Driving one evening in a part of town that was new to us, we decided to look for a particular restaurant that we heard was somewhere in the area. I drove and my partner used his cell phone to find the restaurant on a map. In a short time, he found it. Using the map and GPS, he directed, “At the next light, turn left. Continue down this way. Now, make a right.” It wasn’t long before we reached our destination.
As I reflected on the experience of receiving directions while driving, I realized that the experience was a metaphor for the spiritual life. Being directed on what to do to reach a goal is far different from the typical way religious and spiritual teachers give instructions. They often focus on what not to do. Discussions of prayer, meditation, and living a spiritual life have been framed around what one needs to give up. In traditional spiritual literature, this is sometimes called renunciation.
It’s not just traditional spiritual literature that emphasizes renunciation. We often think about renunciations when we talk about behavior change. For example, we talk about dieting and giving up favorite foods. Yes, it’s always about giving up something: smoking, drinking, or, well, other things we enjoy. True enough: changing behavior does result in giving up something else. But that’s not what naturally motivates us. Instead, we’re naturally motivated by going towards something positive.
Driving the other night, making a left turn required that I “give up” driving on the road I was on. While it was a perfectly fine road with other cars traveling along it, to get to my goal, I needed to give up the way I was going. A right turn resulted in a change of direction. It made sense to do those things because the goal was to get to the restaurant.
In a similar way, when the goal is to better integrate spirituality in our lives, then there are things we need to do. Each of us may define that goal a bit differently: greater personal integration, union with the Divine, or Enlightenment. When I focus my heart and mind on attaining a goal that I view as positive, changes isn’t a struggle the way it can be when I focus narrowly on the change and what I’m giving up.
For me, the best metaphors for change come from my experience with physical exercise. I’ve never liked exercise very much. Working out in any way has always been a chore. Yet, some time ago, I found that I really enjoyed riding a bicycle on an 8 mile trail around a lake near my home. I looked forward to going to the lake for a ride and would be disappointed when weather or scheduling prevented me from riding. When me moved from St. Louis to Atlanta, I knew I would miss riding my bike around that lake – and I have. But recently, I’ve started swimming. There’s a Y near my home that’s convenient and has a great pool. I find myself getting excited at the thought of going to the Y to swim. I naturally enjoy a sedentary life. It comes natural to me. Rather than focusing on giving that up and doing something boring like exercise, I find myself becoming excited about the thought of the freshness of the water and the invigoration I experience. That draws me to the Y a lot more than thinking about swimming laps for 30 minutes.
So it is with the spiritual dimension of life. Rather than focusing on giving up things to create time for spiritual practices or participating in a group or religious service, it’s more helpful to focus on the positive benefits we experience by nurturing the spiritual dimension of life. Because of regular meditation, I find myself able to be more relaxed and patient with others; I discover that my sense of humor is more playful. Regular contemplative practice enables me to be more at peace with myself and more focused in my work. Spiritual practice also has the ability to make us more attuned to the world around us in positive ways and to be more compassionate with others. Yes, along the way there are things we give up to create time for spiritual practice. But that’s not the most important part. What’s significant is that we become better people with larger hearts and keener minds. What could be better than that?
The process of life integration is much like following directions from a GPS: to get to the goal, there are left turns and right turns. It often requires exiting from the speed of the freeway and going more slowly on a narrow road. Even when that narrow road has speed bumps designed to slow us further, it leads us to the destination that’s right.
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.