Doors are not windows. Windows are not doors.
Assuming we are located within an enclosure, windows are clear barriers we look through to see what is outside. We can observe without changing our immediate environment. Doors are portals out of or into a different environment. When venturing from inside to out, we experience a larger world; one that encapsulates our former enclosure. In essence, when we go outside, we not only see but we experience a greater reality. We gain perspective experientially by stepping into it rather than conceptually by simply viewing it. In a car, for instance, the scenery passes outside. You observe it from within a controlled environment, which is a smaller, temporary “reality”. If it is snowing outside and we are traveling in a temperature controlled vehicle, there may be a great deal of difference between our indoor reality and the larger realty. We don’t experience what’s outside – the greater reality - unless we use the door. Even if you have a convertible, you will never directly fully experience the greater reality unless you stop and exit the enclosure. Only then can you hear the crunching of the gravel (or ice) under your feet, see the flora and fauna in detail and get a truer sense of the reality of the environment.
OK so far? Let’s proceed.
In spirituality, ceremony is a window. It is a glimpse into a greater reality, something to set a course by. By definition, ceremony is a snapshot because it occurs for a finite amount of time. I just returned from the Sun Dance, an indigenous ceremony that features voluntary but necessary privation and discomfort for four days preceding, the four days of ceremony and, if you’re wise, the four days afterward for recovery. During that time, participants get a glimpse of themselves, of Spirit, of the earth and her children of every form. The privation in this ceremony takes the form of a four day fast from food and water. It’s apparent then, since we need food and water to survive, that this ceremony cannot go on indefinitely. Instead, it has a beginning and an end. Any participant in heavy ceremony like this can tell you that after a few days the vision fades and he or she is left with the memory of the ceremony, which implants itself into the soul of the participant in varying degrees depending on the strength of their preparation and participation. What is implanted is more than a memory alone, but less than a permanent change. It is, however, a potential catalyst for change.
Most spiritual paths have their ceremonial windows, from the Pagans and their planetary and seasonal ceremonies to the Christians and their communion and baptism, to the Jews and Passover, the Muslims and Ramadan, Hindus and about a million of their own ceremonies. Ceremony is central to any spiritual path because without a glimpse into the greater reality we are driving blind. We may see clearly from time to time without ceremony, but a ceremony properly conducted and prepared for should give a soul a greater and clearer view than we are able to receive in any other way.
Let’s take for example a Buddhist ceremony, a ten day silent meditation retreat. Although that may not qualify as a ceremony in the strictest sense, it works in this instance. Anyone who has been on one of these can tell you that plenty of their own “stuff” (I’m being PC) comes up during this time. They get very clear about themselves, who they are, what is important to them and what is not, the victories, the losses and how much of it matters, and why. Every person I’ve spoken to about their experience in this type of ceremony has had a hard time leaving the meditation center when the experience comes to a close. Some have even made it their permanent residence. Others have researched doing so. Most return for more, or plan to. Why? They love the view. They want to live in the greater reality. The question is, how do we do this?
How do we avoid the post-ceremony letdown?
This is where does the door comes in. The answer is in our day to day practices. This is the door.
Let’s take three very different examples of what a door looks like. First, the Christians.
Robert has been attending Catholic mass on and off for the bulk of his life. But recently he lost his father in a car accident and his mother is in a nursing home with early-onset Alzheimers. This is a very challenging time for him, sparking much introspection. As he has reviewed his life, Robert felt compelled to focus more on the spiritual realms than the physical, searching for a kind of stability he is unable to find. As he did so in small ways, he began to feel an awakening. This took him to his first confession he’s had in two decades. The experience was cathartic. He opened his Bible and read about the last supper. Something shifted even further. He was excited to participate in communion for the first time in ages. When he did so, he felt a lightness that he remembered feeling as a boy. He felt close to God through Jesus Christ. He felt loved, no matter what he did. Concern about his mother melted away. He knew that just as he was beloved, she was as well, and that all would be well in the end. His father, he also knew instinctively because of this experience, was happy and free and, somehow, knew him and was still connected. His temper seemed, well, tempered. He was more understanding with his family members and felt a desire to reach out to them. He looked into the eyes of a homeless beggar and sincerely apologized to him for not having change on hand, and wished him well. And the next day he gave him $5. He caught himself smiling, and riding in silence in his car because he simply enjoyed the peace he felt inside and felt that most of the music he once enjoyed might chase it away. In short, Robert felt like a new man.
Robert has experienced a window. He was prepared to see in this way for several reasons. First, the experiences in his life, when lined up with his experiences as a child and the natural bent of his soul, pointed him toward the possibility of finding stability in spiritual things rather than the physical world. Without the ability to ask this question – is it possible to find greater peace in what I can’t see than what I can – he is stuck looking for answers in his current way of being. Without going too far afield, he might distract himself from the question with consumerism, entertainment, travel, eating or drinking, drugs or sex. But he did not, in this instance anyway. The experience I related above gave him a view of a greater reality, one that encapsulates all the other smaller realities of day-to-day living in the culture in which he lives. He did not turn into a monk. He is anew within his ordinary reality because generally speaking, we see into the greater reality from where we currently are. A Westerner generally does not move to Nepal after a window experience, because that is not the reality. Generally. The question that remains is what will he do with the view?
