This year has been hard.
In many ways, it has also been the best year of my life. I’ve felt myself coming closer to the happiness and purpose I’ve been striving after for years. But all this change has also unseated me from myself a little.
I thought that I could throw myself into a new sort of life—the life of academia and studying religion sociologically—without losing all of the purpose and meaning I had previously found. But because this Masters so completely took over my life, the more the year increased, the more I found that all of the powerful, nurturing, creative habits and feelings I had cultivated over the past few years slipped further and further out of my grasp.
The academic work, in and of itself, would have been challenging enough—but it would have been a challenge to relish without regret if it weren’t for this problem of a lack of balance in my life.
So I’m stepping forward into this PhD with a lesson learned, I hope. Without a full studentship, I am going into it with a little reluctance, and the gleam of academic life somewhat diminished. But perhaps this disillusionment is exactly what I needed to wake me up and remind me—a full-time academic life was never was I was looking for.
I also want to make sure, this year, that I have more freedom to go my own direction with my research. My reading was strictly guided this year by the sheer volume of reading necessary for all my classes: I simply didn’t have the time to read wider, to read beyond an embellishment of those prescribed texts. But now that I have more freedom, I want to return to the reasons I came here in the first place, and start injecting some of my own spirituality, my own passion, into my work.
More than that, I want to reawaken the part of me that I stirred up five years ago when I returned to spirituality. I came to spiritual practice out of a desperate need for something more, something deeper—a deep and presiding unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the shape of my life. It has become too important and central to my purpose in life to let it slumber again.
Perhaps more than the pressure of the Masters—and the hectic schedule of constant deadlines—what really drew me away from my spiritual side is an uncomfortable truth I have learned about myself. I am at my most vibrant, my most energetic, and perhaps my most intellectually creative when I am being extroverted; when my day revolves around the company of others, my social circle, and my interactions. But the more I relinquish my introversion and step into this shinier, shriller version of myself, the more my instinct for the spiritual, the artistic, and self-expression gets dulled.
And so I seem to be left with a terrible choice, or at least a very difficult balance to achieve. To feel most free and comfortable in myself, and let my social nature flourish, it seems I need to prioritise the social, and make sure I’m surrounded by others on a daily basis. But in order to maintain a more long-term sense of purpose and direction, I need to feel more deeply connected to Cosmos, to the awe and reverence it inspires in me—in other words, I need to prioritise the internal, and solitude.
A Crisis of Faith
This realisation, and the aspiritual place this extroverted year has brought me to, has left me thinking a lot—at the culmination of the academic year—about faith, and my relationship with God/dess. I have come to understand much more closely the concept of faith, and the difficulties in maintaining it. When spiritual development was my core focus in life, I was always directing my attention to those things that inspired spiritual feelings. And I found that over time, while my practice was always in flux, and ritual sometimes did not flow, my faith grew stronger. By this time last year, I was having regular spiritual experiences—moments of deep communion with God/dess. It did not occur to me, then, that this feeling—and the faith it inspired in me—could ever slip away.
But it did. Faith, I have found, is not so much a matter of belief, but a matter of habit. Being in the habit of being spiritual had sparked something in me that felt much closer to what I have heard Christians describe as faith in God than anything I had ever experienced. My God/dess looks a whole lot different to theirs. But the more I opened myself up to spiritual feeling, the more I felt a deep and abiding conviction in something more. I allowed myself to have faith in a possible cosmic divinity above and beyond our universe, above and beyond anything we can ever comprehend.
The problem is, this kind of divine presence is not something we actually feel or experience in our daily lives. If we are connecting to it regularly, bringing ourselves back to it through spiritual practice, I have found that I will catch glimpses of it in my daily life—in nature, in my connection with other people, in moments of stillness and peace that descend on me unbidden. But there is nothing concrete about these experiences. They require a certain mindset, a certain way of looking and feeling about the things around us, the things we touch and see and consume.
And I find that not only do I lack these experiences now that my spiritual practice has waned—I also find that I believe in it less. It is as if there is some threshold of spirituality, of faith, that I unknowingly crossed at some point along my spiritual path, during those four years of evolution. Once across that threshold, I could slip into a spiritual feeling almost at will. And doing so seemed important, real, meaningful.
But now that I have, just as unconsciously, slipped back across that threshold, I can no longer fully identify with what it felt like to be on the other side. Yes, I can remember the experiences. I catch glimpses of that feeling on walks, as I gaze up into trees, or out on the ocean. But it is almost as though I never went on that spiritual journey at all. I feel—for the first time in years—real doubt.
I know, intellectually, that just stretching that spiritual muscle more—reading inspiring books, spending time at the altar—will most likely very quickly draw me back across that threshold. But, weirdly, I don’t even have the drive necessary to do so. There is no motivation. Because on this side of the door, the world seems like a hollow and mechanical place.
My Journey is Your Journey
I’m aware that this lapse is not unique to me—spiritual slumps are talked about frequently in the community. But I feel like maybe, as a community, we don’t talk enough about just how debilitating these crises can be, spiritually. We don’t talk about doubt, because we don’t really talk about faith, either. The paradigm of this community is that faith is something Christian, something alien to our contemporary spirituality. We associate faith with dogma and blind following of institutions. But that is not what faith has come to mean for me. And I think embracing the concept of faith might help us avoid not only the slumps, but the often constant and dissatisfied spiritual seeking we continually partake in.
I may not need faith in doctrine. But I need faith in spirituality. I need faith in its importance. I need faith in divinity. As a pantheist, I need a particular kind of faith to allow me to continue to see this world as divine. I don’t believe in an interventionist divinity that can be proven, in this world, to exist. I believe instead in an ineffable divinity—the divinity of everything we are made of, of everything around us. And I maintain a blind faith—a hope, almost—in something more beyond. My God/dess can be felt, can be experienced. But only in the most abstract way. My God/dess is a way of seeing, a way of living, a way of feeling.
And so if I lose my faith, I lose everything. I lose motivation. And so this faith is something I need to find more ways to tap into, in the following months. I will share as much as I can, in the hopes that this will help some of you. Because despite all this doubt, there is still a part of me that believes very strongly that my experience is your experience—we are all one. So I know you feel this doubt too.
Let’s explore this thing together.