"Twilight and Evening Bell"
-At the Desert Retreat House-
In my reading yesterday I came across something the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, said to the Christian monk, Thomas Merton, back in 1966:
We don't teach meditation to the young monks in our monastery.
They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.
That one little statement really took be back at first. I just didn't understand it. After all, isn't meditation supposed to calm you down. Wouldn't it be helpful for anger-prone, "door-slamming" young monks to learn how to meditate?
Then it hit me and I suddenly realized the point Thich Nhat Hanh was making. Spiritual practices like meditation or various religious practices are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they may serve to calm and center a person. However, on the other hand they can be a mask behind which the ego can hide.
Most of my life was spent in the church - at the heart of the religious institution. As I reflect on it now, there is probably no better or more clever way to disguise a bloated ego or hide narcissistic tendencies than to be involved in a church and be publicly identified as a respectable and respected religious person.
I have known plenty of people who are pretty nasty and sometimes quite bitter in their everyday lives - self-centered, angry, prejudiced, judgmental about others. However, when Sunday rolls around, they walk in the doors of that church, kneel down, say their prayers, sing the hymns, and on the surface appear angelic - "picture perfect" examples of serenity and peace.
In my experience I have encountered plenty of good religious people who disguise their narcissistic tendencies behind the mask of religious practices - some of them even wear vestments, dress in clerical collars, and preach in pulpits.
If you aren't careful the practice of religion and engaging in spiritual practices can be dangerous to authentic spiritual growth. When we look like we are doing spiritual things, we can fool ourselves and fool others into thinking we are something we are not. An authentic spiritual quest leading to enlightenment and deeper peace always involves compassionate relationships with others. A bloated, protected, self-important ego cut off from others can never find that deeper peace.
I think that this is why Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery will only teach "meditation" to young monks when they have learned to stop slamming doors. When that happens they are finally ready to begin the spiritual quest rather than hide behind a mask of spirituality.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about my own life over the years. I think I've done a lot of door slamming in my time - cutting others off, celebrating my own self importance. As I think about it, there have been times (maybe many times) when I have been one of those overtly religious people who conveniently and cleverly hid my own narcissistic tendencies behind the respectable disguise of religion.
Maybe when I was younger, like the monks in Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery, I wasn't yet prepared to let go of my own protected ego, not yet wise enough or ready enough for the spiritual quest.
I have moved out to the desert in my later years. The ego doesn't thrive very well out here in the wilderness.
I think I may now be ready to begin again.