He has two ways that he can go. The first is very common. He has the experience and takes strength from it in the moment but he never steps through the door into living the kind of life that continually renews and perpetuates the view he experienced in the window. To use the car metaphor, he never stops the car and exits. Eventually the view fades, overtaken by new sights – which are really just the old sights in new disguises because life is like that – and he is left with greater depth of experience, but not a new way of consistently experiencing the larger, more expansive reality. He is more likely the next time he is challenged to return to his way of experiencing Spirit, but he does not live there. He may be more empathetic, may have more wisdom, but his mode of living is largely the same. When he encounters the great challenge at the end of his own life, he will seek a spiritual release. Those that love him will seek a Christian burial. But he will have missed the depth of soul he might have cultivated had he walked through the door via daily practice. He becomes, in essence, a “church-going” Christian attending on holy days and patriotic events. But lacking introspection and depth from daily practice, his life will never be one that will allow him to know the humble Galilean. He will pass from this life just knowing facts about him from the Bible, highlighted with ceremonial views.
The second way Robert can choose is to use the window to inspire him to walk through the door. What does this look like? It’s hard to say, because we don’t have the time to winnow every aspect of Robert’s soul. What I mean by that is that Robert’s soul, like yours and mine, is not only multi-faceted, it is multi-dimensional. This is not his first rodeo, so to speak. He has lived before, and/or concurrently, elsewhere. I am not necessarily talking about reincarnation, although that concept works well enough for now, whether it is true as we currently understand it or not. Suffice it to say he has made decisions before he ever came to earth. In some religions this is called his “first estate.” Moreover, when he lived before mortality, he was not alone. Promises to others were made, contracts entered into. To surmise about all of this would take volumes, which is why it is less than fruitless to ever judge another human being. We simply do not know and cannot comprehend where they’ve been and what their mission is here on earth. But we can assume one thing: Robert, like all of us, is called to identify with a greater reality than the one presented by Western culture. We were not meant to be mere spectators of the greater reality, either. We are called to see the view (window), and then stop the vehicle and explore the landscape from the vantage of mortality in the place and plane in which we find ourselves. Let’s say Robert does this. He does not have formal religious training, but he is sensitive enough via the continuing challenges of family and life and the recent experience he had with communion and the Bible that when he feels himself start slipping back into his old self, he goes to see the priest to whom he made the confession. This is his spiritual guide for the time being. If the priest is worth his salt, he will listen to Robert, realize what has happened and what is happening, and invite him to go into himself to access Spirit. He will give Robert tools to perpetuate the view – further ceremony, opportunities for service, etc. – and will show him a daily practice. This is the most important aspect that the priest will give Robert because it is dependent upon nothing but Robert. He does not have to make an appointment; he just has to make time. So the priest tells Robert about meditation. He introduces him to some Buddhist teachings on it and shows him how to turn meditation into a prayer to Jesus, just like the early Christians did. He teaches him how to pray without using words at all, just like the early Christians did. He shows him his own altar, explains how it is the same and how it is different from a church altar, and tells how he can set up his own at his home. He explains the concept of sacred space and gives him some breathing exercises. He encourages him to journal about his spiritual path and to record his dreams. In essence, the good priest is showing Robert how to move into the greater reality from within the one in which he normally lives.
Robert still goes to work every day. But his priority has shifted slightly (for now). He enjoys his work, but he loves his morning and evening routines. Why? Because it gives him the same view he had before… but now it is his reality. He lives in it, and he feels his soul growing in ways he never imagined. He is far more introspective. He is deeply honest about his motives behind his actions. He senses energy and intent behind conversations and entertainment and acts accordingly because he loves the view more than what takes him out of it. (Most of the time; Robert is not perfect.) Of greatest worth to him is that Robert finds he can identify with the person of Jesus far more than before. Through his practice, Robert is coming to know who Jesus is. It has nothing to do with a good Bible teacher or even about the Bible; it has to do with how Robert lives and his ability to see within himself. Frankly there has never been another way to know Jesus, or any spiritual teacher, than this. It is about action, not words.
The bottom line is this: if you do only windows, you are an addict. You have lost your base. Sunday Christians fall into this category. So do heroin, sugar, anger and sex addicts. Spirituality was never meant to be a weekly or monthly or “holidays only” endeavor. We are not meant to live, with our wild and beautiful souls, inside a drab home waiting for the next time we get to stand in front of a widow. We are meant to thrive, to explore, to play in the wild expansive Eden that is this land we call Earth.
If you feel trapped; in a relationship, a religion, a habit… the key is always available. Make the choice to ask yourself questions about your situation. Honest questions. Hard questions. And then act. Find a trusted advisor, a spiritual counselor within or outside your path to set you on a course. Not to teach you their truths, but to show you how to get your own, to find your door into the soulful life you are meant to live.
And then get out there and live it.