This is the first in a series of musings I’m writing about Spirituality. For more on the project (i.e. caveats, reminders, excuses, admonitions, provisos, etc.) click here. Or jump to the second entry “Waking up”.
The ‘Ditch’ Story
I grew up an interdenominational christian because my father believed “it’s the same damn book” (and I do love the fact that he used ‘damn’ in reference to the bible). We went to all sorts of churches through the years and I feel my mother’s faith carried the light for the family. I remember hearing the story of my father crying in a phone booth in Richmond, Virginia as he talked to my mom in Portland, Oregon. He was working with his brother running some video stores and he was worried about providing for the family. My mom, who was home in Oregon with me and my brother, assured him that this was all a part of god’s plan. He said that was the day he really started believing.
I never bought into any of it on a deep level until I went to Mexico with my Presbyterian youth group in the summer of 1991. I was ‘forced’ to go to youth group because my mom correctly saw that I was hanging out with a bunch of losers and no matter how good your upbringing may be, peer pressure can still wreck havoc. She ‘saved’ me and for that I am eternally grateful.
See, it was on this trip that I found god. While the story is referred to as ‘The Ditch Story’, I actually found god in a hole meant for a septic tank. Fortunately we were digging the hole so it was not in use at the time I ‘found’ her. Finding god in the bottom of a ten-foot deep shitter has an irreverent ring to it and my truth involves a god with a sense of humor. I wish it was a trait cultivated in more of her followers.
We ran a bible study in the morning and then provided lunch. After a brief siesta, we returned to do two different kinds of jobs: pour concrete roofs or dig 10’X10’X10′ septic tanks. Both activities require a lot of bodies and little expertise so they were tasks well suited for the 70+ middle-class white kids from Raleigh, NC who descended on this Mexican slum every summer.
I was on the digging crew one day and, as the unforgiving Mexican sun finally began the last leg of its westward journey, we realized were were running out of time. Our ‘ditch’ was ten feet by ten feet but only about six-and-a-half feet deep. Someone suggested we do ‘suicide squads’; the notion here being that two people dig as hard and fast as they can for two minutes before the next team of two jumps in. Looking back, ‘suicide squads’ seemed an innocent enough name for a religiously-affiliated endeavor… but, had we even an inkling of the religious chaos of the last twenty years, I’m sure we would have chosen a different name. I guess it is fair to say that those were (slightly more) innocent times.
Since there were three teams, it was two minutes on, four minutes off. At first this was a blast. Then, as we got down to about eight feet under, the fatigue really set in and ‘the throw’ (getting the dirt out of the hole) was nearly impossible to accomplish without some of the soil hitting the side and raining back down on our heads. Sweat and dirt mingled so every two minutes, muddy and increasingly fatigued teens were pulled from the hole by their peers. We were getting in deep.
I was a bit of an outcast in the group–a punk-rock kid with combat boots, goofy skater-cut hair, and a I’m-here-but-don’t-give-me-too-much-god-crap attitude. I was the teen that all the christians (which is to say, everyone else) wanted to save. I also had a strong-and-silent-type reputation to uphold. So, when my last turn came around and the ‘ditch’ was just under ten feet deep, I knew two truths: I didn’t have the strength to go again and I ‘couldn’t’ admit defeat.
In I went.
As I started digging with the ferocity that was fun for the first hour and torture for the second, I said my very first real prayer:
“God, I’m supposed to be doing this shit for you. If you’re there, give me the strength to finish.”
I finished but quickly realized I forgotten to ask for the strength to pull myself out of the hole. After being dragged out by the team, I collapsed by the side of the hole and I lay there truly feeling the presence of the divine.
The story was a huge hit that night and a lot of people hugged me, their pure joy evident. The tale went on to become something of a legend in the youth group: Steve, that ‘tough kid’ who ‘hated’ youth group becomes a christian after finding god in a mexican ‘ditch’! Huzzah!
A Fine Young Christian… for a little while
I went on to be, along with my dear friend Scott, one of the leaders of my youth group during my junior and senior years of high school. Then, like any over-intellectualized college kid who would rather party on a Saturday night and sleep in on a Sunday, I largely abandoned christianity for four years of university life.
At 22 years old, I moved to Japan where Shintoism and Buddhism intermingle peaceably. I immediately started having a lot of trouble with the whole I am THE way and THE truth and THE light thing. I asked myself (and now you as well), what kind of truly loving, omnipotent god would provide only one route to heaven while also limiting her infinite presence to one path?
