You Can’t Do It That Way!

How often do we hear that from academics, especially in the field of spirituality and religion? I have heard it so often I want to vomit every time yet another insecure academic trying to justify their professional existence announces what does and does not constitute “proper” spiritual practice. Whatever currently popular spiritual trend catches their attention is dismissed either because it doesn’t pass their litmus test of what constitutes proper practice or the practitioners don’t have (in their mind) the proper qualifications to do the practice authentically, or both.

Mind you, I am far from anti-intellectual. I support the Academy and think it has a purpose and does good work. It’s when they try to dismiss everything that comes from anyone who hasn’t spent their lives in higher education as somehow inherently inadequate that I have a problem. When academics suggest that anything that doesn’t come from them or one of their colleagues isn’t “valid,” I feel compelled to point out that it’s a good thing for the rest of us that they aren’t in charge of social graces. I often wonder if when people from the theology department announce that the only people qualified to opine on any scripture are those who can read it in the original languages, the people from the foreign language department become insulted because their translation ability has been besmirched by their colleagues! Do the people from the history and anthropology departments wonder why the theology department disregards the truths that humans were illiterate through most of history and the printing press was invented only five hundred years ago?

Even more importantly, please don’t tell me I can’t do something a particular way when in fact I just did. For example, if you tell me I can’t investigate Celtic spirituality when I just finished reading a book about it I am afraid I already did investigate it. If you insist I cannot read a particular scripture because I am not a polyglot, I must tell you that most people who have read a scripture have read it in translation. While the subtle nuances may be lost in translation, I believe that translators do the best job possible. Unless I am obsessive compulsive, it is close enough for my purposes.

Most importantly, don’t let anyone making pious pronouncements about the validity of your particular practice discourage you. In everybody’s experience there are bound to be more or less useful spiritual practices. What I find helpful, you may find simplistic and foolish. It’s not that the practices themselves are less that perfect, because they all are less than perfect. It’s that we have different needs and are at different places on our journeys, so of course different practices and perspectives will appeal to us. It’s the nature of practices to evolve and adapt to current needs, so we don’t need to feel embarrassed that we don’t do anything the way it was done one thousand years ago. The point of our practice is to move us along on our spiritual journey, not to please anyone else or pay homage to what once was but isn’t any longer.

Experiences in Meditation

I recently received a question about experiences in meditation. I am reproducing in part my response here on the blog because I feel many people have a similar question.

The experiences you are having are sometimes called “consolations.” I tend to think of them as glimpses of awakening. Everything seems to make sense in those moments, to fall into place so clearly that we may wonder why we couldn’t see it sooner. We may want to stay in that space, but we cannot. I don’t believe that enlightenment, whatever it means, is dwelling constantly in those mountaintop moments because I don’t know that we could tolerate the view from the mountaintop all the time. I do believe we are given those moments of insight as a reward for the work we are doing. They are good, they are wonderful, and they aren’t the point at all.

In a sense, like a rich dessert, those moments of bliss can become a distraction if we start reaching for them or take them as a measure of “progress” (an awful word) on the path. Experiences will come and go, and if we start chasing them they become a serious problem. I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning (here’s a brief video demonstrating it https://youtu.be/TtfQlkGwE2U), but if we chase after the rewarding experiences in meditation we can become like Skinner’s pigeons, convinced that certain behaviors invariably produce a reward. 

In my experience, a more effective view is that in meditation practice the practice itself is the goal. Whether or not there are experiences, however we feel before, during, and after a practice session, we cannot fail because doing meditation itself is the point. There will be benefits, experiences, and changes within us, but they are best understood as wonderful but secondary gains that really don’t measure progress but are a nice reward – like that rich dessert. In this way, if we have experiences, that is great. If we don’t, that’s great too. 
I hope this helps!

Living in Mystery

There are things we don’t know. Some of you will feel that I am stating the blatantly obvious. Others will feel that my claim is patently false. Hopefully, the majority of you are willing to consider at least that we as individuals don’t each know everything there is to know. Our culture often seems to treat not knowing as a problem or a deficit to be overcome. Sometimes it’s true that things like not knowing how to cure cancer is a deficit we would very much like to overcome. Few people would disagree when I say that overcoming disease is always a valid goal.

