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Spiritual Inquiry

Sirr al-Basir / Lee Irwin

One challenge in spiritual development is finding a path, a dedicated way through a thicket of possibilities in a social context of pluralism and remarkable diversity. Such a path is a combination of beliefs, practices, and personal relationships that lead to a meaningful way of life, one that fully supports one’s deepest values and desires. In my own life, finding such a path has been a constant challenge because my interests in spiritual pathways are very broad, and never has so much information been available for study and assimilation.

We are in a unique historical time, an era of cultural exchange and contestation in which values are being confronted and reassessed, and are no longer reducible to an unchanging cultural context. We are challenged to adapt, consider multiple points of view, and undergo processes of self-evaluation in our search for spiritual goals. In this process of encounter and cultural transformation, where global influences are flashed through the shared mental life of humanity instantaneously by electronic media, the spiritual seeker can be easily overwhelmed or disoriented by the density of information and the lack of coherence among its sources. The sciences, art and literature, and social experimentations in gender, politics, or religion all provide variable contexts for the enactment of a wide range of possible spiritual pathways. The context for spiritual development is no longer easily reducible to a single system nor to an explicit teaching, but requires critical evaluation and comparative analysis.

We stand between worlds, on crossroad intersections, and we must choose pathways that cultivate intuitive aspirations and wisdom to help us find a way forward. How do we start? By asking questions that truly matter and are genuinely born from the heart of our deepest concerns. I call this process “spiritual inquiry” and regard it as a foundational practice whose intent is to clarify and articulate, in thought and action, an ongoing process of discovery and creative response. My practice of inquiry is both existential and reflexive; it requires continual self-evaluations and committed actions. It is not a practice done in isolation from the concerns and needs of others and thus has a strong service component based in compassion and genuine concern for shared well-being. And it is a creative process of discovery and synthesis often requiring an over-turning or reassessment of old values in order to instill and actualize new perspectives and spiritual ideals. The goal of this ongoing and life-long process is a continual deepening of inquiry where any level of questioning can unveil insights that lead, inevitably, to even more explicit inquiry. As a creative process of discovery, the liminal boundary is the place where our sufficiency and self-knowledge encounters depths that truly surpasses our known conceptions and beliefs. As beings engaged in evolutionary becoming, we can, with a humble sense of gratitude, cast our gaze beyond the turbulent present into the vastness of the Infinite where new modes of wisdom are being born through our commitments and aspirations.

The practice is to master the art of asking meaningful questions where “answers” are not the goal per se; what matters are insights into the processes of development that will nurture further growth. Every answer is relative to the need that is being addressed by the question. If we settle on fixed responses, become dogmatic and aggressively assert opinions, then we lose the developmental edge of inquiry. This is why the pathway of “heartfelt dialogue” is important in this process of inquiry. In a complex world of variable values, it is crucial that we cultivate a capacity for meaningful, respectful discussion in which inquiry is part of the process of shared insights. Spiritual inquiry seeks to move beyond the paradigm of authoritative speech, beyond expertise and special knowledge, and to foster mutual investigation of concerns motivated by intersecting interests open to change and transformation. This process is “existential” in the sense that my point of view is consistent with how I live, interact with others, and embody the values I hold to be most authentic in actualizing a spiritual path. And it requires recognizing the authenticity of others who may hold different values that can challenge my own views and attitudes. The creative life requires more than personal inspiring ideas or visions, it also requires negotiation, shared explorations, and a sense of how what is unique and surreal can contribute to the enrichment of our shared perceptions. Spiritual inquiry is directed to questions of social transformation as well as personal development; there is a need to balance all that is inner with what is emergent and shared.

In spiritual inquiry, the practice of self-evaluation is crucial. Such a practice has three primary elements: the ways in which the ideas and beliefs of others impact my own beliefs and ideas; the flexibility and adaptive capacity I cultivate in order to revise and mature my own views and values; and the power of love and compassion in this process that sustains mutual, heart-centered growth. By self-evaluation I mean an inner awareness of the legitimacy and integrity of core values and beliefs that can be subject to revision or development for the purpose of spiritual growth. That we hold core values as primary to our spiritual identity is obvious, but can we develop those values in relationship to our lived experience of the flux and flow of alternative beliefs and ideals? This is a question of spiritual inquiry. As the metaphysical English poet John Donne wrote, no person is an island, but each of us is “a part of the continent, a piece of the main,” and this observation means we are linked inevitably to the minds and hearts of others. Can we negotiate the relationship between our dearest and most trusted values with the equally authentic values of others? Can the sacred space of our interactions be enlivened with a living “presence” that honors the humanity and spiritual depths of each individual, regardless of our differences? Can we muster the courage and humility necessary for truthful conversation whose goal is a deepening of shared insights? These are only a few of the genuine questions of spiritual inquiry.

