THE EVOLUTION OF SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Nov. 12, 2017
As a junior high school teacher and counselor for 25 years in suburban Denver, I had plenty of stressful moments, hilarious moments, frustrating moments, confused moments, moments when I knew I would have to take some disciplinary action toward a kid or a parent, moments when I simply cried out at the pain in a child’s life.
Many of these moments in that career were kinda humdrum, just doing my job moments. But others of those moments still linger in my memory:
That time when 9th grader Gail came into the main office when I was there, looked at me, said “my boyfriend just committed suicide”, and ran into my arms.
That time when Bonnie sat defiantly in my office and said “yeah, I’m a lesbian and I don’t care who knows it. So what?”
That time when Bob confided his suicidal thoughts and his latest attempt.
That time when spelling-challenged Heidi gave me a poem she’d written entitled “thanks for the mammaries” in gratitude for the long talks we’d had.
All of these moments led me into a place of contemplation, compassion, and action in my effort to help these teenagers find peace. But one important moment came back to me, as I was preparing for today and thinking about how, in my spiritual life, both positive and negative emotions have been the source of a deep spiritual realization. And how it took me a long time to learn it.
Picture a tiny office, goofy but inspirational posters on the wall, a Kleenex box handy on a small table. Picture a somber mom and brother and me awaiting the arrival of a young girl who has been summoned from her math class.
Picture that girl coming through the door, seeing her family members, and wondering, with dread, what has brought them here.
Her father had been ill and hospitalized but expected to come home shortly. Instead, her mother and brother were here to tell her that he had died. Suddenly and out of the blue, in the hospital, his heart had just stopped and could not be restarted.
Time seemed to stand still as this seventh grader absorbed the news. As she sank into a chair and leaned into her mother’s arms, I felt the enormity of the moment, of the occasion, of the gathering of a family at the hardest time of their lives, and of the witness I bore to their pain.
I couldn’t do anything to take away that pain, I could only be there. And for me, just being there was an experience of deep spiritual meaning inspired by our mutual grief. For her father had been a fellow teacher in a nearby school.
Ten years earlier, I would not have thought of it as a spiritual experience. I would have been so tense and afraid I would do the wrong thing that I would have done anything to avoid it. But my own experiences of loss by that time had taught me that these are the kinds of experiences that open us up to life, if we let them.
Up to that point, my spiritual moments, when I even recognized them, were wrapped in laughter, or physical pleasure, or tenderness between myself and another person. They were sweat-soaked on the top of a high ridge or singing with friends around a campfire, or getting up in the middle of the night to attend to a child’s nightmare. Utterly mundane moments until I learned to notice them, to pay attention to their deeper meaning.
We all have access to spiritual experience but we have to learn to recognize it, to allow it to show us its meaning, to hold it under the microscope of our minds, to feel its resonance in our gut and to rest in the moment of awe we discover there.
In his book, “Spiritual Evolution”, psychiatrist George E. Vaillant lays out a vivid portrayal of human beings’ inherent, inborn spiritual nature and ties it to our brain’s design and our innate capacity for emotions, both positive and negative.
He argues that evolution has made us spiritual creatures over time and makes a scientific case for spirituality as a positive force in human evolution.
He traces this positive force in three different kinds of evolution: first, the natural selection of genes over millennia; second, the cultural evolution, within recorded history, of ideas about the value of human life; and third, the development of spirituality within each human lifetime.
I’m grateful to Dave Ambrose for loaning me Dr. Vaillant’s book, as it sparked some soul searching for me about my own spiritual evolution.
I’ve always known that I rarely find my spiritual moments in a religious service, though they do happen and they often are embedded in our singing together. When we sing our closing song, for example, and I look around the circle at all of us, I tingle with that feeling of being part of this group, thinking later about what you mean to me and what I hope to mean to you.
It’s so hard to define just what a spiritual experience is, let alone the larger concept of spirituality. One definition I’ve found of spirituality came out of the prologue to a research study of people who said they were spiritual but not religious.
So this description is from the Public Religion Research Institute and published in September of this year. “Spirituality is a complex concept with a wide variety of possible meanings. Because this concept is inherently subjective—(since) many activities and experiences can be imbued with spiritual meaning--(because of that) developing a standard definition poses challenges.”
The article goes on to say: The approach we have taken here is to measure spirituality using self-reported experiences related to feelings of being connected to something larger than oneself. Three questions in particular were highly correlated and seemed to all tap a broader concept that fit well with definitions of what it means to be a spiritual person. These three questions asked Americans how often they “felt particularly connected to the world around you,” “felt like you were a part of something much larger than yourself,” and “felt a sense of larger meaning or purpose in life.”
As I was thinking about this statement from this respected research institution, I was drawn back to our UU Sources, the places from which we draw our inspiration and our values.
Here’s a quote from our UU official documents: The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources (and this one is listed first): Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
Didja get that? Direct personal experience of mystery and wonder, that experience we cannot fully describe, is a foundation of our UU faith.
Our own evolution as a religious tradition has evolved from Trinitarian Christianity in the fourth century to Unitarian Christianity 15 centuries later, then on to an acceptance of Universalist Christianity and a merger with the Universalist denomination in 1961, from there to our pluralistic, multi-faith tradition whose values incorporate wisdom from many other sources, and not strictly religious voices.
