Note: The following is a partial spiritual retrospective of the year 2017.
I have a tendency to judge myself very harshly. Sometimes, it’s warranted. Most times, it serves as a motivating factor, spurring me onward, further, higher, better, and thus is a beneficial trait independent of whether it is warranted or not. Still, in the more extreme cases, the skeptical self-assessments applied to my performance are just straight-up inaccurate.
Such was the case with 2017.
I speak here of my spiritual life and goals. Overall, as regular listeners of my podcast know well, 2017 may have been the best year of my life. I stacked accomplishments and experiences a mile high, in some cases even realizing minor life dreams. Beyond the measurable, the sheer volume of memories acquired, not merely the good but the deeply significant, is just astounding. I now have more such memories, from 2017 alone, than I can possibly actually remember.
Nonetheless, right up until just before the finish line, I believed myself to have been a spiritual failure. From where I’m sitting today, looking back over the whole thing, this is unfathomable. It took me a few minutes just now to recollect the vaguest reason why I would suggest this to myself. It seems so obviously false, and especially easy to refute by the crude metric of raw growth – where I am spiritually starting off 2018 is very different than where I was starting 2017. And I started off 2017 in a good place! There’s just been glaringly apparent progress made. Further, a more nuanced retrospective on the year reveals that I gained spiritual accomplishments, experiences, and memories at levels more or less proportionate to those I gained overall.
Why, then, while in the weeds, for nearly the entire period, was I unable to see or account for any of this? The simplest answer is that it – it being the elements that comprised my actual lived spiritual experience for the year – wasn’t what I was looking for.
Despite the inherently intangible nature of spirituality, I sought to gauge my state and direction using strictly tangible criteria. I had begun forcefully intending for it to prove a year specifically devoted to spiritual pursuits, and I would measure my fulfillment of this intention based on the frequency and quality of spiritual practice. I would meditate (and perhaps also engage in physical exercise) on a daily or near-daily basis. I would conduct rituals on a seasonal basis, observe all the holy holidays, devote time each week to writing and other creative pursuits, spend more time reading edifying spiritual and religious works than time spent mindlessly glued to a Facebook timeline. And, indeed, on these points – and probably several others – I failed entirely.
But does it then make sense to beat myself up for utterly bailing on all behavioral/habitual practices if I yet wholly and spectacularly crushed the overall objective? It’s easy to say that the ends justify the means (and I often do, I’m a big believer), but I’m not sure I can claim to have chosen my ultimate means intentionally at all. It could be argued that I got lucky, that I succeeded by accident. Hell, that’s probably true! Equally as true, I suspect, is that there are times when we have a good goal, but our analysis of the best means by which to arrive at that goal are simply wrong – and, if the goal is sufficiently solid and we prioritize that goal, relegating the means to be ever secondary, the correct means for realizing the goal manifest themselves almost of their own accord.
I mean, maybe. In any case, it’s always humbling, in a funny way, to discover oneself to have been pretty spot-on about the 50,000-foot view, and totally wrong about everything else.
Feels like, perhaps, the difference between the journeyman and the master – and I’ve always been clear I emphatically do not claim myself to be a master.
A while back, I had designs on making this thing into a full-on spiritual memoir of 2017. This isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had, but I’m probably gonna take a pass on it, and I doubt many of you will feel any outrage over this. In lieu of such lofty ambitions, I will instead make a few light remarks and hint at the outline of what might just resemble a key lesson I’ve learned.
Despite everything I’ve said and despite my harsh disposition, I did start off the year with many documented, appropriate, and sincere ritual practices. Among them was my usual combined I Ching/Tarot reading conducted on behalf of the whole year to come.
As is typical (and yet still often surprising to me), when my query is proper and my interpretation open, receptive and attuned, the thing speaks, and speaks loudly and with varying degrees of clarity. In this case, all of the signs, from the very beginning, pointed toward a year of dramatic progress and growth. In stark contrast to the more obvious signs found in the world affairs at that time (and this one, for that matter), the message I received from my new-year divinatory practice was entirely unambiguous. This would be our year, took a long time to come.
Pushed by what we’d cultivated the prior year – no, prior years – we would begin this new cycle with accumulated potential ripe for manifestation – and that was just the tip of the iceberg as far as the good news was concerned. I learned that this was now a very favorable time in which I could move with great strength, that doors would start opening for me so long as I remained modest and restrained. By working quietly and steadily, I could begin to affect change – a very long-term project, to be sure, like turning a desert into a forest with a slow trickle of water over entire ages.
But it could and would be done. Our efforts would be blessed, glimpses of liberation seen. The tide would turn and the forces of light would be on the march once more. It sounds almost cheesy now, to write it out like that, but I don’t make this shit up, guys. The reading says what the reading says.
And it all turned out to be true. Every last bit of it. Even though I clearly didn’t believe a word of it when it came to matters of the spirit. I had conducted this reading, taken the time to put it all to paper, to spend time in reflection, to commit the broad strokes of it to mind and heart, and then went on in my day-to-day attitudes, actions, and assessments to disbelieve it or deny its application to a major part of my existence (as though such compartmentalization is ever possible in the first place).
Despite me, it all came true anyway.
So let’s recap: I set my intentions on a goal, spent the year certain I had blown it big time because I couldn’t manage to adopt the method I’d decided upon, only to realize after the fact that we crushed the goal. Secondly, our sacred reading for 2017 spoke clearly and directly to this goal and specifically indicated that I would crush the goal, I spent the year – because of my failure at disciplined practice – convinced that the reading was at least half full of shit. It was obvious, after the fact, that it was not.
I accept and embrace the role of wizard (and, let’s be honest, so many others) aware of what is involved and declaring myself good for all that, but I trust myself so little that I default to the assumption that I’m blowing it even when I’m killing it. At the same time, I espouse spiritual beliefs and adopt spiritual practices based in ostensibly full-throated belief in their efficacy and rootedness in the Real and the True, and then quicker than the cock can crow three times, I sink into the suspicion that the beliefs are crazy and false and betray my serious doubt that the practices work at all.
My problem, therefore, is neither complicated nor mysterious. Mine is a deficit of faith.
Many of you may wish to respond that a person’s lack of faith is actually a virtue in its own right. In most cases, I would at least allow that you have a valid argument. Here, I will not. I speak not of blind belief in unseen beings or the literal application of Bronze Age penal code to the present day. On the contrary, I adopt my roles and choose my paths based on careful and reasonable assessments of what I can pull off. I hold no beliefs to be immutable, have reversed on plenty of them in the past, and evolve all of them all the time. They’re based on what I can see and what I can experience. And I pick my practices and rituals, at this point, precisely because I have tried them and found that they work.
Though I may have much, I am lacking in faith, and I really have no excuse for it. Yet it’s all right, and having this old problem puts me in good company. This is the struggle of David the Psalmist, of Peter the Apostle, of Augustine, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, countless others – it’s a struggle that’s messy and irrational and self-contradictory and self-defeating, one that perhaps few ever wholly overcome or reconcile, but a struggle that’s been committed to writing on enough occasions and in enough forms that I must at least try to learn from them, to at least on a bare level be aware of my own condition and failings.
At least, that is, if I’m not a complete fool. Because from there, I might be able to do better.
So may this, 2018, be a year of faith considered and faith increased. All I can do is try.
As a bit of a postscript, let me just add one thing: since the old year concluded and the new one began, I seem to have begun actually adopting the daily and periodic practices that eluded me all throughout last year. So, I guess, who really knows?