Friday, February 4, 2011

Musing in a Religious Direction

Yesterday I arrived home from working over my issues at the analyst's, which I generally like doing more than I let on. Spending time talking over one's "problems" in a kind of self-indulgent way feels like something that ought to be frowned upon, and I am sensitive to that kind of pressure, but for me it is a release valve that helps keep me on track and lets me "work on" how I work on myself. I also get some of the issues out into the open and talk them through. Gradually a trust builds so that there isn't quite as much resistance to approaching a topic or a feeling as there once was.

When I come back from a session, I often feel calmer and kind of relaxed, though I have to remember to have a little discipline, so as not to be too happy to open up to other people and start spewing like I took a dose of truth serum. If I'm by myself, I have to find something to do, and on days like these, it might be something domestic, such as cleaning the garage, gardening, cooking, or just watching television.

Last night I was watching a show on the Smithsonian channel about angels. I generally shy away from anything about Christian theology and practice because I am sensitive to memories of going to church with my family. It felt like a chore and a shallow social ritual more than anything else, and I was looking for religion to fill my lonely angst-filled teenage life with deeper meaning. It was such a big part of our identity as a family that it has become hard to approach without eliciting confusingly contradictory feelings, not the least of which is the uncomfortable ennui of sitting through church services week after week when I would have rather been outside doing something active.

So, while I know that I still have a feeling of gratitude for the support of a church community and that I like being in the energy of a church structure in solitude, I don't attend services now or find them meaningful in any personal way. Hopefully, this will change if I want it to, but I think organized religion and theology may just be one one of those things that doesn't register on my scales as anything important. Community and spirituality, which can be part of religion, but sometimes are not, would be more central to the kind of experience I want to have.

This particular show may have caught my attention because of my growing interest in astrology and the conversations I've had or shyly sat in on with interestingly different people at astrology conferences. It was likely also the weirdly open feeling I get after an analysis session and the fact that the creators of the show took an open-minded yet scholarly approach to the subject.

The world-traveling narrator and host traced the history of angels in the Christian culture and discussed how they were used by the church hierarchy to integrate the old pagan gods, such as the ones astrologers, Greeks, and Romans have used to denote the planets. This made Christianity more appealing to the rabble in conquered cultures and helped keep those people's traditions alive, in the same way that elements of Native American spirituality have been incorporated into Christian rituals and practice so that they can continue to be practiced under the guise of a monotheistic religion from the Middle East.

There were a couple elements that I found particularly engaging. One was the whole issue of gender in angels - the fact that is was an issue is pretty interesting in itself, and the androgyny that imbues some of the paintings from the middle ages is even more so. The lightly feminine faces and suggestions of breasts beneath billowy clothing were oddly juxtaposed to the ideas most of us have of the patriarchal church in the middle ages.

Were women viewed as the more virtuous sex back then even while they were vilified as temptresses of virtuous men? Or did it make Christianity more marketable to use a womanly form to soften the fierceness of the archangel spirits? Or could it really have been a free-thinking depiction of angels that managed to break through, consciously or not, and transcend rigid gender boundaries? Whatever the answer might be, it seemed particularly fitting for the day after an Aquarian New Moon to be considering an androgynous heavenly host from the Middle Ages.

The other story that strongly engaged my attention was of archangel Michael and his battle with Satan. I've heard the story, or similar ones, and seen statues of Michael presented in feminist-oriented psychological texts. His victory is interpreted as a patriarchal battle between the mind and the body. In this context, the mind represents the clean, rational, masculine energy of spirit, and the body represents the dark, dangerous, unhealthy feminine energy of the earth. In short, it's seen as an example of the battle between the sexes, masculine versus feminine, the acceptable aspects of our selves versus the parts we wish to keep hidden, and, of course, the feminists have a big problem with that.

The idea behind their critiques is that the (patriarchal) church was responsible for splitting off parts of ourselves we ought to be valuing. It is ironic that, as a college student in Karen Warren's philosophy class, I responded enthusiastically to such a critique because of its clean, rational (and very masculine) logic. The way the different elements of the argument were pieced together created a new and exciting way of seeing old, tired, moralistic theology.

I had heard enough that kind of thing on the Sunday mornings of my youth, as I checked off the order of the service in my bulletin and watched the sun track slowly through the different colored panes of stained glass. The dichotomizing of life's experiences into categories of good and bad - light, good; dark, bad - is precisely what bugged me about the last two sermons I sat through and made me not want to go back. Well, it was either that or start a philosophical debate with the minister, and I didn't feel like I could pull that off and still feel welcome as a guest in their church.

