The greatest spiritual journey on which we can embark is to live a life of love.
And no, that does not necessarily have anything to do with finding your “soul mate.” Love has been so narrowly defined, or watered down as to be nearly useless as a word. Love does not just mean erotic or romantic relationships. And the fact that I love tacos is also not at all the point (though I totally do).
Love is, thank Holiness, a great deal more than that. Because love is not a feeling, it has very little to do with emotion. Love is a way of life, an action taken; and I believe it is our highest spiritual calling.
The Soul’s Path
We are born helpless and (rightly) totally focused on our own survival. In our first months of life we do not see other people, separate entities with wills and desires, we see extensions of our own self that serve our needs. But as we grow and mature that changes (or it should). We become aware that our care takers are in fact independent people with wills and desires separate from ours.
And we are meant to grow out of our self-focus as well. But many of us never do. We remain totally fixated on what we want and need. We use those around us to fulfill our desires without any thought for their well being. And this is one of the greatest sources of pain and conflict in our world. While the word sin has gone out of vogue perhaps it should not have.
Because to sin is to miss the mark. And when we fail to grow out of our self focused desires we miss the mark set for our soul’s journey.
Human beings like to ask big questions. Why are we here, or what is the point of life? But the answer may be more simple than we would like to admit. Most spiritual and religious traditions tell us that the goal of our existence is to mature into a life of generous compassion. We use different words for this of course. We call such people saints, or bodhisattva, or wise women but the content of their character is remarkably similar.
They are people who have grown into such spiritual maturity that the focus of their lives becomes love and compassion for themselves, their neighbors, and the world. But the key to remember is that the spiritual life is a journey. It isn’t so much about reaching a certain destination: spiritual enlightenment, sainthood, etc as it is moving forward.
This Is Love
And that is where love comes in. You see love in it’s purest sense isn’t about emotion so much as choice. We love when we make a conscious choice to act in a specific way. There is an ancient Latin saying “lex orandi lex credendi,” which translates roughly as “praying shapes believing.” Or to put it more scientific terms: what we do shapes who we are.
Acting out love actually shapes us into loving people. It’s totally backward from how we normally think of things, we assume that the feeling comes first and out of that feeling comes loving action. But neuroscience says otherwise, and so does most spiritual tradition.
Putting our money where our mouth is
It’s one thing to talk about spirituality. It’s another thing entirely to live it. I wish I could give you a freebie called “Five Minutes to A Loving Life!” but I can’t. There are no shortcuts on a spiritual journey. There are no quick fixes. People who tell you otherwise are quite frankly selling something.
The only way to live a life of love is to actually do it. One day at a time.
In a quick fix world that’s not popular. But it’s true. The good news is that you don’t have to do it all at once, and any step taken matters, no matter how small. The spiritual journey of love is not about heroics, but practice. There are as many ways to love as there are stars in the sky. And there is no one right way to practice love. There are however some guidelines that might be helpful.
What is Love?
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-71
If you’ve been to a wedding that had even a passing blush of Christian connections you’ve probably heard that passage before. But it should be noted that it wasn’t written about married couples at all, in fact it wasn’t even written about eros that is romantic or erotic love. The love that the author of the 1st letter to the Corinthians (because that’s what it was, a letter) is talking about is the spiritual practice we’re discussing here.
And it’s important because it defines love in a way we are not necessarily accustomed to. When we seek to embark on a spiritual journey of love it’s important we’re on the right path. There are lots of sacred texts, teachings, and practices that will help, but I quite like this one for a definition of love.
You Cannot Love Someone & Control Them
To act in love is at it’s most basic to seek the best for someone else. But here’s the key, it’s not what we think is best for them. It is not in fact loving your neighbor to refuse to speak to them because they are gay. Or to shun someone who disagrees with you. Or even to try to brow beat someone into your way of thinking.
Loving behavior does not insist on imposing it’s will on the other. It is not coercive.
It is a fine line to walk, because loving behavior is also not “anything goes.” And this is why a set of rules cannot be made for what it means to love. It is why whole libraries have been written on the subject, whole religions built to grapple with it. To love is to be willing to stand in that uncomfortable place where we are doing our best, and may be wrong. To love is to be willing to listen to the other, to hear what they need, to learn and to change.
Love isn’t easy.
But it’s worth it.
While I can’t give you a set of rules for how to walk this spiritual journey I can give you some hints.
Listen to understand
Those who love listen not to respond but to understand. Practice really listening to people. Listen intently. Quash any instinct to be formulating a response, advice, or argument while you listen. Instead pour your whole being into hearing what the other person is saying, both with their lips and with their bodies. Listen to their silences, their hesitations. Notice what they don’t say. See when fear, or pain, or shame enters their face. Just listen.
Admit your mistakes
You are going to screw up. Practice admitting when you have done so. Big or small, look the other person in the face and say that you are sorry. Don’t hedge, don’t offer excuses. Simply offer your sincere sorrow at having screwed up.
Be willing to be wrong
Guess what, you are wrong. So am I, about a lot. And neither of us know it right now. But we will. It might be something big, like an absolute certainty that people born queer are somehow broken. It might be small, like insisting that the only way to load the dishwasher is your way. When faced with evidence that challenges your position be willing to admit that perhaps you weren’t right all along. Say it. Apologize (see the previous suggestion), and move on with a new insight.
A lot of the time there is nothing you can do to fix a situation. Be present anyway. Show up for the friend who is hurting even if you feel helpless (especially if you feel helpless) and simply offer your presence. The gift of presence is perhaps the greatest gift we have to offer as human beings, don’t underestimate it. (For more on supporting those in crisis see this article.)
Compassion is different than sympathy. Sympathy involves a feeling at a distance. You can feel sympathy for someone who is suffering without getting dirty. Compassion demands that we climb down into the hole with the sufferer. Compassion and empathy are tightly linked. And compassion drives us to action. While sympathy lets us feel for another person at a safe distance compassion is about feeling for and then working for the other. When I show compassion to someone who is suffering I do something to alleviate that suffering.
Compassion can take many forms, from marching for social change, to financial assistance, to the gift of presence (see above). But the key is action.
Practice on yourself
It is not OK to love others and hate yourself. Part of your spiritual journey my dear one is learning to love yourself as dearly as you are Loved by All That Is. Because you are precious too. And the one being you are with more than any other is yourself. So why would you not turn the spiritual practice of love toward yourself? All of the things we’ve talked about? Those apply to you. You need compassion, your own uninterrupted presence, you need to apologize to yourself, forgive yourself, let yourself grown and learn and change.
Go and do. Reading about the spiritual journey only goes so far. We must actually WALK the path. What are your favorite ways to practice love? Add them in the comments.
1. New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.↩