Years ago a friend of mine invited me to a Not-Burning-Man gathering in the desert north of LA. This was a surrogate gathering of people who usually attended Burning Man, the annual gathering in Black Rock City of performance art, community, and gift economy. For one reason or another, this group couldn’t make the trip and had a smaller, impromptu gathering closer to home.
In the email of directions and minimal instructions from my friend and his wife, the final line was a reminder to practice “radical self-reliance.” In a teacher’s work week full of classes, lesson planning, grading, and meetings, I hadn’t had time to think through what that might mean.
I showed up in the desert camp with a sleeping bag, but not enough water, little food, and no flashlight. I hadn’t taken to think through all the things I would need for a cold dark night in the desert. If anything, I was radically dependent. And though I survived, I kept having to ask others for simple things, and had little to contribute to the whole spirit of generosity of the gift economy.
Much of teaching our faith communities, whether implicitly or explicitly, reinforces a similar kind of spiritual dependency. It’s in the teachings. It’s in the songs. It’s in the institutional hierarchies.
Most faith communities exist in a state of intermediate spiritual awareness and maturity, in which there are ego projects, conflicting agendas, and neediness, and an assumption that spiritual maturity requires following the steps as laid out by that particular community. This is the case even in healthier ones. What if we understood them as preparation, as training ground, not as ends in themselves, but intended to move us into a deeper state?
The teachings of the mystics point to a different approach, though we often don’t come to this place without great suffering or internal strain. However we come to it, though, eventually we see the ego, the False Self, for what it is, whether our day to day lives are in or outside of a religious context.
In letting go more and more of the False Self, and the ego’s programs for happiness, we get in touch more and more with that part of ourselves that simply abides in God and in some mysterious way, participates in Spirit. If we recall, the teachers, the spiritual texts, the theology, are all just maps and compasses that point the way; they can’t actually get us anywhere.
That’s our own independent process of opening to the divine presence. It can come in fits and starts or all of a sudden, but usually requires some kind of diligence or practice along the way.
It also often requires an insight that when it comes to matters of the spirit, we have to be radically self-reliant. At some point, the training wheels have to come off. We no longer look to others to interpret and mediate God for us. There’s a direct line, of fullness, joy, of 360 degree awareness. Christ himself goes into the desert to grow into this kind of radical self-reliance.
The term “self-reliance” of course, is partly ironic in this context. Part of the awakening process of the mystic in teaching after teaching is waking up to the deeper underlying reality that this separate self we think we are, this body-mind, is a conditioned construct, and our inmost self is already transcendent, and the mystics realize, was that way all along. The only thing that changes is our awareness of this transcendent reality.
It’s this transcendent self, this christ-ness, the channel for vitality and balance, that we become more deeply connected with.
The other self, the False Self, with its agendas, fears, and desires and neediness then dissolves away. What’s left is spirit. What’s left is wholeness.
And it’s characterized by love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Not the kind we have to force. And not because we memorized the verse, or because we’re trying to conform to a social norm. It emanates quite naturally from this state of being.
In this state we can enjoy community, we can enjoy service, we can enjoy songs, we can enjoy a good teaching, we can enjoy a role, but we aren’t dependent on it for our spiritual state. In fact, in touch with this deep inner well, we’re dependent on nothing external at all. And every now and then we may sense the need to withdraw entirely, to a season of solitude and reflection, of meditation and recharging. Of radical self-reliance.
That doesn’t have to be rebelliousness, or rejection, or being lost or somehow falling off the wagon; it can be the height of spiritual maturity.