By Joseph Sharp
Perigee Books, Penguin-Putnam, 2001; 183 pages, $14.95
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.
25 Qualities of Spiritual Maturity and Depth
That is freedom, true liberation -- if you ask me.
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.
ExcerptsHow wonderful it would be to reach a place along our spiritual exploration where, once we've grown enough, God would finally throw up Her hands and say, "You've made it child, from here on out it's all icing on the cake; no more problems or troubles for you; no more lessons to learn; from now on it's just happiness, peace, love, and light all the way!" But the reality is otherwise. The journey of spiritual growth is an always ongoing pilgrimage of experience, from our first breath to our last and most likely beyond. There are always more lessons to learn, more depths to explore.
I believe this sense of continuous and progressive growth is what Jesus was hinting at when he told his followers that, in the future, they would have "greater works" of their own to accomplish. It is what the Hindu saint Ramakrishna was speaking of when he reminded his students, "No matter how high the bird flies, it can always fly higher. There is no limit to realization, because Truth is an infinite sky." Reversing the metaphor, we could just as easily say that no matter how deeply inward one dives beneath the surface of life's outer appearance, there is no limit to the soul's depths of discovery, as well. The Way is an ongoing journey of continued spiritual growth and maturation. Infinite sky, infinite depth.
If you're looking for the promise of finality -- say, a list of quick, easy recipes to forever transform your life into a miraculous slice of sweet spiritual pie -- you should know this is not the book for you. Don't get me wrong, the path is indeed filled with many wonderful, miraculous moments of joy. I'm no masochist -- I love, love, love joy. But in my experience, life's real road is just as often filled with lessons that aren't so joyous. And some are downright awful, but nonetheless potent. As said above, I operate from the model that this learning process is pretty much ongoing all the time and we never reach finality, at least not while here on earth. For me, finality is not the point. Learning is. As is opening your heart, and becoming a more truthful, compassionate, understanding, and loving person.
In the usual narrow sense of meaning, better is in the eye of the beholder. Whereas, spiritual depth isn't about appearances. It is something you feel. Something you live. One of my favorite stories speaking to this point comes from poet Rodger Kamenetz. During a trip to northern India to study Tibetan Buddhism, he found a spiritual connection was likewise deepening with his religion of origin, Judaism. After the experience, Kamenetz shared this ironical blessing with the Dalai Lama. Kamenetz said, "By making us look more deeply into Judaism, you have become our rabbi." The Dalai Lama responded with a chuckle and a smile, cupping his hand to the dome of his shaven head, saying, "So you will give me a small hat?"(2) It's a brilliant image of inclusive and open-minded spiritual wisdom for us to contemplate: the great Tibetan Buddhist, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, sitting serenely upon his meditation cushion while sporting a silken black yarmulke. No, spiritual maturity and depth isn't about appearances -- nor a xenophobic attitude toward one's own religious tradition.
A reporter once asked Mother Teresa what it felt like to be called a living saint. The nun replied: "Holiness is not just for a few people. It's for everyone, including you, sir." The quality of sacred individuality reminds us of just this truth -- that it is your responsibility to explore and cultivate the sacred within your particular human life, a life marked by a uniqueness in personal character, experience, and statement. A life marked by a one-of-a-kind soul. This truth also suggests a radical possibility: that the sacred, as expressed by humanity, can be as diverse and multifaceted as we are as individuals.
And this is what I love so about the teaching of sacred individuality. It has become precious to me beyond words. There is a grand permission, a majestic tolerance and emphasis toward being true to yourself, and to others. There is a basic trust in who we are as human beings and the unique gifts we each have to offer. I think back to that weekday morning, while doing my rounds upon the ninth floor in the Infectious Diseases Unit at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas. I think back now to Jim, the man dying of AIDS, and his intimate deathbed teaching to me. A gift of perennial wisdom. Like Buddha's deathbed teaching that we must be a light unto ourselves, or Jesus' admonition that the kingdom of God is to be found within us, I hear Jim's words to me. . . .
"I just want you to know if I could do it all over again, I'd be more outrageous. You know, give 'em more hell. Be more myself and less what everybody said I'm supposed to be . . . More myself," he repeated softly. "More myself."
More information on this book is available at Amazon.
Back to the October 2001 issue of Body Positive magazine.