In the documentary I was watching, the narrator interviewed a priest to get the details and meaning of Micheal's epic battle with Satan. I might betray an ignorance of basic Christian theology as I try to recount his story, but here goes. Lucifer, or Satan, was feeling jealous of god's power and thought he ought to move up in the ranks a bit. In fact, he wanted to be more powerful than god, but of course there are no rotating seats of power in the heavens, at least not in the Christian sections. The priest made a point of saying how we all feel like being "bigger than god" at times - whenever we're having one of those good old competitive ego trips. Michael, whose name means "one who is like God" simply spoke his own name at Satan to put his ambitions in check. As if to remind him what it meant to serve God, what the proper attitude was. Wow. Powerful.

So, I kind of see it this way. The one angel feels that he's missing out on power and all the good things that it must be related to. He desires it and becomes jealous, while the other angel serves the power selflessly and experiences it. Both desire to be like God, but one acts from fear and scarcity, which engenders jealousy and greed, while the other operates from a place of love and service. "Being like god" sounds like the height of arrogance in Satan, and yet it represents the highest nobility in Michael. The exact same words have a world of difference in meaning. Wow. I can't think of a better way to illustrate the difference between a fear-driven ego and a person filled and powered by something like love. I finally felt like I got it.

The moment the inner intention of Satan is called out by Michael, a battle begins, as it had to. Micheal defeats the would-be usurper and casts him into hell with the other fallen angels. Unlike this epic heavenly battle, which happened only once, and created the heaven/hell scenario we live with as Christians, I would guess this struggle is something going on all the time on Earth, within each of us and in our societies, regardless of their religion.

I notice as I'm writing now and thinking back on what I wrote earlier, that the energy has kind of shifted from Aquarian to Piscean themes. Pisces is symbolized by the paired fish that face opposite directions. One battles the current by heading in the direction of the ego, the other goes with the flow of spirit. Letting egofish lead brings suffering, while letting spiritfish lead brings peace. Each is bound to the other eternally. There's no denying the reality of opposing pulls of spiritual growth and ego desire, and there cannot be one without the other. But, when one lets go of the ego's struggle for supremacy and gets on with serving his spiritual path in life, the energy creating suffering gets put to use in productive service.

I can come up with stuff like that based on what I've read in books and lectured on, but it's always different when the words resonate on a feeling level in one's life. For some reason, breaking down this story of archangel Michael and his epic battle with the upstart Satan brought up a feeling inside of frightening honesty, a feeling one might equate with the desperation and greed of Satan being met by the penetrating, unshakable gaze of Michael, the archangel. He was not one of the cute Hallmark cherubs that others painted; Michael is the top of the heap, the supreme commander of the angel armies, and his love is fierce and protective of the greater good. It faced down Satan's selfish intentions unflinchingly and squarely called them out.

To put all this into more rational words, I think the battle represents the struggle within ourselves to master ego drives that are based in fears about not getting enough of what we need or fears of missing out, of not being recognized, or of being kept apart. I thought about how that fear drives us to be greedy and grab for power that is probably only truly experienced when we serve it, rather than when we try to possess it.

Things continued to click in uncomfortable ways because I have a highly stimulated imagination and I can't resist scaring myself with it. I saw certain behaviors and attitudes in a new and much darker light.

To give you an idea of what kinds of things I'm talking about, I can say that when I've tried to get ahead in the world, something bad has happened. When I claimed freedom by riding my bicycle in neighborhoods my parents didn't want me to go to, I got a flat tire, even though to me, and probably to most other parents and kids, they were being irrationally restrictive. It as if there were something I needed to learn before I would be allowed to break their dumb rules. When I accepted a full-time teaching job after finishing some university requirements for a PhD, I was beside myself with emotional misery. My lectures felt void of any true meaning or energy - the empty words sounding brass, as the bible describes it. When I decided I ought to earn some money for my astrology, or when I think of ways to make money from my neat ideas for learning activities, something feels wrong and I sound greedy or am unsuccessful. And worse, or so I imagine.

A lot of this probably has to do with attitude and self-respect - finding what is truly of value to oneself and developing it rather than chasing after something that only sounds good because society says so. Its hard to respect others or their institutions when you don't respect what you're doing with them. In truth, many of the things I risked doing because they sounded like good ideas, didn't feel right to me. My heart wasn't in them, but I didn't know that I could succeed doing something else that better suited my talents and values. I didn't know it was okay to feel differently about money, jobs, and careers. We, in our family, were all too afraid of missing out on something important to support the effort it takes to find out what one is really good at doing and the kinds of things one likes to do.

