I’ve been writing with a purpose. I want to come to a clear sense of what beliefs mean in the context of the question “What do words about God mean, really, in real life, day-to-day experience?” On September 4, I wrote about my longing to connect belief words with human emotions so that I could feel what the words meant in daily living. On September 22, I wrote about the words universe, magnanimity, vision, and vicarious sacrifice, words that have helped me think about belief words and experiment to clarify their meaning in my relationships with others. On September 24, I wrote about mental images that give us eyes to really see the way life is by recognizing the emotions we experience within us. It’s high time to bring these threads together.
I’ve asked myself whether experiences of crying and laughing are limited to events like death and birth, moments of inner trauma and transformation. Are they simply, but profoundly, signs of emotional crisis and transcendence? The more I write in my journal or talk intimately with people I trust, the more I encounter moments when deep tears and gales of laughter accompany the simple act of reflecting on the events of my daily life. In fact, as I write or read or sing, some words or phrases will resonate so deeply they bring tears to my eyes. Further, as I talk with others—my wife, my adult children and their children, friends, a therapist or spiritual director I’m working with—themes that appear or thoughts that pop up will sometimes ring so true, so real, and so honest, delight and joy rise up in spontaneous laughter. It’s a marvelous feeling of recognition and connection.
If I go with that energy of recognition that arises in me, the experience of alternating tears and laughter, sometimes quite profound, may follow quite spontaneously. I’ve discovered that the deep resonance that triggers tears and laughter is a signal that the words that come from my thoughts have to do with a clear, intuitive recognition of something of great importance to my life. These deep emotions accompany recognition of something close to my heart, especially an image of who I am, what I value, what I deeply feel that I must do, and who I yearn to become. In short, the tears and laughter seem to accompany moments when I have revealed myself to myself for who I really am and passionately desire to be.
The tears and laughter have proven to be clues to my true identity.
But another way to think about tears and laughter has emerged in recent years. Crying and laughing are flows of energy within my body, intimately connected with my body memories of childhood, how I feel about myself in the present, and where I see myself going in the future. When I take stock of my energy levels during the day and throughout the week, I notice that my energy rises and falls. Some days I’m filled with enthusiasm, while other days I feel empty and stuck. I notice that when I have a clear purpose and goal, I feel energetic, and when I have time on my hands without a clear aim or project, my energy level goes down. When I’m focused and engaged—whether in a project or simply silent meditation—I feel great, and when I’m unclear and casting about, I feel quite out of sorts.
I also notice how I can stop the flow of engaged and creative energy at the drop of a hat. If I respond to a challenge or conflict by shutting down and withdrawing, the flow of energy comes to a screeching halt. If I stubbornly hold on to this absence, I disengage and the flow of creative energy stays stuck. This is what pouting is all about. Thankfully, if I’m stuck in a pout and the energy is all bottled up in me, I am still able to notice that fact and say to myself, “Sooner or later I’ll let go of my annoyance” (hurt, fear, or whatever) and let the energy flow again. I may have to apologize or decide to entertain an idea I had rejected before. But whatever the situation, when I decide that there is no percentage in keeping my own energy blocked and that it’s time to re-engage and re-energize, I suddenly and without further effort feel more relaxed and refreshed. The darkness has passed and the sun comes out. That darkness—like the cloud over Pig Pen’s head in the Charlie Brown cartoons—has been lifted. When I relax and let go, the energy starts to flow naturally again.
It’s apparent that this energy flows in two directions. The spontaneous energies that I experienced as tears and laughter in both deep grief and honest journaling, show up as energy that connects me with people and projects on the one hand and energy that allows me to let go and move on, on the other. The contrasting energies are subtle, but distinct. Some energies connect us, settle us down, draw us to ourselves and others, and help us reach out for connections. Other energies allow us to detach, remain nonchalant, keep a cool head amidst chaos, and loosen our grips on useless stuff, old habits, or toxic relationships. Some energies support attachment, other energies support detachment. Some energies support engagement, others support disengagement. Some energies set me down, other energies left me up. Some energies are grounding, others are up-lifting. These energies are complementary: both kinds of energy are naturally present all of the time, both are important for life, and both serve us well.
I can also block these natural energies. Whatever good they might make possible can be thwarted by my willfulness. But the fact is that I am always moved to relax whatever grip blocks these creative energies. When I decide it’s high time, relaxation occurs quite spontaneously and the natural creative energies of attaching and detaching, engaging and disengaging are released within me. These dynamics happen without exception. They never fail to appear. Though I know that creative energies are always flowing, I often act to block them. But just as reliably, sooner or later I am able to relax and let the creative energies flow again. It appears to me that this is just the way life works. Creative energies flow naturally throughout this universe, independent of my will. I can block them temporarily, but the moment I relax and let them flow in me again, the energy flows naturally as always.
This behavior of energy within human beings seems to be such a foundational reality of the way life is, it occurs to me that this is the very energy that the Hebrew people called the Spirit of God and the members of the Jesus movement called the Holy Spirit. This image that the energies I experience in my own life are fundamental to the nature of existence—and have been known to be so since ancient times and in many spiritual traditions—leads me to several provocative questions. What would it be like to read sacred scriptures or to listen to belief words and God-talk with an ear to spotting the experiences of the creative energies acting in peoples’ lives? What if instead of asking first, do I believe in God, I asked do I experience creatives energies at work in my life?
What if, when we talk about religion and spirituality, we began with our own experience of the energies that spontaneously act on and within our lives to mobilize our ability to discern, choose, and act? What if we began by noticing the profound and universal experiences that give human beings life and asked if these were the same experiences the writers of sacred texts were describing in the stories and teachings of the great religious traditions of humanity? And what would happen next, if we approached ancient texts through the eyes of lived experience? Would the ancient words come back to us with fresh and lively meaning or would new words suggest themselves as more adequate to describe the experience of being called forth, shaped, cajoled, and prodded into becoming ourselves and caring for others by the wild energies that both animate us and confound us with our own possibility?
This train of thought is where I’ll go next.