Spirituality is Big Business

When I was in my early twenties, I picked up a slim paperbound booklet that discussed a technique called Treasure Mapping. I think I paid about $1.50 for it. (I was not very affluent in those days, so I certainly couldn’t have paid much more.) The technique illustrated in the booklet would today be understood as making a vision board, and I found it fascinating. “Pictured Prayer”, the booklet explained, was simple and produced excellent results.

I gathered together the necessary accessories, all of them easy to obtain and inexpensive: photos clipped from magazines, glue, pens, construction paper — and created my first vision board. I’ve used the technique many times in the intervening years, often with surprising success. I have sometimes come across my old, discarded vision boards and realized with satisfaction that nearly everything I pictured on them had come to pass.

But recently I saw an announcement for a class in vision board making. The cost for the two-hour course, which included all materials, was $150.00.  I thought back to my $1.50 booklet, and the years of photos clipped from magazines or downloaded on the computer, the poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, stickers, or occasional scrapbooking supplies – and realized that I probably hadn’t spent $150 on all my Treasure Maps in the 40 intervening years.

In that distant era, even as I learned vision boarding, I learned to meditate by selecting library books to read about meditation techniques, listening to tapes borrowed at the library, and asking advice of those who meditated regularly. After hours of dedicated practice I found the method that seemed best for me and made meditation a lifelong practice. Today, though, I could chose to spend anywhere from $10 weekly for an hour’s guided meditation at a local new age shop, or up to $60 for an on-line course complete with an instruction manual, interactive forums, and (this one still puzzles me) a certificate of completion. I could purportedly learn the hands-on energy healing system of Reiki entirely on-line, without ever setting foot in a master teacher’s office. I could pay $10,000 for a spiritual retreat with a self-professed guru. I could complete an on-line course to become a “spiritual master” in any one of a half-dozen different disciplines – and, having completed the course, be surprised with the information that there is yet another, higher level available that could not be revealed to a mere novice, but only to a seasoned acolyte. And, of course, that newly-revealed level could be mine for only an additional $59.95!

Americans, it seems, do not believe that anything, even spirituality, has value unless it is paid for – by cash, check or charge, rather than blood, sweat and tears. You need not put real effort into learning as long as you are willing to sit at the feet of a “master” and fork over money – and plenty of it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate costs connected with teaching classes or holding retreats! Retreat attendees have to be fed and housed, and the teacher’s time has to be compensated. A class venue doubtless has costs attached – rent to be paid, utilities to be provided, class materials to be printed. But the hubris of charging $150 for an hour spent “instructing” students how to paste pictures on poster board, or to chant, hold crystals, or meditate, veers (at least to my way of thinking) about 180 degrees north of genuine spirituality.

Once the provenance of moguls of big religion, spirituality, too, has become big business, and a lucrative business, at that. Native American spirituality is taught by those who have not one iota of genetic material from the original inhabitants of North America, and their students pay the sun, moon and stars for the privilege. Instructors with no passion except that for feathering their nests promise to incite a passion for life in their unwitting students, and coin money as they do so.

My personal advice to anyone seeking a spiritual teacher is simply this: remember, first, that you are your own best teacher. There has never been a better or easier time for self-learning. Explore cautiously, keeping both an open mind and a weather eye, but explore. Read, watch videos, learn, practice. And if you find you need assistance to progress on your chosen path, or feel ready for that retreat, or believe a class with others might help – do your homework. Seek out a teacher who is validly a master teacher in her or his discipline, who is passionate about passing knowledge on to others, and who, mostly importantly, lives in such as manner as to demonstrate the value of the subject in which they will instruct you. If a cost is associated with the instruction, investigate what the payment covers, and decide if it seems reasonable, reimbursing the instructor’s costs and time and other essentials, or keeping a center in the black, but not intentionally generating massive profit.  And only then decide if the price is genuinely worth paying, or if you can find methods less financial and more truly spiritual to gain instruction in your chosen discipline.

But the finest spiritual instructor will always be the one you find in two places: your own mind, and your own heart.

And if all else fails, you can always make a Treasure Map.

Tough Love for the Prodigal Son

I hate the parable of The Prodigal Son.

I realize that this is a very unpopular position to hold, absolutely detesting one of the best-loved of all the parables in the New Testament. But there you have it: I dislike it. I always have, and I always will.

You recall the story, I’m sure, of course: A certain man had two sons… Son Number One takes his inheritance, traipses off, and blows it to hellangonagin.  Then, having (as they say in AA) finally hit rock bottom, he makes his way back to good old Dad and confesses the error of his ways.  Dad not only forgives him, but throws a mammoth party to welcome the wastrel back. (A party, I might add, to which Dad somehow forgets to invite Son Number Two. Very telling, that point.)

In the meantime, Son Number Two, who has spent the intervening years (while his brother was off carousing) laboring for Dad on the old home farm, arrives one evening from a hard day and stumbles into the big welcome home feast. Stung, Son Number Two complains bitterly to his father that, despite all his years of loyalty and service, Daddy Dearest never threw a bash for him, nor even gave him the wherewithal to throw a party of his own for himself and his friends.

