It’s hard to grow spiritually in the world of “us and them.”
Okay, so maybe that’s not newsworthy, but it’s true nonetheless.
When we talk about “us and them,” you know what we mean.
In daily life, it’s about our awareness of everyone and everything that’s not “us” — those people and groups who aren’t part of our families and communities of belief. “Them” includes anybody who doesn’t agree with us, doesn’t like us, is a perceived threat to our way of thinking or doing things, and so on.
We live with this stuff in just about every moment. In fact, we build on adversarial relationships in society, and on an adversarial model, the whole basis of which is us and them. Our sports, our entertainment, our political and legal systems, and even our economy all reflect stylized conflicts between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them).
In terms of faith and spirituality, things are even murkier and more dangerous. That’s due in large part to the traditional institutions of faith we’ve learned to accept as our sources for spiritual guidance. The beliefs we accept that make us “us” become parts of our egos at the deepest levels, causing us to abandon reason and logic if they conflict with those beliefs or our sense of moral and spiritual certainty over issues we face. “Us” becomes limited to our specific community of belief, and everybody whose beliefs are different gets lumped into “them.” The “them” folks become targets for spiritual manipulation, “saving,” pity, our own spiritual arrogance (comes with being right all the time, y’know), dislike or hatred, and various forms of subjugation.
If you’re part of “us,” you just can’t help it — part of the lesson you learn from your institutional source is the absolute correctness of your own faith and spirituality. This makes finding your own personalized spiritual growth kind of a problem.
Caveat: if you’re a devout follower of an institutional faith, you needn’t fall into the trap. You just need to understand that devotion — being devout — doesn’t just mean that you understand your faith’s teachings, can spout the liturgy backwards and forwards, or can list all the behaviors that are supposed to characterize a faithful follower.
Instead, you have to LIVE the principles of your faith daily if you’re to grow spiritually. You have to be a walking, talking, breathing, acting example of all of the best attributes of the pure teachings, with as little of the us-and-them crap as possible. For example, we have an old friend (her name is Mara) who sees herself as a devout Catholic, but that’s not what makes her special or spiritual. She’s quiet, self-effacing, modest, giving, loving and gentle; she’s never defensive of her faith or its dogma, and never proselytizes. She goes to Mass daily because it is a real sacrament for her, and not merely a form of observance. She reflects her spiritual growth and grace with every word she says, every action she undertakes, and every breath she takes.
She is, in short, too spiritually cool for words. She’s done it without thinking about it or laying claim to it, by striving all her life to exemplify the core principles of her faith. She demonstrates that ego, belief and principle can work together.
She is also, sadly, in a very small minority in these respects among members of her own faith, or any institutional faith. She refuses to buy into the “one true path” approach to faith and spirituality. She just gets what her path is, and she embraces everybody along the way.
It’s the whole “one true path” thing that causes problems. It’s risky and dangerous because it can drive, in a single breath, both evangelism and persecution, both love and hate. From the institutional sense of collective theological and spiritual supremacy springs the “us and them” paradigm behind much of the blood-spattered growth of western civilization for two millennia and more. In social and political terms, you get all kinds of people running around and attempting to force you to accept their beliefs as the only right path to God, healthy living, sound government, good economics, justice, kindness and fairness.
Even if they have to lean on you to go along.
Some of these folks drift so far afield that they want to champion democratic principles by legally or physically forcing you to accept their way of thinking. Otherwise, they tell you, you can’t be part of “us.” That means you’re “them,” and are therefore fair game in the conflict.
If you’ve been following group or institutional (“us”) guidelines for spiritual growth and you’re not like our friend Mara, you may have been conned into picking sides in an us-and-them conflict that’s been going on for a very long time. Worse still, you may have fallen into an us-and-them relationship with the very institution that’s supposed to be helping you find your own way spiritually.
If you’re not sure what we mean by that, think about what happens if the price of your devotion to institutional guidelines turns out to be a denial of your own deepest spiritual and personal needs. Institutional approval for your “sacrifice” may make you feel all fuzzy temporarily. However, that sort of “us” reinforcement is NOT spiritual growth, it does NOT make you happy, and it forces you to validate group beliefs and ideals at the expense of your own.
In other words, it forces you into a repressed state in which your true needs are at odds with institutional demands and practices. That’s not a path to spiritual growth or understanding. It’s an inner conflict that’s been forced on you, and the struggle to live with it means that spiritual growth will continue to elude you until you can resolve the problem.
Why do you think there are so many faithful folks out there who haven’t really found spiritual peace? We know they haven’t found it simply by looking at their speech and behavior. Many of those who proclaim their faith and devotion the most loudly are also those who are the most judgmental, demanding, aggressive, self-serving, politically active and arrogant — and none of those characteristics is consistent with the institutional faith they claim to possess.
The taint of the “us-and them” mentality tends to limit your spiritual growth when you allow others to chart your spiritual path, instead of listening to that little voice that speaks to you from your innermost being. It takes hold when you accept unquestioningly the superiority of institutional direction. It entrenches itself when you measure your own growth and spiritual worth against the beliefs and behavior of others who aren’t members of your chosen community of belief.
THAT’s why meaningful spiritual growth is scarce in an us-and-them world.
We’ve made no secret of the fact that we believe true spiritual growth is highly personal. The process of your spiritual growth is, in fact, “idiosyncratic.” That is, it’s unique to you because of the current levels of clarity and insight in your internal dialogue, and the extent of your willingness to engage in fearless and unrestricted exploration of your self. So, if you’re searching for spiritual growth in an us-and-them world, we think there are some simple parameters you have to accept:
- Fear, anger and sadness are the enemies of spiritual growth. Learn to defuse your anger and release your fear and sadness.
- If you’re devout, remember that your devotion to institutional faith is neither wrong nor inappropriate — as long as it’s not blind or painful, or keeping you from knowing yourself honestly.
- Faith should lead to peace of spirit and mind. If your faith isn’t doing that for you, something is wrong. If you discover that you’ve fallen prey to us-and-them thinking in your efforts to maintain your faith and find peace, something is REALLY wrong.
- True spiritual growth, based on experience, clarity and spiritual insight, will lead you to understand your own unique joy. You’re here to be happy, not miserable, as misery NEVER serves you (though it may well serve the agendas of others). As we’ve said before, if you learn your joy quietly and calmly, and live it daily in your heart and your life, you won’t have to worry about spreading the word. At that point, you yourself become the word, just like our friend Mara.
- If you want to find your way in this strife-torn world, remember: self-acceptance, total honesty and intentional clarity are keys to and signs of spiritual growth.
- Respect others’ choices; love and respect yourself; be at peace.
Please understand this: no path, whether traditional, institutional or otherwise, is closed to you. Spiritual growth flows from your willingness to live, breath, question and explore without fear, and to hear your heart’s own voice. We’d like to see you find your own path, one that speaks directly to your spirit in every moment, in the clear, honest and simple language of your own internal dialogue.
Our best to you, always,
David & Kathryn