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?