Friday, October 23, 2009

Perils along the Path

For some reason (can you see the little rocket ship over on the left?) this pumpkin makes me think "Ground Zero" -- there's such a burnt out quality to that center, the ring of devastation, the incoming rocket.

And yet, it's just a pumpkin, and not even a rotten one: this is just a particular trick of coloration. If you look at other pumpkins around it, you'll see this pattern is not unique, just a little more distinct in this case.

But I could imagine that if I were this pumpkin, having grown up with the idea of what a perfect pumpkin is supposed to look like, I could easily fixate on my blemishes, my vulnerability, my own burned-out/damaged/ugly places; I could become completely obsessed with my own (presumably unique) weaknesses and insecurities.

We humans are like that -- it's easy to get caught up in our own struggles, even consumed by them, and often it isn't until we manage to step back, outside our own egoic obsessions, to take a look at the pumpkin patch as a whole, that we begin to see that NONE of us is perfect and each of us struggles, though our particular challenges may vary.

This morning I am reading in The Seeker's Guide about the challenges of the ego, and about the way it has of tripping us up just when we're starting to make spiritual progress. "Unhealthy ego converts spirituality to its own misguided uses in tricky ways," says Lesser. "It will allow you to pursue genuine spiritual development right up to the moment of harvest. As soon as its territory is seriously threatened, though, ego will appear -- hungry and determined. Soon, your tidy spiritual garden will be converted by ego into more material for its survival. This is spiritual materialism."

Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan monk who wrote Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, writes that we are often "deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques...Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality."

For those of us who are willing to walk that suspension bridge I spoke of yesterday, the risks of spiritual materialism are great: lacking the external controls set by an organized religious community, we need to be extra vigilant about avoiding self-absorption and keeping the larger view, the larger good in mind; about exerting self-control and avoiding what Lesser calls "spiritual materialism's top ten list: Narcissism, superficiality, the never-ending process of self-improvement, instant transformation, desire for magic, grandiosity, romanticizing indigenous cultures, the inner child tantrum, ripping off the traditions, and the Guru Trip."

Interestingly enough, Lesser points out that it is our founding principles as Americans -- that insistence on every person's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- which have both both brought us to new thresholds of spirituality AND made spiritual materialism our frequent and particular downfall. The decision to value each individual is what is helping us to transcend our past, but we always run the risk of becoming so obsessed with the individual that we lose sight of the community.

It is this vulnerability that makes standing on that bridge most scary; why it's so important to stay in touch with and grounded in our spiritual roots -- and it's a big part of the reason why I still worship in an Episcopal church every Sunday morning. The weekly exposure to the Bible, the liturgy, the hymns and the sermons has a way of keeping me on track: I love it when the day's sermon echoes something I have struggled with here in the blog, and I love it also when the sermon or the readings raise another dimension of thought I had neglected to consider. It keeps me in touch with the larger picture, and though there are no guarantees my ego won't get carried away from time to time, I count on my connection with the church at large to serve as a sort of plumb line so I never stray too far from center.

Uh-oh... I think that I've been mixing metaphors again! I'm not sure a plumb line would be much help on a bridge. Let's see -- anchor? No, that would just drag me overboard! Perhaps the church is the tower and I just have to be sure to hold on to the cables? Or is God the tower and the church the cable... But wait -- didn't I start out in the spiritual garden? Maybe I need to be talking about being a branch and staying connected to the vine...


1 comment:

Maureen said...

I like that you come back to the idea of community, that one can and need be both one with oneself and one with community.

That image: stunning. Hard to see as anything else once the description is read. Still, as you say, there is surface and then there is what is inside, and, we can hope, true.