Who Are We to Be?

I confess that, watching the political discourse over the last few years I have become increasingly discouraged. I have watched American politics, not as an obsession but as a citizen interested in public discourse, since the late Johnson administration. To my more smart assed younger friends, I should specify that I mean the Lyndon, and not the Andrew Johnson administration. What I have noticed, at every level and in every party, is a loss of any sense of value or integrity. People just seem to feel fine about dishing bald faced lies to the American public if doing so advances their cause, career, or (more likely) lines their pockets.

If we are honest, these are the kind of people we wouldn’t want to invite into our homes for dinner for fear they would steal the silverware. Like a drug addicted child, we would have to exert so much energy monitoring their behavior while they were visiting that we couldn’t possibly enjoy the visit. If we are honest, we don’t have to stretch our imagination too much to imagine a current politician or one of their employees searching through our bank records while ostensibly on a trip to the bathroom.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult like studying and working in the fields of spirituality, religion, and psychology, it is clear to me that a significant segment of our population has come worship power and money above all else. Values such as integrity, truth, loyalty, and dependability take a back seat in these belief systems. Perhaps even more telling is the truth that the worship of power and money arise in a person who is profoundly fearful and lacks a way to understand and process that fear. They become a starving man in front of a tray of food, who takes it and eats it without regard because he knows he must do so to survive – except that most of these people have more than enough to survive. Their starvation is a starvation of soul, and the result is an ego run amok. The result of their strategy is a life chasing something they will never catch.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Moslem, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You might be a Jungian, a Freudian, or a follower of Fritz Perls. Maybe Elkhart Tolle helps you make sense of your world, and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday makes all right in your world. Whatever it is, the human psyche needs a way to make sense of its world and to find in it something bigger than itself. It doesn’t need to be complicated. The Dalai Lama reminds us the his religion is kindness. Each of us must find a way to care about something other than ourselves at least some of the time. If we can’t do that, we are likely to find ourselves trying to lie, cheat, and steal our way to happiness – and pondering a run for political office.

Much ado about nothing

The truth is that the divisions we create between Spiritual and political perspectives are most often a way to pump up our own egos and little more. We imagine there is some qualitative difference between a Buddhist and a Christian and theologians on both sides make a very tidy living perpetuating that misperception, but mystics on both sides agree that our commonalities far outnumber our differences. The same could be easily said of republicans and democrats.

If we look closely we will see that underneath every assertion that I am right and you are wrong lies the unspoken belief that I am better than you. That [erroneous] belief is the product of an insecure mind driven by an out of control ego. In truth we are not better and worse, just diverse, and that is really quite lovely – hardly something we should be trying to eliminate!

Is this the best?

My wife had a sister from another mister who passed more than ten years ago now. When we went shopping with Helen, we would joke about “good, better, best,” a marketing technique popular at the time that tried to categorize products by quality – and ultimately by price. It pained Helen to buy “good,” and even “better” was a rough sell. “Best” was definitely the preferred option for her nine times out of ten. Not surprisingly, she had a lovely home filled with lovely things.

good better bestThere is a place where “good, better, best” doesn’t apply, and that place is the spiritual life. I suppose it’s human nature to wonder if we are doing the spiritual life in the “best” way possible, but ranking our practices according to perceived quality is never appropriate because spirituality is an individual thing. What makes one practice good for you might make it terrible for me, and neither of us is wrong – we are just different, and that is okay.

The most common place I see this problem playing out is with proponents of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian Mediation taught by (among others) the late Fr. Thomas Keating. I am absolutely certain Fr. Keating never asserted that Centering Prayer was the best form of prayer practice, but it’s a belief that many Centering Prayer aficionados seem to hold and love to proclaim. Recently I was listening to a podcast that I have a love/hate relationship with when one of the hosts tried to get their guest to agree that Centering Prayer is the best form of prayer and the rest are only poor substitutions. Sadly, the guest – a highly respected authority on contemplation – didn’t correct his host.

You see, when we fall into debates about who has the best method we have left the spiritual arena and moved into the arena in which we spend our time trying to prop up our egos. This always happens at the expense of spiritual growth, and it reflects a level of spiritual immaturity and competitiveness that is most unattractive. Walk your path, do your practice, and don’t look to the left and the right to make comparisons and justify your own journey. We will all be better for it.

Our Fascination with Foreign Practices

Americans are fascinate with things we perceive to be exotic. I became acutely aware of this truth when I became an Episcopalian and was suddenly exposed to people who had never left the United States but had somehow acquired a British accent. Another british-1600x720example is that people just love to take their shoes off at yoga centers, meditation halls, any place that even seems vaguely Eastern. I don’t think it would take a lot of effort to convince people that going to the bathroom is a deeply spiritual practice if we would just place a mat for them to leave their shoes at the entrance. Almost as popular is contorting our Western bodies into positions that Eastern folks regularly assume but those of us raised with, say, chairs never do.

We assume that doing all of these rather unusual external behaviors by definition make us more spiritual. The problem is that they don’t. There is nothing about sitting in full lotus that would prevent a raging ass hat from assuming the position. In fact, you can see it at just about any spiritual center. The truth is that there isn’t anything about any external behavior that transforms us internally. Those external practices can actually Does-He-Have-Bones-Nigerian-Contortionist-Murphybecome a barrier if they reinforce our ego by supporting the idea that we are better than our fellow practitioners.

In the end, if bending yourself into a pretzel shape helps you with your practice then that is a beautiful thing and you should keep right on doing it. If you can’t manage to turn your body into a piece of origami, you should know that sitting in a chair will neither hinder nor accelerate your practice. Perhaps we need to be asking ourselves whether we could practice if we found ourselves on a deserted island with none of our objects (or positions) of attachment.