Tag Archives: truth

It Doesn’t Matter

*********

So what if I have wasted my hours bogged
Down in a slough of brokenness,
Time oozing from fingers
Fumbling through the quagmire of yesterdays

So what if I have tried to be loved
By pretending perfection or by pleading,
screaming out the names of disowned silences
While they cringe in the corner, craving to be seen

So what if the path to the past
Is a constant erosion of storms
Each echo a lashing of lightning
Crackling and snapping the new dawning sky

So what if I feel flawed and fragile and have no children
So what if the stars still shine brighter than the smoldering spark inside
So what if I have most often chosen the false safety of shadows,
Fed by their frightening, familiar frenzy

It doesn’t matter how often my clay self quakes
As my conception of family crumbles
Shaken to its foundations
Along a fractured fault line

It doesn’t matter how many times I have curled like an infant
On the floor of my room, clothed only in sky
Trembling against the return of frozen fears
From the far reaches of the forgotten

For time after time,
You come to wrap me in a quilt of compassion,
And meet me with gentleness as an equal
With an acceptance that knows no language

Then I can sing melodies of my own making,
Though I’ve yet to learn all the words in the music
Then I can share my truth, woven tapestry of story,
Though sometimes I might only give birth to my longing

Again and again, I can reach out to you walking beside me
No matter what I’ve done or where I’ve been
Again and again, I can reclaim this strength, returned, as my own
No matter how many times I’ve given my power away

I can wake up in your arms, day after day
No matter how lost I feel in the depths of the dreaming,
And soothed by the steadying sound of my breathing, slowly,
Slowly, open my eyes

*********
Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter: not because life and its actions are meaningless, but because the kind of love that leaves you breathlessly in wonder, at peace and knowing your own wholeness knows no conditions or limits. I have to keep re-membering this the hard way. This week, when life spun out of hand and all I could do is let go and trust I would still be held, I also recalled this quote from Rumi which inspired this poem.

“Come, Come, Whoever You Are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.”

Re-turning to Trust

Fear is like the partner you can’t get rid of: you fight it and scream at it and beg it to go away and then spend the interminable hours of a frantic night after it disappears flailing in the dark, unmoored, untethered, searching for the hand you know always brings you back to familiar ground. It certainly feels momentarily like anything is better than being alone with nothing to do but confront the immensity of yourself. So you give fear a call and let it back in. And the cycle continues…

Sometimes I’ve been able to break that cycle, and for lengths of time that surprise me, at least when I am with people who hold space for me in the world beyond the world. But when it comes to this world? A world where getting hurt isn’t a theory, where my differences define me, where rejection is very real, where words can wound, intentions get crossed, and the present moment is so often ensnared in a web of wilting memories… what, are you kidding?! Trust is a very, very rare and endangered species.

My world began like this: when I was six months old, someone tried to kill me. Part of me understood, in a way I still cannot even put words to, just how, literally, totally frightening the world could be. Safety became my mantra and my survival raft on the sea of changes. I learned all sorts of healthy and unhealthy ways to build and maintain a stronghold over the water, shore up the retaining walls, and in general do all I could to ensure that the tiny, fragile island I was didn’t get swamped and submerged again. I didn’t discriminate. Whatever it took. I needed rain, not a flood. I needed the calm clay earth to give me another chance to put firm roots down, ground me here. I needed air to keep moving through my body, breathing room, the winds of many temperaments to carry me once I learned to fly. Most of all, I needed other people and needed to learn how to love, rather than fear them.

Unfortunately, we don’t usually get only one traumatic experience to heal from while we’re here. So, over the past couple years as I liberated myself from grad school, I’ve done a lot of healing. I’ve gathered myself in, gone through the naming, sat with shadows and struggled to find their place as part of my wholeness and accept them. And still, the fear is there. It hums an eerie lullaby just beneath the constant cacophony of day to day living. It comes knocking at my door as soon as I want to take a step, let alone a leap, out into the world. It haunts me while I’m longing for solitude with worries or pictures or memories or just a nagging urgency to keep watch. It winds around my relationships, putting a stranglehold on genuine intimacy. It riddles my confidence with pointed question marks and weaves illusions of isolation around my dreams. It awaits in the silence when my only company is the vast bewilderment of myself. It tries to convince me I’m the only one who’s ever felt like this.

