First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Spiritual Progress: “Are We There Yet?”

March 17, 2013
Rev. Sandra Fees

We all know the classic scenario of heading off in the car for a family vacation and a few minutes into the trip one of the children starts asking, how soon will we be there. And a few minutes later, they ask, are we there yet. This becomes a kind of refrain. Are we there yet. They are impatient to arrive. The journey seems to take forever.

There’s a cartoon related to this. It’s a spiritual take on this idea. It depicts a family meditating together. There’s a mom and dad sitting side by side and their son and daughter sitting just behind them. They are all cross-legged outside the entrance to their cave. The caption reads: “On the family trip to nirvana.” Then you see the bubble above the son’s head with the question: “Are we there yet?”

At some point in the effort to get spiritual, most of us will stop to wonder if we are there yet. We wonder if we are actually making any progress. Am I making progress as a spiritual person? How am I doing as a Unitarian Universalist? Shall I score myself against the seven principles or based on how many of the six sources I have studied? It isn’t at all surprising that in a success-oriented world we would aim to be successful spiritually too.

How do we measure whether we are there yet, spiritually speaking? Obviously in some traditions this has to do with acquiring the right beliefs. It may mean believing in Jesus as a personal savior. It could mean accepting God into one’s life. It could also have to do with observing certain practices, such as keeping kosher or for Muslims praying five times a day. In some religious communities, attendance at worship, doing acts of service, and tithing might be seen as measures of progress.

Sri Swami Sivananda offered what he called a “Barometer of Spiritual Progress.” To make this assessment, he asks how you would feel about these ten things:

  1. Your clean hands or best clothes are stained.
  2. You stumble down or commit a blunder and are laughed at.
  3. You are hurt accidentally or stung by an insect or scorpion.
  4. You suffer from illness or pain.
  5. You do not succeed in your efforts.
  6. You do not get a thing you want, or find that something you possess is missing.
  7. You are kept waiting for a long time by some other person.
  8. You are insulted or abused for no reason.
  9. Others fail in their duties towards you.
  10. You suffer a loss or bereavement.

It’s an interesting barometer to consider. He says that if you can be undisturbed by these things, if they don’t disrupt your peace of mind, then you have made progress in your spirituality. (Issued by Chandrasekhar, DLS branch, Raurkela, Orissa, India, 1972).

I know that I do far better with some of those than with others. When people insult me for no reason, I don’t like it, but I’m typically able to recognize that it isn’t personal to me. If I do something silly, I’m often the first one laughing so I don’t usually get too upset about that. But I’m not so good at dealing with other people’s failures to meet their commitments to me. I can find myself a bit blindsided when people don’t do what they say they will do. I’ve gotten better at having contingency plans and expecting the unexpected, but I know I can be thrown off course.

Others say that spiritual progress has to do with moving from being highly individualistic to being community minded. The more inclusive we are the more spiritually progressive we are. This means moving from being a selfish egotistical person to being caring and kind. Margaret Johnston describes it as moving from “a selfish, egocentric, competitive and materialistic worldview … toward a stance where the self is less important than the whole and where the principle of unity (or oneness) supersedes individual striving and goals.” She calls “total inclusiveness” the “hallmark of spiritual maturity. … The entire universe comes to be seen as worthy of being cared about, worthy of concern.” Such an inclusive position stands in contrast to upholding specific requirements about what one must believe about God, heaven, human nature, and so on. (www.patheos.com/blogs/faithbeyondbelief/2013/03/what-does-spiritual-progress-really-mean/, What Does Spiritual Progress Really Mean?, March 2, 2013, Margaret Placentra Johnston)

The Unitarian James Freeman Clarke viewed progress from the perspective of human nature. He had a highly optimistic view and saw the Unitarian faith as leading “onward and upward forever.” He identified this as one of five points of the Unitarian faith. The other four were: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, and salvation by character. He was writing and preaching in the nineteenth century, and his language reflects the times, both theologically and in its lack of gender inclusive language. Clarke was influential among Unitarians and the phrase “onward and upward forever” became quite popular. It reflected the liberal religious mindset of the times that we were on an infinite trajectory of human progress. Following the events of the 20th century, however, it became harder and harder to imagine such infinite improvement. Despite a growing understanding of evolution, contemporary people came face-to-face with the atrocities of the Holocaust, climate change, and other global threats. It made it less clear that we were on an infinite trajectory upward and onward. (“Onward and Upward Forever,” Nov. 16, 2008, Rev. Dr. Joshua Snyder, www.firstuuwilm.org/documents/ OnwardandUpwardForever11-16-08.pdf)

