By Jon Berry
I'M THINKING ABOUT INVENTING A SPIRITUAL GPS. I NEED A device to guide me through life decisions. I can see it in my mind’s eye. It would sit on the dashboard of my car or reside in the memory of my mobile phone, just like geographic GPS. I would tap in a question: Change careers? Move? Become a spiritual wanderer? Stay put? The machine would whir, beep, then pop out an insight.
“Let go…now.” “Exercise loving-kindness…now.” “Listen…carefully.” “Caution: Attachment.” “Center down…into silence.” “Heed…Light.” “Engage…gratitude.” “Surrender…now.” “Follow…bliss.” “Be…present.”
The wisdom would be delivered in the voices of beloved teachers. The Dali Lama (with giggle option). The rough brogues of the poets/lecturers John O’Donohue (Irish) and David Whyte (Welsh). The Buddhism of Tara Brach (calm, soft) and Sharon Salzberg (urban, deadpan). The Midwestern mellow of the Quaker Parker Palmer. And people I know – elders from Quaker Meeting, 12-step sponsors, my friend just back from an adventure vacation to Africa with a new mantra (“3-2-1 Bungeee!”).
There’d be quotes I’ve copied onto scraps of paper and tucked into my wallet: “Life involves one risk after another.” “It can work. It may work. I’m open to finding out."
And prayers. Like “the two best prayers” the writer Anne Lamott says she knows: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Or the archly funny morning and nighttime prayers of a woman she knows: “Whatever” (said in the morning) and “Oh, well” (said at night). They are similar to the morning and bedtime prayers of a friend of mine: respectively, "Show me" and "Thank you."
I’d program in the Serenity Prayer, maybe breaking its pleas for serenity, courage, and wisdom into three prayers (the way I often recite them). Plus the mantra a Buddhist teacher gave me during a challenging time: “Let this serve to awaken me.”
There’d be random bits of insight gleaned recently from conversations, emails, and books I’ve been reading. Like: “In a difficult time, always carry something beautiful in your heart,” from John O’Donohue's book Anam Cara. And this one, also from Anam Cara: “We are sent into the world to live to the full everything that awakens within us and everything that comes to us.”
I'd include light-in-dark-times propositions like this one from Anne Lamott (which, like her quotes above, is from her wonderful memoir Traveling Mercies): “When a lot of things go wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born.” I'd have messages forwarded by friends, like "Happiness is a muscle we must use or it will wither away" (a Marianne Williamson quote) and "Remember: we're not in the outcomes business" (a 12-step reminder to let go). And sayings I've found on friends' refrigerators, like these two spotted this week: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature; beautiful old people are works of art” (Eleanor Roosevelt) and "Always make new mistakes" (Esther Dyson). And ancient wisdom like the Celtic belief that nature is "latently and actively spiritual" (O'Donohue).
You've probably noticed that my spiritual Automat isn't big on specific direction. There’s no “turn right, then left, and, bingo, you’re there.” I don’t believe an algorithm exists that can tell us how to get to where we want to go spiritually. Nobody’s been there and come back. We all have our own lives to lead, with our individual choices to make, from matters small (“fix the windows or start painting the front hall?”) to large (“what do I do with my life now?”). The wisdom we gather can only point in a general direction -- what the writer Brent Bill calls the "sacred compass." We need to be like the friend who recently described turning off the car’s GPS to drive home, “scared but brave.”
Perhaps what I crave is not a full-blown GPS but a low-tech phone app -- or no-tech Magic 8-Ball -- a go-anywhere repository of the insight I’ve scribbled into “quote journals,” slipped into books, briefcases, and wallets, and carried in pants pockets until the pants got washed (field note: true insight doesn’t always “come out in the wash”).
Maybe someday someone will devise an e-Harmony for the soul. Fill out a questionnaire and get all the answers. But I hope not. There should always be room for serendipity, that random event that sends us off life’s interstate onto the small, squiggly kinds of roads where William Least Heat Moon regained his sense of self in the off-the-beaten path memoir Blue Highways.
I want something that creates space rather than closes it off – a device that nudges me back toward the expansiveness of morning meditations, Buddhist silent retreats, and Quaker silent worship. O’Donohue notes that an original meaning of “salvation” was “space.” Similarly, the directions shouldn't be too obvious, but true to what O'Donohue recalls is the root of the word “revelation”: “re-valere,” to “veil again.” I love it when Anne Lamott throws down the challenge, asking why God uses “dreams, intuition, memory, phone calls, vague stirrings in the heart” rather than something more direct; then admits she's tempted to say it “really doesn’t work” for her; but then confesses, “except it does.”
Sometimes we just need to shake the Magic 8-Ball to see what vague answer rolls to the top out of the cloudy ink ("Magic 8-Ball, what is the meaning of life?" "Yes."). And, when we get stuck, shake it again.
I learned from a friend to keep a journal of quotes. I've filled up two so far. In my recent rush to finish up the books I've been reading (Anam Cara; How the Irish Saved Civilization) and start readings for an upcoming seminary class (Traveling Mercies), and the gleanings of emails and conversations, I've currently got a surplus. Some that didn't make this week's essay but are being tucked into my quote journal include, "We are so privileged to still have time" (O'Donohue), "Pain is the requisite of change. So is fear" (a friend). "Accept good feelings. No questions asked!" (another friend).