There might be long stretches of time during a day or for several weeks when I can ignore it and throw myself into enjoying life. But the fear for that life I am out enjoying never really goes away. So, last April when I decided to join a group of people who gather once a week to learn about an art of relating called circling, I was unsurprisingly terrified. It turned out to be one of the best things that has happened to me in a long time. There was a structure and several things we agreed upon at the outset, which created a container of trust and belonging unprecidented in regular social life. We would pick two people per night whom we’d focus our attention on, just being with what is: the moment to moment experience of that person, the present way it was like to be ourselves, how we felt in relation to each other. It was suddenly okay to make mistakes without fear of rejection, safe for me to come out of a long hibernation, which had begun somewhere back in graduate school, poke my head out of my shell, and discover solid ground just where and as I was.

The more I became solid in myself, the more I was able to be present and compassionate toward others and drop the nonspecific persistent fear. I remembered how to sit and listen softly to someone who was hurting. I could hold someone who was grieving and be in that space with them, without trying to rush them through the feelings, fix their pain or insist it would all get better soon. I delighted in laughing with others, reconnecting with a joy not possible when living so much in solitude, and even occasionally felt vulnerable enough to laugh at myself. The idea I’ve always known as true, that the world is full of many good and trustworthy physical people, developed from a thought to a visceral feeling, an embodied knowing.

I was traveling the road home, this time not through the otherworld, but through this world. And home is gradually getting a little bit bigger… enough to give fear more room to settle down, close its eyes, and even sleep for a while if I’m lucky. The space in which I live has grown larger, able to contain that much more of the light and the shadow and the fear (which isn’t planning to vacate any time soon) … all at the same time.

Now, only a few short months later, my time in that particular cauldron of transformation has abruptly ended. A lot of people there use e-cigarettes constantly throughout the night and the vapor was giving me migraines. The person leading the group (who also vapes) hasn’t ever responded to my attempts to contact him and work out an accommodation for everyone’s needs.

Fear responded promptly, of course. There was the fear that I’m the problem, that the world might not be safe after all, that I simply don’t belong. Then a friend from the group called and shared that this guy is notorious for never communicating. I’m still disappointed. Mostly, I am humbled by a truth staring me in the face. How can a person be safe if she’s rejecting, blaming, and putting down her own self? I can long for belonging, but if I can’t have it in my own skin, where do I go? And it doesn’t help anyone to stall out on fully living whenever anyone else has temporarily forgotten how to shine.

It would be easy to get disillusioned, crawl back into that old, clammy, familiar shell, pull down the curtains and pretend that actually makes you safe. But, life unfolds whether you struggle or let go into the living of it. When I’m aware enough to make the choice, I kind of get wide-eyed at my unconscious actions and wonder what all the needless flailing and frenzy was about.

There’s that scene in Monty Pithon’s Life of Brian when a bunch of people wait in a line to talk to this guy who asks each of them if they want freedom or execution. The hilarity is that a bunch of people enthusiastically choose execution. The grave truth behind the comedy is, of course, that in the end, many of us fear the wildness of genuinely self-authored freedom more than we fear the subtle and not so subtle ways we allow ourselves and others to deprive us of life. Struggle, or let go? Freeze, or freedom? Do I really have to think twice about that? It is our re-turning over and over to trust, even though with specific people trust gets broken, that allows the space we hold for all of who we are to grow, and that’s what gives us room to shine, no longer play it small. That is what empowers a person to put the authority into self-authorship, and that’s the foundation of freedom, and there’s no safer place to be.