Let’s look at the three kinds of evolution I mentioned earlier. First, natural selection of genes over millennia: We are talking here about the evolution of cold-blooded (literally and metaphorically) cold-blooded reptilian creatures into the warm-blooded (again, both literally and metaphorically) warm-blooded mammalian creatures capable of play, joy, attachment, and trust in a parent or mate.
Simply put, as mammals developed their ability to survive and adapt to changing environments and to evade predators, their brains became more and more complex and this became a trait selected to increase survival. In our fellow primates, we see the manifestation of behaviors which signify attachment, bonding, and nurturance of offspring and of mates.
Second: cultural evolution has been as important for human survival as brain complexity. It is faster and more flexible than genetic evolution. With expanded communication came expanded knowledge and application of that knowledge. It was this capacity for cultural development that may have given modern humans an evolutionary advantage over earlier humanoids.
Sociability increased survival rates and as communications improved, homo sapiens traveled, traded, learned from, and mated with unrelated others far away and the value of human life began to expand in human consciousness.
Over millennia, through cultural evolution, religions (which are a major factor in cultural norms) also have evolved, and those which emphasized love and compassion rather than fear and dominance were more conducive to cultural development. As an aside, I am moved to comment that if the Abrahamic religions---Judaism, Christianity, and Islam---had not let fear and dominance influence some of their doctrines, we might be in better shape today culturally! And maybe our religion of love, compassion, and justice can lead the way.
Third: personal evolution in a human being. It takes a while for a human being to evolve as a fully conscious creature, able to experience life-changing events and analyze and internalize them as factors which can expand consciousness and survivability.
As children, we move slowly from self-centered, demanding two-year-olds, as an example, into adolescence and young adulthood, becoming persons more capable of compassion and understanding of others.
At some point, many of us, probably most of us, have experiences that we learn from. We may not get all introspective about these experiences; rather we may grieve or rejoice and move on. And at some later point---as it happened to me and may have happened to you---we are likely to take time to pay attention to the emotional experience we’ve had.
When we are able to do so—and it may take a while before we get there---we become conscious of the enormity of the event and how we may have been affected by it.
Going deeper will seem scary, but we do it, and when we do, we are encouraging and allowing ourselves to evolve, to increase our survivability and to model that behavior for our children and friends.
Dr. Vaillant has listed the positive and negative emotions which can be gateways to spiritual experience. It’s probably easier for most of us to start our deeper explorations with a positive emotional moment.
The positive emotions of compassion, forgiveness, love, hope, joy, trust, awe, and gratitude, to name a few, are largely experienced in relationship---with ourselves, with other beings, and with the universe. They expand us, widen our vision and our tolerance for differences. They enlarge the scope of our moral compass and increase our moral courage. They enhance and impel our creativity.
Let me ask you to think of a recent positive emotional experience. (give time) As you think about that event in your life, let me ask you the three questions mentioned earlier: 1. Did it help you feel more connected to the world around you? 2. Did it help you feel you were a part of something larger than yourself? 3. Did it help you feel a sense of larger meaning or purpose in life?
This quickie dip into deeper spiritual searching may be too brief to have worked for you and that’s okay. It is only a suggestion that spiritual experience lurks in the everyday positive emotional experiences of life. It may encourage you to be more mindful of the potential for spiritual experience in life’s every moment.
And it can be found in negative emotional times as well---when we grieve a loss, we often find solace in examining the memories of love and the lessons learned through this loss. When we are angry, going deeper may offer a pathway to greater understanding of an outrageous situation and give us motivation to solve a dilemma. When we are afraid and explore the fear, we may find greater courage than we have ever dreamed of.
There can be such a thing as “Bad Spirituality”, I think. You may have noticed that some folks may claim to be deeply spiritual in an effort to make themselves feel superior to others. (I’m recalling the YouTube videos of a sanctimonious guy in a tie-dye bandana and long hair explaining how to be more spiritual---like he is, supposedly.)
Or they follow the latest gurus or spiritual fads without question. Or they may use substances excessively in pursuit of mystical moments. Or they dwell on the Positive to avoid dealing with their negative challenges. Or they repress certain negative thoughts and feelings as too painful to face. Or they are careless about the situations and companions they find on their spiritual path, to a dangerous extent. Or they disregard the need for reason and science in seeking an appropriate spiritual path.
Every human being, I’ve come to believe, can learn to notice those expanding moments in life which accompany our emotional experiences. As we learn to do this, just as we learn to follow the threads of a complex equation or a complicated pattern of some kind, we are sharpening our awareness of the facets which make up human life---and our lives.
Improving our ability to be mindful, to notice our surroundings, to learn from each experience, good or bad, and to allow that process to take place adds to our ability to adapt to change, to survive difficult events, and to find, ultimately, greater peace of mind and compassion for our fellow travelers.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN #108 “My Life Flows on in Endless Song”
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering to take notice of the meaning of the emotional moments in our lives, drawing strength and new resolve from our spiritual experiences. May we find depth and greater understanding as we allow our spiritual selves to evolve and grow. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.