spiritual selfishness?

From a mailing list I’m on…

I am wondering if anyone else out there questions spiritual practices which promote bringing something about which is of benefit to me, my family, my friends, my friends’ famlies, my friends’ friends, my afterlife, my ______ (fill in the blank). The Secret is only the latest in the line… intercessory prayer has been with us forever.

I read an interesting response to The Secret yesterday by Julian Walker which in part echoes my own thoughts:

(1) I seldom know what’s ‘best’
(2) My definition of what’s ‘best’ may come at another’s expense, most likely unknown to me.
(3) (and most importantly…) Perhaps *working through* the pain is what’s important, not the *aleviation* of the pain or *avoidance* of additional pain. I can begin to understand the lesson in the situation presented to me through close communion with the Divine and grow in the process.

Is wishful thinking perhaps escapism in disguise?

Isn’t it better to pray for the highest good in any situation? (Period, end of prayer.)

My answer to this is something that I have been examining for some time, and I find that it treads a careful line between “gimme what I want” and the “Highest Good for All” concept mentioned above. And I want to address both ends of the spectrum to make it clear why I want to be between them instead of clearly on one side or another. I’m just typing straight from brainstem to keyboard here, so forgive me if it rambles.

First, my path is very clear about the responsibility that each person takes for their actions – whether physical, mental, spiritual, or magical. Specifically, my tradition is oath-sworn never to invoke magic on another person’s behalf without their explicit permission for a specific request. This means that I do not generally participate in “Prayer Circles” and will often ask for details and permissions when the situation arises with someone I know.
The oath is taken for the very reasons mentioned above: there is no way for me to know what is “best” for any person, nor what necessary spiritual process they may be going through in their situation. Performing a healing working for someone without first clearing it with them tramples all over their free will, not to mention potentially harming them further with the interjection of foreign energy and will.
Similarly, when doing a prosperity working, the phrasing must always be considered very carefully so as to avoid trampling someone else’s will. Say not, “I want to be Editor in Chief at Vogue” because what then happens to the person currently in that role? Say rather, “I want to find a high-ranking position in the fashion industry.” Of course, the prosperity working is only the first step, there – because no matter how much intention and will is focused, if you don’t send out resumes and pound the pavement looking up fashion jobs, then you won’t get very far. The likelihood that the perfect job will land in your lap without any effort is very slim.
This structure means that just about all healing or prosperity workings are requested by the person who needs the help. With magic, one has to be able to set the intention for yourself, to harness your will, and to move forward with purpose. The fact that so much thought (and the swearing of a sacred oath) goes into the workings just makes it less likely that the requests will be frivolous. Does a splinter really require a full healing circle? If an unemployed person can’t be bothered to update her resume, is a prosperity working really going to help her job search? (If she’s lucky, maybe it will be the spur she needs to get off her duff and do something, since she got other people involved. But the spell sure won’t get the resume written.) The magical and the practical work hand-in-hand.
So from the “gimme what I want” side of the block, the path says to work for what you want, but do so with careful thought and examination. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. Don’t be afraid of self-examination. And use your spiritual community for support, discussion, and reality checks.

Now, on the other side is this problematic idea of offering up a prayer (or ritual or working) for the “Highest Good of All”. I really don’t like that phrase. Gut reaction, I suppose, but even in Seminary it rubbed me a bit wrong. I appreciate the sentiment behind it, but its use seems to me to be an easy out, a denial of responsibility. We’ve done whatever we’ve done with the goal of the Highest Good, so whatever the outcome, it’s for the best. And it’s not our fault. Any statement of specific purpose or intent seems negated by the addition of this cure-all phrase, because of the very points mentioned in the quote. Nobody knows what the Highest Good is for everyone. If we say a prayer for healing “for the Highest Good of All Concerned”, what happens when the Highest Good for All ends up being a pandemic? (Or, as is likely, the Highest Good is a complete mystery, but not knowing what it might be cripples the actual practical work that needs to move forward.)
This phrase relieves the speaker of a certain level of accountability, and at the same time deprives them of the will to act in the way they think best. I believe that we can hold some idea of universal compassion and well-being and still take firm action for the good we see based on our perceptions.
I understand the comfort and the optimistic purpose of the phrase for those who use it. I just don’t think I can get behind it myself, on my path, with my experiences. This touches the core of my spiritual beliefs, which are entirely activist in their bent.
Before I took any oaths, part of my training involved an ecological worksheet. One of the assignments was to trace my drinking water from rainfall to faucet. When we invoke the spirit of water, we’re supposed to know something about how the element interacts with our environment. We’re actually supposed to think of water in our subjective reality, not just some idealized concept or imagining. And no matter how much we green organic sustainability geeks might wish it, we don’t all get to live on a farm in healthy countryside. We live in a biosphere that is affected by everything we do. Having a real relationship with the elements means understanding how they interact with the real life we live today, now, wherever we are.
I firmly believe that we should pray and direct energies and intentions toward positive change in the world, working toward the “Highest Good for All Concerned”. But in my striving for the Highest Good, I am aware that I am working with my own concept of “Good”, and I am not going to stop at prayer. The invocation should not be the end of the story, but the beginning. Follow prayer and magical working with practical action, taking responsibility for the consequences.

So what I’m saying is that I think the direction of personal energy for personal goals can be entirely valid and healthy, but it should be balanced by an awareness of the interdependence of all life and a willingness to be responsible and accountable. Nothing and no one acts in a vacuum, and that should be reflected in intentions and actions.

(p.s. For the record, I haven’t seen the movie or read any books, but based on the reviews I think The Secret sounds like a rehash of ideas about energy and interdependence that have been better said elsewhere. Also, I distrust any spiritual path that purports to be an easy fix but requires me to purchase my way to enlightenment.)

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