How far do we go in practice?

Often in SNS articles we are discussing our spirituality as a practice. Spiritual Naturalism is not merely some laundry list of opinions and, if your opinions, match the list, then you’re a Spiritual Naturalist. I would call this a ‘Spiritual Naturalist enthusiast’ or ‘fan of Spiritual Naturalism’. But by a practice, we mean something we apply in our lives regularly so that we continue to grow, learn, become wiser, and happier. It’s not just ‘positions’ or ‘opinions’ but something put into practice with practical results.

The question of this article is: how far do we go?

It is common for transformative practices of this kind to be described metaphorically as a path. Imagine we each have our own path. And, further back on the path where we began, we are very ignorant. In that unwise place, our happiness is highly dependent upon our external circumstances. Further along the path, as we become more enlightened (wise, mature, accepting of change, compassionate, long term perspectives, higher values, etc), our circumstances play less of a role in our equanimity and inner (or True) happiness. We start to take on a center of self and well-being that transcends the petty urges of the ego to something larger. As such, we become more resilient and able to handle the ups and downs of circumstance.

Somewhere, at the conceptual end of this path, would be full “enlightenment”. That is, complete freedom from fear, complete interconnected compassion with all beings, and complete wisdom and happiness. For most naturalists, this seems likely to be an abstraction that serves as a goal post but not literally achievable. It is something like the speed of light. You can approach closer and closer, but never actually reach it. Nevertheless, the further we get the more beneficial the joy that comes from that greater wisdom. At the 99.9% range (which may be achievable) the outward, and perhaps even inward, experience may be “close enough” to enlightenment. This might be analogous to building a perfectly smooth wheel. It will never match abstract geometry, but might be good enough to deliver the results. Still, most of us will never get that close – and, as I will address – may not wish to. The path, after all, is uphill, and it takes continuous energy and discipline to walk it.

Now that I’ve described what the analogy of the path is, and what being back or forward on that path represents, let us analogize “external circumstances”…

Imagine alongside the path, to either side, are your surroundings. These may be beautiful gardens, lush banquets, intoxicating pleasures, and so on. On the opposite extreme may be horrors and torture beyond imagination. Most human experience varies somewhere between.

Now, the state of these surroundings has nothing to do with how far up or down the path you are. It is a matter of happenstance, and each person’s path is unique. Further, these surroundings are impermanent. Meaning they are subject to change at any moment. The same spot on the path, be it on the unenlightened end, the middle, or the enlightened end, could go from heavenly to hellish at any time, with no correlation to position on the path.

The one thing you know, is that the further up the path you go, the less those surroundings will have an impact on your ability to live well, find joy, and be content.

Some of us are blessed with surroundings (conditions) that are especially pleasurable and privileged. For these folks, they may wonder what all the need for spiritual practice is even about. Life is good – just go enjoy it!

Others face more challenging surroundings and these may be some of those who have explored furthest up the path and have a lot to teach those who would like to do the same. Most of us have a mix, and would like to enjoy the surroundings that are pleasant, but move further up the path so that the unpleasant surroundings don’t bother us as much. Some people begin by simply wanting to deal with suffering, but eventually continue because they see the benefits and joys of more enlightenment.

So, the question again is, how far does one go? What is too much meditation, too much practice, too much enlightenment?

One thing about movement on the path is that is transforms what we want. I personally don’t want to live a monk’s life. I want to enjoy pleasures, collect toys, etc. But I also want to be a good person, help others, and have inner fortitude when adversity strikes.

But what I’ve found is that, the further I move along the path, the less I want some of those things. The folks living what most consider to be greatly enlightened lives actually want to live that way because they have been transformed.

Is there an “enlightened enough” point? I doubt many of us, myself included, would think we are enlightened enough because there are always pains or things we can learn or grow with. But perhaps we start to balance the effort of moving further on the path, against accepting the struggles or pains of our current soundings on the path.

The trouble with this is that thing I mentioned about the surroundings being impermanent. Even if we think we’ve found a sweet spot, it may collapse like a house of cards at any moment, into a hellish nightmare. When that happens, we will fully experience what we’re lacking by not being further up the path.

So lately I’ve been thinking, maybe the idea is to get to a ‘comfortable enough’ spot, but get prepared to make a move up the path as quickly as possible should anything happen. What this means literally is, continue to maintain a certain level of practice so that I’m always trying to be aware of teachings that are a little beyond where I’ve currently internalized. Also, practices that make an effort to picture or get glimpses of that landscape up ahead. That way I’m not flat-footed. I can enjoy the blessings of my current surroundings, but I’m not flat-footed. I’m ready to deepen my practice as conditions drive me further toward it.

With this approach, we will probably tend to drift naturally and slowly up the path, letting go of certain attachments as we are ready. But we also aren’t on this drive to live as an ascetic and feeling guilty or incomplete until we get there.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and if you’ve even had to think or deal with the issue of how far you go in your practice?

 

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3 thoughts on “How far do we go in practice?”

  1. I would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and if you’ve even had to think or deal with the issue of how far you go in your practice?

  2. Thank you for this post, DT. I agree with your conclusion. For many people, including myself, developing a sense of “good enough” can be helpful. I practice following the Middle Way, avoiding the extremes of the monastic/saint at one end and the libertine/zombie at the other. (For the Middle Way in a nutshell, see http://www.middlewaysociety.org/in-a-nutshell/.)

    Also, I think the unconscious plays a role here. Our spiritual practice is not only a matter of conscious practice (e.g., for how many minutes one meditates each day). We live and participate in an interconnected stream of phenomena. I trust that my “good enough” spiritual practices (i.e., what works for me in this moment) are sufficient and that when the manure hits the fan, I may be surprised at the inner resources (and community resources) that rise to my aid from both the individual and collective human unconscious. This is how it has played out at least in my experience.

  3. I like the Taoist way of thinking about this. The Taoist also has the idea of a path, but the path has no ultimate destination, nothing equivalent to 100% enlightenment or a end point. The path is the destination.

    The state of deep inner connection with the Tao is often called “the return to the root” in the Tao Te Ching. We return to the root not to remain there, but to marshal our inner resources so that like a tree after winter we are able to bear fruit again, be creative again, within the world.

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