The way forward must also be an inward way, a path that sheds light on the hidden aspects of our own motivations or desires. One revealing context for cultivating a more conscious awareness of inner process is the importance of dreams, imaginings, and other spontaneous manifestations of subconscious life. Spiritual inquiry is not simply about rational questions, nor is it based in commitment to strictly conscious values. The subliminal and hyper-liminal depths of the psyche, the “unknown territory” of the soul, are resources for self-analysis that often reveals the unassimilated aspects of our longings and commitments. What do our dreams teach us? This is a question for spiritual inquiry, all the way down to the specifics of dream imagery and the discreet emotions manifest in dream life. The “whole person” is not simply defined by the rational, value-centered self, but embraces the liminal realms of human perception, the deeply mystical aspects of presence and spiritual encounter. Our inquiry into spirituality should embrace the depths and heights of our human capacities without being confined to a particular context that might limit our potential.

As a creative process, the practice of spiritual inquiry is open to all realms of human life, to all domains of knowledge, and to all walks of life that promote and sustain cooperation, compassionate concern, and respect for all living beings. This certainly applies to our intrinsic bonds with the natural world, to deep sensory awareness that continues to inform our being when we allow, cultivate, and honor the very ground of our becoming. The question here is: To what degree do we allow and cultivate our relationship to the natural world to inform our spiritual practice? Spiritual inquiry as I understand it is not simply about humanity, it is also about all creatures of land and sea and sky, about all living beings, about plants, trees, mountains, springs and swamps. Our task, our spiritual calling, is rooted in the earth, in the living tissue of Gaia, in the grove and garden, in the flower and fruit of a world in need of our utmost respect and love. What is our proper relationship to all animal life? What is our correct relation with a living planet whose health and well-being requires mutual care and deep respect? Animate nature, the sentience of creaturely life, extends beyond our planetary home into a living cosmos of alternate worlds and beings.  How ow do we cultivate and develop our awareness of those alternate worlds? Our task, our calling, is also cosmological and inseparably part of a much larger process of becoming that requires our utmost efforts at inquiry to reveal our interdependence and spiritual obligations.

Spiritual inquiry also engages the feminine, Sophianic wisdom, in order to bring to clarity the optimal relationship between gender perspectives, to incorporate a diversity of orientations into the alchemy of social transformation. I see the feminine as foundational to the arising of an ancient wisdom whose contemporary purpose is the proper balancing of energies, attitudes, and ideas both masculine and feminine. How may this alchemical marriage bring about the revitalization of spiritual identity in new modes of social expression? How may the new partnership be forged in ways that will be exemplary for future generations? And how will our joint relations model a cosmos whose integrity best expresses a mutual becoming, without privileging one gender over the other? Our mutual spiritual development is a shared task, a co-gendered creation in which multiple gender perspectives can contribute to harmonious differentiation. How can we foster this process of social transformation? The vital seeds of creativity and artful expression draw their energies from a supportive ground that honors a wide range of manifestations. In this process of expressive discovery, can we develop a center whose contents illuminate the core of our creative potential? Can we identify the art, music, science, and social expressions that best serve our individualized development toward spiritual realization and fulfillment?

As spiritual inquiry is an open horizon of exploration, I will close this brief meditation with a few summary comments. For me, spiritual inquiry is a process of continual investigation of possibilities that can contribute to positive, meaningful human development. There is no domain of inquiry that is uniquely “spiritual”; rather spiritual inquiry can engage any domain of activity or interest that we sincerely pursue. The “spiritual” aspect is in the intention to discover meaning and insights that enhance the quality and value of all planetary life without bringing harm or injustice to others. This spiritual intention, to cultivate hospitality, receptivity, and grounded kindness through creative, respectful, loving relationships while maintaining genuine integrity, is the fundamental basis of human development. Every answer, every conclusion, can be a basis for further inquiry as we assimilate insights, let them mature, and then ask yet deeper questions. Spiritual inquiry is a dynamic, interactive stance toward life as Mystery, a creative process that calls us to become more than we currently are. So might we be, so we are. Selah!

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Image: Rabia Povich, Rochers de Nayes, Switzerland

Lee Irwin is a Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the College of Charleston where he teaches world religions with an emphasis on Native American traditions, western esotericism, hermeticism, contemporary spirituality, mystical cosmology, and transpersonal religious experience as related to dreams and visions. He is the Vice President of the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) and a board member of the Sophia Institute and the Institute for Dream Studies. He has been a workshop leader and group facilitator for over twenty years, particularly in the areas of visionary cosmology and the development of the sacred human. He is the author of many books and articles, including: The Dream Seekers, Visionary Worlds, Awakening to Spirit: On Life, Illumination, and Being, The Alchemy of Soul, and Coming Down From Above: Prophecy, Resistance, and Renewal in Native American Religions.

Read more about Lee Irwin

Comments (3)
  • Impeccable, thank you very much for this writing +++++

    — Carlos Mondejar Otero on January 2, 2015

  • Beautiful ~ Thank you!

    — Betsy Grund on January 5, 2015

  • sirr al-basir needs some some cutting into, after all it comes at the title,otherwise thank you for an inspiring enquiry

    — abdul monem on January 24, 2015

31 December 2014

Tagged Under
love, spiritual practice, interfaith, creativity, compassion, discovery, presence, Heart-Centered Conversation, awakening, self-evaluation, spiritual inquiry,
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