing with the wild nature, laying down my weapons and entering into my own wilderness. And most of all embrace nothing and let go of embracing nothing.
As a Buddhist Master once said: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”