The Grace in Living - Selections
Bestselling author Kathleen Dowling Singh (The Grace in Aging) presents an opportunity to view and reflect upon our lives in a new way—as an already unfolding awakening.
The Burden of Mistaken Beliefs
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Hundreds of thousands of people in the West are engaged in serious contemplative or meditative practice. Of the many gifts of our fortunate circumstances, this is among the greatest.
Over years of traveling and speaking, I have been privileged to meet many sincere practitioners. I have deep respect for their steadfastness and their commitment, the earnestness of their practice. Earnestness is a quality that has little cachet in popular culture. It is certainly, though, one of the most transformative of qualities in inner culture.
In encounters with these practitioners, I have been deeply touched to hear of their heartfelt spiritual longing. That hunger, that thirst for more than only self, more than only form, more than only the institutions and dogma of religion, has emerged and is emerging among people in all wisdom traditions. It manifests in sincere and steadfast practice and intention. From the recent determination of the newest practitioner to the old and familiar commitment of longtime meditators, each of these many thousands of personal dedications to awakening is worthy of deep respect.
I have also been moved to hear from so many spiritual journeyers that, in spite of their longing and their commitment, they find in themselves a real measure of discouragement. It is to those sincere yet sometimes disheartened practitioners who struggle with confusion and self-doubt that these words are addressed.
It should come as no surprise that the habit patterns of ego, such as confusion and self-doubt— patterns that have plagued many of us for much of our lives—should follow along with us as we enter a spiritual path. They’ve frustrated us in our relationships and in our work lives, blocked our relaxation and peace of mind. They’ve kept us in unease and a real measure of suffering. On a spiritual journey, they are obstructions to waking up. We’ll explore these habits both directly and indirectly throughout the book so that their power to obscure our recognition of the ever-presence of grace will begin to dissipate.
The Grace in Living is offered to demystify the confusion around awakening and assist in the acknowledgment of ourselves as awakening beings. As one who romanticized “enlightenment” throughout many years of practice, I feel that I can contribute something in this regard. The book also addresses, with genuine compassion and a deep sense of understanding, the self-doubt and discouragement that can dishearten many spiritual practitioners. I am intimately acquainted with both of those gnawing impediments.
The confusion arising with our idealized expectations of the spiritual path, our “spiritual goals,” is widespread, as is the imputed perfection we place upon the very words awakening and enlightenment.
I’ve heard a hundred versions of “I’ve meditated for twenty years and still find myself afraid or angry or prideful.” Listening closely to the assumptions behind such admissions, it becomes clear how powerfully our mistaken beliefs hold us in their grip. We judge ourselves and our “spiritual progress” as though we know what we are talking about when we use such words. We mistakenly assume our mental images of perfection accurately define an awakened perspective.
Many of us misconceive the span and purpose of the spiritual journey—often naively believing it to consist of conditioned “highs” requiring rarified atmospheres. Many people have shared their dismay when, after loving the experience of retreat, they go back into the world and still have a hard time relating to family or coworkers or friends.
Clear understanding of the nature of the spiritual journey comes with some maturity. Before that maturity, our misunderstanding can keep us frustratingly trapped in confusion, self-doubt, and discouragement. In essence, the spiritual path is a journey of diminishing the distance between our transformative insights and the moment-by- moment consciousness in which we live with our families and coworkers and friends. We diminish that distance by applying what we know to be true.
The spiritual journey is a process of embodying—acting from, sharing from, living from—what we know in our own direct experience. It is not a question of posturing our insights, trying to prop them up and sustain them, or trying to recreate the causes and conditions that allowed their revelation. The spiritual path is a path of actualizing our realizations. It is in actualization that our insights are integrated and sustained. As sixteenth-century Christian mystic Teresa of Ávila noted, “The demand of the spiritual favors granted us is that they be embodied.”
