A couple thousand years ago, a great spiritual teacher told a story about a young man leaving home, and it went something like this:
There’s a wealthy family, with a prosperous enterprise, and it seems like everything is going well. But one member of the family, their youngest son, who we’ll call Jay, decides that he’s not enjoying life as much as he could. So he looks around, and sees all these assets that could be liquidated, and he goes to his father and says, “Dad, I would like to have my inheritance now. I don’t want to wait any longer. I want to enjoy my life while I’m still young.”
His dad is a fairly liberal-minded father, and he complies. He gives his son half of everything he owns, in cash. Jay takes the money, goes to Mexico – or whatever equivalent of Mexico they had back then – and he has a great time. He makes lots of friends, he stays drunk, life is good. Until the money runs out. He blows it all. And, well, now that he’s basically disowned his father, he can’t go back, so, he has to get a job and work for a living. But it’s rough. It’s Mexico, and he has to compete with the locals for wages. He ends up feeding pigs on a farm. Eventually, he gets so hungry, that he can’t survive like this any more. He gets to thinking, “My father’s employees have it way better than this. Maybe I can go back, and beg for a job. Maybe he’ll have mercy on me and let me work for him.”
So Jay hitch-hikes back home. And as he spends those lonely hours on the roadside trying to hitch a ride, he rehearses his speech. Father, I know that I have committed unpardonable sins. I no longer deserve to be called your son. I know that I deserve to starve to death for what I’ve done, but I pray that you will have mercy on me, a sinner, and grant me a job sweeping floors in your factory, so that I can buy just enough food to survive on. Et cetera. And so on. And so forth.
Finally he arrives at the family estate. He stops, and rehearses his speech again, about how guilty he is, and how he doesn’t deserve to be treated any better than the scum he knows he is. And as he stands there in the staff parking lot wondering if he should even bother, his father sees him.
And he does something rather unexpected. He runs down there, and embraces his son. His smelly, broke, guilty-as-hell son – he gives him a big hug and there’s tears streaming down his face, because he thought his son was gone forever, but he’s back now, he’s alive, and he calls to his staff, “Hey, everyone, Jay’s back! My son is alive! Let’s have a feast! Get our best wine out of the cellar. Steaks all around! My son is back! My son, my son that I love so dearly, has returned home.”
Some of you will recognize the story of the Prodigal Son, as originally told by Jesus.
I grew up with this story, but to be honest, I didn’t really get it until years after I stopped calling myself a Christian. I didn’t get it, because it didn’t fit in with my theology. My theology told me that I was the guilty son, and I had to beg for forgiveness, and I had to do my best as a servant, working for God, because I had screwed up so badly that I could never really be loved unconditionally. I carried my guilt for so long, that I eventually left the church because I couldn’t take it any more. I thought that the church was making me feel guilty. It turns out that I was making myself feel guilty.
Now let’s see if you were paying attention to the story. Let’s see if you can get it in fewer years than it took me.
The story tells us that the son felt very guilty for what he did. He believed very strongly in it. Now, what was the father’s reaction? Did he believe in his son’s guilt? Did he even mention anything at all about guilt? Did he demand a sacrifice? Did he ask his son to work off the debt? Did he even mention a debt? Did he get some crystals and sage and an eagle feather to get rid of all the bad energy around his son? Did he make his son meditate for years and years to reach enlightenment so that he would be worthy of returning home?
In this whole story, there’s one thing that the son did right, and that was to come home. He had nothing. He had no excuses. All he did was show up. And his father welcomed him back, just as he was. No sage, no sacrifice, no prayers, no meditation, just love. Pure, unconditional love.
The father in this story, of course, represents the divine Spirit we often call God, and the Son represents us, the human race. We have left our home in Spirit, and we’ve come here, and we’ve basically blown our divine inheritance. We’ve made a home for ourselves here, and now millions are starving, and don’t have clean water, and a lot of us live in bad neighborhoods or under the threat of war. A lot of us have pretty good lives that we can be grateful for, but still, it’s not exactly heaven. We live in this illusion of conflict and suffering, and spend a great deal of time talking about whose ass to kick for it.
Say what you want about Catholic guilt, or Protestant guilt, or any other form of religious guilt, but the truth is, we as human beings, as a human race, are the makers of and specialists in guilt. It’s not peculiar to one group of people. A lot of us so-called new-agers think that we have one up on those religious people, but, ironically, I know a guy who ended up joining the Catholic church to deal with his new age guilt.
