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I was talking with a friend this past week and he said, almost apologetically, “I’m not really religious but I guess I’m what you’d call spiritual.” I don’t see being “spiritual” as anything to be uncomfortable about admitting to be, but I know he felt it was somehow below being “religious.”

He is not alone in that feeling or that self-evaluation. A Pew Research study this year found that:

Some people may see the term “spiritual but not religious” as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans.

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

I think the path of spiritual growth is not just stepping away from formal religion, but it is not a clearly defined path. There isn’t even only one path to take toward enlightenment. Even in a structured philosophy such as Buddhism, it can be confusing. The Buddhist tradition gives a variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga). There are the Seven Purifications, the Three Dharma Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, the Eight Gates of Zen and probably more that I have not remembered.

For myself, looking back I can see stages that I went through in my own journey. I can’t say that everyone follows this path, but I suspect that anyone who feels they are on a path to spiritual growth goes through similar stages.

The starting place is actually before you step on the path. This is a time when someone has no awareness or connection to any spiritual self. You don’t acknowledge that there is anything other than the material world. Some people live their entire life in this way and may be successful and happy.

If at some point, a person has the sense that there is something more to life than what they see, then they may search for a way to find that unseen something. They may not have a name for it. They may not call it spiritual.

This seeking may be triggered by a crisis or difficult period in our lives. It may come from an experience that we label as “spiritual.” For me, it happened because I came in contact with other people who were already on a spiritual path.

Realizing that there is something more to this life and actually starting out on a path toward it may not happen immediately. You can stand at the edge of the path for years before you take that first step.

 

Some curiosity about spirituality grows and you begin to investigate and seek out knowledge and others. At this stage, some people will embrace an established religion or an organized group. That makes sense because it follows the school model we have grown up following. Why find our own path when others have found a path that works for them and will help you along the way. That can feel safer.

I tried several of those well-established ways, but none took me to the place I felt I needed to go. more and begin to wonder about our existence. This can be a difficult time for some. May people jump into an established religion at this stage. Thought this is right for some, it can also come from a discomfort at the uncertainties of spiritual life.

This is an important stage: finding your spiritual path.  It may be one that has been well-travelled by others before you. It may be one you blaze on your own. Your own path may cross or at times follow others’ paths for a time. This is a stage of exploration and openness and you need to have some comfort with uncertainty when you strike out on your own.

You step onto a path and begin your journey.

If you took a path that others have taken and that is established, there are probably lots of guides, writings and others to help you. If you have decided to find your own way, as I did, that doesn’t mean you can’t read about other ways and talk with those traveling other paths. This eclectic approach was the one I felt most comfortable walking. And I walk slowly.

This is the longest stage of the journey. I love the discovery of this stage. I like some of the ways I have changed as I walked this path.

I have come to accept that my spiritual path is not the only correct one. I am much less dismissive of other paths. I am more comfortable with information that might contradict my beliefs. I believe this shows that I am more secure in my own spiritual nature.

There are times of bliss. There are also still times when I slip back into fear and doubt.

You enter a new stage when you establish a spiritual practice. Whatever composes this practice (meditation, prayer, writing, nature, walking, art, service to others, music etc.) becomes a regular part of your day and as comfortable as sleeping or eating meals.

Some people have a lot of trouble with establishing a practice. part of mine involves my daily writing, some of which I make public and some that is only for myself. Friends often ask me how I have time to write every day. I don’t want to criticize them, but they probably have time every day to watch television or surf the Net or check on social media. You may to give up an hour of one of those other non-spiritual “practices” in order to have a spiritual one.

 

Establishing a practice is like continuing to walk a path. You progress, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t explore other ways or sometimes wander off and need to find your way back.

mountaintop in clouds

Reaching “enlightenment” seems to be the goal, but I don’t think it is a very realistic one. It puzzled me when as a younger person I read spiritual texts and someone would become enlightened and then continue on with their life. I had expected that something transformative would occur. Maybe I thought you floated into Heaven or Nirvana. At one time in my life, I believed you died. Now, I believe you just keep walking the path.

