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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Method is Not the Goal!

Many of us who discover eastern spirituality, especially those of us raised in western religion, are very happy when we are introduced to a method on which we can base our spiritual practice. Whether that method is following the breath in meditation, or mantra practice, or serving others in karma yoga, or study of spiritual texts, or any of a host of others, suddenly we find ourselves able to practice our spirituality all week long - not just on Sunday morning. Now, to be fair, Christianity certainly teaches service, social justice, and contemplative prayer. The problem is they say that these things are important but, with notable exceptions, don't teach how to go about them when the community gathers on Sunday morning. Sure, you can sign up for the annual trip to serve at the soup kitchen, but what about the other three hundred sixty-four days of the year? They might invite a centering prayer teacher or group to visit, but in my experience the quality of those presentations varies broadly and there isn't usually follow up to help support a practice.

Then we discover meditation, complete with instructions. This is great! The promised land has been found, a spiritual practice that can carry us through every day of the year! We struggle to become regular meditators, and for those of us who are able to achieve that goal significant growth often occurs. Then something vary subtle begins to happen. What begins as a very helpful tool on the spiritual path turns into the be all and end all. If my practice is meditation, then you had better not have a different practice or I will criticize it, either silently or aloud. I may begin to believe that I need to accumulate meditation time beyond what is reasonable, and start missing other obligations. I might insist that everyone in my house is absolutely silent while I meditate - a requirement, by the way, that reflects a weak practice
and is filled with the need to be the center of attention rather than a dedication to a productive practice.

This doesn't only happen with meditation, by the way. It happens just as often with other practices. If I volunteer at a homeless shelter I may come to see that as a superior way, maybe even the only way, and look down on you if you volunteer at a hospital. If I study ancient texts then your practice isn't as good as mine because it isn't "intellectual" enough. If I do yoga and you can't twist yourself into some unbelievably grotesque (yet sometimes strangely compelling) position, you obviously aren't spiritually advanced. We see this in the reaction of many contemporary Buddhists to the secular mindfulness movement. What I call Buddhist fundamentalists are quick to point out the ways in which secular mindfulness misses the mark, most often because it doesn't include the ethical teachings of Buddhism that they believe are essential. Guess what, kids? You can't control that! Can you say, "attachment?" When we start trying to enforce "our way" of doing things as the only acceptable way, we have crossed a line from seeing our method as a tool to be used on the path to seeing our method as the goal of the path. Like the Christian fundamentalist who believes that the only correct interpretation of scripture is a "literal" one (whatever that means) and so makes the Bible their God, we too can cross the line and make our method our God.

There is a good chance that the day will come when we cannot continue our preferred practice. As we age, we may not be able to continue the volunteer position we once loved. We will become less flexible, and have to modify our meditation and our yoga practices, or may find ourselves stuck in a position from which we can never be extracted. Our minds slow, and we cannot study as vigorously. Walking meditation becomes painful. If we are attached to our practice and the only legitimate practice, we are going to suffer needlessly. If, on the other hand, we see our practice as a tool and perhaps have dabbled in other practices, they can come to the fore as others become more difficult. This can only happen if we have held to a healthy view of our practice and have not allowed it to become the only way.

To prepare for this day, we might occasionally mix things up in our current practice. If we normally meditate on a cushion, we might try a chair on occasion. We might shift out volunteering around, or cut back a bit on our normal volunteer position to allow ourselves to try doing a couple hours a week somewhere else. If we normally read heady material, we might try something more nurturing. We might think of this as stretching for our practice, a kind of practice yoga (rather than yoga practice) that will help us keep from becoming attached and seeing our practice as a kind of God. It will pay big dividends in the future!

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