Monday, January 31, 2011

Spirituality and Religion

In my introductory post I revealed my inspiration for the title of this blog, and while I expect it might have some readers scratching their heads – at least initially, I certainly don’t anticipate it raising anyone’s ire. I’m less sure of that, however, when it comes to my description of this blog as “an exploration of spirituality.” Spirituality is one of those charged words, it seems, loaded with connotations, crying out for precision, begging for clarification as to the user’s point of view. As such, I’ll spend the rest of this post clarifying just what I mean when I use the word.

Perhaps the first order of business is to clearly differentiate spirituality and religion. All too often the two words are used interchangeably. Throughout my posts in this forum, however, I will strive for consistency and specificity in their usage. Here goes: Spirituality is something that we all possess or manifest simply by virtue of being alive in this human form. Religion, on the other hand, is something that we choose to take part in or not. Spirituality is a universal human experience or quality, whereas religion asks that an individual’s spirituality be brought into accord with its dictates – its rituals, teachings, and beliefs. Spirituality and religion might coincide, as in the case of a healthy individual functioning in a healthy religious organization, or they might be divorced from each other, as in a religious organization that is more about wielding power over its members than facilitating their spiritual growth. The following Venn diagram shows this relationship between spirituality and religion quite clearly. I’ll leave it you to decide how realistic the relative proportions are.

As you can see from the diagram, spirituality, being a universal quality, is the larger of the ovals. The fact that religion overlaps with spirituality instead of falling entirely within its domain relates to the fact that religious practice may or may not be imbued with spirituality. For instance, if a religious ritual is performed without regard, without meaning, without any investment on the part of the practitioner, then that practice lacks the quality of the spiritual and would, therefore, fall into that part of the diagram on which the N of religion falls. It is religious without being spiritual. When an individual finds a religion that is a good fit it is because the structure of the religious organization provides an appropriate context for that individual’s spirituality to flourish, gain direction, become actualized, etc. When there’s not a good fit it is because the religion is stifling or somehow suppresses that individual’s spirituality.

The reason spirituality is such a charged word, I think, is because our hearing it prompts us to access our own deeply held views regarding what constitutes reality and then compare them with the views of others with whom we may or may not agree. For instance, staunch adherents to methods of science and rationality, in general, and strict materialists, in particular, might chafe at the insinuation that some other (spirit) realm exists outside that which is accessible to the scientific method. At the other end of the spectrum, doctrinally-oriented religious practitioners might decry the growing tendency of individuals to engage in (invent) their own brand of spirituality outside the bounds of organized religion. Yet another group of people might simply be so fed up with all of the violence, repression, sexual abuse, and gender discrimination perpetrated either in the name of religion or by individuals in positions of authority within patriarchal religious hierarchies that they turn their back on both religion and spirituality entirely. Perhaps you, as well, have already made up your mind as to what camp you fall into. However, such haste is not required. It’s just you and me with a couple of glowing computer screens between us. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Yes, some people do use the word spirituality in reference to matters of the soul and, yes, such usage almost invariably involves either a belief in a deity that the soul is striving to merge with / rejoin, or a belief in some other metaphysical system wherein a soul transmigrates and progresses through a series of reincarnations, ultimately leading (perhaps) to oneness (whatever that may be.) So, if you place utmost value in those truths that only science is able to discern, then the realm of the spiritual may hold little of value for you. Likewise, spirituality, to the extent that it is practiced outside the confines of a structured religious system, might be viewed with suspicion by those who place ultimate value in the truths promulgated by the doctrines of those various institutions. If your truth comes to you fully formed and beyond question right from the pages of your holiest of books, then the realm of the spiritual might not be of much interest to you, either. Finally, with respect to those who’ve had enough of religion – who've seen far too much of petty humans spouting high-minded ideals even as they destroy people’s lives – can you be sure that you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Can you be certain that you’re not turning your back on yourself?

So, let’s try to step back from our various viewpoints and take a look at first principles, so to speak. Hey, I said this was an exploration. Let’s explore! Webster’s Dictionary notes that spirit is derived from the Latin word, spiritus, which relates to “breath, courage, vigor, the soul, life.” On one level, then, spirit might merely refer to that which animates the otherwise inanimate matter of our bodies – thereby making us alive. It need not refer to any metaphysical reality at all. Sure enough, the definition does go on to mention souls and deities and supernatural beings, but it also refers to “the thinking, motivating, feeling part of man,” as well as the “life, will, consciousness, thought, etc., regarded as separate from matter.” It would seem, then, that the definition of spirituality is big enough for everyone – from avowed atheists to those who simply cannot conceive of a life not accompanied by an afterlife.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in spirituality and religion within the disciplines of counseling and psychology. Progress is being made in the areas of measuring spirituality, determining what constitutes enhanced/diminished spiritual well-being, and determining the impact of spirituality on recovery, resiliency, and coping. Mansager (2002) distils much of this research and summarizes individual spirituality as comprising the four aspects of striving, personal integration, self-transcendence, and the determination of that which is of ultimate value. This beautiful summary of what constitutes spirituality seems like an excellent trailhead from which to embark on this exploration. I hope you’ll stay with me a while in order to see where it leads.