The Gifts of Grieving

At the center of each of us
A deep pool glistens
A well of tears
Fed from rivers of remembering

Here, exhausted hearts stop to rest
To spill the growing grief of moonless tides
Gently, waves wash gnarled bent hands
And the gaunt faces of mothers with stillborn dreams

Sorrow of sisters who could not tell their stories
Weary weeping borne with the nameless burdens
No time to reflect, slow down and ask questions
No time to repair all that’s worn through and ragged

Sunlight slowly smooths the surface
And the fog of forgetting retreats
Peaceful honesty, soft touch of gold hues
Soothes the swirling swells to calm

And from the vivid depths of human losses
I witness myriads of mirrored faces
See myself reflected in them all
As have millions of eyes before mine

Eyes that have watched deserts
Being formed from women and children
Singed with the screaming
Sparks of raw hatred

Eyes that closed yearning
For the warm welcome of family
In between long hours
The endless hunger of the red-splashed anger

We cannot evaporate the charred scars of our choices
Some tracks of tears weren’t meant to be dried
Healing hides in this quiet reservoir of keening
I will tend it tenderly with salty rain

Why Change Metaphors Need to Change

Imagine you wake up one morning to the following printed in bold on the front page of the newspaper: “Everything is falling apart! Chaos and mayhem are inevitable!”
Feeling anxious and scared? Most people would.

Now imagine you wake up to a front page news article which claims, “The tyrannical dictatorship is falling apart! Chaos and mayhem within the oppressive government is now inevitable!”
You’d be relieved rather than terrified, right? Well, let’s hope so!

Both news articles are about chaos, mayhem, and falling apart, so what is it about the second article which instilled relief and perhaps even hope and gratitude, while the first article instilled only fear? Well first off, where the first article was vague and grossly overgeneralized, the second article was specific and to the point, adequately defining what human realm was under threat, without leaving it up to your alerted and all too vivid imagination.

So, apart from bizarre hypothetical examples, when does this kind of trend toward all-encompassing shock value occur? It occurs, quite often, in spiritual books and discussions on alchemy, transformation, initiation, and life transitions: and this needs to change.

Accounts of spiritual transformation often abound with claims about long painful suffering, dismemberment, “dying to who you were to become who you are,” undergoing a “soul death” in order to graduate into some higher spiritual consciousness, and descriptions of dissolution and the stripping away of all you’ve ever known, are attached to, care about, or conceive of as being central to who you are. No wonder people reading about this (like me) metaphorically run screaming into the hills, never to pick up a book like this again.

So, given the high probability of grave misunderstanding, why on earth do authoritative texts on transformation skip over the all-important bit about defining their terms and settle for shock value language like “dissolve” or “dismember” when describing alchemical shifts, initiations, or life transitions? The overarching message is just as sensational and vague as the claim that “everything” is/will be falling apart, but with the additional entreaty to “not worry, and embrace the process, because you’ll be grateful in the end.”

Uh huh. Is it my pre-dismembered or post-dismembered self who is supposed to not worry and be grateful? I don’t want to know. Not me, please!

But with all the change going on in my life, ending a 30 year career as a student and beginning to build my future, I’ve been suspicious that a transformation might be lurking just under the surface anyway. When I started to catch onto the fact that I was right about this, my response was abject terror. All I knew about transformation was taken from those harrowing accounts I’d read about, and there was no way I was going to consent to an experience like that any time soon.

And then one night I was lying awake, too anxious to fall asleep, and Ailbhe and Caoilte were keeping watch on me. Finally, having been unsuccessful at it myself, I asked if they could help me calm down.

Ailbhe kept on with the watch, but Caoilte looked over at me, his face gradually showing greater concern. “No wonder you’re terrified about your future, Éilis, when you believe spiritual transformation happens like this:”

In my mind’s eye I suddenly saw an animated picture. A nondescript but imposing looking man, embodying uncertainty and change, pursues a woman through the woods as if hunting her. The woman is terrified that if she is caught, she will lose everything important to her, or end up dismembered in some vague spiritual sense, so she is running for her life.