It is common for practitioners to imagine a separation between their “spiritual” life—as we may have come to think of spiritual reading or retreat or formal practice—and all that we typically think of as our “ordinary” life (perhaps even holding that ordinary life as our “real” life). When my children were little, for example, I would often try to bask in the quiet of meditation behind my closed door and then come out and yell at the poor kids for making noise while I was meditating. It took years for me to realize the folly of attempting to keep a closed door between what I perceived to be my two separate lives.
As our practice matures, that imagined distance between our spiritual life and the rest of our life diminishes and awakening embraces our daily presence in relationships, traffic, the office, and an unpredictable body.
It is wise to name our entire life, including all its messy circumstances, as “spiritual practice.” Other than in our own misconceptions, our mistaken beliefs, there is no moment outside of our spiritual path. There is no arising separate from Being.
Confused images and mistaken expectations about the spiritual journey abound. Each can land any of us squarely in discouragement.
There often seems to be confusion about what awakening is. Awakening is often sensationalized or romanticized. Within any spiritual tradition, there can be rose-colored idealism about the goals and rewards of the path. We ourselves carry them into the sanctuary or meditation hall with us. Sometimes the confusion about awakening is added to unintentionally from unskillful teaching or from the distortions of teachers with egoic agendas—whether financial, sexual, or the desire to feel superior.
“Spiritual” words are often spoken in hushed tones, emphasizing misunderstood notions. A lofty “endpoint” is held as not present now but as bliss attainable in the future, if you work hard enough and meet the stringent criteria. The imparted idealism mixes with our unexamined ignorance.
Each of us begins our spiritual journey with our conceptual mind holding sovereignty. It is inevitable that confusion will abound as we begin to interface with views beyond conceptuality’s grasp.
Likewise, when we begin a spiritual journey, unexamined mental and emotional habits that have been left to their own devices for decades follow in our wake. We bring these beliefs and habit patterns, like tattered luggage weighted with ignorance, along on our pilgrimage. Burdened by who we believe we are— an illusion carried forward from the past—we forfeit who we actually are in each new present moment. There is much confusion about “perfection,” effort, and worthiness.
There’s confusion about spiritual goals, and—certainly—about the self that is seeking enlightenment. We bring a heavy burden of mistaken beliefs with us.
Even some longtime practitioners feel they have to “try harder”—perhaps do more prostrations, sit for more periods of meditation, or pray more each day—in order to “achieve” the imagined spiritual goal. Many of us hold awakening as though it were an addition task, an attainment that will be ours when we’ve accumulated “enough.” Many mistakenly believe that awakening depends upon reaching some elusive magical number that will set off all the bells and whistles, like a game at a carnival. “I need to do more work” and “I have a long way to go” are oft-heard refrains.
We keep ourselves trapped in our believed separation from grace in countless ways.
Many practitioners are stuck in the mistaken belief that awakening will occur when they have “perfected” their meditative or contemplative practice. Every authentic tradition offers a practice at its core. Knowing the hows of our chosen practice is important, certainly, but we don’t want to focus on technique alone, hoping it will bring us as if by conveyer belt to the land of enlightenment. The technicalities of practice pale in comparison with the power of our intention, our heart’s longing for the sacred. That power is matched only by the longing of the sacred for our wandering attention to return home to it. As Basil Pennington, the contemplative Christian teacher, noted, “Every prayer is a response to a movement of grace, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we consciously experience the movement, the call, the attraction or not. We are missing reality if we think otherwise.”
Within our foggy confusion, clear and grateful recognition that we are already awakening beings is utterly precluded. Caught within that confusion, we’re unaware that, from the clear perspective of grace, we’re already “preapproved,” “prequalified,” and have been since beginningless time.
We mystify awakening as though it were a thing, existing somewhere other than here, at some time other than now, for someone other than ourselves. We even mystify the “Great Mystery,” mistakenly thinking that living within it is some far-off attainment, beyond our comprehension or capacity. Holding to this belief, we miss the sacred mystery surrounding, permeating, and giving rise to every moment. This recognition is beyond the conceptual mind’s grasp, to be sure, but it is perpetually available to the heart’s recognition. The mysterium tremendum reveals itself to us as we open to it and as we can bear it.
