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Havens of Spiritual Understanding & Meaning Pt. 1

I have come to believe that most people have, what I call, a spiritual haven–a go to place of refuge and comfort that works for them. It is where they find connection with something greater than themselves.

I often hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” or “I’m a spiritual person,” as though we both understand what is meant. The truth is more complicated. “Spirituality” is a multi-factored word and no one definition adequately encompasses or describes it. For some, spirituality and the study of religious teachings are essentially the same. For others religion has nothing to do with spirituality. For others, it involves participating in unique rituals and practices while for others spirituality describes a process of meditative and extra-normal inner states. What is spiritual to one person may not be considered as so by another.

I believe there is always a temptation to believe that one’s path is “true” spirituality and to doubt that of others. It can get confusing as we listen to the exclusive claims of knowledge and spiritual understanding as we read books and search the internet. Then, there are those who categorize levels of achievement in spiritual development as a sort of hierarchical process.

Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” Kohlberg’s “Theory of Moral Development,” Piaget’s “Theory of Cognitive Development,” and Ken Wilber’s heady “Spectrum of Human Consciousness” provide useful theories for understanding the steps that many people follow in their religious development. I have found that much of what these scholars discuss squares with my personal experience as well. But I think it is a mistake to claim that one category is more spiritual than another, or that one is more spiritually accomplished and advanced because they have developed into a “higher ranked” category. Spirituality is found in many places and has many shapes and sizes. I bow before all forms of spirituality knowing that it comes from a singular source that is manifested in thousands of ways.

As I reflect upon all of this, I have come to believe that most people have, what I call, a spiritual haven–a go to place of refuge and comfort that works for them. It is where they find connection with something greater than themselves. I have identified nine unique havens that I believe are convenient little pigeon holes in which we may sort the most common experiences.

Haven 0: A-spiritual

In this haven, God, or any organizing presence in the universe, is outright rejected or held to be unknowable. Religious teachings and scriptures are considered as human constructs–not authoritative in any absolute sense. It may seem odd to include those who reject any idea of God or a Supreme Being as belonging to any sort of haven; however, a closer inspection reveals a great sense of community that believers of this sort have. Humanism, or the idea that progress through the intentional development of the human race is prominent here. Just as humanism has developed moral codes of its own, I would claim it has its own unique brand of spirituality that is based upon a positive regard for humankind.

Though humanism may reject the idea of consciousness beyond mere brain function, humanism could be considered as a spiritual practice–because of its belief in humankind (some might say the human spirit) to grow and improve present and future earthly conditions. I also believe it would be shallow to require a belief in deity as a prerequisite for spirituality.  Many Buddhist and Zen practitioners deny life beyond the physical and instead stress mindful living in each present moment–something common to other spiritual paths as well.

Rather than stressing in the interplay of influence between humans and the divine, the A-Spiritual stresses action and focused attention in bringing about meaningful change.  Social justice, for instance, is just as important to many humanist organizations as Christian.  Regardless the path of spiritual practice, action is an important part of one’s growth and progress. Those who do not seek–rarely find. Those who do not practice and experiment–rarely grow.

Haven 1: Life as Magic

This is often the first place where people begin their spiritual journey.  Many children begin here.  Scriptures and texts are presented as inspired by deity and factually true. Creation stories, such as the seven days of creation are upheld as factual accounts. Miracles, such as those described in text or by accepted saints and sages, are likewise held to be true. Some groups maintain that these same miracles are able to be performed today.

Another feature of this haven is that religious leaders often determine the official meanings of text and expect all of their adherents to abide by it. Obedience to the accepted knowledge is of vital importance lest one be cast away from the group and lose their heavenly reward.

Anyone who has ever marveled at nature–mountains, lakes, sea and sky–are hanging out in this haven.  This haven also includes those who believe in shamanism, notions of elementals, earth spirits and the like, as well as the practice of earth and ritual magick.

This haven is important for spiritual practice because it encourages the surrender of the cognitive-rational mind to powers, possibilities, and mysteries beyond the self. This haven also encourages the spiritual quality of wonder. No matter how many things we may discover about ourselves or the universe, there will always be more questions and observations that elude explanation. A cultivated sense of wonder helps bind the soul to Source.

Haven 2: Knowledge

As in the first haven, sacred texts are assumed as inspired and true and attempts are made to more deeply understand them via exegesis, contextual and scholarly word studies. This is the world of the academic where history is studied and a body of knowledge is built fact-by-fact in hopes of creating a larger understanding of humans and the divine. The scholarship of major world religions is prolific and  intellectual research serves to legitimize texts,  standardize religious teachings, and deepen understanding and appreciation for one’s spiritual heritage.