Not knowing drives scientific progress and other legitimate curiosities. We wonder what is at the edge of our current knowledge, just beyond our reach at the moment but perhaps tomorrow’s discovery that changes lives. The quality that drives us in these situations isn’t a discomfort with not knowing but rather curiosity. When we are curious, we don’t feel we need an answer right away because we understand there are things to be learned along the way. When we experience dissatisfaction with not knowing we tend to want answer right now, even if it’s the wrong answer, because we can’t tolerate uncertainty. If what I have described sounds a lot like living in 2020, you are correct! It’s not just 2020 or pandemics that raise these questions, but they do raise them in a more intense fashion that we are used to.

Do you prefer to do things you have done before, things that are known commodities rather than things that may or may not turn out as you expect? When is the last time you tried a new food or a new recipe? How about a new author or a book or movie about a new subject? People who enjoy working large jigsaw puzzles understand that there is a time or varying length between starting and completing a puzzle when they dwell in uncertainty. Gradually, over time, the image starts to come into focus. That place between scattered, seemingly disjointed pieces and completion is a kind of dwelling in the unknown.

Dwelling in the unknown can be a time of great personal and spiritual transformation, but it can also be a time of discomfort and uncertainty. We need to be able to tolerate all of it, but that can be a hard sell in a world of microwave ovens and instapots. “I want it now” is the motto of a very shallow person, indeed, one who will have to settle for the mediocre because they cannot wait for the more complex, nuanced experience. You can yell “I want it now” until you are hoarse, but at the end of 2020 we are waiting for many things and intolerance of the waiting will not shorten it. As long as we are in the middle of waiting, why not explore it? Notice what it feels like. Notice how your choices in the past are challenged by this new future. See again that some things that work quickly, like instant men’s hair coloring, aren’t necessarily of the highest quality. Consider craftsmanship in every human activity, and find places in your life where slowing down and doing things the old way is actually beneficial to the outcome. If you have the courage to take these steps, this time of reduced frenetic activity may surprise you by revealing some appealing new habits!

But, is that all there is?

Research is valuable. Anyone who would attempt to draw meaningful conclusions about anything without researching their subject thoroughly is on a fool’s errand. However, with apologies to Brene Brown, data ain’t all there is. Data is what we can measure, what is quantifiable, what can be seen, and it is a huge part of our experience. However, there are also many intangibles that we can’t measure, photograph, or otherwise capture – and I would submit that those are the things that make us human. In other words, “why” is just as important and “what,” and much harder to wrap our measuring tape around.

Adversity

Something bad is going to happen to you. It’s a matter of time. Quite possibly, over the course of a lifetime, many bad somethings will happen to you. As I see it, you are faced with a few choices. First and foremost, you need to give yourself time to heal and grieve whatever loss has occurred. This is true even if it doesn’t seem like your “bad thing” is a loss in the traditional sense of the word. In the process of healing or grieving we will be faced with a choice. That choice will make all the difference in how we move forward.

We might choose to feel as if we somehow have been singled out. People choosing this path tend to believe that most people do not encounter similar challenges. It’s something like the notion of the dysfunctional family. It is certainly true that families aren’t supposed to have alcoholic parents, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, mental illness, poverty, or hunger. It’s also true that most families do have at least some part of the whole that is dysfunctional. The truth is that the fully functional family may not exist! While the specifics of your experience may be different that most people, the fact that your experience is adverse is not at all unique. We haven’t all been chased by angry giraffes, but almost all of us has experienced some level of trauma.

Another way to understand these adversities is that while the specifics of the event will likely differ from person to person, the adversity therein is common to most if not all of humanity. In fact, although I have met people who claimed to have lived a charmed life the truth is that all of them were in denial about their lives or lying to me. I believe we all encounter significant adverse experiences. I also believe they serve a purpose. Human beings grow, and ultimately evolve as individuals and as a species, by virtue of working through these challenges. Now, only a masochist would welcome lousy experiences. I am not suggesting we should jump up and down in celebration of an adverse experience. I am suggesting we shouldn’t feel singled out because something bad happens.

If we come to see these experiences as a normal part of a normal life, we will go a long way to moving from feeling like a victim (and everything that goes with it) toward feeling like a competent human being who is in charge of their life. That shift alone will make handling adversity much easier. We are not more competent when we wring our hands and ask,”why me?” In fact, questions like “why me” keep us backward focused at the time when we most need to be looking ahead! So, instead of asking “why me,” ask “what’s next?”