While it is true that we are all spiritual beings, there are as many ways to manifest that spirituality as there are people. Some people find their spiritual home amongst the prescribed beliefs, doctrine, and rituals of an established religious tradition. For others, spirituality flourishes within the very process of opening up to experience, reflecting upon its meaning, and adjusting their lived values accordingly. Still others find their spirituality nurtured by taking part in those activities that make them feel most joyfully alive: gardening, running, engaging in the arts, doing yoga, experiencing communion with nature, etc. But, while it is true that we are all spiritual beings, is it also true that each of us is on a spiritual journey?
What exactly does it mean, anyway, to be on a spiritual journey? Does it require a pilgrimage of some sort – to
Mecca, or the Holy Land, or the site of a great miracle? Does it require time spent in a monastery or in seclusion from the distractions of ordinary life? Perhaps some element of danger or physical hardship is associated with it – as with a spirit quest or the circumambulation of a great mountain. Some might take a different tack altogether and insist that we are all on a spiritual journey merely by virtue of being alive, whether we choose to be or not, whether we think we are or not. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that you are absolutely free to think about this in whatever way rings true for you. However, I will attempt to boil down to their essence these various ideas regarding what constitutes a spiritual journey.
First and foremost, in my mind, is that a spiritual journey is a process of transformation. Regardless of whether it requires any actual physical movement from one location to another, metaphorical movement is taking place – movement away from separation and towards integration, movement out of darkness and towards the light, movement away from falseness and towards that which is true, divine, holy, eternal, etc. And while this process of transformation might not necessarily require any physical danger or hardship, it may indeed be accompanied by psychic danger or hardship. In order for transformation to occur the old self must fade away, and even though the old self might dwell in isolation and darkness and falseness it is the only self we’ve ever known – and that can make it a scary thing to lose. No, you probably shouldn’t (you probably wouldn’t) even embark on a spiritual journey unless you’re open to being changed – and not merely changed in the sense of toning up your spiritual muscles, so to speak, or giving your spirit a good makeover. No, the transformation that waits at the end of a spiritual journey is a radical and earth-shattering type of change that results in seeing the self and the world in an entirely new way.
Openness to change points to another important element of a spiritual journey – intention. The intention to be transformed rather than to simply gain satisfaction or contentment or peace of mind (not that those are bad things!) is what pushes us to take those first steps of a spiritual journey. Thus, a journey to a holy place is not necessarily a spiritual one if it is undertaken with an attitude more akin to a tourist blithely collecting memories in order to provide a richer backdrop to his same old sense of self, or if it is undertaken with the closed heart of a practitioner doing something merely out of a sense of obligation. Openness to transformation is what makes all the difference between two people sitting side-by-side on a church pew week after week – one whose presence is predicated on maintaining status within the community, or making his family happy, or keeping at bay a wrathful God, and another whose presence reflects her sincere desire to transcend the fleeting physical nature of being and touch that which is eternal. Given, then, that intention is so important to the quality of the spiritual experience, it is the lack of intention that, for my way of thinking, precludes the journey of life from being considered a spiritual journey. Indeed, it might be spiritual and, yes, transformation may occur, but if that transformation results solely from the vicissitudes of existence and not from the ongoing exercise of free will – like the gnarling of a bristlecone pine by the buffeting winds – then it hardly seems appropriate to consider it a spiritual journey.
Lastly, it is this ongoing exercise of free will that prompts me to include the passage of time – appreciable time – in any definition of a spiritual journey. So, while one might sincerely intend to be transformed by the performance of three prostrations before an altar, for example, and in fact one might actually be transformed by the performance of three prostrations before an altar (who am I to say it couldn’t happen), it would seem somewhat hyperbolic to refer to that single isolated element of spiritual practice as a spiritual journey! No, a great journey requires fortitude and dedication – the ability to weather the lows and not be distracted by the highs. It requires us to wake up day after day and affirm our intention anew. Such intention can only be tested by the passage of time. And so it seems that a spiritual journey must be accompanied by enduring intention.
In closing, then, I’d like to propose the following provisional definition: A spiritual journey is any enduring spiritual practice undertaken with the intention that it bring about transformation. What do you think? Is this a definition that works for you? Does it ring true as you reflect upon your own spiritual practice – your motivation for engaging in it and your hope/desire for what lies at the end of the road? Hmmm…, I guess now we need to dig a little deeper into this thing called transformation, don’t we?
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank