What does a healthy spiritual practice look like? Well, what does a healthy life look like? There’s considerable wisdom in recognizing that a spiritual practice is not separate from the life the surrounds it; therefore the health of one is going to be indicative of the health of the other. To answer these questions we must therefore take a closer look at the idea of health.
In this context the concept of “health” or “healthy” suggests robustness, strength, the ability to withstand interruptions and unexpected circumstances. We might also extract suggestions of stability, predictability, and resilience from this particular use of “healthy”. On a further level of analysis, I’d suggest that “healthy” in this context also includes the ability to problem solve, to identify shortcomings and develop strategies for improvement; healthy is not an end point but the state in which positive, productive, and beneficial development is increasingly possible. I encompass these things and more in the prayers I make to Holy Death when I request “a quiet life”.
Some of the traditions I am part of emphasize the unpredictable nature of life and the wildly variable situations we might find ourselves in. The highs and lows are what makes incarnate life and material reality so very, very difficult to cope with but these things are also what characterize this existence; to reject it would be to also reject the many possibilities that incarnation and material reality have to offer us. They are inseparable and since unpredictability, tragedy, loss, destruction, ruination, setback, disappointment, and pain are all entirely unavoidable we must discover ways to make peace with their fact – and indeed, we must integrate them into our spiritual landscape, since there is no separation of spiritual life from every other facet of life.
There is a tendency in American paganism (and in American magical culture and in American polytheism) to equate stability, predictability, and the ability to cope with change as indications of a healthy spiritual life and a healthy life more generally. And this certainly has a justifiable logic (see above), but this logic is misapplied when the lack of these features is interpreted as a moral or magical failing. In other words, a life and spiritual practice that is hemmed in by tragedy, poverty, exploitation, illness, anger, interpersonal conflict, loss, and can’t-catch-a-break would be judged “unhealthy” or “broken”compared to a “healthy” spiritual practice. If nothing else, a “healthy” spiritual or magical practice gives you the means to express your will in the world and make the changes required to achieve increasing and continued well-being.
And it does. But.
If you look at the life story of virtually any saint or holy person you’re going to find a long list of obstacles that made spiritual life difficult for them. If a saint is closer to their god than other people, then their spiritual life must be “better” or “healthier” than that of other people – but would a saint measure up to the standard of spiritual health outlined above?
Let’s set saints aside; being exceptional people their spiritual lives were similarly exceptional and so don’t really offer a useful metric to the rest of us. We can imagine a pious friend or relative, maybe a community member. I’ll think of my paternal grandmother, a devoted Catholic woman who lit a candle to the Virgin every Friday. There was a key on her keyring that said, “I’m a Catholic; all a priest.” She explained to me once that if she was ever hurt or sick that I would need to show this to people so a priest could be called (I was quite young at the time). Her family was Mexican but they became American when the map was redrawn; they had lived in what is now New Mexico for generations before suddenly finding themselves citizens of a different country. They had been ranchers. When she was young my grandmother swept up snips of film left on the cutting room floor of the editing department of a major urban movie studio; later she became a hair dresser and worked out of the back room of her house. Her marriage was not happy; her husband and son were both alcoholics and she received no support in her faith from either of them. She died following a battle with leukemia.
It’s impossible to say if my grandmother’s spiritual life was healthy or not. Indeed, I have no idea if she herself was a happy person. She was always poor; she never had new things. I own one of the two “nice things” she ever owned, a tiny carved Madonna from Ireland. Everything in her house came from yard sales. Like countless other people in this world she lived somewhere between pennilessness and financial stability of some kind. Certainly her husband’s cancer diagnosis sent her household, her son’s household and eventually my household into precarious financial circumstances; I am still living with the repercussions of my grandparents’ material losses. What does this say about the health of my spiritual life?
This isn’t a post about the politics of poverty or generational wealth or anything like that – except it kind of is. We see fortune and misfortune in isolation, as if it is the sole achievement of individuals when in fact we often have no idea why opportunities open or close before us.