“I wouldn’t sign up for that myself if there was a choice in the matter,” Caoilte continued, and his eyes glinted with a hint of a smile. “Actually, what is really happening during shifts and transitions is more like this:”

Again, I saw a picture of the same woman out in the woods. Now, she is caught in a vine which has twined around her arms and legs, trapping her. It appears to be on its way to eventually strangling her. There’s the person embodying change, trying to convince the woman to let him cut away and uproot the vine which is threatening her, so she can finally break free and live her life.

For a split second, my mind stopped racing a mile a minute and I was still, surprised and intrigued by what I was seeing. That was the moment when Caoilte said, quietly, “You are dying to live, Éilis. You’ve been given an understanding which has its origins in fear, but it isn’t true.”

I began to relax somewhat. I unfolded my arms, which I realized I had crossed over me, and undid the tight grip my hands had on each other. I hadn’t even been aware how much my body language was mirroring my emotions. I was able to keep from being defensive for one peaceful moment, and then like a wave with a pattern of its own, the fear returned.

“Nothing is going to happen to you, Éilis,” Caoilte said, reading my thoughts. “Transformation is an integral part of being fully alive. If anyone wishes to speak of death, it is all that is not you that dies. But such a way of putting the process is highly misleading and unnecessarily dramatic. No one explains that what supposedly “dies” were all along illusions and never really existed. People get attached to them, so they think there is something real to dissolve or cut away, but what doesn’t serve a person was never part of them to begin with. In fact holding on is what puts so many people in danger; it is allowing change to happen which keeps you safe and gives you the space to live as your own person.”

I understood, and my panic slowly dissipated into relief, even gratitude. After a while I said, “I want to really live. So, what happens now?”

Since I’ve gained this different perspective on what transformation means, I wonder why broad statements such as “you will die to who you were” aren’t discussed in a more careful, precise way. It would be healing for a person to realize that even when it feels like all she is familiar with is dissolving around her, she will never cease to recognize that core essential spark of who she is. Just as it seems unnecessarily disingenuous to gloss over the fact that it’s the oppressive government, not “everything” that is falling apart, it seems particularly cruel to devote an extensive amount of time and energy toward descriptions and accounts of dissolution, without making the distinction between the illusions and patterns that unravel and the person’s essential nature which remains the same. That core nature of a person shines even brighter in the world after all that stuff that doesn’t serve her is out of the way. Knowing that, why suggest that anything truly valuable to her could be irreparably lost?

Anyone who is in a position to make a spiritual contribution to the world and chooses to do so has the responsibility to cultivate love, rather than fear. To that end what you say, and how you say it, really does matter. Clarity is just as valuable when conveying spiritual concepts as it is in writing good journalism or constructing good arguments. Change is already daunting in and of itself. Perhaps we might be able to move more gracefully through the transitions that are bound to occur if we transform the way we think of and talk about change.

You Already Know

Imagine this: You are standing alone in your room. The lights are off, the blinds drawn. Your door is shut to any light that might be illuminating the hallway. Suddenly, you feel a presence with you in the room, and see a flash of violet light out of the corner of your eye.

Your reaction? You immediately fire up your computer, and send the following to your spiritually open social media friends: “I felt and saw this presence in my room. Do you think it was actually there? It was probably just a stress reaction/figment of my imagination. Any thoughts?”

In the past couple years, I have seen questions like this posed on blogs and facebook more times than I can count. Every time I run across a “can I trust what I’m experiencing” question, my response is an emphatic unequivocal “YES,!” So what are my thoughts? I suppose you will know, whether you like it or not. 🙂

The events behind the question are always slightly different, but the sequence of things and the form of the question itself are the same: So I have broken down the explicit and implicit inferences that I have discovered to be common among all instances of the process.

