After all the hard work he’s put in, Rick Belden wonders if there are some things we just can’t change.
We think there is a soul
We don’t know
That soul is hard to find …
—Joe Strummer, “Johnny Appleseed”
In the course of my lifetime, I’ve yet to encounter any external definition of spirituality that is adequate to encompass the depth and breadth, the totality, of my own personal experience. I was raised Catholic, but even as a child, much of what I was being taught conflicted with own inner sense of what was truly spiritual, ethical, and rational (see “god at eleven” and “standing in line for confession”) and by age 14 I knew I was done with it.
During my 20s and early 30s, my search for a personal spiritual path led me to read and learn about Zen Buddhism. I gained a lot from exploring and considering that perspective, and in some ways it seemed to suit me, but there was also a certain coldness about it that kept me from moving further in that direction. It does, however, continue to influence both my thinking and my writing (“arrow”).
During my mid 30s to mid 40s, I explored several aspects of what is commonly referred to as New Age thought, philosophy, and practice. As before, I gained a lot of useful knowledge and experience, but once again it was a period of transition in my thinking rather than a destination. In many ways, my experience with New Age thought and teachings was ultimately very similar to my experience with Catholicism as a child, because once again I found myself expected to accept and believe all sorts of things as a matter of faith that were not consistent with my own sense and personal experience. (An article by Cat Saunders entitled “New Age Fundamentalism” provides an excellent summary of some of the issues I found the most personally problematic.)
Probably my greatest gains from my New Age period resulted from a twice-daily meditation practice that I maintained for over five years. Learning to meditate, the essence of which was learning to be with and observe myself, really elevated my ability to deal with all kinds of difficult feelings and situations, and my meditation experience continues to provide benefits to me daily even though I haven’t meditated regularly for many years.
At this point in my life, I no longer expect to find an externally defined spiritual model that suits my needs, and I’m no longer looking for one, nor do I feel I need one. I have no belief in any deity or deities, and haven’t for a long time, but I’ve always believed and still believe that there is a transcendent aspect (some would call it divinity) in all life. If I believe in anything now, it’s that life is fundamentally mysterious, that the true nature of the human experience is ultimately and innately unknowable, and that any supposedly all-encompassing explanation for it that anyone can offer is bound to come up short.
I continue to have plenty of deep personal spiritual experiences that I think it would be fair to describe as mystical but I tend to approach them on their own terms rather than trying to apply an explanation of someone else’s experience to them. My spirituality may be a “spirituality without gods” but it’s also as deeply authentic and as vibrant as it’s ever been.
However, having said all of that, I do think that there’s a great deal of potential consciousness-transforming power available to us in universal spiritual archetypes; whether one believes in their literal existence or not, these patterns embody and express energies and forces that are ancient and deeply authentic in the human psyche. I would also say that, regardless of our spiritual belief systems as adults, it’s still important to explore and come to terms with whatever religious model(s) we experienced as a child, because the associated symbols and conditioning are such a foundational aspect of the vocabulary and landscape of our psyche. I still have a crucifix on the wall of my bedroom for reasons that have nothing to do with Catholicism at this point in my life and everything to do with remembering and acknowledging various aspects of my personal history as a child. That same symbolism has also expressed itself in the title of my recently-completed second book, Scapegoat’s Cross, which again is not an expression of theology but of metaphor, personal experience, and universal archetype.
Much of my own motivation for developing an approach to spirituality that is true and authentic for me has been rooted in my need to come to terms with the events and environment of my childhood, and how those factors and issues have affected and directed my life as an adult. I think that, in so many ways, healing from abuse and trauma, whatever its source, is about searching for and finding one’s own soul, that psychospiritual whole that is somehow greater than the sum of all of its parts, that mysterious, uniquely personal link to eternity and to our individual and shared humanity.
Finding one’s soul is, in my experience, not a singular, discrete event, but a long process of many iterations that takes place over time. It requires one to learn new skills and to re-examine beliefs, conditioning, and perceptions. It is a process of collecting fragments of the self that were broken off and expelled here and there along the path of years, people, and places, a process of retrieving the lost and unclaimed pieces of who one is, and used to be, that may have become hidden and nearly invisible in the terrain change that comes with time. Finding the soul is about finding and embracing the gain that comes with every loss.
I’ve been helped the most in my own process of finding the soul by therapists and counselors who encouraged and facilitated my innate (but forgotten) ability to access, express, and own my emotional energy, which I learned to control, dismiss, and repress as a child for survival purposes. I’ve attended several men’s therapy groups over the years and grown enormously as a result, not only in terms of my relationship with myself, but also in the depth of my understanding of others. I’ve consciously cultivated a relationship with my inner self by working with my dreams, journaling, giving myself outlets for creative expression, and as I said earlier, learning to meditate.
I’ve also found it extremely important to reconnect and re-establish an ongoing relationship with my own body, which is such a valuable source of information about my feelings, my history, and my present. Bodywork (various forms of therapeutic massage) has been a critical aspect of that process for many years now. I’ve written previously about the importance and the process of listening to and working with the body in a piece called “the body is the gateway”.
I’ve been on this soul finding journey for over twenty years now and I know that I’ve experienced tremendous growth, healing, and regeneration within myself. But I still sometimes feel like a hamster on a wheel because, for reasons I have yet to understand fully, the external circumstances of my life have so far not reflected these very positive inner changes. I still sit in a little gray cubicle five days a week “doing someone else’s work … living someone else’s life” just as I was doing 21 years ago when I first wrote those words. And I still spend most of my days and my hours alone.
This is not what I expected when I began. I really believed that by doing my work, by confronting my past and my issues and becoming a more complete human being, I would transform my life. And it’s true, beyond any doubt, that I’ve transformed my inner life and my relationship with myself in ways too various and profound to describe in a few words. Yet my outer life, the life in which I spend most of my waking hours, remains just as dull, cold, gray, and unfulfilling as it was when I began.
I’m still glad I made the decision to do the work and make healing a priority in my life. I can’t imagine living any other way. But it remains frustrating and incomprehensible to me that I could work through so many of the issues and wounds that seemed to be blocking my progress in life and still see the most significant outer circumstances of my life unchanged. And I wonder, especially now as I’m getting older and facing all the hard realities that come with aging, if my inner and outer realities will remain forever out of sync.
Originally appeared here.