The Big, The Bold, The Beautiful and The Blue – lessons in applied spirituality

I recently attended a meeting to talk about what a course in applied spirituality might look like. We were a small but disparate group – Buddhists, Christians and Atheists, people in both mental health and addiction recovery, a priest, academics, as well as shameless tailgaters like me who wanted to learn from the collective wisdom. We met in a cosy but windowless room in a dry-bar in Newcastle, watched over by an experienced and perceptive looking blue toy rabbit, which sat beside me on one of the sofas. Quite appropriate really because we spent a couple of interesting hours chasing rabbits. We talked about love, trust, connectedness and hope, all seemingly hallmarks of a spiritual life, but we struggled to define exactly what we understood by spirituality, because it’s big stuff and it meant something different to each of us. I’ve thought about it a lot since and here are a few reflections based on my own experiences and understanding.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step programmes see the importance of practical or applied spirituality. The foreword to “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” written by Bill W, says that “AA’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practised as a way of life can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole”.  These spiritual principles are far removed from religious practice and are based around non-material realities or experiences which can underpin everyday living. Jesus constantly talked about spiritual principles and the inner life. He condemned the many religious practices of his day and especially those people in authority who used religion for their own ends of power, pleasure (status, worthiness, looking the part, etc) or security.

Perhaps the most radical of the teachings of Jesus are found in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus outlined his bold manifesto for a new way of living, underpinned by a reality beyond the material world of self-interest and self gain. The topsy-turvy world of Jesus runs utterly counter to the world we live in and into which we have all been programmed or indoctrinated, all of our lives. This material world view tells us that to be rich we need to accumulate and look after ourselves, making security, pleasure and power important guiding principles of living. Not so, said Jesus. True spiritual living is always about letting go; it’s subtraction and not addition. In the spiritual pathway he introduces, the first shall be last, those who mourn shall be blessed, it is better to give than to receive, suffering is the way to greatness, forgive and we shall be forgiven. Or as 12 steppers often say, to keep it you’ve got to give it away, and you surrender in order to gain. These spiritual principles or ways of living are counter-intuitive, part of the Golden Thread, which Christians and people in 12 step recovery have in common.

Accepting this counter-intuitive, topsy-turvy world of Jesus is challenging. It is just so radical. The part of me that longs for social justice, that has a bias towards the poor and which wants to protect and care for the vulnerable, rejoices and cheers from the stands when I read the Sermon on the Mount. Yes! God is on the side of the broken and the destitute. But whatever my intentions, actually living it out is a whole lot harder, because I am so caught up with a material way of thinking and operating. Do I really believe that the love and care of God will be sufficient if I do begin to let go? My thoughts and actions are unerringly and largely unconsciously linked to the old mindset of power, pleasure or security (usually disguised as apparently self-less and benevolent intentions). In the account of his wilderness temptation, Jesus spotted and vehemently rejected these ways of behaving as a short cut to glory. Recognition, surrender and letting go does not come naturally to me or I suspect, to most of us. People with alcohol or drug problems get backed into a corner where they can do no other – the rest of us can be equally bankrupt but manage to retain a veneer of being okay and continue to run our lives without truly following this new spiritual pathway. And ironically, religion is particularly susceptible to the old way of thinking and behaving. In Christianity this is most visibly seen in the way churches and people in them function. Obvious really, because we all continue to carry these old patterns of thought and behaviour into everything we do.

It is for this reason that we must consciously seek to renew our minds and practice living in the new way. It is a daily activity but a lifetime project. Those in 12 Step Recovery talk a lot about working their programme, but many of us Christians sit back hoping that with the help of some prayer and devotional readings the Spirit will change us. But following Jesus is not a passive activity like a moving corridor at an airport onto which we step, waiting to be delivered at the other end without any participation ourselves. We have to play our part and co-operate with God in changing us. Because I have a blind spot and don’t recognise my tendency to slip back to the material way of thinking, along with its cosy and easy preferences, I need to consciously act in a counter-intuitive way by practicing forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, trust, giving away, etc, on a daily basis to counter the way I’ve always done it. God does the work in us but we must be willing, humble and active participants.

The Sermon on the Mount is not just a beautiful dream. My experience and that of countless others who seek to embrace these upside-down principles is that as we follow this spiritual pathway we find a contentedness and joy which the old one we were taught to operate by couldn’t provide. We can never get enough power, pleasure or security to make us any more than fleetingly happy, we just can’t. But boy did we try. Counter-intuitively, surrender and the rejection of these as guiding principles for living allows us to become happier and more fulfilled than we ever were previously. Less really does become more. Okay, we mess up often and lose our way, which usually teaches us far more than when things go well, but, as they say, it’s about progress not perfection. Ask the blue rabbit, I think he knew that all the time.

“Discovering who you really are is only possible when you stop aiming for it. When you turn your back and walk away, embracing instead a life of compassion, love, and even suffering and death, then and only then can you discover your true identity. It is like the magical door in many a children’s story; you can only find it when you stop looking.”  Paula Gooder

“The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition.” Henri Nouwen

 “Spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes … a life ruined by a Jesus who loves us right into his arms.” Mike Yaconelli

 “Think about how others feel. Practice being kind to others. For those who want to take the advanced course, practice kindness anonymously. Do something caring or compassionate for someone without ever telling anyone.”  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

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