By Monica Bethelwood
My husband and I recently got into an argument.
I can’t quite remember the context, or how it started (well, I’m pregnant, so it most likely arose out of a hormone-fueled perception of him that I mistook as reality), but I know that I was nagging him. Probably I said something like this:
“Nag nag nag…You have to do better!…nag nag nag…You’re not living up to your full potential!…nag nag…We have to do more YOGA!!…nag…and eat more organic vegetables and meditate!!..nag…NAG!!”
As I went on (and on and on), I saw the storm clouds passing over his face as he listened to my incessant babbling.
When I’d finished and a few moments of tense silence had gone by, he quietly responded.
“I’m so tired of this. This whole self-progress obsession…It’s everywhere here in Asheville, and it’s in you too. When can we just be? When can we just be OK? When can I just be OK? Does it always have to be some race to the top of the mountain? I know I’m not perfect, but can we just let go of this obsession with self-improvement, for like, a day?”
It struck home. What was I doing? Why couldn’t I just let him be OK? And an even bigger question: Why couldn’t I just let myself be OK?
A few days later, I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine, someone I’ve known as a devout Christian for many years. They told me that they are “detoxing from Christian fundamentalism.”
The word “fundamentalism” struck a chord inside me. It connected to the argument a few days ago, when I’d slipped on the slope of my own words, and found myself looking at my own habits and the habits that surround me here in Asheville.
“Have I just been caught up in my own form of spiritual fundamentalism?” I wondered.
It was a familiar reflection for me. The longer I’ve been in Asheville, the more questions I’ve had about the New Age/Spiritual culture, around which a large chunk of Asheville’s scene seems to revolve. Something has felt missing in all the seeking, something missing at the heart of it all.
When I first got here, I felt like I had finally found my community — the weird, eccentric, earth-loving and crystal-slinging hippies who ate organic food and did lots of yoga and really loved their dogs. I attended “Native American” medicine circles, healing/grief rituals, Peruvian medicina ceremonies, went to herbalism school, worked at a New Age store doing tarot readings, went to ecstatic dance meet-ups, did breathwork and goddess workshops, and did a lot of Vinyasa flow yoga. Right now, there’s a bamboo tipi in my backyard from last month’s prayer circle.
But something funny happened over time. Or rather, something didn’t happen.
All of that peace, understanding, healing and clarity I thought I’d find through it all never came.
Sure, I’ve made some wonderful friends, had some deep spiritual revelations and even experienced some personal healing, as well as a stronger connection to God, aka The Great Holy Moly, and myself.
But still, a nagging feeling of spiritual dissatisfaction has grown the more I search for spiritual satisfaction.
Why? I’ve wondered. What is missing? My life looks good on upcycled New Age paper, why do I feel so jaded and frustrated?
The conversation I had with my friend brought me back to a revelation that came a couple of years ago, when Matthew and I started going to church again. How had I lost track of it?
(I can hear all the New Agers and Yogis gasp in horror at the idea of going back to church. Before you light the Palo Santo, give me a chance to explain.)
We started going to church again because we were craving community. Despite all the “community” in Asheville, we still were feeling isolated. All the spiritual community seemed hard to access and even cliquey.
We ended up at the First Presbyterian Church downtown, where our musical skills (my husband and I are actually part-time musical geniuses, FYI) were utilized and our youth and more progressive viewpoints were truly appreciated, in contrast to the more old school Christian attendants.
It wasn’t easy for me to start going back to church though. Being a tarot reader, herbalist and general skeptic of Christianity made me feel like I was walking into a den of lions that were going to pounce on me and all my blatant heathenism as soon as I sat my butt in a pew. But of course, that didn’t happen.
Everyone was incredibly nice and welcoming.
Like a lot of my friends, I had actually grown up in a quasi-Christian household. My mother would drag me to church every Sunday in downtown Albany, where I’d go to Sunday School and sing “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” and squint my way through bible passages in miniscule print.
When I was about 11-years-old, I coincidentally started getting sick every Sunday morning around 9 a.m. My mother would see through my thin story, but often let me get away with it and drove to church alone.
Sunday morning cartoons were nothing compared to Saturday morning cartoons, but they beat the alternative of another incomprehensible sermon.
Even at that young age, I felt something missing in my experience of spirituality. There was something huge and unfathomable I could sense behind the veil of droning verses, age-old hymns, and even the baptisms that occasionally took place, but it wasn’t clicking. The Holy Spirit wasn’t getting in. So I left Christianity, like many of my fellow spiritual seekers.