Whatever is so in this moment—the appearance of the objects in the room, the fact that we breathe in the oxygen that plants breathe out, that we exist in a world with other beings who are in truth not Other, that there is a vast cosmos in which who we think we are is less than a microscopic speck, that entire civilizations exist within this body that we think is ours, that there is suffering and joy and every conceptual contradiction and the ineffable majesty of the sacred— this is it. This is the Great Mystery. It could not be otherwise. We are already living it—inextricably.
Mystery is expressing itself in every moment through the boundless interbeing of our precious individualities. We might as well allow ourselves to live it gratefully, with deepening awe. Our spiritual task is to grow in our acknowledgment of mystery, to open, to surrender into it, to allow it.
Contemplating a spiritual biography, whether one of others or our own, can help dissolve the distorted views that idealize awakening, forever holding it as some magical, mystical thing that we do not presently “have.” Ego likes nouns, believing they are graspable.
Spiritual biography is a way of looking at our life from the perspective of more than only self, more than only form, far beyond belief. It brings us to the truth of our life’s meaning—a wondrous, beginningless, and endless verb. Engaging in the exercise of spiritual biography offers us a fresh view. It offers the wisdom that dispels confusion.
In addition to confusion, discouragement and self-doubt can also burden us on our spiritual path. They have quite a few insidious, erosive consequences. Discouragement and self-doubt can stall us in our growing illumination, leaving us feeling “stuck”—an experience that only adds more “evidence” to justify our discouragement and self-doubt.
These two energy systems—discouragement and self-doubt— can keep us forever seeking, always reinforcing the notion of unworthiness. And they can keep us from owning spiritual authority at the level of our own hearts. They preclude discernment and gratitude.
It is possible, with a slight shift in view, to learn to use the arising of both self-doubt and discouragement skillfully. Such skill recognizes the need for the tender mercy of compassion. The application of compassion to the confusion, to the sense of unworthiness, allows healing. Healing dissolves our obstructions and allows further illumination to continue unimpeded.
Let’s look at the common doubts. If you recognize some of them as among your own old acquaintances, know that they highlight painful places in need of the healing attention of compassion. Nothing more. No judgment, no condemnation—only compassion. Let’s look at how self-doubt and judgment can impede our recognition of grace, trap us in seeking, and block our capacity to live from the authority of our essential nature.
Many practitioners are convinced that spiritual ripening is beyond their reach. Some seekers, doubting their worth, share the delaying thought, “I haven’t ‘purified’ myself enough yet,” as if opening into grace depends upon what our conceptions construe to be “good” or “pure.” Many practitioners who hold to seeking and striving and all of ego’s strategizing efforts to achieve an idealized goal speak of frustration and confide, “I must be doing something wrong.” Sadly, some are so convinced of their exclusion from grace—for whatever fantasized reason—that they wonder if they’re wasting their time.
Disillusioned or dismayed by the seeming difficulty that arises when harsh self-judgment meets idealized goals, some practitioners have all but given up.
It is certainly the case that some people approaching the path, still flirting with it, have not yet developed a sincere, steadfast practice or cultivated a strong intention. Others, for periods, allow laziness or procrastination to hold sway. And, it is so that others mistakenly assume their own enlightenment after a few teachings, a few retreats—as soon as they are able to mouth the words. Life itself will bring reckoning and a new determination to dig deeper. Honest self-reflection then becomes necessary to address what needs to be addressed.
I am speaking here to contemplatives and meditators within all traditions who have an already established commitment to awaken and yet remain discouraged, plagued by self-doubt. A fairly pervasive belief, when we are honest, is that enlightenment or awakening must be something for others who are perhaps more “spiritually gifted” or “more worthy” or who “try harder” or who are, in any way, other than who we are.
For many practitioners, realizing the potential of their own essential nature—abiding in grace—feels beyond their grasp. Our own natural state can’t be discovered in conceptual mind. It’s not surprising that we think it’s hard to locate. If we walk through a meditation hall, we can observe many an outwardly still and silent meditator, never guessing the agitation of unworthiness, egoic effort, and discouragement churning inside them. There’s a great deal of unease about simply resting in the ease of natural great peace.
