A close friend is going through a time. Many of us have been there: that place where old habits and excuses catch up to us and we are shunted onto new pathways by necessity—if we are to survive, and most certainly if we are to thrive. These crossroad life experiences are painful, but they are also what transformations are made of, they are what make life worth living and turn us wise. Looking back on our lives, most of us wouldn’t trade them though they involved humiliating mistakes, costly failures, wear and tear on our bodies, archaeological layers of loss. Those who are too afraid to embrace the humiliations and failures run from these crossroads and often live diminished, heart-shrinking lives as a result.
When I think about the pattern in my own life, I am transported to the early 2000s and the years spilling out from that time. I had found myself in a marriage and life that didn’t have staying power—a life in which I knew I could not stay. Yet it was a marriage to a wonderful man. Over a few confusing years, I reckoned with the upheaval on the horizon through a combination of reflection and recklessness. As I desperately moved to build a life that felt livable, I tore many things apart. Demolition before reconstruction. Death before rebirth. A life showdown with shame, dishonesty, perfectionism, illusion, ambition, and distrust that made me slightly dangerous to myself and those around me. I tell the story in my memoir.
Nowadays, as I walk with the aforementioned friend as a spiritual companion, I am transported back to those years in the early-2000s. And the over-the-shoulder perspective I have grants me compassion and grace, even as this friend’s mistakes have cost me personally and painfully—excruciatingly, to be honest. It is simply impossible for me not to see my own mistakes mirrored back at me, or to see a certain inevitability in the arc of descent and rebirth this friend is experiencing, no matter how much destruction it precipitated for me personally.
In talking with this friend about the spiritual life (which I would contrast with the ego-life, the craving life, the scarcity life, life disconnected from our essence), I stumbled upon a mnemonic device that was helpful. Living by spirit guidance involves: Listen. Follow. Trust, or LiFT. If you are into mnemonic devices, you might find it helpful as well. The mnemonic is not to suggest that spiritual life is formulaic; it is anything but. Really, it is more like a dance, with certain steps that repeat over and over again, becoming increasingly familiar, emboldening, accentuated with greater passion as we learn the steps and are free to improvise. (Pardon any mixed metaphors!)
First, listening. I remember when I first began to learn mindfulness, and to stop running from the still small voice within me that provided ever-flowing guidance for decisions, exposure of my personal bullsh*t, and affirmation and love. As I started learning mindfulness, I began to hear the almost constant barrage of commentary I’d had playing in my head throughout life, which I hadn’t before noticed. Most often, it was self-justifying commentary, or argumentative commentary. In any case, mindfulness helped me to quiet it and to begin tuning in to another reverberation within me.
I believe God is the essence of who we are, that we are each a unique piece of the Divine traversing this world. Yet we “have this treasure in clay jars.” Often all we see or listen to is the clay-jar part, when we have the potential to be connected with, one with, Spirit in our brightest, most vital moments. As we find our center in our God-essence, we have a wellspring of guidance and wisdom at our disposal. It speaks to us from that still, small voice. Sometimes we call it “intuition” or “gut feeling” or “Holy Spirit.” Call it whatever works. But it is speaking—I have no doubt. The Divine flow is flowing in us not because some out-there God is constantly having a conversation with us, but because that God voice is the essence of who we are. And as we learn to listen well, tuning in to that gentle inner voice, we find it is reliable.
So in the first step of the dance, we learn to listen. We learn to turn inward and tune in. This step certainly does not come naturally for us; neither do the others. We have to practice.
Next, listening is useless if we continually explain away the guidance out of fear, choosing ego and scarcity-thinking instead. In response to the listening comes the next step in the dance: Follow.
Following is something we contemporary folk often don’t like. Obedience, conformity, and limitation are associated with following. But I would say we are always following something, conforming to something. And most often, we are conforming to the wrong thing: to the impulses of our preening egos and bigoted, self-satisfied cultural assumptions we pick up like viruses along our pathways. It takes some practice to listen to the inner voice within and to follow it out of our scared, ungraceful hiding places. Yet in my experience, practice alone shows us the inner voice is worthy of following. Practice, again, is key.
As we practice, we begin to amass a volume of experiences, of times when we chose to follow the inner voice instead of back-stepping our way into fear and self-justification. We begin to reflect on our lives and see how times following the inner voice resulted in shocking, grandiose, beautiful movements. These instances of practice and looking back en-courage us to keep following. And courage is key. So often we have to follow against the advice of people who are still living in their hiding places. Often how the still small voice is guiding us contrasts with what friends and families tell us we should do in a given situation. For example, the inner voice may be leading us to forgiveness, while the people around us insist on revenge. It requires a strong backbone, to follow amidst the clamor of those who can’t fully understand the dance because it is not their own. Following our God-essence is not about being weak or sheepish. Quite the opposite: it requires us to muster courage and strength and often, to move in unexpected, liberating ways.
And to follow in these hard, unexpected moves requires: Trust. After we listen and follow, we need to trust that the outcome will be for the best for ourselves and others, that we will be provided for, and that the ultimate flow of the dance is redemptive. We have to give in to the dance, trusting that something exquisite will come of it, instead of trying to step in and lead it another way. Often we don’t know how things will play out; we face far more uncertainty than certainty. Sometimes painful things will happen on the way to redemption. Yet we trust anyway. Again, this comes with practice and becomes more intentional, emboldened, and impassioned the more we do it, the more we have experienced the grand, reconciling arc of the dance, the more we have seen the good, the provision, the synchronicities, the transformations and rebirths. At first our moves of trust are hesitant and awkward, and we keep stopping midway. But over time, we can become elegant, buoyant, and serene in our dance, doing things we never thought possible.
At any point in the dance, we can lose courage and trip up, returning to rote movements, to fear and self-security. At times, we will fall down. Sometimes we will walk off the dance floor altogether. But the grace of this dance of spiritual life is that it never ends, and we can restart it over and over again, at whatever point we are ready to take it up.
In the end, it LiFTs us up. Listen. Follow. Trust.