by Diane Linsley
Suffering is the universal experience of all human beings. There is
no escape from suffering. Religions attempt to give meaning to
suffering and help people cope with it.
Religion also provides a way to pass on the values of society to the
next generation. It gives us ideals to live up to, along with a sense of
purpose and community. It helps us make sense of life by giving us a map to follow. But we must keep in mind that "the map is not the territory." A map can give you ideas about reality, but it's not Reality itself. The real Reality is much larger and more complex than any map.
Sadly, religious fervor may give way to bitter disappointment when life goes on hurting us, regardless of how faithful we are. Sometimes church members disappoint us when their actions don't live up to our expectations. Some abusers use religion as part of their facade. Both narcissists and codependents may engage in spiritual abuse of others.
People who experience spiritual abuse can become jaded and "throw the baby out with the bathwater." Paradoxically, atheism is just another religion - another map - another ism.
Scientific materialism - the belief that only the physical world exists (without Spirit) - is a popular religion these days. It's the cause of much of the current suffering in the world as people expect science to solve all their problems. Political affiliations taken to an extreme are another form of religion.
The way to transcend suffering is to realize that the map is not the territory. Your map of reality, whatever that map happens to be, is not the real Reality. There is a real Reality, but it cannot be put into words, doctrines, or scientific theories.
Reality can only be experienced. And you cannot give your experience to another human being. Every person must experience Reality for themselves.
Beyond the Map
All maps are doomed to failure, resulting in disappointment. But disappointment serves a higher purpose. It pushes us to keep asking questions and searching for answers. When childhood belief no longer works, we may be pushed into a new level of faith. This is when true spiritual seeking begins.
I became an avid spiritual seeker when I began meditating in 2007. Since then, I have read over 500 books on topics including philosophy, psychology, energy work, Buddhism and anthroposophy.
My mind expanded beyond the borders of my own religion. I found truth and beauty in other religions and spirtual teachings, and I assimilated all of this into my map of reality, expanding my identity and my understanding of what it means to be a human being.
I no longer feel the need to cling to any map because I experience myself as the mapmaker. The map is simply a tool that helps me conceptualize Reality.
What is Faith?
In A Sociable God, Ken Wilber describes the 4 stages of spiritual development: Belief, Faith, Experience, and Adaptation.
Most people confuse faith with belief. Faith is the willingness to experiment on a belief. Faith requires action. When you have faith, you are willing to do an experiment to prove whether or not your beliefs are true. The experiment results in an experience - the third stage of spiritual development.
It's like doing a science experiment. You start with a hypothesis (belief). Then you create a theory based on the hypothesis. You do an experiment to prove or disprove the theory. After you have an experience, the beliefs that did not pass the test are discarded, and new beliefs are created to take their place. Then you do more experiments to test your new beliefs.
I used to believe that if I was a good girl, God would spare me from suffering. In Coping with Chronic Pain, I describe how I was cured of this incorrect belief after 15 years of unrelenting jaw pain.
Once I started thinking consciously about what I believed, many old beliefs came crashing down, and new beliefs were created to take their place. I call this "changing your map of reality." It's a long and arduous process that requires much thought and effort. In essence, this is what a faith transition is.
My Faith Transition
As I experimented with my beliefs, I shifted from accepting other people's maps to taking responsibility for creating my own map.
"Fundamentalisms are really anxiety-management systems. That is to say, that in the face of ambiguity, which is troubling and disturbing to ego consciousness, I will grasp towards certainty. I find in fundamentalism a definition of clarity - what's right, what's wrong, who are the good people, who are the bad people. It removes from me the tremendous burden of having to make those decisions by myself on an individualized basis." ~James Hollis, "What is a Mature Spirituality?" - interview with Tami Simon.
James Hollis says that spiritual abuse is like forcing someone to like the same food as you, and making it a crime to not like it. He asks us to consider what resonates with us. Resonance can't be faked. If it doesn't feel right, then it's not right for you. But that doesn't mean it's not right for someone else.
When I began finding goodness, truth and beauty in many places outside of the religion of my youth, I became curious, and I wanted to learn more. Eventually, the egoic notion that my religion was the only right one was replaced by the joyful experience of continual expansion, which fed my soul. I've experienced all of Ken Wilber's stages of ego development - egocentric, ethnocentric, worldcentric and kosmocentric.
I no longer need to be right (egocentric). I no longer need to follow the group (ethnocentric). I try to serve humanity in the world to the best of my ability (worldcentric). But my ultimate joy is in aligning with my own soul and my highest evolutionary purpose. My soul's purpose is aligned with the purpose of All That Is (kosmocentric).
The biggest change I've noticed in myself over the last decade is a great increase in compassion for other people. This comes from practicing seeing the world from many different perspectives.
Faith Transitions and Anxiety
It's essential to learn how to tolerate anxiety and ambivalence in order to let go of old maps. Fear had kept me trapped in narrow-mindedness. Meditation reduced my anxiety and freed me to explore new ideas and discover what resonated with me.