On the other hand, there was a lack of attention paid to respecting and valuing the things in life that one ought to learn how to do. Healthy egos and jobs and good relations with authorities help a person take care of business so they can invest more energy into delving deeper into their psyches and living more spiritually. No need to make things harder for oneself just to have the experience of rebelling against them.

Some of this is also about giving up before one truly applies himself over the long haul and becomes willing to commit to something, accept criticism, and give up tyrannical little ego needs and fears in order to become part of a larger, more grounded kind of community in one's work. That was a mouthful. But it points to a positive aspect of the seemingly neurotic complex of thoughts and feelings that I hinted at earlier. While others with more fire or worldly orientations might dismiss this kind of vague, yet picky angst with impunity and suffer no ill consequences, its always seemed to be leading me toward a more authentic expression of myself and my work in life, if only I could define what that was and take a concrete step toward doing something along those lines in the real world. Maybe it's best not hammered out with rational ideas. Maybe, too, its a path into a foggy woods without any clear destination, best left for avocations, but it still inserts itself as a central part of the picture whenever the issue of jobs or vocation comes up.

The troubling insight into my soul, the one I was scaring myself about as I continued musing over the documentary, brought a feeling of relief and hope with it, too. The relief comes from accepting what had felt like an ever present, always nagging, but never revealed or spoken truth. Even though it painted a very unflattering picture, I got it, I had words for it, I saw the reflection in the mirror and felt the impact of having it be seen. The instant that happened, it was defeated. For a moment, at least. And not by being cast into hell, as Satan had been, but by being brought into the light, where it was recognized as something familiar. When something is known, it can be worked with. The fear of being cast out and suffering eternally diminishes, and it is replaced with a feeling of being okay - of being one human among many again.

When I lose touch of this feeling and my sense of connection to others, the question arises as to the standards I am holding myself to in life. Are they human or divine? Spending too much alone musing about things, I feel the pressure to do exactly the right thing. Getting my mind to apply human standards, which are more reasonable, has that measure of rational common sense my Capricorn mind craves. I feel like I can move forward in practical ways. I suppose that recognizing you are human and being okay with acting like one is also the meaning of forgiveness, which paradoxically, is divine.

On the other hand, striving to reach higher, spiritually oriented goals feels important to me, and there is a heightened sensitivity to that feeling of weightiness, so that everything has to be more precise and is more exacting, even though it is hard to define what that means in practical terms.

It seems silly to think that answers might come from solitary reflection. Though it's a necessary component, I know I will happier if I learn them in the process of engaging in everyday life with others.

Surrendering the need to be the center of attention, to have it my way, to automatically get a seat among the pantheon of genius astrologers and vaunted geographers - now there's some areas that could benefit from a more spiritual perspective in life. Okay, I'm exaggerating to illustrate how ridiculous it often feels inside. How can things heal if they aren't first expressed, brought into the light of day so their ridiculousness is revealed and laughed away harmlessly? I would hope that Priapus got to laugh at his condition once in a while.

That process of letting myself think thoughts of which I had been afraid or had dismissed automatically, moved to a new level when I enrolled in a cognitive behavioral therapy program several years ago. Although that wasn't the intended result of the program, so much as defining and alleviating the client's social anxiety, it became the most valued awareness of that experience. The process of letting these held-in thoughts be expressed has continued in the realm of other psychologically-oriented endeavors and, increasingly, in relationships and interactions in the "outside" world, as I begin to calm myself down, restore a little rational control to my imagination, and place some faith in myself and others. Well, on a good day, that is what it feels like I'm doing.

I do feel the pressure of responsibility and I get the need to develop discipline, to not dither when it's time to put bread on the table and become more responsible for myself. Claiming to be the incurable victim of a perfectionist's spiritual sensitivity doesn't sound like something even God would sign off on. I doubt you could use it to qualify for worker's compensation, and even if you could, it would prevent you from using it. But figuring out how to get through it all when you think its time to move on remains a tricky proposition.

How do I turn such sensitivity, vague fickleness, and sometimes ponderous introspection into a strength? How do I make it less personal, become less attached to it? What outlets are there to channel it into that might accomplish this? Fiction writing? Art? Social critique? Would it be possible to meld it into more analytical work, like memoir writing or astrological analysis or even geographical research? What kind of work environment would support this kind of attitude? Could I, for instance, crusade to save the whales without losing motivation or feeling like a sham? Perform perfunctory tasks for money and find satisfaction in an inner life and the part-time pursuit of other interests? Hmm...I doubt it, but maybe the right kind of part time job. More importantly perhaps, do I have to figure it out or should I let opportunities to connect with others dictate the way ahead? How do I move forward and actually commit to something, if that's what I should do? I don't have a solution yet. But I did put some of it into words.