• Someone has an experience of hearing, seeing, knowing, and/or feeling someone or something which does not have a physical or corporeal origin.
• The person has a strong sense that she is being visited by her grandmother, is seeing an angel, or is experiencing something of a spiritual nature even if it’s not entirely apparent who is there and why.)
• If the person is uncertain about, or fears the possibility of their being a spirit world, she will experience cognitive dissonance.
• This is usually really uncomfortable, so the person tries to harmonize her experience with her beliefs as fast as possible.
• Very quickly, often unconsciously, the person runs the experienced perceptions and sensations by the scientific and cultural paradigms that she has either personally accepted or vicariously adopted.
• The person cannot readily come up with a physical explanation.
• The person decides to ask a third party whether her experience is really her experience.
• She is hoping for a validation of her strong intuition, but is also hoping to be wrong. So she explains her experience while making sure to minimize or dismiss it.

I can’t deny the discomfort of experiencing something that does not readily fit into your already established belief system. What baffles and saddens me is how quickly people dismiss their experiences, distrust their intuitive knowledge, and hand the authority to determine the veracity of their reality to someone else.

Over time, doubting the validity of your experience can lead you to lose confidence in your ability to reliably participate in and assess the world around you and undermines your trust and belief in yourself. Worse still, routinely seeking external validation of a personal experience is incredibly disempowering. It is one thing to ask for someone’s opinion or interpretation of a situation you are experiencing. It is quite another to ask someone else to determine for you whether the very thing you experienced actually occurred.

Take the following physical world example. If you had an experience of there being a rock in front of you,
you might ask someone’s opinion about the kind of rock or whether it was safe to climb, but you wouldn’t rely on someone else to determine for you whether or not the rock was really there. (In fact, what would this mean? If someone else insisted there wasn’t a rock but you could still see and touch it, would it make any sense to give them permission to change your mind?)

In the instance where you are asking for an interpretation or further information, you still have the final say on what you will believe and accept. In the second instance, you are letting someone else dictate to you whether your experience happened, what it means, and what you should believe about it.

This is not to say that you can’t interpret an experience, spiritual or otherwise, incorrectly. But, While it is possible to misidentify a person from the spirit world or misinterpret a message that is being shared with you, that doesn’t call the existence of the person or the fact of an attempted message into question. You experience seeing a rock when there’s a rock around to see, just as you feel a noncorporeal person’s hand on your shoulder because this is exactly what is happening. You might find out you are mistaken about the kind of rock, or the identity of the person, but both continue to exist regardless.

There is a vast amount of knowledge already within us. Perhaps it is there because we have accumulated it over lifetimes, or it has been passed down from our ancestors. Perhaps it is there because we are all interconnected, no matter the world we live in, and that interconnection is vaster and more intricate than we could ever imagine. Whatever the reason, within each of us is the truth by which we guide ourselves and live in integrity with who we are. Out of that seed of knowing we grow: but not unless we can trust our first-hand perceived experience of the world.

So, the next time you get the strong feeling that your grandmother is visiting you, don’t make yourself miserable by dismissing an entire way of knowing and telling yourself she’s not there. You won’t be the only person who is grateful that you’re not doubting yourself anymore. I am sure that your grandmother will also be happy that you finally noticed she is still a part of your life.

If the experience you are having is still hard to believe, sit quietly for a while. Ask yourself what is true. You can trust your own experience: you are the expert on it, after all. You don’t need to give your power away to anyone. You already know.

It’s the Truth: Live With It

It doesn’t matter
How often it keeps you up at night
If it makes you feel uncomfortable
Or whether you cry bitter, fearful, or joyful tears

It doesn’t matter
The struggle, and how often you look away
That you find it impossible to accept
While rationalizing excuses, constructing creatively convincing denials

Truth forces you out of hiding
Truth doesn’t leave you be
Truth whispers whether or not you listen
Truth is the mirrored image you’re too afraid to see

If it’s true, believe it
What’s the sense in doing anything else
Find it, face it,
The truth about yourself

The truth is you have always been worthy,
The truth is you have always been whole
You are already wild, it’s true,
And you are beautiful

You have the compassion of others
But are in great need of receiving your own
You are deeply, fiercely loved
And you have never been alone

It’s the truth, so live with it
Even when it seems too hard
And one day you’ll be living it
With everything you are

Further Transitions _ A Villanelle

I grieve, though I’ve never lost what’s mine,
Struggling to accept what I wish wasn’t true.
I long to let go, still afraid of what I’ll find.

