You thinkers, prisoners of what will work:
a dog ran by me in the street one night,
its path met by its feet in quick unthought,
and I stopped in a sudden Christmas, purposeless,
a miracle without a proof, soon lost.
But I still call, ‘Here, Other, Other,’ in the dark.
William Stafford, “An Epiphany”
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[That is one of my favorite poems by William Stafford. He was an unsung word genius.]
I read something a few weeks ago and had an epiphany. One of those moments when everything – years of practice, a fragment of metaphor, and a spark – comes together and you realize something important. I was reading a quote by Pema Chodron, a famous Buddhist nun and meditation teacher. She wrote, “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
And in the moment I read that, I suddenly understood something about my various spiritual practices over the years: they have all been about me trying to accept myself.
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I grew up Protestant (American Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ) and in that tradition, humans are sinful. They are full of sin because of the choice Adam and Eve made to eat from fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What that looks like in modern terms is being regularly told that I was bad everywhere but in my soul. That I was inherently ‘not good’ and ‘less than’ and ‘blackened by sin’ (and a whole bunch of other Bible verses I’ve forgotten twenty years later…). With only one exception*, I don’t believe much good comes from the Judeo-Christian spiritual path; we certainly have plenty of evidence that it causes war and hatred and I believe it stems from this basic understanding of our selves as inherently bad.
After years of being a good ‘Bible-thumper’ I left the church because the world it spoke of as inherently wrong, bad, and sinful was not the world I experienced. The world I knew was full of amazing things and people and choices. I had girlfriends who had successfully weathered abortions, read re-interpretations of Bible stories, and enjoyed a drink with a couple of gay people and those things made it awfully hard to believe what was in the Bible, and what was being preached about it, anymore. Like a lot of people, I left and headed East.
For many years I studied the Tao te Ching, having been introduced to it in a college class about Eastern literature. I found it delightfully simple and also satisfyingly deep as I spent time with the verses and ideas. There was precious little dogma, interpretation, and certainly no mention of ‘sin.’ It felt like a good place to settle. And for a few years, it was.
I travelled other paths: Paganism, Unitarianism, Shambhala Buddhism, Tantra, Witchcraft. I’ve changed paths often. I became an ordained ‘interfaith’ minister (which I’m not sure is even a thing, but I’ll talk about that at another time). I have travelled around to various paths, texts, and rituals because they served my spiritual needs at various places along my path. And also because I love to fall in love and this was a way to connect with different ‘partners’ at the table of religion and spiritual development. (Today I see that there are appropriation problems with that kind of spiritual path, but that’s for the another post, as well.)
All of these spiritual paths were most definitely about me finding pieces of myself inside those traditions, texts, ideas, theologies, and metaphors. But my epiphany is that my most important paths have been about self-acceptance.
I’ve meditated for close to 20 years. I’ve used various forms, but mostly breath meditation (although I have used more sensual sub-genres of breath meditation at different times). For many years, I used the RAIN method, where you Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-Identify with whatever thoughts or feelings you have during meditation. But it was in reading Pema Chodron’s words about befriending ourselves in meditation that I really came to understand its purpose was far more soft than I had been experiencing it. It was about accepting myself, the totality of myself. To be who we are, in compassionate acceptance of ourself- whatever that self may be experiencing. Meditation was about completely accepting myself internally.
I’ve mentioned before that I am a practicing witch (the intensity depends on the day and the person, though- heh). And magic has been something I have been playing with for a long time, as well. My magic mostly involves words: rituals, prayers, handmade soliloquies spoken into the void. Only recently have I taken instruction in the more modern facets of witchery. And the one thing I learned there is that good magic involves self-acceptance. Magic that does what you want it to do involves acknowledging the totality of all that you are in the world: sinner and saint, angel and demon, mother and whore. I can be good, very, very good. And I can also be wicked. If I pretend to only be light and love, my magic sputters and doesn’t get very far. But if I acknowledge and accept all that I am, my magic is far more powerful. Magic, of course, is about how we are in the world and how the world reacts to us and our desires, to our energy and our vibe. And so magic has been about accepting myself as a human in the world, moving from internal to external.