Anyone who’s practised meditation for a while has had the chance to see what goes on inside our heads. Lots of chatter. And most of it has to do with something we didn’t do right, or that we should be doing, or what someone else did to us. Most of what goes through our heads, thanks to our friend the Ego, is guilt. It’s, “I should have” or “she should have” or “I feel bad because of.”
That guilt is what we make up for ourselves. It’s the story we tell on our way back home. It’s all the stuff we think we have to fix or improve or get right before we can have peace. Whether you call it sin or karma or consciousness or Ego – whatever label you put on it – we as human beings carry this suffering around with us, all the time. And maybe there are a few people reading this who are far more advanced than I am, and maybe you have these thoughts down to less than 30% of your day. That’s great. I won’t try to make you feel guilty for thinking well of yourself. Some of us have learned. Myself, God help me, I’m still waking up, but I’m starting to get it now. And in those moments when I can actually forgive myself, and live in grace, it is a very beautiful feeling.
Because it’s not about guilt. It’s about confusion. It’s about an insane illusion. It’s about telling ourselves a story that isn’t true. I’m not a sinner, I’m just a guy who got lost somewhere along the way, and I’m trying to get home. So, here I am, I’m showing up. I’m here now.
I don’t have a breakthrough solution for all our problems, or how to reach enlightenment. All I have is this hunch that we are making it far more complicated than we need to.
We have all these modalities now. We used to have religion, and now we have modalities. Which is okay. There’s no need to feel guilty about that, either. But sometimes we get stuck in this mindset that there’s always something more we need to do before we can be spiritual enough. And that is a trap of the Ego. Ironically, spiritual growth can be a tool that the Ego uses to convince us that we are not yet good enough. So we go around beating ourselves up for listening to the Ego, and it’s really the Ego that’s doing it to us.
And all our divine source wants from us is just to show up right here, right now, without all the BS, and just be ourselves. Because there is nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing to fix, nothing to outgrow, nothing to feel guilty about. Like a billboard I saw once – There is no justice. Just you, just me, just this. That’s all.
It’s funny that we think we need to figure out what’s wrong with us before we can get back to our original state of spiritual rightness. But that’s actually the opposite of what we need to do. All we need to do is to forgive ourselves, and forgive each other, and treat each other with compassion. And if you sometimes fail at that, then, you need to forgive yourself for that as well.
I had a dream one night a few months ago. I had gone to bed asking myself who am I here to serve? How can I serve people? And I had this dream.
I was in a zoo. And out of the sky, there are planes paradropping crates into the zoo. And me and my friends there open the crates, and there are these bewildered animals in there, all harmless, like kittens and what-not, and they are cold and hungry and scared. They don’t know where they are, they don’t understand what’s happened, all they know is that they are in this place and they don’t know where to get what they need. And I’m there, and I don’t have any answers for them. I don’t have any theology about where they came from or how they’re going to get fed, or what will happen to them tomorrow. But I’m there with them. And I lay down with them on the ground, where they are, and these kittens that came out of the crate come and cuddle around me and they’re shivering and trying to get warm, and all I can do is comfort them and warm them up, because we’re all in this place together, so we have to stick together.
That zoo is planet earth, and those animals are us. We’ve been paradropped onto this beautiful ball of dirt in space and we don’t know exactly what’s going on or if we’ll have food tomorrow or what’s going to happen in 2012, or whether terrorists will blow us all up or if multinational corporations will eventually destroy all life as we know it. All we know is that we’re here, and we have each other.
So let’s be there for each other. Let’s just show up back home, to our spiritual inheritance, because it’s not gone. We didn’t blow it all. We just thought we did. We’re still children of the divine. That hasn’t changed. We didn’t stop being children of God when we left home. We just need to come home now. And that home is in the compassion we offer each other, and the love we offer to ourselves. Our home is in absolute uncompromising forgiveness of ourselves and of each other. It’s being a comfort to one another, supporting each other.
We don’t have to get it perfectly right. We don’t have to pray or meditate or do yoga poses in a correct fashion in order to earn God’s love or anyone else’s. These modalities may help along the journey, but they won’t save us from our insanity. Our insanity is the old nightmare of fear and guilt, and the only way out of that, is to wake up.
All Spirit wants from us is to let go of the nightmare and head home. Then, surely, we will find Spirit running to meet us in a warm embrace, children of the divine, heirs to the universe, loved so dearly, returned home.