In most groups, there is a lineage of thought where certain traditions and interpretation of text are more revered than others. Christians speak of Catholicism, Protestantism and reformations. Hindus speak of gurus, saints and sages–and there are any number of available Zen lineage charts depicting how dharma is transmitted from one generation to the next. Each lineage is composed of people who focus upon specially selected meanings and understandings of text and tradition.

As a spiritual practice, this haven can be especially important in developing a sense of community among believers by providing a coherent presentation of its unique ideas and  history. Not only does scholarship helps us to appreciate our groups spiritual lineage, it also allows us to develop a common language and sense of understanding.  This allows us to communicate our spiritual experiences more fully with each other.

Haven 3: The Mystical

All major world religions have its mystics–though not all readily embrace them.  Mysticism is multifaceted and not easily defined. As used here, it describes those who believe there are additional revelatory meanings to be had beyond the literal meaning of text and religious traditions. Typically,  these meanings can only be understood via direct revelation, meditation or special gifting. Those who abide in this spiritual haven readily embrace the working of the divine in daily affairs and often appear to know things beyond the ken of rational understanding.

As a group, mystics range from those who feel special inspiration flowing through them as they study text to those who claim they are ushered into extra physical realms of existence.

In some traditions, the leader of a religious body is an assumed mystic and expected to receive personal revelations from God. In other traditions, only a few saints and sages develop these special abilities.  In Christian traditions, mysticism may include those who prophesy, understand prophecies, practice healing, receive special knowledge, or receive revelatory messages.

Though not many, it appears that any number of people are born with what they claim are natural abilities to see, hear, or experience beyond the normal range of human experience–some claim that all of us have at least one extra-normal ability. Also included in this haven are those who have extra-normal experiences such as near death experiences, psychic phenomena, dream interpretation, interpretation of synchronistic events, lucid dreaming, spiritualism and the like.

This spiritual haven is important because it allows for the beginnings of individualization and universalization of spiritual growth while remaining firmly connected to one’s preferred lineage. When revelatory knowledge is aligned with a group’s accepted teachings, it provides an innocuous way of exploring expanded awareness. For those who explore the mystic path deeply, it may well lead to an exploration of other nonphysical dimensions and an appreciation of other spiritual paths beyond ones original group of origin. Very often, spiritual mysticism increases the hunger for deeper and more involved extra-normal experiences.

Haven 4: Dialogic

In haven four, a very important distinction occurs from the previous ones. Truth is universalized and not considered as the domain of any one group; rather, there is an appreciation that all truth is God’s truth and that it is everywhere to be found. In haven four, discussions and multiple interpretations of texts, traditions, and lineages are the norm. A belief in the deific inspiration of text is not a requirement for this group. Stories, miracles and narratives are enjoyed rhetorically as well as figuratively. Sometimes this happens naturally as the result of scholarly work in comparative studies. Other times it comes about as individuals universalize the teachings that have been a long part of their tradition. In the dialogic haven, there is no assumption that one’s approach to spiritual understanding, though preferred, is better than another. This universal approach provides a greater appreciation for the contributions of others around the world in creating greater understandings of what it means to be spiritual.

Even though a person in this haven enjoys greater freedom of thought, wisdom often dictates that they must adopt a rather low-key approach–especially if they remain apart of a group that resides largely in havens one and two–because this approach can be most threatening to those who fully embrace a literal mindset. Wisdom, rather than pride, should be the determining factor here–no one should share or insist upon a path of truth with those who are not ready or properly prepared.

Those who reside in Haven four enjoy a broadened knowledge base and understanding of potentially available experiences. They find comfort their larger appreciation of kinship across an entire world of seekers. The  abandonment of theological certainty and willingness to supplement previous knowledge allows greater possibilities for growth and exploration. Where before one may have been closed to avenues of growth outside of their own traditions, one now actively seeks new approaches and understandings.

Haven 5: Socially constructed meanings.

In this haven, sacred and spiritual truths are assumed to be products of humans and cultures spanning the centuries. Sacred meanings and traditions are understood as co-creations of texts, cultures, interactants, and faith traditions. The goal of social constructionists is to go beyond traditional understandings by investigating how people over the centuries may have understood and applied sacred teachings. People in this haven stress the importance of external influences in the formation of understanding and meaning. SC assumes that meanings we derive from a teaching cannot be divorced from present context and what is perceived as relevant by a larger culture at any particular moment in time. It resists understandings based upon single and fixed interpretations. It is comfortable with the  personal relevance a person may find that is based upon one’s own life story as it interacts with text.