Too many people choose smallness, forgetting how to shine,
So while I’m in this world, I feel most at home with you
And I grieve, though I’ve never lost what’s mine.

Why embrace life’s sorrows and joys, equally in kind?
Getting hurt has only made me more mistrustful of the ones I knew.
How can I let go when I’m afraid of what I’ll find?

Hush, you say, you defend against illusions when you’re fine.
But, I’m trying to hold back waves of tears from overwhelming me anew
With grief, for I’m sure I’ve lost what’s mine.

Perfect as I am? The idea blows my mind.
What about all the wrong turns and mistakes I should work through?
I long to let go, still afraid of what I’ll find.

If I leap ahead, cross beyond the line,
Where will I land, strangely beautiful and new?
I’ll surely grieve, though I’ve never lost what’s mine.

The loss is of all I need to leave behind,
Even if its time and purpose long since flew.
I long to let go, still afraid of what I’ll find.

Uncertain change initiates its eerie whine
At the standstill. I remain, not sure just what I’ll do.
I grieve, though I’ve never lost what’s mine.

Knotted threads of broken patterns continue to unwind
And the nets that kept a sense of safety number few.
I long to let go, still afraid of what I’ll find.

I don’t know where I belong, both embodied and divine.
Bridged in between, I wander, a missing shade of blue
And grieve, though I’ve never lost what’s mine,
Longing to let go, still afraid of what I’ll find.

The Apology

While what’s broken mends
We gather one another’s tears
Frightened by these raw words
Shared in earnest honesty

For our trembling hands
Suddenly afraid to touch
For the truths, unearthed
We longed to rebury in sand

For fragile trust
We thread between to weave again
I will share with you what no one else has known
What hidden shadows still inform who I am

Reach out, light one, I have much to own
Though you found the strength to take a stand
A midst the rubble of our yesterdays
What I wish to take back, were it that I can

Why do you still blame yourself
When there is nothing else you could have done
How could you not be carried away
By wild waves, compelling you too far from land

I led the way, in the space that was ours
And almost lost you; of course you ran
Let the sea of forgiveness enfold our hearts
You were caught in fierce tides you did not understand

The Morrigan

Waiting, watchful
Beady eyes,
Cold, coal crow,
Follows me.

Harsh her piercing
Grating cries
Cah, cah, calling me
I run, terrified to turn, to see.

But it is time
For battles to be won,
Reclaim the sovereignty that’s mine,
Declare independence … my own.

Red veils fall
On stark terrain,
The stretching past
The road before,

Survey the ground,
Bide your hours,
Face it head-on, don’t back down
Fight for all you’re worth.

She will lead you where you’re bound.
Demand what’s yours,
And then break free.
The other side to our path. you see,

To shine, star bright, across the sky,
You must not be afraid to burn.
Strike a kindling of flame, the old to die:
In time, this balance, you will learn.

Waiting, watchful
Beady eyes
Cold, coal crow
Follows me.

Harsh her piercing
Grating cries
Cah, cah, calling me
When I turn around, what will happen? I wait to see.

The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

Imagine that you, a person who considers yourself firmly on a fulfilling spiritual path, have just broken your leg in a freak accident. While recovering in the hospital, you are visited by someone who, up until now, has been a dear friend. Unfortunately, that is about to change…

Your friend opens her mouth to comfort you and says, “It must be really hard to be dealing with this right now. But,” she continues with unnatural excitement, “You’ve given yourself such a wonderful soul growth opportunity!”

When you gawk at her with both incomprehension and a sinking feeling that perhaps you’d rather remain ignorant of her meaning, she simply ploughs ahead with the explanation you never had been waiting for. “See, before you were born, your soul chose all the lessons you were to learn in your lifetime. You chose to sign up for all sorts of traumatic experiences, including breaking your leg, so you could accelerate your spiritual development in this lifetime. Gosh, what a wonderful thing! Think of everything you can learn from it!”

