The purpose of a spiritual friend is to insult us

Posted by on 09.30.07 | 8 Comments
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Recently on a crowded continental flight from Atlanta to Portland, I was seated at the window, and on the aisle of my row was a young man in his early 20′s. He was a nice enough lad, said he was in nursing school, wanted to talk. As I didn’t choose to chat, I read my book, and he started up a conversation with a young woman across the aisle from him. They talked and talked and talked without a pause for 4 hours. This young man talked with each of the stewards, the people walking by to the bathroom. I just wanted him to SHUT UP! AND he wore his pants down around his butt when he stood up. Are you getting the picture? Well somewhere over Kansas, we hit a patch of weather and the plane dropped a few hundred feet. The young man groaned, and bent over, clutching the handles of his seat. I didn’t take a lot of notice, as I was engaged in my book, and I’m not a nervous flyer. As we began to descend over the northwest, we hit several patches of weather where the plane lurched and dropped. He again doubled over, groaning, and all of a sudden I realized that he was petrified of flying. Of course he was talking non-stop. My heart did a little flip over of its own when I realized how harshly I had judged his defenses…I immediately registered that it was my incessantly judging mind that needed to SHUT UP!

I’ve been doing some thinking and talking about Pema Chodron’s quote “the real purpose of a spiritual friend is to insult us” for awhile. We could spend some time defining our terms (spiritual, friend, insult) but I’m going to leave those definitions to others and go towards the heart of the matter from my perspective.

Richard Rohr says this about “spiritual fixes” in Letting Go: The Spirituality of Subtraction

So many people I met in Africa walk around with a calmness, a self-assurance and a sense of presence that many of our people no longer have. And you say, “This doesn’t make any sense. We’ve tried so hard to be OK, to affirm one another and give ourselves ‘positive personal regard.’” The self-esteem movement is a national business.

If what I’m seeing in the American Church is the fruit of all that stroking, I don’t think it’s working at all. In fact, it seems like these folks need a fix every few days. Many seem incapable of really grasping the good news, taking it into their hearts, standing with it and moving forward with it to lives of surrender, service or silence. Instead, it’s a world of noise and weak identity, where we need constant reassurance, someone to be holding our hand all the time and telling us, “You’re good. God loves you.”

In most, if not all, spiritual paths, 2 aspects of spiritual development are of almost equal weight: challenging the seekers to deeper clarity, broader inclusion, sweeter devotion, right action, etc. and comfort for the seekers in times of struggle, strife, grief and chaos. Where most of our current spiritual communities seem to go a bit astray is the comfort part. Even our challenges have begun to look like comfort!

As I talked about with a local spiritual community this past weekend, it seems that we humans are a young species, not fully human yet (not my original thought). Taking baby steps towards being more fully human, it would seem that not needing to have/assuming that it’s our right to have, so many ‘spiritual fixes’ is an important part of that maturing. To break that addiction towards being coddled, if we need to be insulted, or shown our blind-spots, or jolted into recognition, so be it!

We’re not talking about typical insults. We’re talking about the ones that shake us to our core, because we know that they have shown us something that is crying out to be transformed.

Here’s how these insults might come to us:

Challenges to our thought/action/reaction patterns

When we wake up and realize that our lives don’t fit our theology

Challenges to our self-image

Challenges to re-think what we need

Challenges to love what we think is unloveable

Challenges to forgive what we consider unforgiveable

Challenges to view ourselves in ways which make us constitutionally uncomfortable

Now, for the really fun part: these ‘insults’ can come from anywhere–neighbors, friends, animals, homeless people, salespeople, people we don’t like (especially people we don’t like!), authors, and especially those who consider themselves spiritual friends.

So, the irritation on the plane and the resulting judgement (or is it the other way around?!) which resulted in the ah-ha moment of self-awareness dealt a blow to that self-rightous part of me that thinks it deserves its space, needs to be right. The constant judgements about the young man next to me were unconscious and then became revolting to me when I woke up for an instant.

The trick then is: to not judge my judgements…because being in that state of harboring resentments–even against myself–takes me out of the loop for really being challenged or ‘insulted’ This hunkered down stance sort of says, “I’m challenging myself enough, thank you. The rest of you leave me alone.”

Anchoring myself in an open-hearted stance of “I don’t know” so that the world can be my teacher and insult me on an hourly basis is my goal. I want the calmness and presence that are at my core to be front and center, and my life is to be increasingly about service, surrender and silence. So…bring on the insults!

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Beth, VTH Host




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