I turned instead to the religions of other cultures. I was drawn to Buddhism especially, and then Hinduism, and then moved on into studying Shamanism and energy healing and more New Age practices. Soon my spiritual identity was a mishmash of almost every religious and spiritual foundation I had come across, except the one I’d inherited: Christianity.
When I went back to church a couple years ago, it was with a pretty big Spiritual Ego, though I didn’t know it then. But going back also filled me with humility.
I felt like a child returning to the parent from whom I’d run away.
I was filled with conflicting emotions at my return — anger, sadness, confusion, joy, but more pressing was the desire to find out WHY I had really come back.
This is the answer I found: By turning my back on Christianity, the religion of my ancestors and heritage, I had turned my back on a huge puzzle-piece, the most gigantic missing link in my search for spiritual peace. At the heart of Christianity, beyond all the distortion, wounding and suffering, lies one of the most important spiritual keys: Service to Others.
It’s that simple.
Jesus’ main message was to serve and love others.
(You don’t even have to believe that Jesus was a real person to get down with that.)
Christianity was the only religious and spiritual path I had come across whose foundation is in selfless community service. Church members were always participating in food banks, raising money for nonprofit organizations and helping the less fortunate. And on top of it all, most of them seemed truly happy, despite not always living the more organic, free-range spiritual kind of lifestyles.
Witnessing this, the puzzle-piece clicked loudly into place. I had figured out what’s missing.
The dilemma of today’s spiritual seekers is that they have become self-obsessed.
The good spirited efforts to journey inward, heal our wounds and find our peace have actually gone ahead and created an ego of monstrous proportions: The self-serving spiritualist.
Despite this, I would bet it’s possible that many of us come from Christian backgrounds or families that have deep Christian or Catholic roots.
Many of us branched out and away from those roots for obvious reasons. But it might just be essential that we return to gather what was lost when we fled. Even for those of us who never identified as Christian, there is wisdom there that we cannot afford to turn our backs on through our jadedness if we are on the spiritual path.
Just as we have welcomed so many other cultures’ philosophies and theories into our hearts, could it be time to welcome Christianity as well? The religious and spiritual culture so many of us come from in this country?
Is that not the biggest spiritual leap we could now make?
I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with the spiritual practices, traditions and ceremonies we have been exploring. I love yoga, Reiki and chanting mantras around bonfires just as much as the next Ashevillean. I think it has been truly necessary to do this exploring, because it has deepened our capacity for self-awareness and awareness of the divine that lives in all.
But this awareness is fundamental for the next step (because there is a next step, and it’s not another self-improvement workshop), which is accountability and responsibility to our community and the world.
And that means stepping outside of ourselves.
I was reminded a couple of years ago that Christianity is beautiful in its essence, not in it’s obvious distortion, and that serving our community and others can be more rewarding than a thousand hours of meditation and all the ecstatic dance of a Saturday afternoon. I learned more about my spirituality and myself in that return to the church than I had in all my spiritual searching thus far.
This past week I was brought back to that revelation. I had forgotten it because once again I had got caught up in the web of self-obsession, my own version of self-satisfying spirituality.
Because of that remembering, today’s question is “How can I elevate my community?” instead of “How can I elevate myself?”
Because, in the end, what elevates my community will elevate me as well. It’s a beautiful circle, really.
It’s apparent that fundamentalism can occur anywhere. We, the spiritual seekers must beware of the ways our spiritual searching has served to only isolate us more and has created more suffering than healing; the ways in which it has generated more questions than answers; the ways it has made us more self-important in our suffering and less humble in our humanity. The ways it has made us a tribe of cliques and pretension rather than a community of humble souls in service to the world.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to loosen our grip on healing ourselves and freeing ourselves from suffering. Maybe it’s time to stop finding ourselves and time to start losing ourselves in service to others.
Perhaps it could be as simple as reaching out to a friend in need, helping a neighbor with a project or bringing a sandwich to the homeless person who begs in front of your office building. It could mean volunteering for a nonprofit that needs some extra hands. It could mean calling your mom and really, truly listening to her.
It could be anything in which you forget yourself for a moment and give selflessly to another.
And maybe that giving, those moments of selfless service, could become just as essential a daily practice as our yoga and meditation.
Because maybe only through this service can we truly find the freedom and community for which we are searching.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13
Monica Bethelwood is a writer, intuitive, tarot reader, musician and artist. She lives with her husband Matthew in Asheville with their furry entourage of cats and dogs. Her website is http://monicabethelwood.com/