Acknowledging and working through the unease—whether we think the unease is about self or about circumstances—is a large part of the spiritual journey. It’s where we start.
When unease is present, it often means we are caught in self ’s small view. This recognition alone has the power to pull us beyond self and into more wisdom. And wisdom always co-arises with the tender compassion necessary for healing the seen and acknowledged wounds of “unworthiness.”
Discouragement with ourselves as “unworthy” practitioners, idealizing the goals of practice, and striving all arise from confusion. Many of us hold mistaken yet deeply believed images about so many things we mentally categorize in a cubbyhole marked “spiritual.” We have another, perhaps even more stuffed, cubbyhole marked “self,” crammed with self-concept and all of its old notes of both pride and condemnation. It is wise to examine the contents of both cubbyholes. Such inquiry holds great benefit.
Although self-doubt is common, our expression of it is always unique—and we are the only one for whom our unique variation is an obstruction. Feelings of inadequacy blind us to our intrinsic worth and value. They keep us without gratitude for, or recognition of, the grace we experience and the grace we are.
Many of us grant discouragement the power to lead our attention away from here, away from now, away from the resonance of our own heart’s wisdom. Engaging in spiritual biography can help us fathom our own depth, with its inherent goodness and worth. Our recollections allow us to take heart and grow in confidence that grace has always held us, embraces us in this moment, and will always lead us home.
We can use the presence of gnawing self-doubt, as it arises, as a call to open into more spacious awareness. We can look more deeply at the beliefs that give rise to the self-doubt and ask ourselves if we really want to continue investing these presumed inadequacies with our mind’s capacity to endow belief.
It would be a mistake to turn to the confused mind of ego for reliable guidance on our spiritual path. Discouragement and a sense of unworthiness interfere with the always already available experience of Being and its wisdom. They obstruct the work of grace upon and within us. This is true of any aspect of egoic identification.
Self-doubting arises from a lack of understanding, of both ourselves and the teachings. Its very arising indicates that ignorance is present. It is grace to be able to recognize ignorance and it is grace to let it go upon recognition.
We hold so many beliefs, including unworthiness, without examining them. When we do mindfully examine them, we see their insubstantiality and their deception. Beliefs can arise only with lack of mindfulness— they thrive in unmindfulness. And beliefs lead us nowhere.
The heart—simple, sane, mindful awareness—has no beliefs. In the exercise of spiritual biography, we look at our lives through the lens of awakening. From the clarity of that perspective, the self-doubts and the discouragement begin to dissolve. We simply see them as they are: burdensome words placed on ingrained and patterned neural firings that have neither substance nor authority. Surrendering identification with them, we allow that liberated energy to fall into the clarity of our own heart.
Without mindful attention, self-doubt and confusion can lead directly to discouragement. Indirectly, they can also lead to egoic striving—the grim determination of the self to choreograph enlightenment— as well as endless seeking.
Too many of us, it seems, have trapped ourselves in seeking— with its goals and its sometime-in- the- future orientation. We’ve trapped ourselves in unease, without peace. The belief that awakening depends upon learning more and striving harder is widespread. Endless seeking arises from discouragement and self-doubt— and can strengthen both of them.
We judge ourselves as not doing well on the spiritual path and go out in search of the one more book, one more teaching, or one more retreat that will ease the unease and lead us, finally, to that “last missing piece of the puzzle.” Books, teachings, and retreats have their place and benefit, no doubt. But that benefit is amplified by orders of magnitude when we actually begin to practice with trust and authority, aligning our intention within the grace that is already present at the level of the heart.
Searching is appropriate when we are exploring, looking for a tradition or a practice with which we resonate, or wishing to amplify our own understanding with another view. Searching becomes an impediment when we engage in it out of idle curiosity or for distraction, novelty, the fulfillment of idealized “goals,” or the filling of a nonexistent deficit in our being.
