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.
There 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.
So, you say you want to start a spiritual practice? You say that first you just need to read these books, attend this retreat, or sign up for this class?
You’re fooling yourself. You’re also being fooled by the spiritual marketplace that has commodified spirituality and turned it into a cash cow.
Want to start a spiritual practice? Pick one, pick a ten minute instructional video on YouTube, and start. You can learn more along the way, but you need to start today.
Calm down. It’s okay, and yes I do sometimes descend to cheap titillation. I can’t help myself. The truth is, though, that we need to ask ourselves a serious question: if Linus went on a meditation retreat, would he take his blanket to the meditation room? Since he is an American, the odds are he would. He would also be wearing yoga pants with matching top, be wrapped in a meditation shawl, have at least three wrist malas on as well as at least one full size mala, have his own meditation cushions, and his MP3 player would be loaded with his favorite meditation and yoga music. There’s nothing wrong with all of that, but it does beg another question: If Linus was stranded on a desert island, could he meditate?
For many of us, the answer is and emphatic, “NO!” We are profoundly attached to our spiritual blankets, so much so that they actually get in the way of our practice. If you are the kind of contortionist who can actually sit full lotus, would you be able to practice if you developed a hip problem and could no longer sit that way? For far too many of us have become attached to non-essentials that we carry around with us as symbols of legitimacy that serve only the ego. What’s the point of having a spiritual practice if we can’t spontaneously pull up a piece of beach or a mountain vista and just “do it?” There is no point, because such attachments are anything but practice.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t support the sweat shops that churn out your official gear. I am saying you should learn to go naked on a regular basis. It will do wonders for your practice.
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 example 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 become 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.