I see the path as one leading up a mountain. Eventually, I will be so high that I will enter the clouds. This is a good place to be, but the way ahead will actually be less clear for a time. I may never reach the top. maybe there is no top where the journey ends.

You can enter a stage when spirituality stops being something you think about very much because it is just a part of your being. This is a very difficult stage for anyone who has a job and responsibilities to a mate or children. Maybe that is why the enlightened ones are always shown as older and living in isolation. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to reach a spiritual maturity where everything is one and the illusion of separateness can fall away in the world most of us live in.

I am certainly not there, though I am closer than I have ever been before.

And, according to some spiritual quest stories, there will be a very low point on this journey yet to come when everything seems to fall apart. A dark night of the soul before the light or the spiritual maturity or enlightenment.

Where am I on the journey? I think I am in those clouds. I know I am farther along, but I am not sure that there is an endpoint. That sounds frightening, but I am okay with that. I think it may be all journey and no destination.

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As this past July closed, Weekends in Paradelle closed out its ninth year online. An achievement of sorts. Since 2008, I have written more than 1300 posts here. That can either be viewed as impressive output, or a lot of time spent on something that I am not compensated for doing.

“So where is this Paradelle place?” asked a friend tonight as we sat with our drink looking at the New Moon.

“Mostly in here,” I replied, pointing to my head.

“But you often refer to New Jersey,” she said.

“Well, my body is there most of the time. But it doesn’t take a lot to get away to Paradelle, so I try to get away every weekend.”

“There’s also the allusion to poetry, right?” she asked, though she knew the answer was Yes. (see this post from 2008)

“Yeah, but I don’t think there is a real solid connection. I just liked the word and I like the suffix from French where it originally formed diminutives. After all, Paradelle is a little place on this enormous World Wide Web.”

So, now I’ll get back to writing and closing out this online decade. You come too.

My sons gave me a Fitbit for Christmas in 2015 and I have tried to hit the recommended 10,000 steps a day. That’s the number that has always been recommended. I don’t hit that number most days. I seem to average out at about 6000. That’s better than nothing but not enough. But now it seems even 10,000 steps isn’t “enough.”

The best thing about having one of these fitness trackers is that it makes you mindful of your inactivity. On lousy winter days when I stayed in the house and worked on the computer, I would log less than 2000 steps.

Now, on the Fitbit blog they discuss a recent study  that found that employees who sit the most tend to have higher BMIs, bigger waistlines, and higher cholesterol than those who moved more. That is not a shocking result. I could have told you that and you wouldn’t have to give me a grant. The researchers also found that those who were hitting about 15,000 steps (roughly seven miles) a day had normal BMIs and waistlines and no heightened risk of heart disease.

But 15,000 steps – 7 miles?

I wouldn’t label myself as “sedentary” but I certainly spend too much time in front of screens – computers and TV.  I don’t need a fancy tracker to tell me that.

The suggestion is to increase your steps by 1,000 then 2,000 a day for a week or two and continue until you get to 15,000.

Part of the problem for me is boredom. I have never been able to do the gym thing. Exercise on machines totally bores me. And when it comes to  steps… I love walking, but I like walking in the woods or at least in a park. I do that whenever I can, but I also have been walking around the workplace and around my neighborhood.

The suggested ways to increase your steps are always things like squeezing in a couple of 10 to 15-minute walks and walking everywhere within a one-mile radius instead of using the car. Of course, the walk to the coffee shop probably isn’t “cardio” unless you are really walking fast.

10, 000 steps still has multiple health benefits, especially if you make the 10K at a fast pace. You need to determine the number that’s right for you.

 

Teresa of Ávila s a young woman by François Gérard, 1826

Last March 28, I saw on a website that it was the birthday of St. Teresa of Ávila. I’m not a “religious” person these days in the sense of an organized religion, but I have an odd relationship with St. Teresa.

It started when I was 13 and attended “Sunday school” at St. Leo’s Church in Irvington, New Jersey . The year I was 13 I had for my class a young and kind nun. Those two qualities set Sister Teresa Avila apart from all the other nuns.

