The other day I was re-reading parts of Karen Armstrong’s illuminating autobiography (of sorts–it ends at young adulthood) The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Her experiences as a young nun in England struck a chord, particularly the shock of re-entering the world and dealing with her religious brainwashing in the convent. But Karen’s stunner is a simply worded plea: spiritual life is all about doing something to transform our mind and heart.
I happened to have been glancing at another book while re-reading Karen’s (yes, my bedside is littered with piles of books)–James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief in which he says practically the same thing–dogmas and beliefs have nothing to do with spiritual life.
The point of religion is to shift consciousness, and has nothing to do with what happened under a tree in India 2500 years ago, or in Sinai in 1446 BCE , or in Mecca, Assisi, Jerusalem or Upper Myanmar.
Raymond Sigrist, in a comment to my last posting, mentions spiritual poverty. I think we all could do with a thumping deflation in our spiritual accounts.
It’s time we welcomed a Great Spiritual Downturn.
A spiritual recession.
Raymond writes: “Spiritual poverty, as seen in both Zhuangzi (“I depend on what I don’t know”) and some of the Christian mystics like San Juan de la Cruz (pobreza espiritual), is an efficacious perspective. I think there is a disadvantage in claiming that I can completely eliminate the ego. In fact, it might even be the ego that makes such claims.”
From the point of view of this much needed spiritual recession, it doesn’t matter whether God is a benevolent being half involved in the workings of the universe or a hallucination.
All that matters is that we routinely access a set of skills that can transform the self, open the mind, and motivate decent, principled action.
It’s the transformation, not the myth, that matters, adds contemporary Jewish mystic Jay Michaelson.
In writing about the pragmatic approach to prayer in the last blog post, Raymond Sigrist made the following comment to my post, which I will quote at length (he is recounting an incident that happened when he was a voluntary chaplain in a hospital):
In the praying together, the client and myself were both acknowledging that in order to effectively cope with the situation they were in, we needed to find a perspective that could transcend the boundaries of typical habitual thought patterns and machinations.
What I found interesting was that we could access a dynamic process that was not as available even by listening with that powerful tool which Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”
As soon as we started to pray, the gestalt in the hospital room shifted markedly, and sometimes dramatically. The discursive thought of ordinary mind nearly completely vanished. Something from the center of our being had become acutely awake. Something quite beyond the thought of having or not having a God. It is something Meister Eckhart prayed for: “I pray God to be rid of God.”
I have suggested on this blog that there is no one transformational cookbook (i.e., religious tradition) that will resonate with everyone. But the doing is the thing, not the believing.
Jay Michaelson observes that we must “shift away from a belief-centered, ethnicity-centered, and history-centered religious worldview and toward a pragmatic one.”
We also need to shift how we view role models. In the past, much of the truly deep spirituality was associated with an elite minority (with the exception of Shin Buddhism, and a few others). We need to re-consider spirituality as a pragmatic, everyday deal, just like keeping fit and eating healthily. It’s do-able. You just gotta get off your butt.
Or, perhaps more precisely, put your butt on the floor. Or in a chair.
Just get your tush to the cush.
Here’s Jay Michaelson again:
“Spiritual excellence is every bit as real as physical or intellectual excellence, and to my mind, smart people who don’t do any work on themselves are as out of balance as bookworms who never go to the gym. … But if you aren’t doing something, you’re the spiritual equivalent of a 98-pound weakling.”
It aint easy. Neither is going to the gym, lacing up your running shoes, or cooking most nights.
But ya gotta just do it, as the Nike folks say.
You’ll be glad you did.By: Tom Davidson-Marx