A couple years ago I was diagnosed with migraines that were considerably different than the ones I had lived with my entire life. Instead of pronounced pain and sensitivity to light and sound that would last for days, I found myself experiencing debilitating vertigo, nausea, and disorientation. I fell a couple times as a result, thankfully not badly but enough to feel intimidated at the idea of even going down the stairs. I stumbled frequently. I was scared to leave the house until I finally got answers and started to get a handle on my symptoms. Things are a little more under control these days but there are many, many factors that go into triggering a migraine attack and only some of them I can plan for. I can’t use the computer for more than a couple hours before the symptoms begin. Fluorescent lights, LEDs, high efficiency bulbs, and even strong sunlight will start the symptoms up in less than a minute. Guess how hard it’s been for me to find work that doesn’t leave me actually vomiting on other people?
Difficulty finding better work has led to a slow spiral of financial deprivation and worsening of multiple chronic health problems. I’ve found myself socially isolated, exhausted, violently depressed, and finally experiencing some of the worst symptoms I’ve had in years. All through this I’ve been wondering if these things are an indication that my spiritual life is broken, if I’ve broken my life in general because I’m a shitty person unable to make the right decisions.
And you know what? My spiritual life does need some improvement – but it needs improvement even when everything is going my way. A life that looks perfect, stable, predictable, safe, and abundant might contain all kinds of problems, including spiritual ones.
Amazingly, life resists simplicity – and so does spiritual life. The correlation between safety, stability, predictability, abundance, and all the rest of what constitutes a “healthy” life and a spiritual state in which one is aligned with their gods, surrounded by cheering ancestors, and free from curses and crossings is actually pretty weak. These things might not be entirely and completely forever unrelated but neither are they a completely predictable linked pair of cause-effect. If the gods do not reach out their hands to fix the problems besetting their most favored holy people, can we truly expect that spirituality will allow us to avoid similar complications? Besides, if having a great life was linked entirely – or even primarily! – to being spiritually awesome then there would be no atheist success stories. (Also people who demonstrate themselves to be assholes would not be successful magicians.)
The link between cultivating a spiritual life that can cope with change, adapt to variable circumstances, seek compassion, and be generally uplifting and having a life with secure material assets, dependable friends, and meaningful opportunities lies not in that one is the automatic cause of the other but in the fact that the skills by which a person can cultivate one lets them also cultivate the other. You might not choose to have a spiritual life at all – witness atheists who are happy and successful – and you might not choose to use these skills to improve yourself and your life more generally – witness the asshole magician – but you could. But even if you did you would not be free from the unpredictable character of the container that life exists inside of. Just as our spiritual life is not separate from our life more generally, so our life is not separate from the material reality that surrounds and suffuses it.
Yes, looking for the unhealthy patterns in one’s life and spiritual practice are good strategies for solving problems that tend to come up again and again. There are always ways in which we can improve these things and to some degree, the health of one will absolutely influence the health of the other. But I think the reason for this is deeper and has to do with more basic skills and self-awareness, not with any sort of supernatural transference. Do the gods bless us? Of course – but disaster does not necessarily indicate divine displeasure and this conclusion should not be at the top of the list. Does a life that is stable and secure support an optimal spiritual practice? Of course – but success in one realm does not offer a shortcut to success in another.
Here you might rightly wonder why, if my life has continued to have a host of material obstacles, have I persisted in my spiritual practice. Sometimes I wonder this too, because I still have some baggage that contains ideas of gods being fairytale creatures that can and will warp reality to rescue a believer from distress. They are not this way. Instead, they are companions in my distress; they remain close when I suffer. They also remain close when I succeed. My variable circumstances are not experienced alone. While I directly credit them for many of the wonderful and terrible things that have happened in my life, requiring them to author every obstacle out of existence seems like an unreasonable thing to ask. Whether they can’t or won’t doesn’t matter; they haven’t, and so I accept that reality. I ask that they help my actions have increased effects, that they lead me to greater self-knowledge, that they stay with me as I learn and persist as I do.
5 thoughts on ““You are monumentally fucked up.””
Your writing is quite moving and on the spot. Thank you.
You’re welcome, and thank you for reading. 🙂
Oh my goodness, this is amazing! I can’t even tell you how much it means to me to see this right now because you have a life and probably don’t have an hour to read about mine ; )
I come from a religious tradition where poverty = holiness. It has been a mindfuck finding myself now in one where my struggles are evidence that I must be doing it wrong or be deluding myself that my Gods actually give a crap. I love the comparison you made with the saints. Finally, someone talking about things in a way I can understand!
