Monday, February 3, 2014

Discipline and Drudgery

"Early Morning Silence"

I rarely hear the word "chores" used nowadays. When I was growing up I heard that word almost every day of my life as my mother constantly reminded me that I couldn't go out and play until I had finished my "chores." 

I was expected to take out the trash, mow the lawn in the summer and shovel show in the winter, help dry the dinner dishes, and do various other sundry tasks as assigned. My daily chores were drudgery to me. I knew they had to get done. I knew I had to do them if I wanted to get out of the house and play with my friends. However, chores were always boring and never pleasant - a necessary evil in the life of a boy growing up.

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times abut the practice of "spiritual disciplines," and I was immediately reminded of my boyhood chores. 

The article was written by someone who had practiced a 15-minite mindfulness meditation every day of his life for 25 years. One day he realized that his daily meditation discipline had turned into drudgery for him.  He had come to a point in his life where sitting silently every morning, counting his breaths and reciting his mantra had all become a tedious and even unwelcome "chore"- something to "get in" before going out and living in the everyday routine of life. 

After 25 years of a daily practice of meditation, the author of the Times' article concluded that, "the more time I spent meditating, the less value I derived from it."

I very much identified with what this author said. After all, for many many years as a priest, it had been my "job" to do spiritual stuff.  I was getting paid to lead services and give sermons. It was expected that I would be a "spiritual person" and so I felt like I had to go on retreats, say daily prayers, meditate regularly.

While, for the most part I enjoyed my "work," no matter how you cut it, it was still "work;" it was a "job."  I had to do my "chores" if I expected a paycheck.

Actually I know lots of people who aren't clergy who also find their spiritual practices to be "chores."   They go to church (or temple or a mosque). They say their prayers, or they fast or meditate or whatever- but they do it all rather reluctantly.  They put in their time hoping that somehow it will do  some good. However, the more time they put in, the less they seem to get out of it.

In the Times' article, the author said that simply recognizing that his daily practice had become so tedious was the beginning of a new way of approaching his spiritual practice. He didn't stop meditating every day but he "changed up the times"- a few shorter periods rather than longer expended times. he  skipped the breath counts, changed or eliminated the mantra. He found some new places to meditate -often at his desk at work.

Most of all however, his attitude toward spiritual practices changed drastically when he began to reflect on the relationship between what he was doing every morning and then what happened when he left his house and went out into the routine of daily life. 

When he examined his daily meditation practice, he realized that he didn't see much evidence that meditating was leading him to behave better or improve his relationships.  In other words, daily mindfulness meditation wasn't producing "fruit" in his life. His meditation wasn't helping him to live more mindfully. 

So, he vowed to intentionally "connect" his daily meditation to his everyday living - to be as aware of the revelations of every moment of every day as he was aware of his breaths while meditating.

Making these changes transformed the drudgery of a spiritual practice into a helpful discipline for healthier, happier, and holier living.

Every morning I come out into my desert meditation garden and I sit in silence - practicing a daily discipline of mindful awareness, after which I go to my desk and write a post in my blog.   I realize that it is not a job I must do- no longer a requirement of my work. Far from being a "chore," I eagerly embrace this beginning of my day. 

But I also found that New York Times article to be very helpful to me, reminding me that I  must constantly be on the watch that my "discipline" does not turn into "drudgery."  If it does, I have to find some new ways to "change it up."

More than that, I vow to be carefully intentional about the relationship between my "practice" and my "life."  

I want to be just as awake, aware and connected on the streets of my everyday routine as I am while sitting on a chair in the beauty of my desert garden when the sun comes up and the fountain gurgles. 








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