Saturday, March 28, 2009

What's the Point?

When we think about religion, we generally think about beliefs. What separates a Christian from a Hindu, or an Orthodox Jew from a UU is what they believe. UUs believe something different than Orthodox Jews and Christians believe differently than Hindus. We divide religions and spiritualities into categories like Theistic and Humanistic, Trans-Personal, Animist, Atheist, Pagan, Dualist, Qualified Non-Dualist, etc; each identifiable by a particular set of beliefs about the metaphysical structure of the Cosmos. What we too often forget, I think, is that there is more to religion and spirituality than beliefs. The other major component of most if not all religious and spiritual paths is a prescribed set of practices. For the serious aspirant particular actions and practices are recommended as a means to a fuller realization and understanding.

If we are inclined to look for a connecting strand among the world's spiritualities, the broad coincidence of the practices they recommend would be one good place to start. While there are certainly variations and differences of emphasis among the traditions, there is a broad agreement as to the intention of the practices prescribed. This is our topic for today, the “why,” the intent, of spiritual practice.

As a place to start, we might look at the etymology of the word “religion.” Like the Sanskrit word “yoga,” religion means to join. The “lig” in “religion” is the same as the “lig” in “ligament,” those cords that bind our bones together. “Yoga” is related to the English word “yoke,” as in yoking oxen together. So the purpose of religion, etymologically speaking, is to join. Namely, to join the human with the Divine, to join our world and ourselves to the world of perfection. This is one way of answering the question of why to engage in spiritual practices; to join ourselves to God.

But many of us recoil just a little, or maybe more than a little, from the words “God” and “Divine.” If we don't believe in a God to begin with, the prospect of union with a non-existent entity is unlikely to move us. If belief is a necessary precondition for practice, then we won't practice because we can't believe. But I don't think that this is the case. Belief, at least in a higher power, is not a necessary precondition for practice. There are other reasons for practice that are not dependent on one's creed or belief system.

One of my current favorite analogies for spiritual practice comes from the Mind-Ground school of Buddhism. As Rev. Heng Sure explains, this school sees our mind as ground, as earth. Our minds are gardens and our personalities the combination of plants that grow there; the “why” of spiritual practice then is to improve our gardens and to become better gardeners. As Rev. Sure puts it,

The mind is a garden. The mind is a place where everything grows... thoughts grow there, emotions grow there, wisdom grows there; affliction, trouble, grows in the same place. So the “Mind-Ground” means that the mind is a place where we plant seeds. And it's really ours to plant. We become like gardeners in the ground of our mind.

Spiritual practice, in this view, is a means of weeding the garden of the mind of negative thoughts and emotions and planting in their place seeds of positivity. The practices are like the spades and rakes that we use to root up the weeds, and the watering can that we use to nourish what we plant in their place.

And what are these practices? Rev. Sure describes them as “The Six Guidelines.” They are:

Not fighting, finding a way to be patient instead of fighting. Not being greedy, instead giving, being generous. Not seeking...learning to be content. [Being] unselfish...not wanting personal benefit...And not lying.

One thing to notice about these practices is that they are not limited to a specific time or form. Unlike meditation or prayer, these practices do not have a specific duration or shape, but rather require continual application throughout the day, to whatever circumstances one happens to confront. To practice in this way, then, is to maintain a continual watchfulness. Rev. Sure states that the “power-tool,” the “Roto-tiller” for the mind garden is, “catching [the] mind when it's selfish and when it tries to get stuff to fortify the self.”

Another thing to notice is that each guideline has many levels of application. Not fighting surely refers to physical violence, but there are many forms of fighting that are not physical and these too must be ended. The same goes for lying and being greedy. Lies and greed can take many forms, some of them quite subtle, and the aspirant is encouraged to weed out all of them. As spiritual practices, the Six Guidelines are psychologically penetrating, not to be fulfilled through merely formal or ritualized acts.

We find similar prescriptions for living in all the great religious traditions. Five of the six guidelines appear (all of them except for not lying), though differently phrased, in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Bhagavad Gita, “the New Testament of Hinduism,” we find similar prescriptions for spiritual practice.

Rather than six guidelines, though, the Gita divides spiritual practice up into four major varieties or paths, the four yogas. These are Karma Yoga (the path of action), Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion), Jnana Yoga (the path of knowledge), and Raja Yoga (the path of mental control). For the path of action, the major discipline is the practice of non-attachment to the ends of action, doing one's duty without anxiety over or desire for the results. For the follower of the path of devotion, the dedication of every moment and act to one's chosen deity is the primary practice. Practice along the path of knowledge entails learning to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the transient and the eternal, while the path of mental control recommends meditation and concentration.

The goal of each of these Yogas is achieve the realization of the non-duality of Atman and Brahman, the “not-two-ness” of the Soul and God. The benefits of such a realization are said to be many. For one, the fully-realized Yogi is said to have unflappable equanimity, and a permanent internal joy that is unaffected by exterior circumstances. The Yogi is also said to act always for the benefit of all, rather than for the benefit of self. These are the same qualities that Rev. Sure says accrue to those who faithfully practice the six guidelines. The effects of spiritual practices, then, are to be seen both within the individual as well as in the individual's interaction with society. There are both personal and social benefits to practice.

So we have these two perspectives on spiritual practice, one theistic and one psychological. One tells us that the point of spiritual practice is to attain or to realize oneness with God, the other says that the point is to improve and beautify that which grows in the ground of mind. Their goals seem distinct, even if the recommended practices bear some resemblance, but are they really? If we conceptualize of Divinity as that which is most precious and profound within the self, then Divine union means nothing else but manifesting our highest ideals through our being and action, and this also is the goal of the Mind-Ground school; to root up what is lowly and to plant the ideal in its place.

In my opinion, this is the point of spiritual practice, to enable the manifestation of our most precious and profound potentials, to create room in the garden for these things to grow. It does not matter whether we believe in a higher power or not, so long as we believe that progress towards our ideals is possible. If we believe that we might become more or better than what we are, and if we take steps to actually try to become so, then we are engaging in spiritual practice, no matter what we may label it. We engage in these practices to improve our own experience of life, by counteracting and removing anxiety, fear, guilt and other negative feelings and thoughts so that they can be replaced with contentment, hope and joy. We also engage in these practices to improve our intercourse with the world around us, to make us more compassionate, caring, and willing to help. These are both the motivations and the results of successful practice.

It seems that we UUs, like many people, associate religion and spirituality mostly with beliefs. We are UUs because we give our intellectual assent to the Seven Principles and not to the Nicene Creed. But belief is only half of religion, if that, and we remain only half a religion, until we turn our Seven Principles into concrete practices, until intellectual assent becomes existential engagement. It is not enough for us to agree in principle to the Seven Principles, they require application to our lives and to the world. Without application, religious and spiritual beliefs are just edifying maxims, pretty words with no force or reality. Practice is the application of religious or spiritual principles to lived life, and the validity of these principles is shown by the results of their application.

It is easy enough to ascribe to one belief system or another. One may easily convert from one denomination or religion to another, simply by professing a new set of doctrines, but until and unless those doctrines show a real effect in the life and being of the individual, their reality is illusory. Until spirituality is translated into actual practice, until it has a transformative effect on our lives, it will remain a dead thing, an abstraction. Practice is what gives the abstract substance and reality, what breathes life into our beliefs and ideals. That is the purpose of spiritual practice; that is the point.

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