WRITTEN BY Laura McFarland
When we sense God is with us, our relationship with God develops through the experience of 'connection through attachment', which is a perceived sense of nearness. At other times, perhaps times of great loss or suffering, we may sense God is nowhere to be found. A joyful sense of connection seems to dissolve into a deep well of emptiness with no consolation. We may then experience what 16th-century mystic, John of the Cross, described as the “dark night of the soul.” In actuality, just as winter makes way for spring, this period of perceived absence and isolation potentially gives birth to an even greater spiritual resilience - an abiding sense of connection that survives even our darkest nights. We are invited into a deeper and more mature intimacy with God through the experience of detachment.
Both science and religion point to the fundamental forces and patterns of the universe as being essentially intimate and relational. While the language and the narrative may differ, the theme is the same. We exist in an utterly relational universe. Creation is ongoing as a dance without end. We, ourselves, are created over and over again as our bodily cells grow, mature, and die off, but not before giving life to countless new cells with new variations made possible through the myriad relationships and interactions that occur within our physical bodies and between our bodies and our external environments. No doubt similar processes are at work in the realms less observable, such as in the inner workings of our minds and hearts. Acknowledging this, all major spiritual traditions teach paths of transformation. If our minds and hearts are patterned like everything else in the knowable universe, they are always in the process of changing and evolving. We seek spiritual paths and, increasingly, science-based paths, to take a more active role in our personal evolution involving the growth and transformation of our hearts and minds.
I have prioritized this interest in my life from a very young age. I have learned from different spiritual paths as well as from the science of depth psychology, and more recently, neuropsychology, to help me navigate the journey toward a more whole and healthy life, characterized by a more authentic and loving relationship with myself and with others.
When I encountered Natural Lifemanship several years ago, I immediately recognized the opportunity to practice in practical, embodied ways many of the same processes at work in my spiritual journey. I’ve often reflected on how the principle of pressure has worked in my life to help me to grow more connected with self, with others, and with God. I’ve noticed the ways I’ve experienced pressure, at first as a kind of gentle nudging in my heart toward some kind of change process not fully understood. On some level, I feel I am asked to trust and cooperate with a process, although I may have no idea where it is leading. At the early stages I can’t quite put words to what is being asked of me or know how to respond, but the sense of pressure persists, gently increasing until I can’t ignore it anymore. At this point I start actively seeking an answer, which is Natural Lifemanship’s definition of resistance - not an undesirable thing, rather a positive search for an answer in response to pressure. In fact, my life’s most important lessons and periods of growth came about through the process of acknowledging some internally felt pressure, struggling with it, and finally cooperating, allowing it to change me in ways I never could have foreseen and never would have experienced without my willingness to trust, listen and observe, and cooperate, often blindly, with what I sense is being asked of me.
Another way NL has given concrete language to a pattern I’ve experienced in my deeply personal relationship with God is through the notion that the relationship grows through both attachment and detachment. Attachment in our spiritual lives refers to those wonderful life episodes and experiences where we acutely sense the presence of God, or a higher power, or a deeply felt connection with something greater, in our lives. This is usually felt as a consoling, meaningful, hopeful, warm and embracing presence utterly nurturing and sustaining us. It gives us the sense that all is well and that we can endure whatever struggles we may be experiencing.
The writers of the Judeo-Christian bible and many other religious texts all describe this sort of relationship, where faith is built through such affirming experiences. The early stages of faith can be described as a connection being built through attachment, or what is felt as presence, or the responsiveness of the subject of faith. This is even spoken of in Buddhism, a spiritual path generally unconcerned with the question of an ontological God, but essentially concerned with one’s epistemological relationship with What Is, with reality. Reality is what it is but our lens or our way of seeing and perceiving reality may be clear or it may be clouded. In the case of Buddhism, the lens of perception is polished through practice, but human nature is such that humans won’t persist at practice without some sense of reward. So it is said even in some forms of Buddhism that faith grows at the early stages as the pattern of the universe, being inclined toward evolution, reinforces a sincere practitioner’s efforts in faith (causes) by producing tangible effects experienced as answers to prayers.
There comes a time, however, when faith is tested. There are periods of our lives for many of us in which we feel disconnected from the faith that has sustained us. We experience no sensation whatsoever of the presence of God. Our vivid, Technicolor faith lives seem to have become monochrome and dull. To the extent that we have felt a deep connection before, we may feel utterly abandoned. We may cry, as many of the psalmists and even as Jesus did, “my God, why have you left me?” John of the Cross poetically described this dimension of our spiritual lives as “the dark night of the soul.” As a spiritual director, he did not wish the dark night on anyone but listened for it in those he counseled. Not everyone will experience a dark night, for there are those who may never cease to find consolation when they seek it in their daily lives and normal activities of faith. John maintained that one shouldn’t give up these routines or activities so long as they are producing satisfying results. This is a blessing in and of itself.
Some, though, are invited into a deeper intimacy with God through a fundamental testing of our faith. John of the Cross describes it this way (paraphrased): Our hearts were made for intimacy with the One who created us, and nothing less than a connection directly with our Source will satisfy us at the deepest level of our soul. And yet in our lives, we easily become attached to the more surface consolations available to us and we may rest our identity in something less than our truest selves - which is our true nature as children of God. God, therefore, weans us off of our reliance on consolations - or felt presence - by seeming to withdraw from us. The dark night can, therefore, be understood in NL terms as God, or our relationship with the Divine (however we know the Divine), practicing connection with detachment with us.
The goal is that we begin to cultivate a secure attachment, or enduring sense of connection - one we readily turn to regardless of whether we perceive God as being with us, or not. In Christian theology, God enacted the same pattern by being with humanity (through Jesus’ human presence) to withdrawing from humanity (Jesus’ death) to presence again (appearances after the resurrection) to withdrawal (Pentecost) but at the same time gracing humanity with the presence of the Holy Spirit, also known as “the comforter” or consoler. This pattern of attachment and detachment to build secure attachment (connection) in relationship is written into the gospel, itself.
My hope for all who read this is that in those moments of despair or loneliness and isolation, you find peace knowing that your Source of comfort and of life itself may not always seem near but it is always within. Know that perhaps you are being invited to discover and to rediscover an even more enduring sense of connection in the depths of your lives, one that doesn’t rely on any evidence of response (such as answered prayers) or a felt sense of presence. May we all develop a deep connection with self and the indwelling Spirit that is attuned to the still small voice within. The reward of such a sense of connection is the relationship itself - a “secure attachment” both earned and given by grace.