Distractions to Spiritual Practice
by DT Strain
I often attend discussions on some aspect of philosophy or spirituality; in our local Spiritual Naturalist chapter monthly gathering, in Humanist events, sometimes Dharma talks, and with friends. I have recently noticed in a number of these conversations some emerging themes which have finally gelled together for me, resulting in the following conclusions. They have to do with things that form distractions to our spiritual progress, or road blocks on our spiritual path.
By ‘spiritual progress‘, I mean that process of cultivating qualities in ourselves to be more capable of living the good life, in both the sense of ethical goodness, and the sense of true happiness and flourishing (which are actually synonymous). And, by ‘distraction’ I mean something that we might do, thinking we are doing spirituality, when in fact we may be missing the central aims of our spiritual practice. Distractions aren’t necessarily bad or something we shouldn’t do for other purposes, however. For example, eating a sandwich is a distraction to swimming. Both of these are fine things to do, but we are wasting our time if we think that eating a sandwich is furthering our endeavor to swim. In fact, even important parts to spirituality can be distractions if we take them to be the entirety of spiritual practice.
It is my hope that in sharing these thoughts it may be helpful to you in your practice, and perhaps inspire further discussion where I might learn even more from you. I will describe four categories of distraction to spiritual practice though I’m sure these are by no means exhaustive (they are simply what come to mind at this time). Please feel free to add to these thoughts in the member forums.
In this first form of distraction, I use the word “cosmology” in the older, broader metaphysical sense – not in the strict term for that branch of science. Cosmology, in general, is an overarching view of “how the world works” – the ultimate secrets of existence, one might say. Every culture and religious tradition has its own cosmology, whether that involves migrating souls or heavenly realms and salvation, or animal spirits, etc. Here I mean that which is taken literally as the true nature of Reality. Even a purely materialist model based solely on scientific observation counts as metaphysical cosmology when we add to that description a claim that it is all-inclusive of reality. We each, agnostic though many of us may attempt to be, at least have some kind of suspicion of ‘how things probably are’ even if only in parts. Even as provisional and open minded as we try to be, this exists in us at least to the degree that, when radically different cosmologies are presented, our ears perk and we can be lured into debate.
It can be good fun to discuss the fascinating possibilities and compare our cosmologies, and there is nothing inherently wrong or bad with this subject. In fact, as B.T. Newberg has pointed out in his excellent articles on Big History, our understanding of the world and our place in it not only inspire, but provide important insight to how might best live. But the really insidious thing about cosmology is that it feels like we are doing spirituality when we engage in such thoughts and discourse. In fact, cosmology has very little to do with spirituality as a practice.
In a story described in the Buddhist Pali Canon, one of the Buddha’s students became upset with him because he was silent on a number of questions such as nature of the cosmos and life after death. He threatened to renounce the Buddha’s teachings unless he answered these questions. The Buddha, having never claimed to reveal ultimate metaphysical truths, responded with what is called the Parable of the Poison Arrow.
In this parable, a man is struck with a poisoned arrow and is brought to a surgeon to remove the arrow and treat the wound. But the man refuses to allow the arrow to be removed until he knows whether the man who wounded him was a warrior, priest, merchant, or worker; what the man’s name and clan were; whether he was tall or short; the color of his skin; his home town; the kind of bow used; from what kind of animal the feathers of the arrow came; and many other questions. The Buddha said this man would die with all of those things remaining unknown to him.
The Buddha discouraged wasting time on metaphysical speculation. He specifically said that these questions were irrelevant to his teachings and to true religion.
This is an Eastern parallel to Western schools such as Pyrrhonism, which prescribes withholding assent to non-evident propositions, always remaining in a state of inquiry. In another example, it was Socrates who fulfilled the Oracle’s claim that he was the wisest of men because, unlike so many others, he knew that he was unwise.
And that is the real trap of being distracted by cosmology: it is egotism. In truth, none of us primates hopping about on this tiny ball of stardust in an obscure corner of the cosmos has access to the ultimate truths of existence. The Buddha, Socrates, the Pope, Richard Dawkins, a caveman, you, and I have precisely the same real knowledge of ultimate Reality: which is zilch. When we become engrossed in mental gymnastics and claim-making about these issues, we fool ourselves into thinking we are making spiritual progress when, in fact, we are not even engaged in the endeavor at all. This is why a Spiritual Naturalist can consider withholding assent to claims without evidence to be an important spiritual discipline. In our archives, we describe this practice as Epoché.