Wonderful? Your doctor is running late on his rounds and you’re in need of more pain relief. After ordering your friend to leave in a voice which sounds unsettlingly more like a growl than a human, you sink back on the hospital pillows hoping for some peace. But it doesn’t come.

Despite yourself, you find you are very disturbed both by what your friend said and what her words imply. How can your friend actually believe her own words? And what if, an admittedly terrifying thought, your friend is right? After all, can anyone really prove her wrong?

Did you choose before birth that you were going to break your leg? Does everyone choose what happens to them before birth? What about abuse or cancer survivors, what about survivors of genocide. Surely, assuming there’s an afterlife; no soul would choose such a horrible experience willingly, no matter how sweeping the universal perspective might be. You think back to spiritual teachings you’ve heard in the past about the other side being full of light and unconditional love. Could anyone possessing unconditional love for themselves and all beings ever justify or permit atrocities to be done to themselves or others they love simply on the grounds of expedience? Talk about violence inherent in the system!

The above example is of course hypothetical, but the concept it describes is alive and well. It is a concept that is perhaps most popular in new age philosophy and spirituality, but is gaining supporters from people of spiritual backgrounds of all sorts. It is defended in books you never would want to pick up and read, and books by people who genuinely, purposefully, and passionately live their own spirituality every day with heart and dedication. In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I chose to quote someone of the latter sort to exemplify.

Lissa Rankin is a spiritual person I greatly admire, many of whose teachings and perspectives I have also come to adopt along my own spiritual journey. She is definitely not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to defend the plausibility of what I call spiritual utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions are right or acceptable when they maximize usefulness, here understood to consist in the greatest personal and collective spiritual development over lifetimes. Here is her eloquent and succinct articulation of spiritual utilitarianism found in her book, The Fear Cure.

Think of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced—childhood
Abuse, the abandonment or neglect of a parent, illness or disability,
The loss of a loved one, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, poverty,
being the victim of a violent crime, selling your soul for a paycheck,
Or whatever has hurt you the most. What if, instead of
Being a victim of these traumas, on some soul level, you chose
these challenges?

– Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

What if, indeed? Houston, we have a problem.

First, let us inquire into some of the practical and physical world dangers which could easily result from the widespread adoption of this view.

• Victim Blaming: It wasn’t his fault, she asked for it … literally, before she was born.)
• Apathetic Response-Ability: I can feel like a good person while I do nothing to help with (poverty, homelessness, that woman being harassed at work, that man being discriminated against for his disability) because everyone having these experiences chose to put them in their life. Who am I to interfere with their spiritual development? I’m off the hook.
• Complacency and Disconnection: If you really believe that everyone’s hardships, including your own, are a result of soul decisions you made before incarnating, compassion and empathy are optional, not necessitated. It is hard to be authentically present with your feelings if you think you have set up the circumstances of them in advance. If this is true in your own case, it is even truer when trying to relate to others who obviously chose their own suffering.
• Standard Problems for Maximizing Consequentialist Theories: Spiritual utilitarianism holds that actions are spiritually good/worthy if they maximize spiritual growth and minimize spiritual regression or stagnation. It is for this reason a maximizing consequentialist theory—that is, the good on this view is defined in terms of maximizing consequences and outcomes.

