Transformation: answers in all the wrong places
Human beings, like most creatures, tend to choose the path of least resistance. It’s instinct. The creature who can get her food with less effort, expends less energy, and is more likely to survive. But there is a great deal of difference between surviving and maturing. Spiritual transformation is about maturity, about going far beyond mere survival.
Let me start with a story. For years I have heard people muttering about how hard tamales are to make. Every time I considered making our Christmas tamales myself folks would shake their heads, raise their eyebrows and say: tamales, that’s a lot of work… those are hard to make.
And so I never did. I never even tried because the consensus seemed to be it was too much work, and far too difficult.
But after almost ten years of being discouraged from trying to make tamales I found myself hosting a Christmas cooking event on the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 12th). This Texas transplant just couldn’t do a Christmas cooking demonstration for a bunch of Northerners and not do tamales on the Mother’s feast day.
So I tucked in. I read recipes, I made a plan and… it wasn’t hard. That’s not to say it was easy. It took planning, I spread the task out over two days, and I used all the tools I had available; but in the end I found myself standing in the kitchen debunking the myth of the “impossible” tamale to a bunch of cooks who (like me a few days before) would have never considered that making tamales was possible.
On fast food and fast spirituality
As I reflected on my experience I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the tamales themselves that were the problem. The issue was one of perception. Before the invention of big powerful stand mixers like my Kitchenaid making the masa dough would indeed have been hard work. (With the mixer it was trivial). Point one: some people grew up watching the Grandmothers or Grandfathers labor at that hand made dough and decided it was too hard. Their perceptions never changed, even though the reality had.
And point two: we have become so used to “30 minute meals,” and spur of the minute dinners that a recipe which needs a little forward planning becomes totally overwhelming. Tamales take more than 30 minutes to cook. If you want to make it painless you really need to spread the process out over two days which calls for a little forward planning.
But neither of those things are hard, or impossible, they are just outside our norm.
In the end the effort I put into those tamales was less than many regular meals I’ve made. The filling (green chili pulled pork) involved tossing two ingredients into a crockpot for 10 hours the day before. (Easy!)
The dough involved 10 minutes work by my stand mixer. (Easy!)
The corn husks needed soaking for 30 minutes. (Easy!)
And then the whole thing got rolled up and put into a steamer basket. Also, it turned out, easy. The first few were a little wonky looking, but I quickly got the hang of it and the whole batch came together in about 30 minutes. They steamed for an hour and we were done.
Transformation isn’t comfortable
Here’s why this all matters to the work of spiritual transformation: there were times during my tamale making where I wasn’t entirely sure what to do next, or if I would succeed(and I was feeding people). This is transformation. If you always feel confident and at home you are not stretching or growing. Growth required discomfort. The snake that never sheds its skin doesn’t grow. The lobster that never sheds its shell doesn’t grow.
In order to grow we must let go of old ways and embark on new, and that will always be uncomfortable and messy. We won’t always know what we’re doing. But if we never try anything uncomfortable, if we never venture beyond the things of which we are sure what a small and constrained life we will live.
This might sound like bad news, but it isn’t. There is no easy overnight way to become spiritually mature. There is no shortcut. You have to put in the work. There are gurus who will tell you otherwise, who will sell you all sorts of products and courses that purport to magically transform your life and your spirit. But in the end, they don’t work.
The journey within
Spiritual transformation is a journey within, and you are the only person who can take that trip. Your spiritual growth is yours and yours alone. That’s good news. It means that in the end you are in charge of your own journey. You get to choose if you want to take this journey, or not. If you want to step out there and figure out how to make the tamales, or stay where you are now and keep making the same dishes you’ve always made.
The spiritual journey isn’t linear either. (Also good news.) There will be times in your life when you need to sit still, when you need to make the comfort foods of your youth, to care for yourself and those around you tenderly and with a lot of grace. And there will be season in your life where you will be called to step out of the comfortable and into the unknown. Neither of these is better than the other. They both simply are.
Letting go of the old
Transformation inevitably means that some things come to an end. This is necessary and right, but it can also be very frightening. Every year as I move through study work with people seeking to deepen their faith and their experience of the Divine I see the fear in new sets of eyes. Because as we begin to dig deeply into our traditions, into their assumptions and beliefs it is inevitable that they will have to leave old beliefs and assumptions behind.
I have had more than one person cease up in terror. It will seem in those first moments into a new reality that to let go of the old is to throw away everything they ever believed, and valued. But that’s not the case.
Here’s an example:
When you begin to study scripture (any sacred text) closely you discover all sorts of interesting things about it, about it’s actual authorship, history, and context. And suddenly the childhood assumptions begin to crack. It can be natural to lash out in defense. It might feel like, if you admit that ancient people’s didn’t care about “facts” the way modern people do, that the whole Bible (when not taken as factual) becomes useless. “We might as well throw the whole thing out!” a student once wailed at me.
But in letting go the old, we can take up new, and deeper truths. Ones that are not nearly as vulnerable because they are far more mature. That same student who once assumed that factuality was the highest form of truth eventually realized that scripture had something deeper to impart in it’s shared human truth. Something can be non-factual and still be true. This too is maturity.
Who you will be
So what, you might ask? Why be uncomfortable? Why purposefully set out to change?
Lots of people never do it after all. Many human beings go their entire lives avoiding discomfort and change at all costs. But the result is rarely happy. Think about the most toxic, angry, frightened people you have ever encountered; for most of them the journey has never been taken. Or has been tried, and abandoned. Humans who stay in the same place (perhaps physically, but more so emotionally and spiritually) are like lobsters grown far too big for the shell they refuse to shed. They are pinched and tight. It’s a false comfort really, yes you get to avoid all the difficulty, change, and vulnerability but you end up feeling suffocated and constrained.
Who you will be in the future is not who you are today. This is inevitable. The question is: do you want to learn to make tamales? Or, are you willing to shed your old shell for a new one that can contain your growth?
These are important questions, and only you can answer them. You get to choose where you will invest your life, in transformation and love that makes the world a better place, or in maintaining what you know now, no matter the cost.
I cannot give you a road map for your journey. There are no maps where you are going. But I can give you some waypoints to get you started, where you go from there? That’s up to you!
- You and you alone are responsible for your growth. And conversely you cannot force anyone else to grow or mature.
- Get help along the way. Doing your own inner work can turn into narcissistic navel gazing all too easily. Enlist the help of a therapist (we should all have one)! Get yourself a spiritual director (one who will support your journey and call you on your shit, not one who will push their own beliefs or agenda.)
- Learning is never wasted activity, and that new information is a gift. Keep learning.
- Keep in mind that the opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty. Be aware of the places you are absolutely certain, they are probably where you need to knock things down first.
- Pay attention to your gut, but don’t let it rule you. Feeling anxious, or uneasy? It could be a great alarm bell, but it might also be your own unconscious fear of change and growth. Dig into your feelings, examine them with trusted folks.
- Avoid shortcuts, they usually end up being long-cuts (VERY long cuts).
- Seek out diverse voices. Nothing will stunt your growth like an echo chamber. I am an ordained Christian priest, but my trusted friends are also Jewish, Pagan, and atheist and we are all better for our conversations. You need people from traditions other than your own to let you know when you slip is showing.
- Feed yourself well. That will look different from person to person. For me it means reading a lot of books (seriously and purely fun), sushi with a soul friend, cooking with my life partner, shopping for people I don’t know, and writing for people I may never meet. Erase the idea that there is such a thing as sacred and secular. It’s all life, make it all sacred.
- Do what you love, the world needs more of that.