Spirituality and Religion
Not long after arriving in Japan, I was watching a Shinto ceremony pass in front of a Buddhist temple (which was also celebrating that night) and I remember thinking, “No one is ever again going to convince me that there is one way to god and, if we don’t pick the right route, we’re screwed.”
I started to look at all the harm religion has done to the world, all the ‘humanness’ of religious leaders and their petty power-grabbing, all the divisiveness it has caused… and I narrow-mindedly mixed in spirituality to my condemnation. I had a very easy time throwing it all out the window (the spiritual baby with the religious bathwater as it were). I paid attention to Buddhism while I was in Japan and learned enough about Shintoism to know what was going on, but that was it. Religion free and proud to be!
After returning to the US, I married a devote atheist and my life of spiritual-less bliss continued until my wife left me in 2008.
The Spirituality Buffet
Funny truth about the universe, if you’re not open, it will pry you open (I loosely quote the late, great Utah Phillips there… as I am prone to do). I am a spiritual person and I believe in something that I choose to call The Divine. For me, trying to deny The Divine is like hiding behind a boulder in a rushing river; you can only hang on to your repudiation for so long before getting swept back in. In my case, I clung blindly to that boulder for 15 years.
When I dove back into spirituality, I didn’t realize all that is in the water. I started to study animal totems (to sate your curiosity, mine used to be the bear and now it is the deer), gems and minerals (I have a rose quartz, a smoky amethyst, and a clear quartz sitting in front of me right now), hindu mantras (which I’ve been chanting daily for several months), divine blessings (Deeksha/Oneness), neurobiology, buddhism, chakra meditations, Egyptian mythology, the Shree Yantra, Bodhisattvas, breathing exercises, kundalini energy, yogis, gurus, the Christ Consciousness, re-reading parts of the bible, struggling with the shadow/light selves, eastern thought, First Nation/Native American ritual, and basically anything that has anything to do with The Divine in all her manifestations. It is such a hodgepodge that I do worry people will think that I’ve totally lost my shit.
Funny thing is… I’ve actually found it. Inside.
The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand
I like Jesus Christ a lot more, and understand him a lot better, now that I don’t consider myself to be a christian. I believe that Christ’s example should be followed and not worshipped.
I see the real work of humanity’s quest to find The Divine being the inner work: the understanding of our selves, our shadows, our ‘charges’ (stimuli that create a reaction and not a response… flashes of anger and intolerance at our loved ones, holding grudges, staying mad), our energy, our breath, our noisy minds, and our reflective relationship with the universe.
I see Christ’s message resonating with the notion that god is in us (‘at hand’) and not distance. Avoiding this very hard work–or externalizing the hardest parts through intermediaries (didn’t Jesus say we didn’t need intermediaries anymore?) and prayers of ‘forgiveness’ to some bearded, revengeful dude sitting on a cloud –is the nature tendency of people; we are hard-work averse. This is not to say that we should not call on the divine for compassion; rather, that compassion and forgiveness needs to first be our own, to start from within and spread to everyone around us. And, yes, this can definitely be supported by the infinite strength of The Divine.
We can anesthetize and externalize our spiritual potential with drugs, TV, violence, and consumerism just as easily as we can with religion. Why can’t we forgive ourselves? Why can’t we acknowledge that part of god making us ‘in his (her) own image’ means having some pretty impressive divine potential? Externalizing it makes it abstract and less immediate; it also makes it easier to use our Divine Calling as a Club instead of a Helping Hand.
I’ve hesitated to quote anyone else’s (much more articulate) truth in this musing because, as I said, this is my truth and I don’t want to make anyone an accomplice. That said, I am not spouting off some crazy notion.
I am combing through the lessons of the great spiritual leaders of the past and coming to a very similar conclusion: the path to The Divine takes a lot of self work to then let go of the self, a lot of taking back one’s power to then give it all away, and a lot of skeptical analysis to then start believing.
I read a lot about how the path to the divine requires passion and Bhakti. Bhakti is a hindu term that I translate as ‘devotional involvement’ and I think of it as a personal relationship with The Divine… a notion not unlike what christians (should?) mean when they say ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’.
The western mind in particular is such a fiercely individualized skeptic. We can’t bear the idea that we can’t quantify everything and that the ultimate goal of a spiritual practice is to dump the cup of individuality into the sea of consciousness. I can’t measure it? I have to shed my ego and learn to get out of my own way? Perfection is not flawlessness? Perfection is wholeness–the intermingling of shadow/light, weakness/strength? Egads! Hard work sure is hard!
As I continue to try it, I say unequivocally that it is a much, much more interesting and fulfilling life to live.
What’s your story?