Every true spiritual journey is a quest. Which means that we set out to discover something. Not just anything, but about who we truly are. And what life is about. Those are big, uncomfortable questions.
Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands. ~ Pema Chodron
It’s much easier to coast through life on the surface without ever diving beneath to see down into the dark blue depths. But if we choose to ignore that there is more to life than the daily rush, and the hoarding of possessions – what happens when we come smack up against suffering? When we get ill, or someone we love leaves or dies, or when we near the end or our life (which could be at any time)? If we’ve just coasted through life without going into the depths, we’ll feel disorientated and lost – without any mental or spiritual resources to help us deal with suffering.
The spiritual journey gives us resources to deal with adversity.
The spiritual journey helps us to understand what our challenges are, and how to overcome them. In this post we’ll look at the beginning stage of a spiritual journey. Of course each journey is unique, but there are certain factors that all spiritual journeys have in common. Joseph Campbell wrote a book The Hero With a Thousand Faces in which he describes the archetypal steps of the hero’s journey. The spiritual journey shows a similar structure.
It requires great courage to preserve inner freedom, to move on in one’s inward journey into new realms.
The journey usually starts with what Campbell terms a Call to Adventure. This is the catalyst that starts us on our journey. It’s the point in a person’s life when they first notice that everything is going to change.
In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.
~ Dante Alighieri
The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure can come in the form of a message, letter, phone call, dream, temptation, last straw, or loss of something precious, or in form of a strange experience. It may be that something dramatically changes in your life. Maybe you lose someone dear to your heart, or your health fails. Or it maybe that the Call to Adventure comes from something you read, or something you hear.
We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.
~ Stephen R. Covey
Almost always, we initially balk at the call.
Refusal of the Call
We tend to refuse the call because know in our heart that a spiritual journey means to face the greatest of all fears, the fear of the unknown. We tend to refuse because we don’t want to change. One way that we commonly refuse the call is by denial. We deny whatever is difficult in our life. ‘This can’t be happening to me’ is a way we fend off what is painful or uncomfortable.
Many great stories hinge upon the refusal of the call. One of the most well-known ones is the story of Jonas and the Whale. Jonah was an Israelite whom God had called to be a prophet but who refused to accept his divine mission. He left on a sea voyage instead but – so the story goes – God raised a great storm as a sign of his anger with Jonah. The sailors, realizing that Jonah’s disobedience had caused the storm, threw him overboard in an attempt to save their ship. He was saved from drowning when he was swallowed by a whale who spat him out onto dry land after three days.
The story of Jonas has some instructive details. I think that each one of us has a mission in life. It can take a long time to find out what that one most important thing in our life actually is. Once we find out what it is, it can seem just too difficult – and we turn away.
We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness.
~ John Hope Franklin
In the Belly of the Whale
When we reluctantly embark on our spiritual journey, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable place: darkness. Being in the belly of the whale is a wonderful metaphor for the darkness that surrounds us on a spiritual journey. It’s the darkness of not-knowing. In fact, as we go farther into our spiritual journey, we find that we have to leave behind what we know, and enter strange territory. We become unintelligible and unrecognizable to ourselves. Not only do we not know ourselves. Knowing itself stops.
That’s uncomfortable. And many people bail out of their spiritual quest at this point. After all, often the initial motivation for going on a spiritual journey is to gain something. To gain wisdom, or gain enlightenment, or to gain personal power. But if we surrender to our journey, we find that all of this is stripped away, because a spiritual journey is not about having. It’s about being.
We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.
~ Marcel Proust
If it’s so difficult, why should we embark on a spiritual journey?
There is no choice, really. We are already on a spiritual journey. The journey is called ‘life’. We are free to refuse the call, but it is there nonetheless. We are called to realize our full potential, and to become a force for good in the world. If we respond to the call, we’re in for an adventure. Life is certainly not going to be boring!
How to respond to the call
When you receive the call, it can be difficult to know what to do next. This is also part of being ‘in the belly of the whale’. It’s good not to rush forward at this point. Here are some simple suggestions:
Start by asking a question: “What is my life about?”
Give yourself silent space to reflect, and to become present.
Take a few moments each day to notice where and how you are.
Start a gratitude journal and write down three things that you are grateful for each day.
Hang out with others who are also willing to look deeply at life.
There is a lot more to be said about the stages of the spiritual journey, and I’ll pick up the theme in future posts. For now, all you need to do is to exhale. Let go of wanting, striving, struggling and just be for a moment.
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
~ Matsuo Basho