Even as we strive to measure progress, we discover it isn’t as straightforward as we might think. It isn’t like taking a math test and getting a grade. The Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron notes that along the spiritual path “one discovery we make … is that progress isn’t what we think it is.” Measuring success when it comes to spiritual matters can be “suspect,” as she says. The danger with spirituality, as Chodron points out, is to treat it as a goal when it’s a “goal-less exploration.” It is more about process than progress. It isn’t so much about reaching a goal or destination as having a direction. Publisher James Gimian says, “If you can’t get destination, go for direction.” One famous saying goes: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you may just end up there.”

The over-emphasis on a goal can catch us up in a sense of failure. Margaret Wheatley says that:

Knowing where we want to end up seems essential. … But once we know what our destination is – in life or love or this project – we too easily get trapped by desire. Holding our hopes tightly, intent on reaching our goal, working to implement the plan, to reach our dream – all this focus and dedication places huge blinders on us. We may be diligent, but we’re also dangerously myopic.

…. Good-bye to curiosity, farewell to experimentation. Welcome in disappointment, failure, regret.  We could lighten up – we could go for direction, not destination. We could invite in what the world seems to want for us, what it’s offering us right here, right now. (Perseverance)

This is all well and good. And yet, we all want some way to know if our practice is working. There are a few ways we can tell if our practice is working. I want to explore just three.

The first is awareness. There are times when my spiritual practice is going really well. I mean it feels good. Every time I sit down to meditate, I seem to immediately enter into the experience. My mind is fully present, and thoughts aren’t constantly creeping in. When they arise, I’m able to notice them and return to the breath. And then a day comes along when I’m anxious about something. Maybe I’m worried about a conflict with someone. And the whole time I’m meditating I’m consumed by the presence of this person who I can’t get out of my mind. The meditation time seems long and I never get anywhere, it seems. It can be tempting to decide that I have experienced a setback in my meditation practice and to feel bad about where I am in my progress.

A lot of us hit the wall at this point, so to speak, and give up. This is a pivotal moment, however. It’s a profoundly spiritual opportunity, a time to open up still further and let go of judgments. Practicing awareness brings clarity about behavior patterns. In my own example, I can see that I need to do more work on compassion and forgiveness with that individual. The meditation allows me to observe myself holding onto anger and resentment. Awareness is the ability “to notice where we are and what we do.” It doesn’t mean we do everything perfectly. There’s a gradual awakening that allows us to see how we are affecting ourselves and others. Awareness may not immediately change our behavior or response. But over time, the acknowledgment can lead to change and allow something different to emerge.

The second way to know if your spiritual practice is working is if you are doing the practice. The point isn’t to measure how the practice feels, which is a great temptation, but instead to do the practice. You might say, the only way to fail at the practice is not to practice. There is a Zen saying, "Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water." This means doing the practice. Whether you pray, meditate, garden, do yoga or dance, chant, do sacred reading, or something else, the point is to do the practice, day after day. What seems most vital, as the writer Gail Sher says, is that no matter what we plod onward with a single-minded effort day-after-day. (One Continuous Mistake)

A third way to consider whether your practice is working is to observe your inner life. Give attention to cultivating an interior life. Notice whether your life has depth. It’s hard to imagine anyone who wants their lives to be shallower or less meaningful. And yet, it is all too common for us to skim the surface level of our lives. One of the ongoing destructive forces I see in modern life is this propensity to skim the surface in all sorts of ways. We avoid intimacy because it requires that we deal with uncomfortable feelings. We over-use rational thought and reason to keep mystery and mystical experience at bay. We avoid making any genuine or long-term commitments to community to avoid responsibility and accountability. Unitarian Universalist minister Tom Owen-Towle says, “The spiritual way is the deep way: depth as gratitude, depth as love, depth as forgiveness, depth as courage, depth as joy, depth as wonder, depth as conviction.” (Spiritual Fitness)

The idea of spiritual progress is, as Chodron says, a bit suspect. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves not “are we there yet?” but “are we here yet?” In spiritual matters, may we learn to shift our focus from success, goals, and destination to awareness, practice, and the inner life.

May it be so. Amen.