As a kid growing up in churches (and even later as an adult), there were frequent announcements for upcoming events like youth camps, retreats, concerts, Christmas pageants, outreach, and so on. Often, it was promised that if you attended, lives would be changed, and indeed some often were.
At conferences or leadership gatherings, one of the most common buzzwords is revival. Embedded in that very term is the idea of returning to a former state, an initial essence or vitality that has been lost.
Also embedded within that word is a kind of transience. Even if the hoped for revival comes, in a few months or a few years that too will fade and soon we’ll again be hoping for another revival. It’s cyclical.
Now in and of themselves, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with any of these. They help build a collective identity and grow the life of a community. But collectively, as a culture, we seem to have placed an overemphasis on the peak experience as a means of transformation.
Even as we forge bonds of community and achieve a sense of direction and purpose – essential for any individual or organization, we always run the risk of mistaking that as the end goal, and of overidentifying with that particular group, our role within it, or becoming fixated on the peak experiences that created that sense in the first place. We can also skip right over the work of growing in our awareness of inner brokenness that leads to humility.
A helpful distinction to make here is that of states vs. stages. When we are at a particular stage of faith or stage in the spiritual life, true and lasting transformation usually means moving clearly to the next stage, which we inhabit deeply, but always with the understanding that there is further maturation yet to happen. And maturation always involves the shedding of the ego and its attachments.
Attending a highly emotional and moving performance or program or film or concert or outreach may bring about a sudden release of energy, new insight, and fresh perspective. They build a sense of collective energy and momentum through shared experience. But all too often, these are short-lived. And in an unconscious state we feel the strong need to recreate it. There’s a danger of becoming addicted to these kind of peak experiences, addicted that is to particular states of being, but staying trapped in the current stage of being, and confusing that with the end of the process.
These states can become the drug we pursue in the spiritual marketplace rather than a means of living a transformed life in the ever-present moment. Many of us tend to look for a spiritual high rather than the next stage of relinquishment. We want to maintain our current comfort level in our understanding of self, the understanding of our needs, the understanding of the world. We lose the sense of a need to grow. And genuine growth always involves necessary losses.
Some of the action takes place in what we in the West call our unconscious, or what the Eastern traditions call store consciousness. It’s our mental infrastructure. The part we usually take for granted. It’s our hidden motivators, fears, attachments, and assumptions. That’s where the real renovation takes place, in our habitual ways of thinking and perceiving and relating.
The promise of the contemplative path is true life, provided we’re willing to let go of all our concepts, our assumptions, our habits and attachments. Rather than escaping from the everyday experiences in pursuit of a high, this process allows us to enter our lives more fully.
Spiritual teachers talk about the difference between meeting God on the mountaintop, or on a retreat, or at a concert, or in a remote Indian village, and meeting him in the city, with a spouse, and a job, and a child, and deadlines, and a car payment.
It’s much harder to leave behind the self when the surrounding infrastructure is built around propping up a self.
As Jack Kornfield writes in After the Ecstasy, The Laundry: “The important point of spiritual practice is not to try to escape your life, but to face it — exactly and completely.”
We are to bring the quality of precise, moment-to-moment, internal-and-external awareness to bear in this precise, and neither pine for that last spiritual high, nor cling to the one we think is just around the corner.
Contemplative teach that our lives are at all times saturated with the divine, whether we are receptive to it or not. And most transition experiences from one stage to another are marked by some kind of a surge in energy, a radical new perspective, a sense of alignment and vitality. But these are byproducts of the more significant, tectonic shifts that come in the ongoing process of transformation, not ends in and of themselves.
Though we do learn, the real lesson is not that we are always preparing for later, or for the afterlife, but to be present. Fully present. Without grasping. Without lunging. It’s not the high we chase, not the bombastic experience or sense of accomplishment, but rather the inexhaustible depth and saturating grace of the right now.
Jack Kornfield’s After The Ecstasy, The Laundry
Thomas Keating on Lasting Change and Whitewashed Tombs