Principles as well as Pitfalls
by Patrick Quanten MD
When asked about the path of practice, Buddha explained that there are four ways for spiritual life to unfold. The first way is quickly and with pleasure. In this, opening and letting go come naturally, like an easy birth, accompanied by joy and rapture. The second way is quickly but painfully. On this path we might face a powerful near-death experience, an accident, or the unbearable loss of someone we hold beloved. This path passes through a flaming gate to teach us about letting go. The third form of spiritual progress is gradual and accompanied by pleasure. In this way opening and letting go happen over a period of years, predominantly with ease and delight. The fourth and most common path is also slow and gradual, but takes place predominantly through suffering. Difficulty and struggle are a recurrent theme, and through them we gradually learn to awaken.
In this matter we do not get to choose. Our unfolding is a reflection of the pattern of our lives. No matter the apparent speed, we are simply asked to give ourselves to the process.
These paths of practice aim to release our attachments and to allow a mature spiritual life in order for us to discover the wholeness in life itself. There are two central principles for awakening to this wholeness. First, each major area of our experience on earth must be included in our spiritual life before freedom can blossom fully. No significant dimension can be excluded from awareness. The Buddhist Elders speak of cultivating four foundations of sacred awareness: the body, the feelings, the mind, and the governing principles of life. Then their teachings extend the same sacred attention to family, community, livelihood, and relations to the world at large. It is only through attention to each of these that we fulfil our awakening.
The second principle for awakening to wholeness is that consciousness in one area does not necessarily transfer to other parts of our lives. We know that Olympic athletes, however highly tuned and physically aware they may be, might be quite emotionally immature or mentally underdeveloped. Conversely, certain brilliant intellectuals may suffer from ignorance and disregard of their bodies or their emotions. Other people, quite conscious of their feelings and expert in human relationships, may be utterly unconscious of the thought constructs and beliefs that limit them.
It is no different in spiritual life. Meditation masters skilled in navigating expansive states of consciousness may be confused in the realm of emotions and relationships. Devoted nuns or monks with a close relationship to God may have troubled or even destructive relationships with their families, or even with their own bodies. Yogis and gurus who have amazing physical dexterity and breath and thought control may have unexamined beliefs and opinions that cause those around them to suffer. For many teachers, their spiritual training itself may have taught them to neglect or to deny their basic human needs. Yet until these dimensions are included in their practice, they may suffer unnecessarily with everything from poor health to emotional problems. Any area that is still unconscious brings with it suffering, conflict, and limitation.
When we look at the spiritually unattended areas of our life, we often find in them underlying judgment or fear. We may believe that the body, or relationships, or future planning, or money, or sexuality, or family, or community, or politics is “unspiritual”, dangerous, ugly, a trap. This fear puts up walls, isolates our heart from living, divides the world so that part of it is seen as not holy.
The truth is that these interior boundaries must be dissolved. It is in a deep and honest listening to whatever has been feared or left out that our freedom will be found. And if we don’t choose to look, that which is unattended will come and find us; the lost parts of ourselves will present themselves, knocking ever louder if we don’t listen to their cries. We end up hearing their voices in divorce or depression, in illness or some strange failure. If we do listen to and welcome all parts of the Self, we will find they enrich our garden as compost, as nourishment for life itself.
Most of us have difficulty making that initial contact with all areas of our life, and a little help and guidance is most welcome. Because spiritual teachers are often charismatic and traditions are compelling, in the beginning spirituality can involve a lot of imitation. This is natural for a time. But it can become rigid. If we think “spiritual” means to be quiet and unruffled, we might imitate this with blandness. On the other hand, if the master is licentious and drunken, we can find communities of alcoholics, disciples trying to show their wildness in exactly the same way. These all become forms of spiritual materialism.
Unfortunately, the spiritual world can become as confining and narrow-minded as the rest of our culture. It seems that almost every religious or spiritual community has its unconscious “group think”, its “in-group” behaviour. Here we find that practice rituals have become more important that the actual path of awareness. The imitated decorum, or trying hard for all to be the same, has blotted out the aim, which is for us to visit all areas of life through these practices and to release any boundaries that may limit the spiritual blossoming. As E.E. Cummings put it, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest human battle ever and to never stop fighting.”
While emotional, physical and mental freedom is not imitative, it is also not its opposite: the acting out of unconscious needs and fears. Like Ram Dass, who became the connoisseur of his neuroses, we come to know ourselves as we are, but without indulgence or self-pity. When we are truly aware of our feelings while not being bound by their energies, we can choose; no matter what the circumstances, we are free to follow our wisdom. The person who has tasted real liberation embraces the richness of life as a whole.
Once we have connected to the inner-self, and once we live life as a whole, always being in the moment and always being ourselves, we will soon start to notice something else. Becoming aware of intention is a key to awakening in moment-to-moment practice. In each situation that calls for our engagement, some inner intention will precede our response. Buddhist psychology teaches that intention is what makes the pattern of our karma. Karma, the cause and results of every action, comes from the heart’s intentions that precede each action. When our intentions are kind, the karmic result is very different from when they are greedy or aggressive. If we are not aware, we will unconsciously act out of habit and fear. But if we attend to our intentions, we can notice if they spring from the body of fear or from our deliberate thoughtfulness and care.
Every tradition offers prayers and meditations for setting the heart’s best intentions. Sometimes the intentions are general, or they may be focussed on one day or one situation. In times of difficulty it is this repeated setting of our heart’s compass that determines the result. Whether in a family disagreement or community conflict, before we speak and act, we can become aware of our deepest intention. Even the simplest words can have a vastly different effect depending on our intention. The phrase “What do you mean?” can sound accusing and judgmental or considerate and humble. Our hearts are like seismographs, picking up the tremors of intent.
Instead of inflaming a bad situation, we can seek ways of touching the good in another. Without denying pain and injustice, we can also look for the secret beauty of others. Our spiritual practice can be simple: to see with eyes of compassion and act with our wisest intention. This often has a surprising effect.
Sometimes it is necessary to march; sometimes it is necessary to sit, to pray. Each in turn can bring the heart and the world back to balance. For us to act wisely, our compassion must be balanced with equanimity, the ability to let things be as they are. Compassion and equanimity come into harmony when we live in the reality of the present. It is very simple. Mindfulness and compassion are genuinely undertaken one step at the time, one person, one moment. Otherwise we become overwhelmed by all the problems that must be attended to: the dilemmas of our extended family and community, the injustice and suffering worldwide.
Compassion is most real in the particulars, in our response to the immediacy of this moment. Even in global situations it is this way. It is in the particulars that the mercy of the heart is extended. Each day, each step is like breathing, a practice of expanding the heart. In these small steps our truth can blossom.
The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot