In last week’s post I discussed the importance of emptying of the self through spiritual practice. This mystical process of self emptying makes us aware of our incessant acquisitiveness, the greed of being, our desire to assert ourselves, our secret hoarding of assumptions, our hidden limiting agendas, our squashing of other people’s freedom with our holy truths and our pious words, our so-called peaceful coexistence which is another ruse. In other words, if we are talking about “we want a different world,” if we are talking about “why is it that people kill, maim or torture,” what kind of ego ploy permits such heinous actions and promotes self-forgetting? And where do we harbor our own subtle versions? How can we support a non-violent world by cultivating the non-violence in our own beings?
What we do and bury inside ourselves adds to the collective storehouse of consciousness, for good or ill. Sometimes it is our very own spiritual practices that can be the corrosive element to the process of self-emptying. So we must be willing to look at these things if we want to contribute to the healing of creation, and offer a welcoming heart for the birth of the holy among us.
1. When does a spiritual practice become another form of addiction, an imposition of the will, or an accomplishment of the ego, and not a liberatory act? Spiritual practices are designed to be liberatory acts. They are designed to move us toward liberation, freedom. Spiritual practices that become a form of addiction are those that require attention and give the self something. For example, let us say that you are doing something that the world considers a good act. You are helping the homeless, feeding the poor, meditating daily, but this spiritual practice is actually building up your attachment to self-identity rather than being a liberatory expression. Remember now that I am talking about subtle states. I am not saying that everyone who is performing a good deed is in an addictive spiritual practice. I am simply saying that in your own spiritual practice, become aware of what motivates you. Is the practice being motivated in order to – as Gandhi would say “see God face to face,” or is it motivated because it is developing your sense that “I am a good person and can then ignore all of the other aspects of my personality that I have not worked on.” Doing all of these physical things to be a person of service can be a form of addiction or avoidance of other areas of one’s life. I am raising this as a way to look at the places where you may feel that your spiritual life is not going forward. If you feel that happening, then reflect on this: What am I getting from all the activity? It can take a toll on your inner being in ways that you are not aware of.
I can give you an example from when I was teaching at the university that shows how a positive action can veer in the direction of being consumptive. I noticed that, because I spent all of my time preparing classes for the students, I was always thinking about them. I would read a text and ask myself “how will the students respond to this? How can I break this down for them to understand it? How can I make it accessible to them?” After awhile, I became less present to my self because I did not have time to assimilate what I read before I had to dispense it. This constant attention to the students’ need began to separate me from the divine knowing within, and caused anguish. If you take my example and think about it in terms of your life, it might shed light on how even positive events can become addictive behaviors.
Further, an addictive personality can use anything, including spiritual practice, as a substitution, albeit a more healthy form of substitution than other forms of addiction. But this kind of addictive spiritual practice still obscures the action-less, motiveless, intention-less, non-doing consciousness that underlies deeper states of contemplation. Being attached to the fruits of our labor may stem from a fear that we are not inherently good; that we must prove ourselves. This is such a deep psychological and spiritual wound that as people progress in the spiritual life, they discover layers of woundedness that they thought had been resolved. Perhaps they have been in years of therapy, and prayed much and thought the issue had resolved, but like an onion, as they went deeper, these more subtle and subversive levels of insecurity–that they are not going to make it, that they are not doing the right thing—start to peel away. This is the place where addictive practices usually grab hold, in the place where we feel we are fundamentally not good. But this is also where spiritual practices heal, as long as they don’t become addictive, because then they just add to the problem instead of taking it away.
If you feel that you are in this arena, you might want to ask yourself some questions: Do I ever spend time alone? Do I ever spend time that is quiet? Do I spend too much time alone, meditating and being away from the world as a form of escape or avoidance of deeper issues? Is my spiritual practice truly motiveless? Is it truly intention-less? These subtle issues are significant because contemplation brings us to an experience of being cared for, which is one of the most difficult things that people go through–recognizing that deeply and profoundly, they are being taken care of and loved. We use so many divisive or digressive compensatory behaviors to overcome this fundamental fear that wounds and which we mourn, and that we carry in our cells, minds, and spirits: that we are not being cared for and we are not loved.
2. Spiritual practices that are impositions of the Will often result because we are trying to bury fundamental truths about the self. We use our wills to keep down the unpleasant, the negative, and what we consider to be the unholy. When we use spiritual practices as an imposition of the will, it does not lead to liberation, but to further imprisonment. Often we do not realize this because we have become habituated to a certain way of being through a certain practice, through the way that we define ourselves, and the deeper layers of our personality that we have suppressed start rising to the surface, disturbing the identity that our spiritual practice is keeping in place. In other words, your will is using your spiritual practice to conceal those hidden attachments that you do not want to address.