Benjamin, P., & Looby, J. (1998). Defining the nature of spirituality in the context of Maslow's and Rogers's theories. Counseling & Values, 42(2), 92-100.
Burke, M. T., & Hackney, H. (1999). Spirituality, religion, and CACREP curriculum standards. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77(3), 251-257.
Buss, D. M., & Larson, R. J. (2002). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. In J.E. Karpacz (Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
Corveleyn, J. (2000). In defense of benevolent neutrality: Against a "spiritual strategy." The Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(3), 343-352.
Curtis, R. C., & Glass, J. S. (2002). Spirituality and counseling class: A teaching model. Counseling & Values, 47(1), 3-12.
Eliason, G. T., Hanley, C., & Leventis, M. (2001). The role of spirituality in counseling: Four theoretical orientations. Pastoral Psychology, 50(2), 77-91.
Griffith, B. A., & Griggs, J. C. (2001). Religious identity status as a model to understand, assess, and interact with client spirituality. Counseling & Values, 46(1), 14-25.
Larson, D. B., & Larson, S. S. (2003). Spirituality’s potential relevance to physical and emotional health: A brief review of quantitative research. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31(1), 37-51.

Mansager, E. (2000). Individual psychology and the study of spirituality. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(3), 371-388.
Mansager, E., & Eckstein, D. (2002). The transformative experience questionnaire (TEQ): Spirituality in a couples context. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 10(2), 227-233.
McKechnie, J. L. (Ed.). (1979). Webster’s new twentieth century dictionary (2nd ed.). New World Dictionaries/Simon and Schuster.
Polanski, P. J. (2002). Exploring spiritual beliefs in relation to Adlerian theory. Counseling & Values, 46(2), 127-136.
Stanard, R. P., Sandhu, D. S., & Painter, L. C. (2000). Assessment of spirituality in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(2), 204-210.
Wink, P., & Dillon, M. (2002). Spiritual development across the adult life course: Findings from a longitudinal study. Journal of Adult Development, 9(1), 79-94.
Zinnbauer, B. J., & Pargament, K. I. (2000). Working with the sacred: Four approaches to religious and spiritual issues in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(2), 162-171.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, January 29, 2011

What's in a Name?

Some years ago, with my future entirely up in the air, I loaded my bike and some gear into the back of a rented car and headed west. At the time I had only the sparsest of itineraries and no real time frame to speak of. Yes, I would return the rental car to a certain place on a certain date and, yes, I would then cycle out to the coast before meandering back home. With the exception of those few parameters, however, everything was up in the air. The route that I would take, the challenges and the people that I would meet, the despair and joy and insights that would arise along the way – these were all just aspects of an awesome mystery unfolding moment by moment, and I with it. In my more enlightened moments I’m able to see that all of life is like that, and that realization fills me with great joy. Ah, but in my dark and small-minded moments I manage to forget it all. It’s funny how great truths can so easily be forgotten.

Speaking of great truths… I remember the first time I became aware of Buddhism. I was just a boy when I heard on my parents’ radio about how we suffer because of our desire, and if we would only give more careful regard to that which we desire, then our suffering would come to an end. At least, that was how I recall the truth of Buddhism being summarized. Just why that resonated with me so at such a young age is beyond me, but it did. It was like a glimpse of a great ocean of truth – a beautiful, vast, powerful ocean of truth. I knew it even then, but then I forgot it. Well, no, I didn’t totally forget it. It must have at least hovered about in my unconscious mind – as bodhicitta, if you will, or Way-seeking mind – guiding me first to an interest in reading about Buddhism, and then guiding me to actually put it into practice.

I recalled that first glimpse of Buddhism as I sat on the beach watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean just a couple of days into my awesome mystery of a journey. I had little more than a bicycle and the clothes on my back, and yet there might as well have been a million miles between me and my home – like the million miles that stood between me and that young boy that I once was. Unlike when I was a boy, however, the truth now lay before me in all of its glory. I was old enough to understand it; I’d read the books and listened to the teachers; I’d put enough time in on the meditation cushion to comprehend it, and yet there still seemed to be something that I was missing. It was still an ocean so vast and deep that it couldn’t quite be comprehended even though it was right there to be gazed upon, and waded into, and tasted. Yes, great truths require great journeys in order to truly understand them, and mine had just begun.

That ocean never did leave my mind, even as I turned away to head back east. Every stream that I encountered reminded me of its truth. Every river and every lake and every cloud was on a journey heading home to it. I was heading home to it. And as I made my way up steep mountains and across broad valleys I was struck by just how much the physical geography of the land coincided with my journey ever deeper into truth. Struggling up those mountains was like struggling to get my posture right through meditation after less-than-comfortable meditation. It was like wrestling with all of those voices saying how wrong I was for doing it, and that I was turning my back on God, and that it was just a waste of time. But, oh, those gorgeous views of sweeping vistas and verdant valleys were sublime! They were the many glimpses of peace along the way: the scent of incense wafting through the stillness of the zendo, those moments when I knew my mind was opening to a brand new freedom, and all those simply joyous times spent sitting with my fellow seekers – simply breathing – simply being. Oh, how I loved those mountains!

