Most of us walking the spiritual path bring along a lot of baggage, both in the form of things that we have found unsatisfactory and things that we have truly enjoyed and found beneficial. Naturally, when we encounter experiences and images that remind us of bad experiences we tend to reject them and shut down – no matter the quality of the person or presentation behind what has triggered us. Equally naturally, when we encounter something that reminds us of an experience we enjoyed or found enriching we feel right at home – regardless of the quality of the actual presentation behind the familiar.
This becomes especially problematic for those of us trying to reach others with a message or a story from our own experience that might benefit others. In 2006 I attended a conference where a since discredited young bishop was in attendance, dressed for all the world like he was Bishop Fulton Sheen cloned. Unfamiliar with his audience – though he should have been – he alienated them by appearing to be a representative of the same Church that had injured many if not most of them. He could have been trying to give away hundred-dollar bills and still not had success with that group dressed as he was.
Buddhist teacher Noah Levine tells the story of attending a conference where a number of highly regarded American Buddhist teachers were present. Understanding the value of humility and having engaged in decades of spiritual practice, these teachers were dressed the way they typically dress – in various casual styles of street clothes. At least one person in attendance was dressed in robes like those worn by Hindu adepts, his long hair tied in a knot atop his head. Someone Noah knew told him that the guy in robes was so very spiritual – not realizing that “teacher” had just come off a twenty year crack binge and only recently returned to spiritual practice.
What is one to do? The truth is that, whether we are trying to convey or ingest a message, spirituality is a lot like eating. Fast food isn’t good for you, though at times the convenience of picking up a quick teaching or practice – balanced with a fair amount of caution – can be beneficial. We may have preconceived notions about what a spiritual person “looks” like, but the only way to truly evaluate their teachings is to spend some time with them. We all have good and bad days, after all. As in life, there are no shortcuts on the spiritual journey.
We can also notice that spiritual teachers, like the rest of us, mature over time if they are engaged in authentic spiritual practice. Newer and younger teachers often generate a bit of much-needed self-confidence by dressing the part. I can remember being called to my first church and buying my first vestments. I accumulated a huge collection of robes and other vestments over my first three years, and since then haven’t bought many at all. Honesty compels me to admit some of those purchases were do to my weight fluctuations, but as my ministry has grown so has the range of clothing I wear. There’s still nothing quite like a comfortable pair of jeans and a sweatshirt in my book.
The truth is that all of life, including the spiritual journey, is a constant process of re-evaluating our progress. Hopefully we retain the things that work and are able to let go of the things that don’t. We don’t have to be perfect in making those choices, we just have to consistently engage the questions. That can lead to periods of discomfort and uncertainty – but hasn’t that always been the raw material of growth?