Friday, August 24, 2007

Journeying Toward Awareness

I have been asked to write about spirituality for a couple of publications and have found that I am struggling to do so. I realize that part of the issue for me is that I am in a bit of a funk—I won’t call it a depression, because I know that I am fortunate and enjoy many things in my life, most especially my relationship with my partner. However, the ongoing heat wave we have experienced, the drought that is drying up my shrubbery (I live in North Carolina), the sense that this bad weather is a clear sign of the state of global ecological health, the socio-political climate where it seems that the Bush administration can and will do whatever the hell it wants without any oversight, my ongoing struggle with HIV/AIDS, niggling little infections that occur from week to week and that require treatment, trying to deal with a rather annoying and rare side-effect from my medications—all of these things have an additive effect on my state of mind. I have lost myself temporarily to the devil in the details instead of finding the joy and love of all that surrounds me.

You can not live with HIV/AIDS for 22 years without at least flirting with some aspect of spirituality. I have learned to love myself as a part of all creation and refuse to accept the dogma of religious organizations that would have me excluded from the divine. I simply do not believe they are correct. My soul is good and my actions are not worthy of eternal condemnation simply for who I am and how I express my love. I am, for the most part, at peace with myself and do not judge myself based on what Alexis de Tocqueville identified in America as “the tyranny of opinion”.

The most significant part of my journey was self-discovery. I found myself extremely unhappy and depressed in the early 1990s when I felt that my time on Earth was rapidly running out. At that time, I considered suicide as a viable option for simply leaving it all and for avoiding the lengthy, debilitating and disempowering decline of death by AIDS. Luckily, I sought help and was asked why I would choose to kill myself rather than just change the parts of my life that I disliked. The ultimate question became not whether I should kill myself but rather how I could kill off those aspects of me that were inconsistent with my spiritual journey: it was not a matter of “To Be or not to Be” but of being or not being content.

I began to become aware of what needed change in my life. It was as simple as deciding, to use an absurd example, that if I despise eating Brussels’ sprouts, then why the hell do I keep eating them? If my job is killing me, why don’t I make a change in how I approach it? If my partner is not the right partner, then what is preventing me from finding the right one for me? These kinds of questions can be asked about anything in our lives…perhaps I should say that these questions are critical for each of us to ask of our self.

We are often reminded of the quote from Gandhi, “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” and I found that I needed to embrace it. I also read Thoreau again, particularly this famous passage from Walden: I went into the woods for I wished to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life! To put to rout all that was not life, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I did my stint of living alone in the woods. It gave me a great time of reflection on who I am and enabled me to explore a new self-definition. When I worked, I defined myself by my position, its power (and most often its lack of power), its remuneration and the material things that it enabled me to obtain. When I left work, I found that I had lost my sense of self, because it had come from an external source that was cut off. Suddenly, all of the material things in my life became shackles of slavery and despair filled my heart. I languished with Lazarus syndrome (the realization you are going to live after you have prepared to die) for a number of years before finding my way out of it.

The first step I took to lead myself out of the morass was to return to my family history. I threw myself into genealogy to find out the source of my roots. I learned of the various people whose existence intertwined to lead to my presence on Earth, and I learned the stories of the many people who preceded me. I learned of the poverty of my ancestors and of their accomplishments to struggle against the hardships of life. It gave me a better sense of who I was, but it didn’t quite help me reconcile my need to find purpose in my life.

I was particularly drawn to those in my families of origin who ended up being drawn into the drama of the US Civil War. Although they were not wealthy land-owners and did not own slaves, they were called up by the government of the State of North Carolina to fight for the Confederacy. Many of them died defending a lost-cause that they ultimately may not have shared. (North Carolina reluctantly seceded from the US after becoming surrounded by Confederate states and many of its citizens opposed the US Civil War.) This was a lesson of great importance that was not lost on me. When a person’s homeland adopts a political stance that is in conflict with personal values or toward which one is ambivalent at best, we are still called upon to defend our country to our death. In some cases, people who disagreed with their government in the US Civil War were executed as traitors for their principles. I found a story of one man in my family who deserted the Confederate Army in the 1860s and was buried upside down and backwards (with his head facing west rather than toward the rising sun, as is tradition) when he finally died in the 1890s. My people have been known to hold grudges.

