"Qualities of Spiritual Maturity" (excerpt) A PATH WITH HEART by Jack Kornfield


Let us look at the qualities of spiritual maturity:

  1. Nonidealism: The mature heart is not perfectionistic: it rests in the compassion of our being instead of in ideals of the mind. Nonidealistic spirituality does not seek a perfect world; it does not seek to perfect ourselves, our bodies, our personalities. It is not romantic about teachers or enlightenment based on images of the immense purity of some special being out there. Thus, it does not seek to gain or attain in spiritual life, but only to love and be free.

The frustration of seeking perfection is illustrated by a story of Mullah Nasrudin. One day in the marketplace he encountered an old friend who ! was about to get married. This friend asked the Mullah whether he had ever considered marriage. Nasrudin replied that years ago he had wanted to marry and had set out to find the perfect woman. First he traveled to Damascus, where he found a perfectly gracious and beautiful woman but discovered she was lacking a spiritual side. Then his travels took him farther to Isfahan, where he met a woman who was deeply spiritual yet comfortable in the world and beautiful as well, but unfortunately they did not communicate well together. “Finally in Cairo I found her,” he said, “she was the ideal woman, spiritual, gracious, and beautiful, at ease in the world, perfect in every way.” “Well,” asked the friend, “did you then marry her?” “No,” answered the Mullah, “unfortunately, she was looking for the perfect man.”

Mature spirituality is not based on seeking perfection, on achieving some imaginary sense of purity. It is based simply on the capacity to let go and to love, to open the heart to all that is. Without ideals, the heart can turn the suffering and imperfections we encounter into the path of compassion. In this nonidealistic practice, the divine can shine through even in acts of ignorance and fear, inviting us to wonder at the mystery of all that is. In this there is no judgment and no blame, for we seek not to perfect the world but to perfect our love for what is on this earth. Thomas Merton saw it this way.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin nor desire can reach, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way there would be no reason for war, for hatred, for cruelty ... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.

  1. A second quality of mature spirituality is kindness,. It is based on a fundamental notion of self-acceptance, rather than guilt, blame, or shame, for the ignorant acts we’ve committed or the fears that still remain within us. It understands that opening requires the warm sun of loving- kindness. It is all too easy to turn spirituality and religion into what Alan Watts called “a grim duty.” Poet Mary Oliver wrote:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves . . .

In deep self-acceptance grows a compassionate understanding. As one Zen master said when asked if he ever gets angry, “Of course I get angry, but then a few minutes later I say to myself, ‘What’s the use of this,’ and I let it go.” This self-acceptance is at least half of our spiritual practice. We are asked to touch with mercy the many parts of ourself that we have denied, cut off, or isolated. Mature spirituality is a reflection of dour deep gratitude and capacity for forgiveness. As the Zen poet Edward Espe Brown writes in The Tassajara Recipe Book:

Any moment, preparing this meal, we could be gas thirty thousand feet in the air soon to fall out poisonous on leaf, frond and fur. Everything in sight would cease.

And still we cook, putting a thousand cherished dreams on the table, to nourish and reassure those close and dear.

In this act of cooking, I bid farewell.
Always I insisted you alone were to blame.
This last instant my eyes open and I regard you with all the tenderness and forgiveness I withheld for so long.
With no future
we have nothing
to fight about.


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