I knew nothing about the real Saint Teresa of Ávila whom she was named after until many years later. The Saint Teresa (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582), was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun and author during the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer.

Teresa grew up in a wealthy household in the province of Ávila, Spain. She was a beautiful and social girl who loved her privileged life, perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when she was 14, and her father sent her to convent school to protect his beautiful daughter.

Perhaps surprisingly, she found the religious training very appealing and she decided to become a nun.

After twenty increasingly important years, she established her own monastery, She then traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

One day in my thirteenth year, I had forgotten a homework assignment for Sunday school catechism class. Sister Teresa told me to go home, get the assignment, bring it to the convent and ask for her. The nun who answered my knock at the convent door went to get Sister Teresa.

When Sister Teresa Avila appeared she was not wearing her nun’s habit. I can only imagine how my face must have looked.

She was beautiful. She had long, dark, shiny hair. She asked me for my assignment which was in my hand. I was frozen. It probably took me a few seconds to respond but it felt like a lot longer.

I was in love with her in the way that a boy of 13 can be in love with an adult woman. I don’t know in what way a boy can be in love with a nun.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini , 1652

In college I took a course about religion in literature and although it was taught by a religion professor, it was the most influential literature course I took as an English major. Along with novels, we read religious works including The Wisdom of the Sufis, The Dark Night of the Soul  by Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa’s The Interior Castle.

The Interior Castle was inspired by a Saint Teresa’s mystical vision of a crystal castle with seven chambers, each representing a different stage in spiritual development. She immediately wrote her book which is divided into seven parts (also called mansions, dwelling places or chambers) Each level brings you closer to God.

Entrance into the first three mansions is achieved by prayer and meditation. The fourth through seventh mansions are considered to be mystical or contemplative prayer. The soul achieves clarity in prayer and a spiritual marriage with God in the seventh mansions.

Of course, as I read the book my thoughts often returned to Sister Teresa rather than Saint Teresa. The two have remained blurred in my mind. I imagine Sister Teresa before she took the veil as a beautiful young girl much like the Teresa of Avila in 1529.

 

Over the years, both Teresa’s have been in my thoughts and have been alluded to in other works. Simone de Beauvoir writes about Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself in her book The Second Sex. George Eliot compared the character Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Thomas Hardy took Teresa as the inspiration for much of the heroine Tess (Teresa) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a character who in one scene lies in a field and senses her soul ecstatically above her.

Saint Teresa appears in a few contemporary songs: “Theresa’s Sound-World” by Sonic Youth  and in “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne.

But none of those allusions have had as much of an impact on me as reading The Interior Castle through the lens of a 13 year-old boy discovering another kind of love.

In December 1970 I was in my senior year of high school. I was thinking about college. I was thinking about the Vietnam War and that the following year while at college I would be part of the draft lottery. Someone would pull a ball with my birthday (October 20) on it and then another ball with a number (from 1-365) that would decide if I was going to be drafted into the Army.

On Thanksgiving break, I had bought Laura Nyro’s new album,  Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. I knew of her two earlier albums but I didn’t own them.

I bought it because of the title and because her sad eyes were staring at me.

People knew her music because there were pop covers of her songs on the radio by other artists. (The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save the Country”, and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with “Eli’s Comin'”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love” and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man).” )

Laura didn’t have hits, but I heard her on WNEW-FM regularly. Ironically, Laura’s own rare cover version of a song, the Carole King-Gerry Goffin oldie “Up on the Roof,” was probably her only Billboard “hit.” I saw that Laura Nyro was playing at the Fillmore East in New York City on the 22nd.

Though we celebrated Christmas in my family, the holiday has lost all its childhood magic seven years before when my father got really sick. When he died, after five years of crippling illness, Christmas had become a depressing time of year.

For some reason, during this period of my life, when I was depressed, I would do things to drag myself deeper into that depression. Smoke, drink, stay away from people, take long walks alone and listen to depressing music.

In three days, it would be Christmas. Laura Nyro’s seemed to me to be a tortured artist who fit right in with my mood.