As a Stoic, I try to remember that knowledge itself is a commodity – an external condition and a resource like wealth; the accumulation of which I do not have ultimate control, and for which no amount will ever satiate my desire. While it is appropriate to my nature, and fitting, that I try to learn and grow in knowledge – one of the axioms of a spiritual walk is that true happiness is achievable and within our control. The key to greater enlightenment and the flourishing life is therefore not the mere accumulation of knowledge, and certainly not dependent upon the possession of ultimate knowledge, which appears to be beyond our reach as a matter of principle.
One of the significant and profound ‘advancements’ (or re-discoveries, rather) made by Spiritual Naturalism today is the divorcing, or disentanglement, of spirituality from cosmological claims. If we are to reunite the sacred with the natural, then one of the requirements in this effort is to let go of the need to have our spirituality make claims about ultimate reality. To really incorporate modern naturalism, we must respect its space and role in our spirituality. That means leaving claims about the nature of reality up to those who do the hard work of carefully observing and measuring it, and being humble in not trying to fill in the wide gaps in that information with our own speculations. The religious and the non-religious are equally susceptible to this.
Once I was in a discussion and the question asked of participants was, “What areas do you feel you need to learn, improve, or grow in further?” One participant actually responded that he didn’t really need to learn anything more, as he was already knowledgeable in his spiritual tradition and was interested in sharing that knowledge with others. It turned out later than the participant was not even aware of some of the most significant philosophers and works from his own tradition.
Yet, we should not take this extreme example of unintentional irony as an opportunity to gloat over how much better we are than to be so egotistical, lest we make the same error. Rather, we should take it as a cautionary example and realize that – just as he was unaware of his own ego – we too are unaware or unmindful of the many shortcomings we most certainly have too.
For example, while I write this article with sincere intentions that it be helpful, and that I might learn from reading your reactions to it, can I deny that my human nature underlies this motivation and some subtle backdrop of egotism exists whereby I think my words superior or worthy to be read by others? Perhaps some part of me seeks the praise of others for having written this, despite my conscious intention to discard concern for the praise or blame of others as per Stoic teaching? To my shame, some residual of this egotism almost certainly exists despite my best efforts. I therefore try to humbly and honestly dwell on this, and try to move beyond my tiny ego to achieve pure motivation. For someone who engages in being messenger of timeless teachings that far exceed their own wisdom, this is a constant challenge. Yet, we all have stumbled upon wisdom and sharing it with one another is a noble and compassionate endeavor that should be encouraged. If we wait for those with perfect knowledge and wisdom to teach us, then we will be without a teacher. Therefore, all of us students must help teach one another.
There are at least a few ways that the ego can be a distraction to spiritual progress. An egotistical teacher or professor of spiritual wisdom can distract others from the path by allowing their personality to become an object of attention rather than the teachings and practices. As the Kalama Sutra teaches, let us not accept anything simply because a teacher, leader, or authority claims it. Investigate for yourself whether these things are helpful and effective.
But our own ego can also be a distraction to our progress. We must acknowledge that we all have a desperate need to know the path and what lies on every part of it. Leaning more is essential, but not sufficient, and obsession on ‘knowing it all’ can lead us to anchor ourselves on particular ideas, becoming attached to them. This can blind us, close us off to further possibilities, and limit our progress.
Humanity has been seeking wisdom, in all of its cultures over the entire globe, for thousands of years. The wealth of wisdom and teachings available today is truly vast. There will always be more to learn, and even if it were possible to read it all, we would find that the entirety of human thought and wisdom is but a tiny island in a vast ocean of what is yet to be understood.
Again, learning more is an important component of a good life and a spiritual practice. But there is something very important to understand: even if we were to read every text of, for example, Buddhism, we would still not really understand Buddhism if all we did was read. Spirituality is about human happiness and well-being, and this is inherently a subjective experience. It’s practices are designed to affect that subjective experience. Therefore, only through first-person applied practice of the teachings over time, can we ever really investigate and understand that to which shallow human language is referring.
The Western approach of accumulating data and analyzing it intellectually from the third-person perspective before giving assent is completely inadequate to making progress along these spiritual paths. Just as our spirituality must refrain from making claims about reality, leaving that space to objective investigation – we must also acknowledge the space for subjective investigation and where it’s proper realm exists.