An example of this is Henri Nouwen, a professor at Harvard who eventually left his position to spend the last ten years of his life at L’Arche, a spiritual community for the disabled. At Harvard, he was a well-known spiritual speaker and spiritual director, whom many sought for his wisdom and healing work. When he moved to L’Arche, he completely fell apart. He went into a deeply troubling depression that caused him to realize that all of his spiritual practices had been constructed on top of a fundamental wound: that he was not loved ultimately and there was no safe place for him to let go. When he arrived at this large community, for the first time he had a sense that he could let go, even though this was a community of severely disabled people and a traumatic experience for him. It is at L’Arche that he discovers that an entire archeology of un-masked feelings and attributes were repressed or held-back by his spiritual practices and by his status as a spiritual teacher.
Another example would be a spiritual practice where we are trying to affirm love, sweetness and compassion, but underneath we are harboring jealousy, judgment or control. Spiritual practice then becomes an imposition of the will. “No, I should not feel jealous.” “No I should not feel judgmental.” “No, I should not be controlling,” instead of turning the practice around to pray about and admit: “I am jealous. Help me to understand the nature of my jealousy. Why am I jealous?” Or, “I am a judgmental person or a controlling person. Please help me to see the underlying causes.” Because we do not hold a sense of our goodness, it is painful to take that route and just go straight into what we consider to be our sins or the things we are embarrassed about, and to just put them before the Divine and ask for help. The philosophy that I hold and that I have certainly witnessed is this: every one of our emotions, whether jealousy, control, anger, or other is a complex emotion, meaning that it is built on top of a fundamental wound that distorts the love and nurturing of the Divine. If you are willing to look at it, the Divine is going to take you to the truth beneath the wound, which is your goodness. If you are not willing to look at it, you are burying the truth underneath these practices. But, if you are a deeply honest person, then the underlying truth of your goodness, which is being suppressed, will keep bubbling up for attention, because the deeper self-honesty is not going to be able to stand the disjuncture, and will continue to push through the will.
Usually some situation arises to jar you out of your will. Many times apparently “strange” things will happen – accidents or life situations that simply require you to go deeper. The imposition of the will is never a liberatory act, but is an act of aggression or violence that we impose on ourselves to suppress deeper truths. When a person reaches this kind of impasse of the spirit, he or she will probably feel certain unclear motivations of the heart, or a certain interior uneasiness – a jarring of the inner life – a reminder that this is not the right path. Anyone who believes one can pursue the spiritual life using the will to suppress those things one doesn’t want to confront does not know the contemplative life, because it is impossible. It is a contradiction in terms, because contemplation is a life of truth. Therefore, it is going to keep moving toward truth – inexorably, against your will. Your will can go with the movement or resist it, but once you step on the divine path you will be drawn to truth, one way or another. The sooner a person accepts this, the easier life becomes because you then celebrate and embrace those parts of your nature you have been hiding and honor them so that you are in movement toward liberation, not in movement toward self-violence. You can see patterns of your being change literally overnight, never to come back again, if you are willing to pursue a path of truth and honesty in your spiritual practice. If you say to yourself and say in your prayer life “Please help me to be truthful. Give me the strength to be truthful,” that is more powerful and more useful than all kinds of meditation and prayer, if you are at an impasse. Sometimes we use prayer and meditation to give us the strength to ask the question.
3. Spiritual Practices that are an accomplishment of the ego, rather than a liberatory act, become forms of oppression, weapons that damage, harm and limit. This is an extension of what I just outlined. Ego accomplishment can be a way of doing violence to the interior self and to others. It becomes a form of separation – a distinguishing mark, a separating feature of the ego: “I am a spiritual person.” “I have attained these certain levels of development – you are not there.” I have seen that so much in the spiritual life. There are so many egos in the “so-called” spiritual life, and it is very sad and disturbing for spiritual practitioners to dismiss other people. It is a type of “ego accomplishment” or “spiritual materialism.” Spirituality can become its own form of materialism and spiritual practice can certainly feed into that. When spiritual practice becomes an accomplishment of the ego, then this is a clear sign that you need to stop and take notice, and to add that into your prayers.
We should always ask the Divine to make us nothing – to teach us about the less, the small, the simple, the little, the lowly, and the poverty. These are antidotes or cures for “I have achieved something.” Going back to Merton’s notion of “beginner,” he is advocating humility of heart. When you get into the accomplishment of the ego, the false self asserts: “I am pious,” “I am holy,” “I am the one giving.” But what is the consciousness beneath these words? We talked a few classes ago about Meister Eckhart’s sermon “poverty of spirit” where we are exhorted to “want nothing, know nothing, and have nothing.” While we can never accomplish this absolutely in this life, here is a spiritual practice designed to harness the impulses of the ego and to keep them in check and to laugh about them. We all have egos and we are all going to do these things, but we must be able to say to the false self: “okay, get back in your place. I am going to let go.”