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26 Apr A Subtle Pilgrimage

BY THOMAS MCCONKIE

 

In the end, this trek will lead to the death of a former self, and the forging of a new identity from its crucible.

Anybody who has grown up in Mormon culture knows what reverence we have for our pioneer ancestors. We sing solemn hymns of their dedication to Zion and tell almost hagiographic stories of their tribulations along the trail. Even those with Mormon heritage who are no longer believers retain a sense of pride in their pioneer heritage, I’ve found. Ultimately, the sacrifices the pioneers made to uproot their lives and journey westward would allow the bold vision of the Restoration to blossom as the rose in the Salt Lake Valley.

I’ve heard members of the Church over the years speak wistfully of these pioneer days when, “life was much simpler.”

“Physically, the pioneers had it really tough, but spiritually they were so focused on their cause that there must have been a certain joy in that single-minded focus.”

I don’t disagree. And yet I don’t wax nostalgic for a time when it was supposedly easier to live a spiritual life. In fact, I see a pilgrimage no less dramatic unfolding right now
amongst us in the Church, beckoning us to give ourselves to the cause. The pilgrimage is of a subtle nature, however. You can’t simply see it with the eye of flesh.

The territory that many Latter-day Saints are traversing is no longer the physical plains of the United States, or the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The new pilgrims are traversing a more subtle territory, moving more deeply within themselves to discover a new way of being they are called to. It feels more genuine. More true. And though they risk losing everything along the way, like the pioneers of old, they can’t help but risk it all for the sheer beauty of the vision and the promise of new life.

In the end, this trek will lead to the death of a former self, and the forging of a new identity from its crucible.

From Concrete to Subtle
To understand the significance of the current pilgrimage, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the way that human beings develop. The general pattern we see is a movement from a more physical, concrete reality, to a more subtle, interior world.

Starting from the moment we’re born and throughout childhood, our lives are concrete. By concrete, I mean that the objects we’re aware of are primarily physical. They are things we can observe with our basic senses: see, hear, touch, and so on.

If you are 6 years old, for example, what might be on your mind in a given moment is what you’d like in your lunchbox that day, or which friend you’d like to play with after school. Things remain concrete for years, though life does gradually become more complex. Later on in childhood, for instance, you might be concerned with which girl likes who, or what name-brand clothing your friends are wearing. But these things are still concrete.

Around adolescence something big starts to shift (you may recall). A new kind of identity begins to unfold1 and continues to do so throughout the rest of life. We start to transition into new territory and to become aware of a whole new spectrum of subtle experience.

By subtle, I mean that things are no longer simply observable through our basic senses. For example, rather than just picturing an apple in my lunchbox, I can imagine something like the quality of humility I would like to cultivate in my character. An apple I can see with my naked eye. But humility and character are more subtle–I need to sense into what those things feel like.

Another way to say all this is that our mental life becomes more abstract as we grow into adulthood. We are no longer strictly tied to the concrete world.

The details of this developmental territory fill volumes of rather daunting academic literature. Without going into exhaustive detail, I want to just point out a few features to help the reader find their footing.

In the early stages of this range of adult development, we start to form a more individualized, subtle identity for the first time. New thoughts, new feelings flood our awareness and we start to examine what feels true to us in a way we never did earlier in life. In the concrete stages of development, we are basically formed by our surroundings. If our parents speak English, we learn English. If our parents are Mormon, we absorb all that Mormonism is through osmosis.

In subtle development, however, there is a new layer of discernment. I can step out of the enmeshment in my family and cultural life just enough to start to question things. As this awareness matures, I can come to deeply consider my own values and critically reflect on my upbringing. What kind of person do I really want to be? How can I act in a way that reflects my values? What are the things I feel strongly about in my culture, and what are the things I can do without?

Still later in the subtle stages of development (and statistically, not a lot of people arrive at these mileposts, nor need to in order to be perfectly happy), the identity and character I have worked so hard to construct start to feel a lot less solid. I start to see just how much a product of my surroundings I really am. Being raised Mormon, I might realize: I’ve been brought up to see the world in a very specific way. We say the Church is true, but I see other rich and beautiful traditions throughout the world with their own truths. How can I bring them all into one whole?

It is normal, and often disorienting I might add, to begin to perceive a certain arbitrariness to our former beliefs and values at these later stages. Truth is still truth, of course, but we realize that we’ve got a very specific way of expressing the truth, and maybe there is more room for different kinds of expression than we ever imagined.

Robert Kegan, a renowned developmental psychologist from Harvard, describes the earlier stages of this subtle territory as “self-authoring” in the sense that by our own volition and sense of autonomy we forge an identity. The later stages he characterizes as “self-transforming,” because we are now actively discovering the countless influences that condition our minds to see the world in a certain way. The more we explore, the more we realize that there is no end to the contexts that shape us. Identity can never be fixed in place again at these later stages. Rather, it tumbles like a cosmic kaleidoscope into different, brilliant formations, leaving a sense of wonder and anticipation for who we’re now becoming.

Packing Light
Are you a subtle pilgrim? Maybe you’ve been walking this trail for years and haven’t realized you were doing it. You’ve left behind a world of comfort, of familiarity and belonging for some reason that you couldn’t totally explain. You felt an impulse. You got up and moved. The world around you has never been the same.

