As an author, reviewer, and publisher in the field of contemporary spirituality for the last several decades, I’ve received a mountain of books, manuscripts, and other media promising me accelerated enlightenment, total wellness, and sure-fire, divinely approved methods to achieve personal wealth and power.
If even a fraction of these spiritual nostrums had delivered the goods, my life would have become a series of ever-brightening explosions of greater consciousness, finally culminating in the full flowering of Affluent Guruhood.
That seems to be the American way of spiritual evolution.
Yet my spiritual life has never felt like a fireworks display of enlightenment-bursts building to a grand finale. When I picture it, my spiritual life looks like something completely different.
Imagine that you’ve spent years building a house in your mind to give you a sense of safety against the inevitable storms, deep freezes, and hot spells of life. This inner house is far from perfect; in fact, most of the rooms seem to need remodeling as soon as they’re finished. But at least you’ve got a home of your own.
Call this home the ego, your normal sense of self, arduously constructed from the raw materials of the psyche, and following a haphazard blueprint based on your personal experiences and beliefs, your likes and dislikes, your hopes and dreams.
One day you’re sitting comfortably in the living room of your ego-home when the floor suddenly drops out to reveal a rushing river where you thought you had laid a firm foundation.
Hanging on for dear life to a shuddering bookshelf, you realize that the house crashing down around you has become a mortal danger, likely to snuff you out at any moment with a flying shard of window glass or a tumbling timber. Your only hope of survival is to let go of your familiar home, drop into the river and literally “go with the flow.”
This river is the onrushing life of the soul, which cannot be long hidden or confined even in the most spacious of homes built by the ego.
Falling into the inner life of the soul is commonly called a spiritual awakening and is usually precipitated by a profound crisis: an illness or ominous diagnosis; “bottoming out” with a serious addiction; the loss of a loved one through death or divorce; the collapse of a career or the failure of an important plan.
Whatever it is, this crisis shakes apart our usual foundations, and immediately makes us aware that we no longer control our own life (if we ever actually did).
But few of us can swim for long in the soul’s turbulent waters. Sooner or later, you manage to struggle to one bank of the river and pull yourself onto solid ground, gasping for breath and wondering how you’ll survive in a strange new territory. After a while, you may notice that the scenery ain’t bad from this new vantage point.
You get to thinking that this might be just the place to build a new, finer house than before, in sight of the magnificent river, but wisely removed by a few hundred yards. Who knows — you might even start a school here to teach river-rafting!
If you do stop here to rebuild a home for your ego, it will simply never occur to you that rivers tend to flood every now and then.
If you’re not focused on rebuilding a shelter immediately, you may notice that a footpath runs by the river where you dragged yourself onshore. In one direction the path will lead to the river’s source; in the other direction, to its destination. Without knowing how you know, you realize that the source and the destination of this river are the same, and it doesn’t really matter which way you head.
And so you start walking.
As the days stretch into months and then years, you learn to live a life in the wild, following the river.
Sometimes the going is rough; you get lost in the underbrush, losing sight of the river and discovering that you’ve walked in circles just to get back to where you were days before. Sometimes the path turns muddy and steep, and you fall back two steps for every three you climb. Sometimes you slide into the river and get swept away again for a while.
All these trials are part of the spiritual journey toward selflessness, the placeless destination that you started heading for the moment you fell out of the house of ego.
If you’re handy, you may learn how to build yourself a canoe out of tree bark. But after a few days of coasting upon the soul’s river — justifiably proud of your ingenuity and your determination to get ahead spiritually — you realize that it’s not really the speed of this journey that matters.
What matters is the seriousness with which you are following the route of the river. If you’re really serious, you’ll find yourself laughing pretty often at how ludicrous your situation is.
Because regardless of your station in life in the everyday visible world—and no matter what anyone else thinks of you, whether they call you genius, guru, or fool—you know that you are truly an inward, homeless wanderer following a river without end for no reason you can practically explain. On this journey, you’ll certainly never get ahead of anyone!
This is how I picture my spiritual life—stumbling uncertainly along a rocky path somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, pausing occasionally for attacks of helpless hilarity. Despite the wild rigors of following my path by the river, I don’t miss that old house I once built.
When I think back, I remember how alone I usually felt within its walls. Sitting out by the river and watching its complex, ceaseless flow, I know that I am flowing there too, my soul inseparably mixed with all the souls who create the water of life.