I integrated my newly found family history with what I learned in my own life. It was at times in conflict with who I found myself to be and at other times, I found great confluence of similarity between my life and those of some of my ancestors. Ultimately, though, it was quite apparent that I had been reared to question authority and to determine the source of my beliefs before taking action in matters of great importance. I was unhappy and I needed to follow Gandhi’s principle of being my change. I needed Thoreau’s sense of civil disobedience. I needed to live my life without concern for the threat of being buried upside down and backwards. Besides, being buried upside down and backwards would be much more of a reflection on the ones who buried me than on me.

My next step was to break the shackles of my slavery. This included downsizing my possessions and obligations so that I would be free to make decisions about my life outside of the threat of economy. There is a limit to what can be done, particularly when living in a country that values corporations more than individuals and that doesn’t provide universal healthcare for all of its citizens. It is also difficult to become emotionally free as long as you are facing debt, desire for material gain, or unrestrained ambition. I found I had to be careful how I was selling my soul because the consequences are not always readily apparent.

I continued therapy with a good (very important to find the right one) psychologist. His work helped me to investigate meditation and Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness, in particular, is a very valuable tool to move toward a more spiritual place. It simply means that you become aware of your every action, thought and deed. If you find yourself feeling depressed, you simply acknowledge that you are depressed. If you are happy, you acknowledge that you are happy. When you get that level of awareness established, you can go to the next step of becoming aware of what causes your depression or happiness. Once you are aware of the sources of your joy or sorrow, you can willfully decide to do things that are in your best interest. If you are so anxious that you can not think, you just have to focus on and become mindful of your breathing and try to bring it into a slow and regular rhythm. It works. It calms you down.

Another thing that brought me peace and fulfillment was the desire to help others in any way that I could. I simply see it as sharing the gifts I have with those who are less fortunate than I. Through my work with a grassroots AIDS newsletter that I founded and my involvement with a number of projects that foster volunteerism, I found that I felt best when I was doing things to help others without looking for monetary gain. My existence came about through the good deeds of others and I felt that it was my duty to attempt to give back where possible and pay forward, in other cases, to encourage others to give freely.

I have to add that I did not ever forget the Christian teachings that I learned as a young boy. I simply had to be mindful of which parts of it worked for me and which did not. I found that the basic teachings of the 10 commandments and the teachings of love and acceptance of others as taught by Christ, when removed from the theo-political realm of American politics and society, worked quite well for me. I learned what I could learn about other religions. I began to see that if you drop the self-interests of the powers in charge of those religions, then they all have a basic common message.

As a result, I see everything as part of a whole and that we are all in this together. I see each of us as a potential source of good and try to live my life in a way that will inspire others to do the same. Although I find myself guilty of judging those who would judge me, it is also part of my belief system to try to move toward common ground with those who would condemn me for being different from them. It takes all of us to bring peace and we can not do so for others without engaging them.

So, this latest bout of “funk” is embarrassing to me. I have so many things that bring joy, happiness and fulfillment to my life, but I have temporarily lost sight of them. It is far too easy to veer from a spiritual path when facing a bleak and dreary world where chaos, war, scandal, poisoning of the environment, lack of ethics and profiteering are the values that seem to be the norm. Realizing the extent to which I can change what I can and letting everything else be is my goal.

I am not there. I am aware that I am not there, but my journey is not over yet either. I can only hope that when I move from this plane into whatever comes next, that I will be at peace with myself and that I will face that new journey with the intellectual curiosity that I have had in facing this current journey.

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