For some this just happens naturally and gradually over time. Others evacuate in a state of emergency.

As with any journey, any true transformation, we can’t take all of our prized possessions with us along the trail. So what do we have to leave behind to lighten our load and make this crossing?

1) We give up excessive certainty. It’s too bulky, too heavy to make the trip. Too much certainty pins us down and immobilizes us. It seduces us into believing we are done growing. In his recent address, Elder Ballard named this phenomenon “overclaiming,” or pretending to know more than we actually do.2

In its unhealthy forms, certainty clings to the little it can lay claim over in fear of losing hold of even that. In that sense, certainty is a form of scarcity. The subtle pilgrim is courageous. She let’s go of what she once thought she knew for sure and trades it for a new question. In E.E. Cumming’s words, “always a beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” Questions are now the gateway to infinite becoming.

2) Aversion to Change. Change can be painful. It’s more pleasant to remain in homeostasis–not too hot, not too cold. We’re often tempted to freeze an ideal image of ourselves in our mind and suppose that the only work left for us to do is stick to what we know. But we can’t grow this way.

As children, we were raised knowing who we were and where we came from. And that learning continues to serve us in good stead. But we now realize the story is continually unfolding. Revelation is still ongoing. The depths of God’s mysteries are unsearchable.3

Our static self-image is too small a place to live in now–a playhouse we’ve outgrown where we’re hunched over and constantly banging our head on the low ceiling. We can enter the Father’s mansion 4, where there are countless rooms to unlock; new aspects of our self to discover.

3) The role of child. Once you’ve set out on this trail, your days of simply being care-taken are over. It used to be your parents who made the world safe for you and helped keep you from danger. Then the Church came to play that same role. Both Church and parents remain valuable sources of wisdom, but you realize now that no matter what anybody claims to be true, the ultimate answers must come from your own confirmation. Your inner sense of knowing.5 I asked a famous oil painter a few years ago how it felt to sell a painting for $25,000. He said, “I don’t care what my paintings sell for anymore. I know when they’re good.” He was no child.

The Reward
Why do this at all? Why not stay home in the comfort of where we grew up, surrounded by familiar scenery and faces? Why risk our relationships, our reputations, our very sanity for some fickle vision of a new self in a promised land? What drives us to sacrifice all that we are when staying put feels so much safer?

1) Integrity. We hear an inner call to grow and transform that we cannot ignore. In that sense, there’s not even a decision to make. Not heeding this call feels like entering a deadening arranged marriage when the promise of a soul-filling life with our true love still beckons. If we can forego the security and respectability that the arranged marriage guaranteed us, new life awaits!

2) Abundance. With a sense of abundance, we’re willing to let it all go and trust that we’ll receive even more. Thomas Keating writes, “if you give everything back to God, you will always be empty, and when you are empty, there is more room for God.”6 We trust this pilgrimage because deep in our bones, we sense that a better life, a Truer Self, and a Brave New World are already here. We only need to act on this conviction.

3) Growth for All of Us. If we can make this journey, and trust ourselves to be transformed and refined along the way, then in the process we will give rise to a culture that allows for everybody to grow without end. We will form a social compact that recognizes and honors the unique revelation we each receive for our own life. If you’re inspired to grow in a certain direction, then our whole tradition, built on pioneer heritage, supports your journey. We trust that God will deliver you to your promised land. And all of us in turn.

A Lost Inheritance Yours
When the Mormon pioneers first set out across the plains, they didn’t do it willy-nilly, hoping there would be plenty of food along the way and agreeable weather. They found the best information available. They consulted exhaustively with explorers who knew the rugged terrain. They had a good map.

In this generation of pioneers, we need the same. This subtle territory of transformation is well-charted–the landmarks, the hazards, the rewards. We have decades of experience researching and cataloging how adult identity forms, stabilizes, then dissolves in a hot blaze of crisis before a new identity rises from the ashes.

More Latter-day Saints are walking this path than ever before. This is good news. Though these inner plains can feel harsh, there is the dewy scent of fresh water wafting over the trail, with the Spirit as our ultimate guide. Trusting each step into this foreign territory that we’ve somehow always known, the land gradually reveals its bounty and we realize we have absolutely everything we need to grow and to flourish.

It is our heavenly parents’ good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. But to inherit it, first we must surrender the deed to our petty fiefdom, and set out.

1.The best developmental data suggests that there is still a significant percentage of adults who never fully transition into the subtle tier of development, perhaps as many as 11.3%. See Cook-Greuter, Susanne. “Nine Levels of Increasing Embrace In Ego Development,” (Wayland, MA: Pre-published, 2013), 19.
2.Ballard, M. Russell. “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.” Address to CES Religious Educators, February 26, 2016. 3.Book of Mormon, Jacob 4:8 4.John 14:2 5.Eyreing, Henry B. “Continuing Revelation.” Address at General Conference. October 2014. “The value of the revelation depends on those who are being led receiving confirming revelation.” The power of revelation is no longer activated at the later stages until the individual connects with its uniquely personal meaning in his or her own life and context. 6.Keating, Thomas. Open Mind, Open Heart (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2002), 88.
 
Illustration by Gloria Pak