Also I am floored to read about your migraines because they make my life hell in an extra special way and WOW SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT (because even other migraineurs don’t usually get it.) I feel like a horrible person (“yay you’re puking on everyone too!”) but…well, I hope you understand. My diagnoses are migraine with aura, basilar migraine that began in childhood but I never outgrew, and occiptal neuralgia. I also have the light triggers, fluorescent as well as any blinking or flashing lights. Disco balls, strobe lights and watching the sun rise on the water have been off the menu since I was formally diagnosed with the basilar migraines @ 16.
Sorry to go on and on about it, it’s just so rare to meet someone else with the light trigger too. And the puking. And the falling over. I’m really sorry you are stuck with it too, whatever your flavor of neurological. I haven’t found any meds that consistently work for me yet. I don’t believe my spiritual practices will ever cure me but various things have helped me cope with it all. I seriously believe I would have killed myself by now if not for my Gods. This kind of pain, every week, over years grinds away at a person. I was taught once that suffering means something to the Divine, now it is supposedly a sign of my impurity. (I don’t really believe that, but when you’re hanging on by your fingernails most days, it doesn’t help to hear that. It’s just another, different perspective I’m trying to learn how to handle without pulling my hair out). To suffer without being alone is one of the greatest gifts They have given me.
Also, because who knows if I will have the guts to comment here again, I love your book (Walking the Heartroad). it helped me so much when I was starting out a year ago into polytheism (and I recommend it to any other new polytheists I come across). I haven’t read the one about Loki yet as I don’t have much to do with Him, but I’ve only heard good things and it’s on my wish list. Thank you for your writing. i understand what it costs you, at least in some small migraine related part, and I deeply appreciate it.
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Thank you for such kind words. I’m glad you liked Walking the Heartroad; a follow-up volume is in the works though I’m not positive when it will be finished.
I was also raised in a tradition that equated poverty with holiness – and at the same time there was a message that financial wealth was a sign of blessing. Unfortunately the message wasn’t “god is with you no matter what your situation” but more along the lines of “poverty and deprivation are blessings; you must be so strong to have been singled out for such divine favor”. Complaining or feeling dissatisfied with being poor was equated to rejected blessings, so one was really caught in a very strange position. I see some of the same lines of thought echoed in many different corners of paganism, so I suspect that there’s a dollop of American Protestantism at work; it’s very difficult to see exactly how the culture of one’s upbringing and/or surroundings gets into our deepest assumptions of how the world is and ought to be (and what our reactions to these observations should be). Financial matters and physical health seem to be given religious-flavored baggage but the same spiritual attributions might as well have been assigned to athletic performance, artistic skill, age, or any other facet of human experience and social performance. Health and money just happen to be very important to us.
“I was taught once that suffering means something to the Divine, now it is supposedly a sign of my impurity.”
I’m sorry that this is the message you’ve been receiving and I’m glad you know it isn’t true. Show me a person that doesn’t suffer in this life – are we each and every one of us in a constant state of impurity given the frequency of suffering (which, sure, OK if that’s the doctrine of your tradition)? If so, does the suffering of others contribute to an environment of impurity? If so, do any of us have a responsibility to relieve the suffering of those around us? If so, does picking on people for their impurity really help solve the problem? I *do* engage in purity practices in my spiritual life and these have been very meaningful to me but impurity and suffering occur together mostly because they stem from the same essential problem (forgetting god) and not because they are essentially the same (if they were, then there would be no such thing as the suffering that occurs from a profound and inescapable awareness of god – and in my tradition(s) there is).
Migraines are so difficult. I didn’t even realize what was happening to me because my new migraines were so entirely different from my old ones. They hurt and ache very badly but they aren’t nearly as painful as the old ones, but they are much more debilitating in their way. I use rose-tinted FL-41 glasses pretty much all day, every day and they give me a couple good hours in front of the computer and let me go shopping for groceries without too much difficulty but I’m still wicked sensitive. I’m hoping that I’ll eventually age out of this particular constellation of symptoms but who knows what might replace them!
Reblogged this on Strip Me Back To The Bone and commented:
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Silence, for writing this. This is beautiful. It’s needed. Shamelessly reblogging.