Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Danger of Disciplines

"In the Wilderness"

While browsing through the social media yesterday I came across a comment that immediately caught my eye: "Lent has barely begun and I'm already tired of it."  My guess is that this comment was offered in jest but it may also have been partially true  for that person.

Lots of observant Christians have likely begun to engage in various spiritual disciplines in this Lenten season, some may be fasting from certain food or drink, others are spending more time in church, still others may be dedicated to a time for saying prayers or reading spiritual books. 

Many will be spiritually refreshed and renewed by these activities but my guess is that for plenty of others, these disciplines may have already become burdens, and even though Lent has barely begun they are already tired of it.

I've been reflecting on the practice of spiritual disciplines on any spiritual path. Disciplines like prayer, fasting, study or daily meditation may indeed be a doorway into deeper peace and greater wisdom but the practice of these disciplines can also be a barrier to a deeper spiritual life. In fact sometimes people can hide behind various spiritual practices- it makes them feel "holy" or at least makes them appear to be "holy."

I am reminded of something the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said to the Christian monk, Thomas Merton:

We don't teach meditation to the young monks in our monastery.
They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.

It took me a while to figure out what Master Hanh meant by this until I realized that he was recognizing the fact that a discipline like meditation can be a double-edged sword. It can help reduce anger and stress and lead to peace or it can mask inner turmoil by the appearance of external mindful practices.  It's hard to imagine  that a meditating monk is someone who goes around slamming doors in anger- that's why they don't allow young monks to practice the discipline of meditation until they are ready for it.

I know lots of people who engage in all sorts of laudable spiritual practices who are pretty- mean spirited, stressed out and judgmental. Sometimes I wonder if it may be better to avoid practicing external spiritual disciplines until we are ready for them or at least until we understand the real reason behind the the practice of a spiritual discipline in the first place.

As I see it, the only reason to practice any discipline on a spiritual path is to help make us more available to the moment, available to what comes to us, available to what "God"  is doing in us and among us. If a discipline helps us to be more available, it's working; if not, I wonder if maybe the best thing is to avoid it? 

For some people maybe their best Lenten discipline might be to give up all those extra prayers, to stop the fasting, put away the piles of Lenten reading material,  and just go sit on a bench someplace - take a few breaths, and just "pay attention" to what is happening. 

I am reminded of one of my favorite Zen koans:

A student asked the teacher, 'what is the true way?'
The teacher answered, 'the everyday way is the true way.'
The student then asked, 'Can I study it or practice it?"
'No' replied the teacher, 
'The more you study it, the further you will be from the Way.
Do not seek it, study it or name it,
to find yourself on the Way, open yourself as wide as the sky.'

The reason behind the practice of a spiritual discipline is to help us open our hearts and minds as wide as the sky. If a practice is a burden that closes the doors, maybe that practice isn't all that helpful after all - it may even be a danger on a path to deeper peace and a roadblock on the way to greater wisdom.

1 comment:

  1. This made my chuckle. You see I read a lot about mindfulness, listen to meditations, write about it, and have just had a few days where it all seems just so overwhelming. The more I read the more there is that I don't know, aren't getting right, and start to feel overwhelmed with it all. I'm wanting to fill my head with knowledge that then becomes a barrier. So the other morning I just lay in bed listening to my daughter breathing, and that was all. Everything else in my mind just drifted away. It was so peaceful. So of course, we need to empty our heads, not fill them up. And like you said we need to go sit on a bench and breathe. Thank you xxxx