"In that free-floating cloud called anxiety, there are always specific fears. What are those fears? Fears of loss, fears of encountering something larger than I can handle. For example, if a person says, 'If I move in this direction, this could cost me my job or cost me a relationship.' Well, those are high stakes, to be sure. The question is, are they as high as what it costs you to live this diminished life?....Sooner or later, I have to face my fears. Sooner or later, I have to move through what is limiting me. Sooner or later, I have to grow up and show up." ~James Hollis
A Near-Death Experience
One of my most profound spiritual experiences was my near-death experience. It alleviated much of my fear, guilt and anxiety. I discovered that a great curiosity was at the root of my spiritual seeking.
In Lessons from the Light, researcher Kenneth Ring describes the near-death experiences of many different people. Each person's experience is unique, but there are some common themes.
In my experience, I approached the Light with curiosity and an open mind (the result of years of meditation practice). I experienced the Light as a field of pure awareness, universal consciousness, and infinite intelligence.
I asked the Light who it was. I expected to receive a profound Biblical answer, but that would have been too easy. Instead, I had a true spiritual experience that opened my mind. The particular details of my experience don't matter. What matters is that I experienced unconditional love, which liberated me.
A true spiritual experience doesn't confirm the ego and its limited map of reality. It destroys the flimsy map and crushes the ego. It takes us beyond ourselves into the unknown. It shakes us to the core and challenges our pre-existing beliefs. It took me many years to construct a new map of reality that could encompass what I learned in the tunnel.
Those who fear death also fear life. Since my experience, I've been able to take risks that I never would have imagined before because I realized how quickly life passes. I know what it feels like to look back on my life (in the life review) and see things more clearly. I'm determined to fulfill my life purpose.
The desire to understand my experience led to reading books about near-death experiences and OBE's. Eventually, I read the soul journey books by Michael Newton. These are great books. But ultimately, it was my own experience that changed me - not what other people said.
Nobody believed me when I told them about my NDE. Most people were offended that my near-death experience didn't confirm their own beliefs and expectations. I realized that they didn't want to hear anything that challenged their pre-existing beliefs. I was alone on the path of spiritual exploration.
It takes great courage to be alone, and it's the best thing that ever happened to me. I no longer need other people to affirm my beliefs and experiences. I have learned how to connect with Spirit and receive direct answers to my questions.
I recently coached a client who was trying to decide whether or not to leave the religion of her youth. I told her that it was none of my business what she chose to believe. I was more concerned with whether or not she was living in integrity with her own values. I advised her to take some time to clarify her values and write them down. This helped her make the decision.
James Hollis says, "There's nothing more personal than what I consider those values that are central to me....If we don't experience the divine within, we'll be looking for it in the outer world."
Beliefs and Cognitive Development
Our beliefs can change over the course of our lives, whether or not we change religions. Change means growth. When we go to a new level of cognitive development, our beliefs have to be revised as we try to make sense of life from our new perspective.
Some people are so afraid of change that they remain basically the same throughout life - with only their physical bodies maturing. People who challenge themselves continue to change and grow.
Growth is often painful, which is why many people avoid it. James Hollis says, "The people that we most admire in history are often people who led very troubled and miserable lives. But we admire them because in some way they embodied the summons of their own soul."
Are you following the summons of your soul, or are you stuck in fears of what you might lose if you change? Whose approval are you afraid of losing? Are you living your own life or someone else's?
"If the life I'm living is, in some way, trivializing the magnitude of my own soul, that's a spiritual crime. We all have an appointment with our own souls. The question is, do we show up for the appointment or not?" ~James Hollis
Coming Full Circle
After exploring many different maps, I now see more clearly the map I started out with. My soul knew what it was doing when it planned my life. The religion of my youth taught me values that helped me create a meaningful life. It gave me a vocabulary for spiritual concepts. It taught me some basic skills for self-reflection and self-improvement. It gave me opportunities to serve others.
I now interpret scriptures metaphorically, instead of literally. I love the old stories and parables because they can be understood on so many levels.
One of my favorite movies is Prince of Egypt. As a child, I believed the story of Moses literally. As an adult, I began to think of it metaphorically. After my kundalini awakening, I saw how it related to the energy body. More recently, I am seeing it through the lens of esoteric Christianity as I'm studying the work of Rudolf Steiner. It can even be interpreted as a political metaphor. It helps me maintain my spiritual faith in the midst of the destruction of freedom by the advocates of scientific materialism. My fiance and I recently watched this movie again, and he pointed out that the voice of God is also the voice of Moses (see the clip here). I never noticed that before.
I relate this to the concept of the higher self. I had a similar experience many years ago. In a moment of deadly crisis, a voice in my head spoke to me. It was my own voice - speaking with authority. After the crisis passed, I wondered what this meant. I didn't yet have a concept of the higher self. This experience led to more study, and I developed theories about the higher self based on my own experience.
We need maps to function in the world. Ego maps are a necessary part of soul development. Maps have limitations, but when we understand their purpose and see them clearly, we transcend them. Then we can stop fighting over our different maps. Each person has the right to choose their own map. But we should always be seeking to go beyond the map to a true spiritual experience. One of the most painful things that spiritual people will face in the future is growing persecution. It has already begun with attempts to silence the Christians in America and the anthroposophists in Germany.
This should be deeply disturbing to all freedom lovers, not just Christians. The persecution will eventually target anyone who believes in Spirit or freedom. Now is the time to put aside our religious differences, expand our maps of reality, and embrace all those who seek for truth.
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