To which complaint Dad basically responds by saying, “Hey, yeah, you’ve always been here, hanging around, but I really missed your brother.”  Proving once again that many an otherwise-discerning parent will tumble to the appeal of the runt of the litter.

Or so I interpret the story.

And it’s wrong. Absolutely, treacherously, cruelly wrong.

I have seen this story play out in real life, time and time again; I suspect many of us have done so. The wastrel, the drug addict, the alcoholic, the ne’er-do-well, rambles off to roust and revel, showing up now and again on Mom and Dad’s doorstep when the cash reserves run low, occasionally confessing the error of his or her ways and perhaps even briefly establishing a sensible existence.  Then, having been replenished, Wastrel heads right back out into that singular lifestyle once again–or simply hangs around for free room and board, sponging off the Parents indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry get an education and begin working boring 9-to-5 jobs. They show up for family gatherings, bring birthday and holiday gifts to family gatherings, acquire spouses, and produce grandchildren. Eventually they begin caring for aging, ailing parents, shuttling them to doctor visits and hospital stays, mowing their lawns and straightening out their checking accounts.  They, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry, are just there—always there, doing the job of being good offspring and doing it well, but rarely lauded for a job well done.

And then the Parents pass on, and the sad truth comes out: they have left everything—every last cent, every fatted calf–to the ne’er-do-well. To the child they rarely saw and to whom they were no more than a revolving wallet.  To the runt of the litter.

Because, as they will sometimes have the grace to explain, “He just can’t take care of himself.” Because, “You’ll be okay, but she’ll need the money.”

And I say again, it is wrong. The parable is wrong; the real-life scenarios are wrong.

We need to give our love, our recognition, our gratitude and our appreciation to the sons and daughters who, like Son Number Two, “lo, these many years” serve and attend and care and demonstrate their affection–daily, weekly, continually. The ones who run their own lives well; who stick around and do the job of being good offspring.  The ones who are there every day; or who, if they live miles or states or countries away, are still constantly in touch.

The ones who are hardly noticed, because they don’t create chaos; don’t demand attention and bail money. The good sons and daughters, who deserve a fatted calf and a huge blowout party and acknowledgement–who should be cherished, just for being themselves.

I wish that, when the Prodigal Son returned, his father had handed him a hoe and a shepherd’s crook and ordered, “Get out there and show me exactly how sorry you are that you threw away everything I ever gave you. And you can have a room in the servant’s quarters and daily rations, but don’t ask for anything more until you’ve given me at least as much help as your brother has.  And I don’t want to see your face again until that happens.”

And then I wish he’d called Son Number Two to his presence and said, “Kid, put on your party duds. I am going to throw you the most amazing bash that’s ever been seen outside of the Pharaohs’ palace!”

That’s how the parable should have ended.

Reincarnate

I have believed in human reincarnation throughout most of my conscious life. Amazingly, I can even pinpoint in memory the day when, as an eight-year-old, I realized that I completely accepted the concept.

It was spring, near Easter, and I was sitting in church on a weekday morning, attending Mass at my Roman Catholic school. I was seated near one of the beautiful stained glass windows that frequently took my mind off the incomprehensible, still-in-Latin mass.  I even recall what I was wearing (as we didn’t wear uniforms at Holy Name in the early 1960s): a little yellow-striped seersucker skirt and top, brand-new, of which I was inordinately proud.

And as I sat there, mind wandering from the Mass, I realized that I didn’t question whether I had lived before; I only wondered, “But if I’ve lived before, why can’t I remember?”

I reached my 20s before I actually researched the concept of human rebirth, learned the difference between a belief in reincarnation and transmigration, read the multitude of accounts of those who had proof of an earlier life, and, finally, began to experience dreams which seemed to reveal brief moments of my own past existences.

For someone who does not accept the theory, all of this undoubtedly seems like a great deal of nonsense. And that’s fine. It would be a very boring world indeed if we all followed precisely the same path.  I’ve also reached the conclusion that some of us do choose to live but a single existence in this human plane (which is, after all, sometimes pretty close to Hell).  I’m sure there are souls which select the path of personal spiritual growth working wholly on the Other Side.

But the gift I have been given by a lifelong belief in human rebirth is a source of knowledge and a sense of comfort. I have a clear explanation for why certain individuals, certain situations, have been drawn into my life, sometimes over and over.  I understand that there are reasons, causes, and motivations behind the seemingly-random and often cruel events of life.  And I accept complete responsibility for my situation, knowing that I chose this life and these lessons – that my life is, in a sense, a do-over, and one which I requested.

I recall reading of one author in the 1950s who, having experienced memories of a past life that she found it impossible to deny, nevertheless found the whole concept horrifying. She used her memories in writing a novel, but she wasn’t at all happy with the idea. I understood her aversion.  The knowledge that we have made the choice to return to this life, might choose to do so again, can be harsh.  But there it is: I cannot un-believe something which walked into my consciousness in early childhood, and which simply makes such good sense to me.

Yet sometimes, I admit, when in the midst of grief and utter misery, I must acknowledge the sad truth: that believing we have only one life to live would actually be easier.

So very much easier.