Body Positive Book Reading Club
Spiritual Maturity: Stories and Reflections for the Ongoing Journey of the Spirit
By Joseph Sharp
As the Chinese translation of my first book, Living Our Dying, was being prepared for publication, the Taiwanese editors asked if I'd write a brief, second preface especially for that edition. Specifically, they wanted to know more about my personal story and spiritual journey since that book's first publication in English. How was my health now that the new HIV meds were available? Was I still an intern chaplain at Parkland Hospital? And just what was the emphasis in my spiritual life today? As I wrote the new preface, updating my whereabouts and current work, one question seemed to linger, avoiding a quick response -- so, where was I in my spiritual life today?
Like many HIV-positive people, I'd begun taking the new "cocktail" of protease inhibitors and antiviral drugs. And like many, my immune system was growing stronger, the amount of active virus detectable in my blood had dropped considerably. A significant reprieve from my dying seemed -- and still seems, as of this writing -- to be at hand.
Yes, a reprieve . . .
For just how long we don't know, but compared to the month-to-month game of waiting, a game many of us in the HIV community had grown accustomed to, this is truly a significant pause in the process. I remember how a friend of mine once referred to her experience with a life-threatening illness as her "cancer high." She still speaks of the loss she's felt since her recovery. I think many of us long-term survivors understand what she means; we've experienced how the "high" of dying sometimes elevates us beyond our mere humanity. No longer simply an ensemble player, we were once cast in the leading role of our social circle's great drama -- and we also felt a leading-edge excitement of spiritual deepening that accompanies serious illness. The new problem within our medicine-induced reprieve has been the interruption of that spiritual high.
If I'm honest, I must confess how I've felt a loss of the specialness I once so secretly coveted. Yes, my "dying" is still ongoing, still there; but not so much here. It's a time off, a distance away. And I recognize that, for the immediate time, I've lost my star status and center-stage spotlight. Demoted from my exalted position of Noble Example of Humanity Who Embraces His Dying, I've become "merely" human again.
I also recognize this is a good thing.
The realization I've had during this "interruption" offers an opportunity for me to practice a much larger sense of permission in my life by being even more honest, more intimate with myself -- and with others. I can admit that, yes, I'm often the Great Hypocrite when it comes to "living my dying" or "embracing" my own mortality.
In short, I'm often a spiritual mess, despite all my conscious growth and serious seeking.
I'm thinking now about that story of Zen master Suzuki Roshi's dying -- the one told in Natalie Goldberg's wise little book, Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg writes:
He died of cancer in 1971. When Zen masters die we like to think they will say something very inspiring as they are about to bite the Big Emptiness, something like "Hi-ho Silver!" or "Remember to wake up" or "Life is everlasting." Right before Suzuki Roshi's death, Katagiri Roshi, an old friend, visited him. Katagiri stood by the bedside; Suzuki looked up and said, "I don't want to die." That simple. He was who he was and said plainly what he felt in the moment. Katagiri bowed. "Thank you for your great effort."(1)
From a strict Zen letter-of-the-law reading, one might say, "How attached Roshi is to life, what poor Buddhist form!" But I believe the heart of Buddha smiles widely and, along with us, breathes a good, long sigh of relief at Suzuki Roshi's honesty to his old friend.
Now, if you are at all like me, you've probably experienced various degrees of pressure to "keep up appearances" when it comes to the spiritual path. In spiritual circles, as in most of life, the seeker is often inundated by notions of propriety, ideals that dictate just what is (and definitely what isn't) the appropriately "spiritual" way to react or respond in a given circumstance. We substitute an unquestioned doctrinal correctness for truthfulness of heart.
But what if we kept in mind the more honest model demonstrated in this story? What if we kept in mind the courageous (and outrageous) honesty of Suzuki Roshi when he said on his deathbed, "I do not want to die?" He didn't fake it, not even for spiritual appearances. This sincere teacher knew of a higher truth than appearances, an honesty to this very moment of experience. No "spiritually correct" -- rhymes with politically correct -- costume to wear. Instead, only an injunction to try to be as self-honest as possible. This kind of authentic permission reminds us that, again, spiritual depth and maturation are not about outer appearance, but inner awareness.
As I reflect back over my journey, its breadth, its contradictions, misunderstandings, and wonderful, fearful humanity, this is what I've come to believe: The single greatest lesson I've continued to encounter has to do with permission. It is so important that we give ourselves permission to be fully human, which includes acknowledging our fears and failures as well as our hopes and triumphs, if we are to honestly traverse life's great path.
When I wrote this I had already begun working on this second book, Spiritual Maturity, but I'd not yet come to understand the "practice of permission" that permeates my personal journey. Like many in my profession, I often write what I need to learn.
I've since come to believe that authentic spiritual maturation embraces this breadth of permission. Permission to make mistakes. Permission to view our journey as always ongoing and evolving. Permission to allow our spiritual process to take its time. Permission to cultivate a larger faith and image of the Sacred that honors life's wonderful, fearful human whole. I also believe it is sometimes necessary to go a bit further, daring to push ourselves into a slightly maverick, outrageous -- (or, for some, heretical?) -- depth of permission. It's a quality of seeking I like to think of as grand permission.
It's one of the twenty-five qualities of "spiritual maturity" this new book explores. But, for me, it is the meta-quality, if you will, of my journey today.
Such a breadth of permission is not something we can accomplish offhand or willy-nilly. It takes a sense of determination and even vigilance to uphold. It's grand -- almost too large, too open-minded, trespassing over the edges of our more conservative psycho-spiritual boundaries. And though iconoclastic, grand permission is not arrogant, uniformed, nor without awareness. Like the grandness of, say, an Oscar Wilde or Maya Angelou, it consciously challenges us to re-think, reconsider, and re-imagine our notions of life and its full statement. I've since found that to try to live this wisdom isn't easy. To live this degree of individuality in today's world of conformity and conventionality takes a deep commitment to one's own personal truth and spiritual process.
It's my hope that through the stories in Spiritual Maturity you'll meet all kinds of people -- different, distinct, outrageously individualistic, and courageous people -- who will not only champion your own personal awareness of grand permission but will also share with you the wisdom and teachings they've shared with me. For me, these stories reaffirm the truth that powerful teachings are often right here before us, and that guidance toward honesty of heart and spiritual depth is found not only upon the pulpit or within scriptures, but also within our own everyday experience and lives. I believe a tangible, almost visceral wisdom is being taught all around us, everywhere we look. And this is especially true for those of us -- caregivers as well as care receivers -- who live in the world according to HIV.
I hope you'll recognize yourself in here. It's the wisdom we've learned from living with this epidemic, this virus.
It's our right to claim it. We've definitely earned it.
More information on this book is available at Amazon.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.