Monday, February 1, 2016

Spiritual Disciplines

"Pointing to the Moon"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I conducted a Church Service yesterday and was especially struck with the level of anxiety that was going on among all sorts of people who were getting ready for the Service to begin. There were conversations about the proper colors of the vestments that were to be worn, concern over who was assigned to read designated prayers and who was authorized to read the various scriptures for the day, concern that the altar was set correctly for the celebration of Holy Communion.  As everyone was scampering about “here and there” before the Service, I became very aware of how all that frenetic activity and all that energy devoted to external form and ritual could well distract us from the real purpose of having a Church Service to begin with: to find a deeper peace and a greater wisdom.

It seems to me as if practicing various religious rituals and engaging in spiritual disciplines like praying or mediating can easily turn into a job, an obligation to be performed, like getting up every day and dragging yourself to work or school because, in the end, it’s good for you to do it.

I know lots of people who follow a very specific daily spiritual discipline.  They read certain prayers done in the proper form, they attend a church on Sunday (or a synagogue or a mosque) and they view these various spiritual “tasks” as obligations that they need to “get in” every morning or every evening or once a week. 

I certainly think there is something to be said about being faithful to a regular discipline, but I also wonder sometimes if the external form has taken the place of the inner reality?

I am reminded of one of my very favorite Zen sayings:

Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky.
Words are like a finger.
A finger can point to the moon’s location
however a finger is not the moon.
To look at the moon it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.

It seems to me that all religious practices and all spiritual disciplines are fingers that point to the moon. A Church Service, prayers, meditation and fasting may help lead us to the truth,  but if all our energy is focused on the fingers we will never gaze at the bright moon in the sky.

A little while back I had a fascinating conversation with someone who had attended church for many years and then decided to leave it all behind because she was finding all the external rituals of organized religion to be far too distracting for her inner, spiritual life. So, instead of attending church, she adopted the practice of 15-minutes of daily mindful meditation. Every morning she would pull out her yoga mat, sit in a quiet place, light some incense and ring a “bell of mindfulness.” She would then close her eyes, count her breaths and recite a repetitive mantra to help her keep focused.

The interesting thing about this story is that after a while her newly adopted spiritual practice had become a tedious and often-dreaded daily chore, something that she had to “get in” at the beginning of every day. She lamented that her practice of meditation had become more of a spiritual distraction than when she was attending church.

I told her to “lighten up” and not take it all so seriously: “Don’t let your focus on the fingers stop you from gazing at the moon.”

I remember reading something a Zen practitioner once wrote about his daily discipline of siting and staring –no formulaic ritual, no breath counting or mantras or designated prayers. The practice of sitting and staring means just what it says: taking time to sit quietly even if it's just for a few moments and doing nothing – aware of and awake to the revelation life has to offer in that moment:

Lots of people figure they have better things to do and better things to think about.
But when I stop and ‘sit and stare’ I am paying attention to my life,
and when I really take a look at my ordinary life
I discover something truly wonderful

It’s a crisp, clear day out here in the desert as we approach the upcoming season of spring-  a perfect time for me to find a little spot in my garden where I can sit and stare for a while.

1 comment:

  1. This made me smile. In the world of mindfulness many teachers tell us that we have to have the self discipline to do formal meditation practice every day, no matter what. I recall getting my knickers in a twist as I repeatedly fell off the meditation cushion. The thing is that once I could let go of these rules I found that actually I wanted to meditate, but only when I wished to. It was not a have to, but something that I noticed helped, and had meaning and which therefore I made time for. It was a time to stop and listen to what was going on. But we can also do this anytime, anywhere, without candles, incense, and one of those special meditation stools. Everyday life is a meditation. xxx