Mapping the Spiritual Journey for a Better Life

You are on a spiritual journey, whether or not you use the term. It is simply part of being human. But making it a conscious part of your life can help you become your truest self. And that, in turn, makes for a more fulfilling life and a more consequential one.

I first mapped the spiritual journey for students in my religion and culture class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I began the semester by showing them the end goal of the journey–individual and societal peace–and during the semester we filled in the rest.

My students came from all religious backgrounds, including agnostics and atheists. The map works for anyone. My primary goal is to help people recognize the landmarks of their inner wilderness and make their spiritual journey healthy and fruitful.

It is commonplace in American Christian circles these days to hear people bemoan the gradual emptying of their churches, and to blame “secularism.” They are troubled by the growing ranks of those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They seem not to even consider the possibility that their churches increasingly may consist of “the religious but not spiritual.”

Of course, as I said, everyone is spiritual. The question is how conscious we are of our spiritual journey, and how well we nurture it. Having a map can help, whether you are part of a church community or not.

My map comes from my own experiences, reading, and fundamentally inclusive understanding of life. I will have to write a post about spirituality at some point, but suffice it for now to say that mine has always been inherently mystical, by which I mean intuitively aware of the connectedness of all things and of a Great Mystery in which all things exist.

On to the map!

The End of the Spiritual Journey

Let’s look at the end first. The ultimate goal of the spiritual journey. Peace. Everyone wants peace, right? Inner peace. Outer peace. Peace on earth. But how do we get to that end? I would show my students this part of the map, with peace first, then the others one at a time.

End of the spiritual journey

We know from long human experience that true peace can exist only to the extent that justice is met. Otherwise “peace” may mean little more than an absence of visible conflict. This is true for individuals as well as for society.

But what is justice for an individual, and what is a just society? That in itself can never be fully agreed upon. Therefore, peace is always a goal that can never fully be reached. But we do know that the more we can agree about justice and put it into practice in our social systems, the closer we come to the ultimate goal. And we know something essential about justice: it cannot exist without truth.

But what is truth? It doesn’t take a stretch of our imagination to realize there are many disagreements about truth in our time. But wise people across the landscape of time have told us this in many different ways: humility and love are required to reveal truth.


Forgiveness and the spiritual journey

To get from truth to justice there must be one more act: forgiveness. This, too, is something humans of all times and places have learned and forgotten and relearned, many times. Whenever we forget, we lose our way.

Hurt, fear, and the roadblocks of the spiritual journey

In the image above, those broken hearts represent the roadblocks we put up against love, humility and truth. Which makes justice impossible. Oh, everyone wants “justice” in the sense that everyone wants “peace.” But often it is a false justice that preserves our privileges and comforts, and therefore creates a false peace. And the roadblocks indicate that we carry and perhaps even cling to fears of one kind or another. The fear of losing our comforting beliefs. The fear of having to change. And many, many other fears.

These fears almost always come from hurts we have experienced. They might be recent. They might date back to childhood. We may not even remember the source. But they fester inside us. In our efforts to heal, we often take shortcuts. We even try to prevent future hurts through pride, hate, a need to control, self-centeredness and other band-aids that make the wound grow rather than heal. We put up the roadblocks of our broken hearts.

Fortunately, as a man named John and many others have told us, perfect love casts out fear. It transforms the hurts of life, heals the wounds, and therefore makes possible the forgiveness that breaks the barriers of the heart. We open ourselves again to humility and love, and therefore to a perspective on truth that makes justice possible again.

Gratitude is Key to the Spiritual Journey

If love and humility are so important for breaking through the barriers that lie strewn across our inner landscapes like fallen trees, what helps build and nurture these qualities?

Gratitude is key to the spiritual journey

Gratitude. When you are grateful, you realize that you are not the sole cause of the things that make you happy and content. That means you grow in humility. In fact, the greater your gratitude, the greater your humility, because more and more you recognize your own smallness in the great milieu of life and the deep mystery that interpenetrates it. Gratitude also increases your inclination to reach outward in love.

Gratitude, in turn, is nurtured by joy. I use that term in a traditional spiritual sense. Joy is not a synonym for happiness. It refers to “aliveness,” a zest for life. So often we mistakenly contrast joy with sorrow. Its true antonym is apathy. And apathy is a spiritual scourge, while joy is spiritual medicine. Joy and gratitude nurture each other, in fact, as the double arrows show above.

The Power of Wonder

When you experience awe and wonder, you are filled with joy. It is a basic human reaction. I won’t try to distinguish between awe and wonder, as they are used interchangeably by many and the differences don’t really matter for our purpose at the moment. I tend to use the term wonder, or pair them.

But think about the importance of awe and wonder, or as Sigurd Olson put it, the “power of wonder.” Without it, it would be hard if not impossible to nurture joy, which in turn would greatly weaken gratitude. And, therefore, humility and love. Which would mean our barricades against truth and justice would be nearly impossible to break.

No wonder, no peace.

Silence and Solitude

What conditions, then, play a key role in creating and nurturing awe and wonder?

Silence and solitude provide essential context for the spiritual journey

Silence and solitude, particularly in a natural setting. The sages throughout human history have told us this, over and over. Among them: Sigurd Olson. Here, for example, in his book The Singing Wilderness:

Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. I thought as I sat there of the ancient admonition, “Be still and know that I am God,” and knew that without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from outside influences man cannot know what spirit means.

Sigurd F. Olson

The Nature Connection

Nature provides a physical context in which we can more easily open ourselves not only to the land around us, but to the wilderness within. That’s because our species developed in the wild. When we spend time in nature, we’re going home. When we spend time outdoors in silence and solitude, we are better able to open our inward ears and eyes. And those senses are critical for guiding and nurturing our spiritual journey.

Features not Shown on this Map of the Spiritual Journey

Mystics and nature writers often focus on the left half of the map. Among the other features of that terrain are what Sigurd Olson often called “the spiritual values of nature.” He and many other nature writers as well as other wise people throughout the ages described additional aspects of the left side of the map. Among them are awareness, beauty, mystery, and oneness (or connectedness).

They also further developed the orange areas of the map with such concepts as detachment, time, evolution, contemplation, epiphany, God, knowledge and self-knowledge. Ecological research, for example, and its findings relate to knowledge and truth and therefore fits in the orange part of the map. Efforts to preserve wild places and species also fit in the orange region, because these efforts relate to humility, love, the truth of connectedness, and the justice due not only to humans but all life.

Perhaps this map to the spiritual wilderness within you will help you think about your inner landscape and where you are in your journey. Over time I’ll write posts that focus on various parts of the map as well as related concepts such as those mentioned just above.

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