Mother God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot
the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
– my version of The Serenity Prayer
I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,
I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
– Nelson Mandela
The statement by Nelson Mandela is a classic spiritual statement. First, it is about the self and not about his guards or the racist politicians that imprisoned him for 27 years. Second, it shows the alternative path and its normal and natural spiritual consequences; to leave behind bitterness and hatred and, by inference, recrimination and retribution. It doesn’t praise God or self but looks forward to the next spiritual step, which, it turns out, is to save blacks and whites both from a bloody, hateful and destructive civil war and to find the unseen and improbable path towards reconciliation.
Another example of spirituality is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Spirituality is about empathy for others, even “enemies” and adversaries and people with different customs, attitudes or behaviors.
Spirituality is about what is good for everyone. In 12-step groups, no religious views are required, no personal beliefs excluded. There are no leaders and no absolutes; only “trusted servants”, guidelines and traditions. Everyone is equal. A group conscience is not a majority vote but a discussion that ends only when there is essential unanimity and all sides of a question respectfully heard and considered. When a vote is called, it is about what each person thinks is best for the group as a whole, not personal preferences. Of course, not all 12-step groups operate in this manner, but when they do, when decisions are held off until it is clear what is good for the whole group, everyone accepts the outcome.
Spirituality is inclusive. Nobody is excluded except when disruptive and then the door is never fully locked. Behavior might be “effective” or “ineffective” rather than “good” or “bad.”
Spirituality embraces and accepts what is. Spirituality attempts to improve the self by identifying and correcting certain ineffective behaviors, thoughts, or beliefs … within ones self. Whenever possible, we refrain from judgment or derogatory criticism.
A spiritual person takes responsibility for his or her part. Spirituality attempts to see the entire picture and to discover for ourselves new and creative ways to improve what we do and how we do it.
The word “humble” seems to best highlight the difference between the religious and the spiritual. Religions generally claim to know a universal truth and expect that others will come to see things the same way. Doubt is not really acceptable once one joins a religious group.
Spiritual people aren’t so sure of things. For one, they usually don’t dictate a prescribed perception but seek new ways of seeing old problems. They are eager to discover reality and each new perspective adds to the overall understanding; a closer approximation to what is real.
In a spiritual group, the experiences and life lessons are what they are. There is no “slant”, and, if there is, to that extent, it is a religious group and not a spiritual group. Spirituality is experienced intimately and personally. It is about the self, not about others. What is in common is great. What is not in common is accepted. There is no particular need for conformity.
This being said, there are common threads to spiritual work which, while not necessarily universal, are seen over and over. For instance, effective spiritual solutions almost always involve reconciliation: victim with perpetrator, victor with vanquished, and families reunited. While voluntary exclusion sometimes works as a temporary solution when the perpetrator is not yet remorseful or the victim not yet forgiving, the fully satisfying and lasting solutions are uniting and conciliatory.
The words “good” and “evil” aren’t useful in spiritual work. My personal belief is that these two words have created as much mayhem and mischief as any two words in the English language. They assume an absolute scale on a subjective issue. The words “good” and “evil” rely on a biased point of view.
If Jesus of Nazareth did suddenly acquire a third life, he might enjoin us to turn the other cheek, to treat our “enemy” with compassion and understanding, and to be humble and contrite in accepting our part in the current enmity. The word “evil” blocks that. It inhibits compassion and understanding. It locks our hearts to those so labeled and brooks no ameliorating circumstances. It prevents the understanding and the spiritual miracles that might otherwise ensue.
There have been a number of spiritual leaders throughout history. I don’t intend to enumerate them, but their numbers most probably include Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They all seemed to have lived according to their philosophies. They were all non-violent and, if not entirely conciliatory, then inclusive and non-reactive.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth started a spiritual movement aimed at standing up to Greco-Roman violence with non-violence and humility. In 325, this movement, at the behest of the non-Christian Roman emperor, acquired the Nicene Creed, a non-spiritual set of required religious beliefs which centered on a fictional Christ, the only-begotten son of God, God-in-human-form, and ritual sacrifice to atone for our sins. The spirituality was still there, but the nonviolence disappeared and in its place was dogma and persecution of any and all who might say otherwise. Furthermore, absolution is somewhat pernicious in that it grants us freedom from guilt without actually looking at the damage we’ve caused or altering our behavior.
The Twentieth Century saw an amazing rebirth of this old spirituality, the nonviolence and the rejection of enmity.
Women’s suffrage was led by many different women and supported by many men. It made its way through the modern world starting in New Zealand toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, gaining an unrestricted right to vote in the US in 1920, and finally gaining voting rights for women in France, Italy, and Greece after the Second World War.
Mahatma Gandhi led a nonviolent and successful revolution against both British colonialism and the traditional caste system.
Alcoholics Anonymous started a landslide of Twelve-Step programs where people in the throes of addiction found relief by forming small spiritual groups which sought remission a day at a time.
Nelson Mandela led his nation, South Africa, nonviolently around an impending racial civil war and into a period of harmony and good will – and shared peace and prosperity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and quite a few dedicated souls, both black and white, ended the economic and social slavery that the Civil War was supposed to have ended – and they did it without much bloodshed. Within 50 years, we had blacks on the Supreme Court, in Congress and the Senate, leading our military, and even in the White House. In the previous 100 years few of the promises of freedom were actually delivered by the Civil War and its Emancipation Proclamation.
We elected Jimmy Carter as President and he worked diligently at creating peace in the world, refraining from going to war when our embassy in Iran was invaded and negotiating between the two sides of the Palestinian crisis. At the end of his single term in office, every one of the 500 hostages in the Iranian embassy were returned safe and sane. Is there even the slightest chance that a war with Iran could have ended so well? But Americans wanted to be “right.” We wanted to be feared. And we wanted immediate gratification. Peace was too slow, too indecisive, and far too humble for us.
We voted for policies which took us back on the path to war, conflict, and bankruptcy. We’re still on this path which ensures ongoing wars overseas. We unilaterally invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to more violence and an escalation of the Mideast crisis. Furthermore, we’ve chosen violence as a response to terrorist attacks. This choice has been studied scientifically and there is near certainty that it will lead to more terrorism. Our soldiers overseas are causing terror and terrorism, both overseas and within our borders. They have no chance of winning a better life for us or our allies overseas and they have not and will not gain anyone’s “freedom.”
Spirituality works, make no mistake about that. It is amazingly fair and effective. All that is needed is an open heart, the hope of an open mind and lots of patience.
Violence, despite all the movies and video games in which violence “wins,” is almost never effective – certainly not in the long run. Religion and Nationalism are also anti-spiritual forces. To the extent that we allowed the distinction to matter, race and sex and sexual preferences have also splintered our society. If the result is an “us” and a “them,” the process isn’t likely to be spiritual.
So, looking back to Ch 1, we have an answer to John Lennon’s Imagine. The fierce loyalties we have to our nations, our races, our religions, and our other traditions which set us apart from others and make us feel special also cause us to falter and fail in the spiritual realm. We lose sight of our common interests and actual kinship with others.
Those old prejudices still linger. Many of us still want to shun homosexuals or the transgendered or illegal aliens or abortionists or communists or socialists or atheists or Arabs or some race, religion, creed, affiliation or attitude. To give up prejudice isn’t easy. It is generally given to us at an early age and held in the depths of our psyches, tied by love and loyalty to our family. It’s also what makes us special in our own minds, a source of pride as well as prejudice.
Exhorting others to think spiritually isn’t done lightly. It isn’t easy, but it is absolutely necessary.
©David N. Dodson, 2014, 2015, Phoenix, AZ