A SPIRITUAL CASE STUDY
Roger is not his real name but he is a real friend of mine. He is a real friend in that he actually exists and he is a real friend in that he is there for me from time to time, as I try to be for him. I've known Roger for about 15 years and we were brought together by a rather dramatic confluence of circumstances which gave us both a certain sense that our friendship was ordained. I will not go into those circumstances here for fear of revealing Roger's identity, but if you think of some accidental relationship in your life that suddenly took on energy from sheer force of chemistry and fate, you will know how it is with Roger and me.
Roger had initially participated in a few Nathaniel Center programs, but then fell away. Concerned, I wrote him a personal letter commenting on how we seemed to be drifting apart. This engendered a very thoughtful four page letter from Roger which I followed up with a phone call at his suggestion and now we have a get together planned in the near future. This is all good news.
In his letter he offered his reactions to Nathaniel Center programs: "Bill, ....get realistic. Life is tougher than you realize and all the spiritualism and mysticism and eastern philosophy is nice but it won't get you through life when you have a family to raise, kids to educate and feed and the many other material or real requirements I face each day.....My problem is that your programs don't speak to the choices and decisions people like me face and as much as a part of me desires to be more like you, the realities make it real tough to devote much time to meditation, etc. It seems to be too mystical and less spiritual in the traditional sense. Therefore, I have trouble relating to the programs.
Roger went on to reflect more deeply on where his disaffection was coming from. In the religion department things have hit the skids because his new pastor doesn't do much for him in the spiritual area and so he is drifting there. And the year gone by has been filled with travail. Roger describes it with a word that rhymes with rich. There have been two major, difficult fluctuations in his business; and his family, his own and the one he inherited, keeps presenting him with costly and unexpected problems. The bright note is that his marriage is doing wonderfully well and he and his wife get away together fairly often and keep their relationship alive. He concludes, "I am looking ahead to some day, when college tuition, (money) for kids, etc. are behind me. Until then, I'm pretty much stuck, like a lot of folks."
While Roger's feelings are pretty understandable, it may help to know him better. Roger's life is anything but a mess. He is very gainfully employed. He is handsome and intelligent. He has a charming, attractive wife. His kids are pleasant and personable. He is well known and respected in his community and is very involved in civic affairs. He is a capable, competent person with a lot of friends. If you compared your own life to his, you might think he had little to complain about.
So, what's the problem? The problem is that Roger is suffering from what is technically known as "spiritual desolation". It is a curious coupling of yearning hunger with disinclination to eat. It is the malady of our time; maybe of all time.
Roger is not depressed; he is not taking any prescription drugs that I know of. There's just this ache inside him. It's been there a long time. He has sought to ease it in a number of constructive ways and to some extent he has. But when things get glum, it rises like Jaws from the deep and grabs onto him.
At such times, just when he needs it most, he is not attracted to spiritual things. They seem irrelevant, boring, they take too long, they're too nebulous. It's like someone who has gotten out of physical shape. They know they need to exercise but rousing themselves from that couch is a formidable thought and the picture of a long training before they are in ideal shape is daunting. The fact that they do not have a personal coach handy, serves as a convenient reason to avoid the whole thing. After all, if I'm not quite sure I'm doing it right, maybe I should just wait until.....
From out of the whole malaise rises the great western complaint: "I'm too busy."
Roger, like most Americans who are concerned about all this in the first place, tends to escape into activity. There is never a shortage of things to do but it's also true that, if all of Rogers responsibilities were lifted, he would re-create them in a week. As someone once said of him, he could make pumping gas a twenty-four hour job. He pours a great deal of energy into being an accomplished person, and indeed he is, but when burnout threatens, he does not always take the remedy.
The remedy is to avoid burnout in the first place. I do not wish to be glib or facile. At times like this Roger feels "stuck". He does carry a lot of responsibility and there are few encouragements to do otherwise or to live a more balanced life. It's not likely that those above him will suggest that he do less. There are few readily available sources of expertise around to consult for advice. And Roger, like many, is unsure if the advice coming from within his own soul, is reliable. Like too many churches, his offers lots of advice on how to change his behavior, but little on how to change himself.
As impractical as meditation may seem in Roger's situation, the fact is that it's very practical. True, it won't put food on the table, but it will help Roger to do so with grace. True, it won't pay the tuition, but it will help Roger gather the money with serenity. It won't make his dreams come true, but it will provide energy and confidence for pursuing them. Meditation colors our inner hue. It affects our inner disposition, which changes our outlook, and leads to different choices and wiser decisions. It also excavates a space within us where patience grows for the things we cannot change. And as people around us notice a subtle shift in our demeanor, they change too. Our apparent enemy now feels more loved in our presence and so becomes softer towards us. Our loved one feels more noticed and so becomes less complaining. Our inner child is getting more attention and so throws fewer tempests in the teapot of our soul. We become less desirous of so many things and so become less restless and more peaceful. Life just looks better...the same life that wore us down before we started meditating.
Here are some practical suggestions for Roger. He once knew them as "driving more reverently". to take the daunting edge off the spiritual enterprise, try something simple like Mindfulness Meditation. All you do is this. Anytime you think of it say, "Breathing in, I calm myself; breathing out, I smile." You can do that dozens of time each day. It has a calming effect and keeps you in touch with the BIG PICTURE.
Second, stretch things out, beginning with your body. That's right. Just stand up and stretch and move your toes a little. Get things moving. Our bodies and our spirits are intertwined like oxygen and water. They are not AT ALL unconnected. Stretch out the time you spend on things. If you have twenty minutes for breakfast, give it twenty-two minutes. When you arrive at work, park on the far side of the parking lot and walk the extra distance. As you do, notice what is around you, particularly in nature. When the phone rings, let the first ring go as Mindfulness Meditation. Pick the phone up on the next ring.
Third, as you go through the day, imagine that everyone who comes your way is there to be your teacher. They are all enlightened and you are not; even the most annoying among them. In this way, every encounter becomes a learning experience. Even the person who just hopped lanes in front of you without signaling: he's there to teach you patience.
As you go, keep in mind that you don't have to figure out where you are going because you're already there.
(If any of you have thoughts for Roger - or anything to say to me, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)