This haven is important as a spiritual path because it seeks to make relevant the ancient teachings with present day peoples and cultures. It encourages an interactive and dynamic approach to spirituality which assumes that outcomes may well be unique for different people and groups. It also encourages each of us to find meanings with our own narratives in dialogue with text.  People in this haven make sacred teachings more accessible to the masses.

Haven 6: Social Deconstruction

This haven can be very threatening to people in the first three havens. Deconstruction challenges the views of the status quo views as well as the power structures behind traditional interpretations of sacred texts and understandings. In the Hebrew Bible, this was a primary role of the prophets–to challenge authority and what had become acceptable thinking by the masses. Social deconstructionists often investigate “who” it is that benefits from an accepted point of view.

For instance, in those groups where patriarchy is the norm, it challenges the power structures behind the patriarchy and seeks to shine light on the vested interests behind such a status quo. As another example, when reading the historical descriptions of battles and conquests as presented in the Hebrew Bible, rather than accepting the account as “God’s viewpoint” in the matter, the social deconstructionist will assume that the accounts have been written by the victors who seek to justify and provide reasons of their own.

Social deconstruction is a very useful tool for spiritual development when it is based upon the notion that few changes, if any, come about by the constant repetition of accepted ideas. Instead, new meanings are generated by giving voice and legitimacy to alternative points of view. Inspiration and deity are not assumed as universally true–though stories may be seen as truer than true. This haven is very useful in moving one’s thinking away from an accepted group view and moving towards a more universal understanding of teachings and “truths.” It has the potential to encourage individuals to assume a greater personal responsibility in directing their own spiritual growth and welfare rather than assuming that everything they have learned will take them to where they wish to go.

Haven 7: Larger Mythic

In this haven, all sense of sectarianism is removed. New meanings are generated from ancient texts as they are placed with similar stories from other contexts. All literal and inspirational interpretations are set aside in favor of interpreting sacred texts and traditions in light of its contribution to a greater understanding of humanity. The understanding, unity, and progress of humankind is the goal of mythos.

Stories presented in sacred texts are appreciated as one of many stories that help to describe the universal needs, questions, and problems facing humankind. For instance, the Genesis story of creation presented in the Hebrew bible is considered as one of many creation epics that are available worldwide. In like manner, the story of Job is appreciated for its treatment of human suffering and attempts to understand it. Stories are considered as important, not because they are factually true but because they describe something grand and important that is realer than real and truer than true! In this haven stories are combined to form a larger constellation of myths that help to explain who and what we are.

The larger mythic haven is important as a spiritual path because it encourages us to set aside preconceived interpretations in favor of a greatly expanded universal view. The stories of all faiths and cultures are held in esteem insofar as they contribute to a greater understanding of the human condition. Similar to learning a new language, a larger mythic view allows one to grow in their understanding of how people of the ages have faced the myriad concerns of life.  Using mythos, disparate  people and cultures are unified through a common desire to understand universal concerns and how to face them.

Haven 8: Transcendent Abiding

In the final haven, all myths, traditions, and sacred writings of saints, sages and gurus are considered as mere pointers to the divine–and not divine in and of themselves. Notions of separation between heaven and earth, god and man, sacred, non sacred, good and evil, heaven and hell disappear as meaningless divisions. An awakening occurs with the realization that what was once believed to be the person (or individual being)–is only an amalgamation of conditioned responses and a fiction–and not the true self. The veil of illusion is set aside and a new birth occurs where programmed responses are replaced by God realized ones–otherwise known as the process of cleaning up! The separation between humanity and the divine disappears and is replaced by the realization that God is all there is–though he/she/it be manifested in infinite individuations. Individuations are recognized as “God talking to God.” This new birth recognizes itself as the eternal and abiding consciousness encompassing all there is. With it, unity between all things comes clearly into focus along with an understanding that all there is–is contained within. God is the only thing going on and all things, matter and nonphysical, are but mere manifestations of It.

From a transcendent point of view–scriptures and teachings become methodologies for reaching the transcendent state. Once one the tipping point has been reached, spiritual practices and rituals are not utilized as a means for finding or growing closer to God–but as a part of a larger practice where one dwells more fully and completely within the transcendent state. Traditions and sacred texts become one of many tools available to help the person who has found this state lead others to this expanded awareness as well.