We need to see how our own minds create obstructions to awakening, even when awakening is our fervent yearning, even when awakening is the awareness in which we sit in this moment. Our conceptual minds like being involved in searching and seeking and sometimes prolong it, slyly keeping ego alive and kicking in the process, hoping for its own “enlightenment.”
The strong and sincere intention to awaken beyond self is nothing other than grace calling to us. We want to quiet the mind through practice and, within that stillness, hear the call of our heart. Our heart’s true intention arises, like a polestar, from the grace in which we live and move and have our being.
Discouragement can indicate the level of maturity (or immaturity) of our faith and confidence. This is not to judge or chastise ourselves when we find ourselves discouraged—that only strengthens the unhealthy pattern. It is more helpful to learn to gratefully accept the presence of discouragement, viewing it as a nudge to observe the obstruction and its dynamics—and cultivate a willingness to surrender identification with it.
Investigation allows us to recognize whether the spiritual journey is an experienced reality for us or whether we have confined it to the merely conceptual. We need to discern whether our words remain on the level of belief, wishful thinking, magical incantation, or even ego inflation. I, for example, used to assuage the fears and financial panic of single motherhood and the inevitable envious comparisons with those whose lives seemed easier with the thinly smug thought, “Well, at least I’m spiritual.”
We need to question whether we are just following those who are led by the polestars with which they resonate. If we believe in our inadequacy and unworthiness, we often blindly follow others. We miss the one path among seven billion that is calling our name, the only path we can take. How foolish it would be to leave it unclaimed— like the last lonely child in the orphanage.
Our spiritual understanding remains conceptual until we authentically own our unique path and begin to embody it. Until then, we are stuck, like a car spinning its wheels in the spring mud. Transformation needs traction. Authenticity provides that traction. If we recognize that our spiritual path remains only conceptualized, it’s time to let go of all the splattering mud of our spiritual beliefs, transformational ideologies, and convictions of unworthiness. It’s time to begin to pay mindful attention to where we’re at in each moment. Owning our path means living within it, moment by moment, guided by the resonance of our own hearts.
As our mindfulness grows, we come to recognize the difference between the shakiness of a belief and the stability of a realization. We become increasingly willing to question and surrender the merely believed, putting our full faith and trust in grace’s revelations.
To be a Christian or a Buddhist conceptually, for example, has little meaning or transformative effect. Moment-by- moment lived practice nurtures the essential. It allows us to embody the living essence of Christianity or Buddhism in our hearts. Wisdom, compassion, and loving-kindness arise beyond the labels of lineages. We all meet together in grace when beliefs no longer divide. We can ascertain whether we are living the path or merely thinking it by asking ourselves exploratory questions:
• Are there active, wholehearted inner gestures—subtle, energetic interior shifts—that accompany the words of our “spiritual thoughts”?
• Are our lives coming more into active alignment with the meanings that words can only point to?
• Have we begun to incorporate our insights into our actions large and small, open and hidden, throughout the day?
• How present are we in our moments?
• Have we begun to move beyond the lifeless thinking of a conceptualized spirituality to intimate and transformative, holy inner work?
The exercise of spiritual biography—in particular, the recollection it evokes—helps us tease out the realizations and longings already known to our heart. We recognize the heart’s voice as deeper, more resonant, more empowered than the lifeless words of the intellect. The voice of the heart is grace speaking.
The heart resonates with that which we already know to be true. When we are open and attentive to it, resonance guides us, like channel markers at night, and leads us surely to harbor. Listening to the resonance at the level of our hearts, we no longer disenfranchise ourselves with confusion and mistaken beliefs about our singular unworthiness.
Faith and confidence arise when we do more than simply posture being on a spiritual path. When we actually and actively make our own path real—lived, not conceptualized—we move from second-hand information and begin to experience, firsthand, the great release of transformative shifts. We recognize that transformation only occurs in our heart’s direct experience and begin to have faith in the authority of the realizations grace grants us. We open into encouragement as we come to intimately know, trust, and allow awakening’s unfolding.