Spiritual Objections to Spiritual Utilitarianism
• Spiritual Utilitarianism is a System That Fosters Disconnection: The choice which spiritual utilitarianism posits occurs before birth is itself, after drawing out implications of the theory, a vehicle for separation. That is enough to call its claim to being a theory of spirituality into question.
• A Theory to Shield One From Vulnerability and Mortality: Spiritual Utilitarianism is a wonderful defense mechanism against confronting your own mortality or your own susceptibility to pain, illness, disability, loss, and hardship. Are you struggling with a disability or illness? You can try to console yourself with the thought that your higher self lovingly wanted this for you. Are you currently able bodied and are afraid of disability or loss? You don’t need to confront your fears or seriously question your inaccurate assumptions about others’ quality of life if they all asked to have such experiences. You can ward off fears of facing your own vulnerability in this way, too, believing that while the future is uncertain to you, your higher self already knows all about it. Defense mechanisms always sound like a good idea until you remember they are one of the most common barriers between you and genuine spiritual development, interconnection with all of life, and self honesty. Defensiveness leads to self-deception, which prevents a person from either fully shining her own light, or being able to fully give and receive love. When any spiritual concept or theory is used as a defense mechanism, it creates suffering, disconnection and isolation, and blocks openness, integrity, intimacy, love, and acceptance.
• A Superiority Complex: If you are happy and healthy, spiritual utilitarianism could easily lead you to conclude that you’re quite spiritually evolved, while those who are suffering have a lot to learn. But one of the most fundamental spiritual truths that exist is that we are spiritually equal. And one of the most fundamental physical truths is that we are equally susceptible to vulnerability. After these considerations, spiritual utilitarianism seems right out, as well as highly divisive.
• Spiritual Utilitarianism Permits Betrayal by your Higher Power: Should god/source/the one betray you in the name of expedience? Assuming for a moment such a betrayal is possible, spiritual utilitarianism seems to condone such a soul-devastating occurrence if it will result in your rapid spiritual development (somehow.) It might also be permissible for human beings, in the name of spiritual utilitarianism, to create suffering for others if that suffering is found to further spiritual growth. At first, this might sound crazy. But it is most definitely not, when you remember that the theory in question defines right action only in terms of the act’s consequences.

Questions That Need Asking:
Before taking any theory on board as part of your ethical outlook or spiritual practice/belief system, critical thinking is a must. Here are the questions I’ve asked myself about spiritual utilitarianism.

1. Generally, we think it wrong to sign off on something without another’s consent. The incarnate you will not remember her link to the soul who made the decisions for her life to come. How is choosing horrendous hardships for your future incarnate self any different morally from making the same choices on behalf of your imminently arriving future clone?

2. Suppose you want to learn a spiritual lesson and there is a rapid harrowing way of achieving it and a much slower gentle way of achieving it. Is it really ethical (or an act of self-love or compassion) to willingly harm yourself by subjecting yourself to the former rather than opting for the latter? My intuition is that such self harm is spiritually/ethically wrong, but such a decision would be praised for its goodness on the spiritual utilitarianism theory.

3. If it would maximize your spiritual growth through a particular soul lesson for you to cause grave suffering to another, should you do it?

4. Is suffering ever absolutely necessary? Are unconditional love and prechosen courses of suffering compatible?

5. It seems that the claim that we need to maximize spiritual growth is incompatible with actually achieving such growth. That is, a person who goes about actively trying to maximize her development will, by the very nature of grasping after outcomes, distance herself even further from the goal. Does the same self-defeating logic apply on the other side?

6. Is it possible for a soul to live authentically, allowing the divine to lead her, while insisting on choosing for herself ahead of time how her life is going to go, at a general level.

7. What if you’re not a utilitarian? If spiritual utilitarianism were true, would all souls have to adopt it? What if you, as a spiritual being, lived by completely different principles or took a different approach to growing and becoming more generally. Aren’t you allowed to conduct yourself according to your deepest truth, or is spirituality cosmically standardized? I shudder at the thought!

Personally, after working through all these implications of the spiritual utilitarianism theory, I am willing to see it sent off to that lovely place to which absurd, harmful, or groundless theories go when their time has expired. I am willing, as well, to bet that whatever happens after we die, choosing the pivotal events of great suffering for our lives to come is not part of it. We can thank the gods for that!

I will eventually be following this post up with another which aims to explore what, if anything, might replace the rather misplaced theory of spiritual utilitarianism as a plausible theory of spiritual growth and right action. Don’t be surprised if it has virtue ethics in it. I mean, my entire dissertation is on virtue ethics. What else would I advocate? Surely, it would be the very stuff I believe and live by.

Meanwhile, question everything.