Dec 162010
 

Picking up from the previous post, I want to address two common challenges with spiritual practice: The first is discipline and the second is misunderstanding the value of experiences.

With regard to discipline, in observing my own practice and the practice of others, it’s obvious that consistency and persistence can be  huge challenges.  Quite frankly, I believe a central part of this problem is our wanting easy, low-cost, instant gratification. It might be a little reductionist, but it sometimes seems to me that we regard spiritual practice more like a form of entertainment than a way to greater awareness, wholeness, integration and depth of being in ourselves, in relationship with God, and in our presence in this world.  Many of us also want our experiences to be intellectually or emotionally profound, and perhaps even socially or materially tangible.  Any practice that doesn’t seem to fulfill these wishes can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different; we can also imagine ourselves as having already “advanced” beyond the need for that practice.   It’s so easy to ignore how often the great saints and sages have asserted the value of commitment to even the most basic practices.  It has even been said that it’s in persisting through boredom with a spiritual practice that we begin to gain the most significant, yet often most subtle, benefits.  Said another way, the most important experience can sometimes simply be the doing of the practice itself.

It might be obvious that we’ve already begun considering how confusion about the value of experiences can be inherent in our judgments about the value of a practice.  Plainly stated, the value of an experience, and therefore the practice that facilitated it, is not necessarily measured by its immediate magnitude. Another aspect of this confusion is in taking an extraordinary experience too literally; there are countless stories of visionaries who have brought horrible suffering to themselves and others because of knee-jerk reactions to their own inner experiences.  Strong desires can lead to mistaking an experience as a direct contact with something that the experience actually only represents.  For example, a flash of light experienced in the depths of meditation may reveal something to us about the presence and action of the Spirit, but it does not necessarily mean that the light was the appearance of a particular spiritual being.  Similarly, just as the on-screen image of a movie actor is not the actual character portrayed, or even the actual actor, so too can dreams and visions about spiritual beings be far removed from actual contact with them.  Even the images of these words are not the actual forms on the computer screen, let alone the actual thoughts in my mind, but are your mind’s perception of the words and the thoughts behind them.  Another potential confusion is taking the magnitude, frequency or total number of one’s experiences as an unquestionable sign of spiritual “progress.” Such an attitude is dangerously self-aggrandizing and a highly volatile fuel for wish-fulfilling delusions.

So, is there some way to minimize these risks without turning spiritual practice into nothing but a heartless drudgery or abandoning it all together?  Yes, to begin with, it might already be apparent that one guideline I’ve found valuable is paying careful attention to the overall integration and harmony of the soul’s different aspects and functions.   Of course, this guideline is itself based upon a very deep, broad and persistent practice of honest self-awareness and caring self-acceptance.  Said another way, it is the practice of being lovingly present with oneself, and thus becoming increasingly aware of the very fluid interconnectedness within us – head, heart, and gut.  Along with this practice of presence, all the great spiritual traditions recommend the mindfulness and application of certain virtues.  In Christianity we traditionally rely on the four cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – and the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and especially charity (or agápē, spiritual love, “the greatest of these“).  But it’s very important to understand that the practice of the virtues is not about forcing one’s external behaviors to conform to some predetermined model of perfection.  The object here is not to build up some new facade in the place of being more consciously whole; in fact, the virtues are first and foremost internal processes. When incorporated with the practice of loving self-presence,  they shed significant light on the ways one is at odds with oneself, suffering from psychic fragmentation and compartmentalization, while also pointing out paths toward greater integration and harmony.  Being fully present with ourselves and working with these virtues doesn’t provide a foolproof guarantee that we won’t make mistakes, yet it can reduce the risks in making them.  When we do make mistakes, these guidelines can help us lovingly embrace them as learning opportunities and thus become even more meaningful experiences in our spiritual lives.  Beyond these very significant experiences, the practice of presence and the virtues may also facilitate a deepening awareness of something in ourselves other than thinking, feeling, sensing and doing – something quiet and still, and at first seemingly tiny and insignificant, yet more vast and powerful than we can comprehend, let alone control.

For many of us mystics, awareness of this other within ourselves is both fascinating and frightening – fascinating in its penetration into a very deep mystery of the soul, and frightening in our awareness of the comparative smallness and powerlessness of that part of us we most often identify as “me”, or what we commonly call the “ego”.  One risk associated with the fascination is confusing such an encounter with the mystical union we desire. A risk with the fear is the ego coming up with all sorts of excuses to avoid accepting and adjusting to the greater reality, including quitting a practice because we’ve realized how much it has been motivated by serving the ego; sometimes that’s just a sign that the practice is actually working!

Finally, with spiritual practice, like the rest of life, let’s acknowledge that there is no way to eliminate risk; even in retreating to avoid some risks we fate ourselves to take others.  So the question I’ll leave you with is this: What risks do faith, hope and love call upon you to take?

Agape

  6 Responses to “Risks of Spiritual Practice, Part 2”

  1. Nice post.

    “Any practice that doesn’t seem to fulfill these wishes can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different….” The value of certain spiritual practices notwithstanding, Eckhart reminds us that those who seek God in “ways” (i.e. various practices or techniques) will only find the ways and lose God.

  2. There are three paragraphs in my ebook on comparative mysticism which seem fitting here:
    Knowing what is in this life may be limited by our expectations, our defenses and lack of attention. What we presuppose to be true, protecting ourselves in case it is not, and preoccupation with other matters, cloud our perceptions. We may feel someone loves us, yet think they possibly are using us, or saying and doing what will trap us. Unconditional love cannot be realized on those terms. The best things in life must be accepted for what they are, even at the risk they are not. Absorption in divine essence, mystical union, is such.

    “What if such an encounter is misinterpreted, just a fiction of our imagination or is a sign of insanity?” If we think any of those things, we will probably end that experience. In so doing, we may have blocked the flow of divine Love, Truth and Reality. Isn’t the risk worth that reward? You bought a lottery ticket knowing that your chances of winning were minuscule. How about spending a little of your immediate self to reach the eternal? “Someone has to win.”

    “What if it is not mystical consciousness?” Then you only lost a few moments of your life. We often waste hours or days in activities which got us nowhere. Have you ever thought about opportunities you had missed because you were unwilling to take a chance? Some may have led to nothing; others could have brought great happiness or other benefits. Most of our life has some risk. Crossing the street is much more dangerous than most projected or imagined threats.

    • Hello Ron,

      Welcome to the Way of the Heart. Thank you for your comments and for mentioning your ebook. I just went and skimmed through it, and my first impression is that it is an excellent work! It seems to cover the topic of mysticism with both breadth and depth, and with a keen appreciation for both the commonalities and the differences among various traditions and practitioners. I look forward to becoming more familiar with it!

      A further comment on this subject – a consistent piece of advice across most traditions is to simply not be obsessed with our spiritual experiences, letting them come and go as we would any other thought, feeling or sensation while we sit in quiet stillness. In this way, what needs to stick will stick, and if we didn’t fully “get it” the first, second or fifteenth time around, it will keep coming in its own good time. In fact, in my experience and that of others I’ve known, at some point it’s not unusual to find that spiritual experiences have begun to rarely reveal anything new. Instead, we find ourselves reawakening to the same truths in deeper, more interconnected, ways.

  3. Chuck,

    You might be interested in joining PeaceNext, the networking group of the World Parliament of Religions: http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos

  4. […] whatever seems to lead you into a place of deeper self-awareness, honesty and wholeness.  In the next post I will offer a few further […]

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

(required)

(required)