Also on the bill was Jackson Browne, a songwriter whose songs were recorded by others. He wouldn’t release the eponymous Jackson Browne until 1972, but he played songs from that album that would launch his career: “Doctor My Eyes”, “Rock Me on the Water”,”Jamaica Say You Will” and “Song for Adam” which he wrote about the death of a friend. He often was paired on bills with artists like Nyro, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell.

I went to the concert. Alone.

Poco had been at the Fillmore a few night before on one of those oddball multi-artist bills along with Savoy Brown, Gypsy and Jo Mama. The day after Christmas, Mountain would roll into the Fillmore and “Mississippi Queen” their way on a hard rock “Nantucket Sleighride.”

But at the Fillmore East on December 22, 1970, it was a much quiter night with a woman and her piano and a man with his guitar. My Christmas gift to myself.

I stumbled on an audio recording of Laura Nyro on that night on YouTube. I don’t know the copyright/wrong-ness of the posting, but I hope it stays there so that other people can listen.

 

Did Laura’s music make me more depressed? She programmed her set nicely for me. It started out soft and sad. “And When I Die” sounds like a downer and it can be, but it can also be seen as a positive outlook about death. “And when I die/and when I’m gone/there’ll be one child born and a world/to carry on/to carry on.”

“Christmas in My Soul” (which is actually more political than you might expect) was done as a poem.

But there was no way to stay depressed through her closer of “Time and Love” and “Save the Country.”

Nyro was inspired to write “Save the Country” after the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy. That doesn’t sound very upbeat, but again the outlook is positive. Listening to it this week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of our country right now.

Come on, people come on, children
Come on down to the glory river
Gonna wash you up and wash you down
Gonna lay the devil down, gonna lay that devil down

Come on people! Sons and mothers
Keep the dream of the two young brothers
Gonna take that dream and ride that dove
We could build the dream with love, I know…

Everyone around me was singing, gospel style, that last line “We could build the dream with love” over and over. It felt like we could.

 

 

In late 1996, Laura Nyro, like her mother, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died the following year. I had to look up some things this morning to write this post and saw that she died on this day April 8, in 1997. Synchronicity. She was only 49, the same age at which the disease had taken her mother.

After her illness was diagnosed, Columbia Records prepared a double-disc retrospective of her music which was Laura’s final musical project. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro. She was reportedly pleased with the outcome.

After some days away from Paradelle, television news and the Net, I have returned. Was it the cleansing that being offline might provide, as I had written about earlier? Yes, though even on a literal faraway island, news creeps in on you. Perhaps, I needed a deserted island. Still, my sleep changed for the better and my mind turned to things too often pushed aside (poetry, sketching, mindful and mindless meditation) for more “serious” matters.

I had some posts that were in the queue for this first weekend back in Paradelle, so they will go off into the universe of bits floating in a cloud. But the important thing for me this weekend is trying to keep that clear horizon clear?

The Dodge Foundation has run a program for many years of poetry as renewal that they call “Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain.” The title comes from a short poem by Robert Frost.

The Pasture 

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

Though I don’t have a literal pasture spring to clean out for the new season, I did clear away some leaves from the garden yesterday on a warm, sunny, breezy day here in Paradelle. Today it is snowing. And next week even more snow predicted.

After you clear away what is blocking you, how do you keep the path clear?

Frost used that poem as the introduction to his 1915 collection, North of Boston. (The book is in the public domain now and you can read the poems online.) I think of the poem as a statement of intent. Frost wants these poems to move away the leaves that might block a reader’s perception. As the water clears, you can move further into the collection. Like the little calf that is also being cleaned by its mother, we can totter ahead.

In this time before spring when the weather reminds us of both the recent past and the coming days too, it is a good time to think about many kinds of rebirth and renewal. It’s a better time for new resolutions for the year than January first.

I am going to try to tend the fountain and keep what has cleared for me open and moving ahead. You come too.

 

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Hands off Hello Not all labyrinths are traps Happy to be inside but already missing summer outdoors.  The plant feels the same way. There’s something in the first cold nights when autumn teases winter that seem to require a fire. Still drinking morning tea in the afternoon.  #teaetiquette

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