spiritual journey

The pursuit of virtue

Aristotle defines moral virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. We learn moral virtue primarily through experience, habit, and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction.

This is also called the middle path, or the middle way, and restates the concepts of balance and harmony.

It’s not as simple as it sounds.

In my view, the growth process towards virtue is the most difficult challenge any person can undertake. It also happens to be the most important at the soul level (if you believe all the great philosophers, sages, and mystics).

First it requires an intimate and careful self-study; with the aim of becoming ever more aware of ourselves – our behaviors, our desires, our emotional reactions, our repeating patterns of life. We seek to get more closely familiar with ourselves and understand our default settings, so to speak.

Then comes the investigation into how those settings came to be – the wounds, traumas, experiences, and resulting system of beliefs that created those internal settings and maintain them in their current state.

Then the deepening recognition and contemplation that the settings aren’t in their ideal state, being out of alignment with our higher truths and authentic selves. It is here that we study the wisdom teachings, learning the tools and their proper application to begin changing the settings.

And then the slow life-long process of healing and re-calibration of those settings – a movement towards the center or mean, as Aristotle calls it. The extinguishing of desire, the relinquishing of attachments, and the dismantling of fear.

The end result is internal peace – in the mind and in the emotional body. (This is the elusive state of enlightenment, freedom, liberation, etc.) In this condition, there is no longer a pull of internal desire in any extreme, and no longer any fear driving deficiency/avoidance.

The attainment of virtue (or more accurately the striving towards it) isn’t about becoming a “good” person. That’s not the goal. Some things that are called good, or socially sanctioned as good, are in fact deeply polarized, fear-based behaviors, which are not considered virtuous. The pursuit of virtue is more about the attainment of internal peace and fearlessness, in surrender to the Divine will.

What we know as goodness: love, empathy, compassion, fairness, generosity, justice, fortitude, temperance, and wisdom arise as a result of the pursuit of virtue. They are an inevitable and natural byproduct of the healing and balancing work. 

Letting go

 

Along the spiritual path, the instruction of letting go seems to show up constantly. There are so many different kinds of letting go, different things that need to be released, that the words become something of a mantra after a while.

Sometimes letting go means releasing layer after layer of our self-concepts: peeling away who we thought we were, to welcome the reality of the person we actually are. Sometimes we have to let go of our hopes and wishes for how something should go or should be, so that we can make space for accepting how it really is. We might be letting go or surrendering to the moment, to the now, to the feelings and circumstances in the present.

Other times we might have to let go of dreams, fantasies, concepts, relationships, places, or jobs. We might have to let go of fear, let go of worry, let go of control, let go of illusions of safety or permanence, let go of attachments… The list is almost endless. There is a lot of letting go. 

Letting go of our past is one of those list items. It can be very scary; not just to our own mind, but to those around us as well. We come to identify with, and rely deeply on, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we’ve done, and what’s been done to us. Letting go of our victimhood, our suffering, our guilt and pain, is a really significant matter. 

Making the choice to set down all the baggage, and look with fresh eyes, loving, honest, and compassionate eyes, can be daunting. The willingness to see the truth as it is, and then to forgive ourselves and others, to release everyone from the grudges, the debts, and pain, is a hugely important step to take for the healing process. We can’t have love, peace, and joy, while also holding on to our egotistical pride, anger, and self-righteousness. Here we let go of our self-importance, the lies we use to comfort ourselves, and our shame and our defenses. We free ourselves of all those heart-heavy items. 

The ego won’t like it; I can assure you of that. Once the pain is processed through fully, the heart and soul are eager and ready to forgive. It’s most often the mind and the pride that stand in the way. The ego doesn’t understand or value the payoff of forgiveness. It imagines that it will only be happy when perfect vengeance is achieved. This isn’t true, but the ego doesn’t know that, so it creates resistance. That’s why letting go is a pro-active instruction – we have to overcome the egoic resistance and set down all our weapons and balance sheets.  

When you make the decision that the time has come, you will see how quickly and easily all those things actually dissolve. A tiny little crack is all it takes to let the light come rushing in. We can set down the stories, release ourselves of all those burdens and misunderstandings, and let our love shine again.