Many years ago I was asked to speak at a retreat for college students on worship. I wasn’t ready. I had recently finished my Masters in Theology and the Arts, had a couple of years of teaching under my belt and had some thoughts on the topic of the retreat.
But deep down, I was terrified. I was afraid I’d be exposed as a fraud. I was far from a good place internally. I was angry. I was bitter and resentful about my life situation at the time. The poor kids on the retreat were treated to an extremely self-conscious speaker who didn’t exactly deliver.
For much of my life I had been very self-conscious around strangers and uncomfortable in new situations. This was rooted in a profound desire for affection and esteem. Most social situations seemed to require some degree of compensation, which took effort and also created an inner tension where you knew you weren’t quite being authentic. Pair that with a sensitivity to minute social cues and being around people could get quite exhausting.
Even if you grow up and manage to learn some amount of social graces, it never quite went away.
The Turning Point
A few years ago, though, I experienced a profound inner breakthrough. This had to do with an internal strain finally reaching a breaking point. Going through this refinement process helped me deeply realize the truth of one of the great mystical teachings: that I am, in my deepest essence, Spirit, as are we all.
And not just individual souls, but connected to all of creation through this inmost part of the self. Part of this experience is also recognizing the inner obstacles to living out of this realization, and learning to let go of the underlying attachments.
The truth you realize is that all fullness, all validation, all contentment is fully available in the present moment. In this state of awareness, we’re no longer at the mercy of others, completely susceptible to their approval or disapproval. There’s a profound freedom in that shift.
Even though the Big Letting Go of this lifelong attachment to approval still has to be followed by all the daily little letting go, the change is still huge.
And there’s yet another freedom in relationship to others.
Whereas in times past I would have looked to read social cues to feel validated, I could now read them to see how people seemed to be doing in and of themselves.
Do they seem to need a smile? A kind word? Something more? There’s a newfound sense of an ability to affect others’ daily goings on in a positive way. A sense of agency. At its best, the shift is from egocentric awareness to other-centric awareness.
Mystics like Meister Eckhart teach that we all have the divine spark; we are all Spirit. But it can get covered up by the grime of ego and attachment. We forget who we truly are. The highest Theology degree in the world won’t give us this existential internal awareness.
The Old Testament creation myth says God created man and woman in his image. This is the Imago Dei. The spiritual self rooted in love that transcends pure matter. Even Paul’s awareness seems to grow over time in the New Testament that, ultimately, this love extends to all people, not just those who agree with our individual expressions of faith.
But it’s so easy to slip out of this awareness back into everyday materialistic sleep.
This is where practices and short phrases can be helpful.
One phrase that helps bring this reality home to me out in public is shards of God, as in all the people we meet are shards of God. As Tennyson says we “are but broken lights of thee,” even though most of us are dealing with greater or lesser obstacles to awareness of that ever-present reality.
Get into the habit a few times a day of seeing people you come across, from random strangers to people you know well, precisely as shards of God, as fragments of the divine whole in their inmost being. And when they act unskillfully (and when we act unskillfully), it’s because we lose touch with this awareness and act unconsciously out of default ego awareness.
The Eye of the Mystic
This helps expand our everyday awareness to include those we normally wouldn’t think of or consider. The gas station attendant. The waitress. The shouting neighbor. Christ says, even the enemy.
We consider their wellbeing as integral to the greater whole. In so doing we learn to see with the eye of the mystic. We learn to see through the surface reality down to the bare essence. Each of us, a fragment of the greater whole. Each of us a shard of God, even when we’re asleep to that fact.