September 25, 2012 by The Editor
I recently spent many hours on the road, driving around Michigan, dipping into Ontario and back to Illinois. In all I did about 1000 miles driving on my own. Planning ahead, I brought along lots of music. But as I began the trip I decided the time might be better spent so instead I decided to find a couple of books on CD to listen to. I hoped to find something by the Dalai Lama, but to my surprise nothing was available, even at my favorite Ann Arbor, Michigan bookstore, Crazy Wisdom.
So, I left with two unexpected purchases: A Lamp in the Darkness by Jack Kornfield and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I had heard of both of these writers but knew little of either of them. The former is a reading of Kornfield’s work on Buddhist meditation for difficult times, and the latter is the work of a non-denominational spiritual writer focused on ways to enable people to transform their lives through transforming their relationship with thinking and through living in a more “awakened” state.
As works of spiritual formation, so to speak, these books had the common goal of helping people find ways to live healthier and more vibrant lives, particularly when they feel trapped in modes of thinking that are negative or even destructive. Neither book was trying to convince anyone of anything in particular. Rather they are focused on demonstrating how seekers can cut through darkness that often crops up in life.
Having spent much of my adulthood exploring spirituality in many forms, I can (finally) attest to one thing: wherever I go, whatever place of worship I enter, my spiritual experience will not be governed by how well I follow the rules or what others think of me. It will be governed by my relationship to God through prayer or meditation and being able to connect with consciousness in a way that is meaningful.
I have spent countless hours in various forms of prayer and meditation, at times hunched over a prayer-book wading through languages I didn’t understand or sitting as if in meditation, my mind actually racing with a million thoughts I hadn’t the skill or understanding to ignore. During my most fervent years of Jewish observance, I would pray the entire morning, afternoon and evening prayer services. At the best of times, I would experience something similar to meditation, getting lost in a text that would cease to guide me, my eyes resting perhaps on a particular verse or note in the text.
As it will, my spiritual life waxed and waned. I would at various times determine that I needed to get back into prayer and would follow that well-worn path for a few good months before I would give up again, frustrated with my attempts to be a better person. “Isn’t prayer supposed to make you feel better? … Why am I not yet pious and humble like those guys over there wearing the hats – they really look like they mean it … I’m not cut out for this,” I would determine.
Or, I would resolve to begin the process of enlightenment at home, through sitting in meditation. I learned to meditate many years ago and know intellectually the many benefits of a half hour of meditation every day. My thinking would go something along the lines of, “perhaps I would find it useful to join a group for a while and then that would really solidify my efforts … My own meditation stool might help too … and some incense won’t hurt…” So, newly dedicated I would find the right time and begin to sit in meditation, using the techniques I had learned at the local Buddhist temple for example. And fine techniques they are.
Of course, life gets in the way. “Maybe 20 minutes in the morning and 20 in the afternoon … whoops, it’s 5pm and I need to make dinner … I’ll meditate tomorrow before breakfast…” Soon, the well-meant practice of meditation, to make myself healthier and wiser and more enlightened would again end with self-reproach.
But what is such disappointment stemming from? Not meeting your own or someone else’s standards that reflect a wild ideal of spiritual practice? Maybe the frustration of missing spiritual ‘goals’ is an indication that setting goals for enlightenment or wisdom or piety are not really worthy goals at all. Perhaps the bar should be set a little lower, at the human level instead of the level of the immortal. What I realized during my 16 hours of driving was that much of what I need to live a spiritually fulfilled life is not complicated or accessible to only a privileged few.
Living a more spiritually fulfilled life can be as simple as resolving to pay a little closer attention to the person I am interacting with; it can be as mundane as learning to enjoy life and having more enthusiasm for whatever it is you’re doing, as Tolle writes; it can be as powerfully simple as leaving behind that repetitive, negative thought that ruins your day, by shifting focus from it to the breath.
And it can be done by starting not with hours of prayer and fasting and kashrut and penance or any other set of rigorous disciplines, all of which are perfectly fine for those who value them; instead it can be done by growing into a practice that is measurable from within.
Instead of deciding to immerse myself in Zen Buddhism as a cure for whatever dissatisfaction I may have with life, I can approach my life as if I were capable of deciding what is right for me. Instead of discipline, rules, and law, maybe the restless spirit needs something more gentle, perhaps five minutes of meditation. There is no reason the seeker cannot start with that and see where it leads. It may fail for some, for others it may be a new beginning.