Tantra has been something I’ve only picked up in the last five years or so, and it was most definitely about accepting myself and my sexual needs and desires. In some ways, this website has been partially about spiritually bypassing my sexual desires and needs – and Tantra is one way to both accept and bypass sexual darkness. I can’t say this blog has been entirely about bypassing, because I have certainly shared my pain and frustration and growth here, as well. But Tantra has been about self-acceptance inside of relationship, especially intimate relationship. Tantra is about the balance and alchemy of masculine and feminine (not the same as ‘male’ and ‘female,’ please remember). And my path inside of Tantra has been about accepting and balancing not just the masculine and feminine within myself, but also the dark and the light. I can be the most fun, delightful, loving sexual partner, and I can also want to live out dark fantasies (starting with having an affair, which I used to want desperately. Also remember that what is ‘dark’ is different for each person; my personal ‘dark’ might bore the fuck out of someone else). Tantra has been about accepting myself inside of intimate relationship.
Beyond each of these paths – to accept myself internally, to accept myself as part of the world, and to accept myself inside of partnership – there is something else I find incredibly valuable: Western psychology. (I am most familiar with Western psychology, but other modalities of healing the psyche are equally useful and valid. I have used food, prayer, movement, and many other tools to heal myself and others; I am for ‘whatever works’ to heal people.) Most of us wrestle with some piece of ourselves that feels ‘broken.’ And perhaps we do have ‘broken’ pieces inside us. When we do, psychological tools are often useful in helping people heal (again, I am a firm believer in using what works, even if that isn’t in the professional literature). Our brokenness is often not our fault (trauma is rarely something we do to ourselves), but we are responsible for healing our brokenness once we know about it.
Knowing about our brokenness is key to self-acceptance, I believe. But we must also know that sometimes our dark, our ‘bad,’ our ‘shadow’ isn’t brokenness- it is just a part of us that needs awareness and acceptance. The same awareness and acceptance we give to the parts of us we are pleased with or that are accepted in public.
Having this epiphany about self-acceptance and realizing I’ve been on quite the search for it has brought me a lot of excitement and calm in the last couple of weeks. If what I have been looking for is self-acceptance, there is no need for a spiritual path. Learning to accept and love myself is the path. So, all this time, I was just looking for pathways and guidance to leave behind the belief that I was bad and sinful and dirty and begin to trust in the whole of myself. Yes, there are broken bits that need fixing and healing, but there are also parts that are simply waiting for me to accept them, because they aren’t broken, they’re just judged.
And, of course, the great joke from Life is that this is the gift I most easily give other people: acceptance. Whatever darkness you feel or fear, I will listen to it and love it and accept it, without judgement. It’s so easy to give others the medicine we most need. (And so I am also a giant cliche. But, I think we already knew that.)
I will definitely continue with meditation, magic, and Tantra, but now I know what they are in service to, and where to place my energy. I suppose self-acceptance is my path now. I am grateful for the strange and varied path that got me to this place, and I feel a deep sense of grace in knowing I’m not ‘sinful’ anymore. Jung was so right about acknowledging our darkness rather than hiding from it, there is both power and grace in that acknowledgement.
I love you, beautiful people. And I want you to know you’re good, even when you’re bad.
Joanna :: xoxo
*I believe that spiritual paths are suitable to different levels of psychological and spiritual development. And Christianity, as it is practiced in the West today can be useful to people who need a benevolent (hopefully loving) and also parental-style experience of god. For instance, people who are in recovery. Having a god that both loves you, wants you to do well, and will punish you if you don’t can keep people with addiction issues on the straight-and-narrow. But that’s about the only place I’ve seen it be as useful as it can be; many other places Judeo-Christian concepts and interpretations have caused a lot of fear, shame, and depravity. There are folks who are stripping off the parental piece of Christianity and evolving it into something more accepting and, honestly, Christ-like. People like John Pavolvitz and Nadia Bolz-Weber. But this article on Satanists also gives me hope.