I recently taught a class in creative contemplation that was based on Lectio Divina, or divine reading. It is a practice undertaken by contemplative Christians and monks in which one completely surrenders to the voice of God as inspired by a line of scripture.
I have no real allegiance to Christianity, other than my upbringing, and presented the practice in a completely secular course. Much modern meditative and contemplative forms are presented this way. Centuries-old sacred traditions are stripped of theology and much underlying philosophy as a means of adapting each to a stressful, material world. It is sort of like insisting that prayer without an object or spirit to pray to will bring about a miracle. The act, not the deity, holds the influence.
In my busy life in the city this poses no problems. But I spent the weekend at my parents’ house in the mountains, very quiet, and found the entire secularization of sacred traditions troubling.
Faith in God fascinates me, even as I have little of my own. On the few occasions I have felt moved to prayer I have rejected the impulse as one born of weakness or unreason. But I have studied Benedictine and Zen traditions very carefully in the development of my meditation practice and as a foundation for teaching methods inspired by these traditions. I aligned myself with the dogma, and then rejected it.
I’m not alone. At a teacher training with Jon Kabat-Zinn, he insisted on a full understanding of the dharmic principles that underlie mindfulness as a prerequisite to teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction in secular settings. (While I may have rejected much of the dharma, Zinn hasn’t.)
Many teachers learn this stuff and then stash it away as irrelevant or incendiary to their students’ searching. I believe that every person who sits for a moment in silence is searching for something. Should we who call ourselves teachers reveal only the practical methods and deny the spiritual? Yoga today is often taught as a form of stretching, without its philosophical underpinnings — a step toward good health for the mind and body while ignoring the soul. Meditation is now making the leap into the same territory.
A conversation with a man named Scott who runs a UPS store opened up for me how vacuous this approach can be. He was printing flyers for a class of mine and revealed himself as a student of Zen. He spoke of life, work, and relationships as inseparable from one’s practice. He embodied the ideal that it is not the time one spends on the cushion that makes a life, it is the living that makes the life.
When fully infused with the dharma (or whatever underlying philosophy one’s method of practice comes from), formal practice becomes unnecessary. The caution I heard, although it may not have been intended, was that formal practice without the infusion of some ethical construct is fraudulent.
This really screwed me up. I stopped practicing formally and reconsidered my relationship with mindfulness and meditation. Had thousands of hours on the cushion been an escape? Had contemplation without catechism fostered an inwardly motivated perspective that resulted in self-absorption? Had I been searching for answers that already were presented a couple thousand years ago, or was I rejecting uncomfortable questions about my relationship with others and the ideas I maintained were truths? I felt like a fraud.
Then, finally, I truly began to notice. I raised my gaze from the floor in front of me and saw truths I had been missing. My relationship with my wife improved. I took more joy in my daughter. I became more serious at work and got a promotion.
I found something. Something that carries a sense of the sacred, even if I refuse to acknowledge it as such. Mindfulness is noticing without judgment. I’ve known that intellectually for over a decade. Now I live it, most of the time. The sacred is slippery. It’s elusive and hard to hold on to. But once experienced, it does change you.
Just this week I started practicing formally again. It doesn’t really feel different, except that it feels more like part of my day than a pause in my day. Perhaps, finally, I am always practicing. I feel it would be both simplistic and nebulous to say that something is with me, or that some thing has moved me.
I hope I can hold on to this sense of openness to experience and ideas. I’d gotten old and dodgy. I’d completely rejected any notion of the sacred. I thought I knew too much. Now I’m noticing that I know just enough to be dangerous or inspiring. The motives I discover in my exploration of the challenging ideas behind the methods I practice will determine which I become.