Well, you all know enough about the geography of North America to know that after the mountains come the plains, and by the time I was out on the plains those gorgeous views that had sustained me were but memories of views from distant mountaintops. Out on the plains there is no shelter from the fury of the raging storms. Out on the plains the wind will drive you raving mad with all its blowing, blowing, blowing – whistling in your ears and hitting you full on in the face day after day. Out on the plains the sun beats down and the heat is sweltering and there’s barely a twig of shade in which to rest for even a little while. Out on the plains the road is relentless in its sameness – flat and straight – with little for the mind to grasp for comfort. Out on the plains the earth is dry and nothing is ever easy and everything alive must do its utmost just to remain that way. Yes, the plains are where the real truth of our existence comes to the fore. And so it is with Buddhist practice. Emptiness and impermanence and our most fundamental existential questions – the grand and silent ambivalence of the universe – the realization of the fiction that we’ve wrapped around the truth of being here – these are what inevitably come to the fore out on the plains of Buddhist practice. This is what crossing Nebraska is all about.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Nebraska. She grew on me, I guess. And how can you not grow to love a teacher that guides you to the truth so surely? Besides, she’s everywhere! When my marriage ended and left me standing windswept and bewildered, I crossed Nebraska all over again. When the economy melted down and people everywhere thought the world was ending, I saw Nebraska in their eyes. When my friend left for a bike ride an adventure racer and returned the victim of a cardiac arrest, I knew a journey across Nebraska had begun. Crossing Nebraska is the grief that blinds you, or the depression that always seems to find you. Call it the dark night of the soul, or call it suffering and despair of the very deepest form. Me? I’m calling it crossing Nebraska.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Vision, Guidelines, Disclaimers, & Copyright

Welcome! Thanks for stopping in and taking a look around. I have absolutely no idea how this blog will be received and what sort of readership it will attract. However, to the extent that I can affect a positive outcome by clearly communicating my vision for it at the outset, I will do so now. Also, I’ve read enough online discussions to know that the comments of a single individual can foul the air for everyone and make meaningful discussion difficult, if not impossible. As such, I am including guidelines for participation in this forum. Finally, I want to start off on the right foot by communicating a couple of disclaimers and letting everyone know in no uncertain terms that my writings and artwork contained herein are protected by copyright.

My vision is that Crossing Nebraska will provide inspiration and support to all individuals, regardless of religious or spiritual persuasion, as they navigate their unique life path. My vision is that a vibrant community of supportive individuals will visit this site regularly in order to share thoughts and experiences, and offer encouragement to others.

Discussion Guidelines:
Crossing Nebraska will not steer clear of difficult subject matter. Emotional states such as grief, anxiety, depression, and disillusionment will share space with those of joy, compassion, positive intention, expansiveness, and transcendence. Given that the subject matter explored in Crossing Nebraska might be helpful to people during those times when they might be most vulnerable, I intend to be especially vigilant for comments that might be harmful or disruptive or might otherwise be in conflict with my vision for this blog. Above all, I want this to be a safe environment in which to share. Therefore:

  1. While comments regarding your own spiritual beliefs, practices, and experience will be welcome, comments critical of another’s beliefs, practices, and experience will not.
  2. While comments calling attention to related books, blogs, websites, and resources that might be helpful or inspirational will be welcome, comments that merely serve to market a product or service or call attention to oneself will not.
  3. While comments appropriately elucidating, describing, or extolling the benefits of your particular spiritual tradition as you experience it will be welcome, comments that veer into the realm of preaching and/or proselytizing will not.
  4. It will be more obvious at some times than others that I am a Buddhist practitioner writing about Buddhist practice. To the extent that you think my posts are in conflict with my very own guideline number 3, I must remind you that this is my blog. {smile} If my posts inspire in you the desire to tirelessly write a countervailing viewpoint to everything I have to say, then I will be compelled to cordially invite you to start your own blog. {smile}
It is my hope that you find this forum helpful as you come to terms with many difficult life issues, events, and circumstances. Please understand, however, that reading and participating in discussion in this forum does not constitute a counseling relationship between you and me, or you and any other discussion participant. To the extent that you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by events in your life, I strongly encourage you to seek out a professional (doctor, counselor, member of the clergy, etc.) with whom you can speak face to face.

All writings and images and graphic artwork that I post on this blog are my own property and I hold copyright to them unless I specifically state otherwise. You may quote passages from my writings contained herein as long as proper attribution is made in the form of a citation of the author (me) accompanied by either the publication of the web address to this blog or an actual hyperlink to this blog. You may not reprint, retransmit, or republish entire posts from this blog without my express permission. You may not reprint, retransmit, or republish individual poems or images or works of graphic art that appear on this blog without my express permission. Any writings and images and works of graphic art that originate from you remain your own property.

Okay. Thank you again. Let the journey begin!