When we get into bantering about academic philosophic principles and works, name-dropping various thinkers and writers and so on, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are engaged in spiritual practice. Yet, without practice, all of this academic knowledge, writing, and discussion is mere vanity.
Fixing the World
There are many important and noble endeavors which are, quite simply, not spiritual practice. Many of these activities may be very important and even help in our spiritual walk, cultivating various faculties. Yet, they can also become a distraction to our spiritual practice if we confuse them with it.
People who consciously pursue spirituality tend to be caring, loving people and this means there is a high correlation with those who are concerned with the ills of the world and the suffering and plights of others (a wonderful thing!). Yet, this can result in a myopic or obsessive focus on large-scale social issues.
In a recent gathering of the Society’s local chapter, we were discussing Taoism, and the question was raised, “What would a Taoist master say as to how to handle the violence in the Middle East?”
While Taoism certainly can have a positive impact on these situations, the question underscores an important point about these kinds of practices as compared to our modern ways of thinking about social problems. We often tend to consider the entire matter from a third-person sociological perspective, as though we were aliens floating above the planet, looking down on humanity. We want to analyze the historical and other underpinnings of the objective situation. Then we imagine that we can come up with ‘solutions’ which we can – through writing, debating, protesting, or conflicting – convince our fellow human beings to employ (who will certainly follow our undeniable fact-based conclusions), thus correcting the current state of affairs.
This approach is a bit naïve even if admirably optimistic. Spirituality is not sociology. This common approach tends to assume we have more ability to assess the current situation, more ability to foresee the best course of action for everyone, and more ability to control the actions of others than we really do. In actuality, it is more likely that the course of human civilization on the scale of society is a huge cultural tide against which even the most ‘powerful’ of us have little ability to direct within a significant margin. Even the world’s current superpower, with trillions of dollars spent on the most massive military force in history, stretched across the planet with a will to use it to ensure its vision for the world come to fruition is plagued by constant security threats, economic uncertainty, and social ills – a highly precarious position most agree is not sustainable. If we think that a peaceful rather than forceful approach to controlling these externals will be anything but only marginally more successful (vastly more noble though it may be), then we are likely to be similarly disappointed.
So, the very question, “How would Taoism solve the troubles in the Middle East?” is misplaced because it assumes the Taoist master can control the actions of others. Even if we imagine an answer could tell us everything that needs to be done, how then would we make everyone do it? Where spirituality is the concern, this line of thought is a waste of time. But perhaps more importantly, this question is misplaced because molding the world to our liking (for good or ill) is not the aim of spiritual practice. Rather than fixing the world, spiritual practice calls on us to fix ourselves. Let me put that more precisely: spiritual practice calls on me to fix myself.
As such, it recognizes that the only thing I do control is my choice, my actions, and my character. It also recognizes that, even the most noble of causes – feeding starving children, helping the sick, securing justice and human rights – are but externals; like wealth, health, fame, or many of the less noble externals. They are things not ultimately in our control, and therefore circumstance cannot be a prerequisite for spiritual progress or flourishing. Attachment to ‘good causes’ is still attachment and will, just as assuredly, be a road block to spiritual progress.
Now to address the predictable and eternal response to this point: please know that this is not a call for indifference or to do less good work in the world. We, in fact, need more of it. This is about our internal disposition as we do that work. Doing good is an essential part of the spiritual life, but it is not about the outcome of that work. Rather, it is about our motivation within. If we do good because we want to be the kind of person who does good, because we want to have a compassionate character, then we are, as the Taoists put it, impervious. We are not attached to outcomes, which are ultimately arbitrated by the universe. It is this cultivation of virtuous character which is the spiritual endeavor – not achieving certain conditions in the world. When we forget that, we are distracted from spiritual progress and, ironically, end up harming even those external causes because we can become burnt out, demoralized, or hateful whenever our machinations prove for naught and external conditions do not match our aims.
What is Not a Distraction to Spiritual Practice?
One of the things that is not a distraction to spiritual practice is the one thing most often given as an excuse for not pursuing a spiritual practice; that is, the demands of our schedules and everyday life!
Gandhi suggested that we meditate one hour every day, unless we are busy, in which case two. While the length of meditation is open to many views, the implication is that the busier we are, the more centered and spiritually balanced we need to be. But an important thing to understand is that spiritual practice isn’t just about those official techniques we give names to and set aside time to do those activities. There is absolutely no benefit, in itself, of sitting cross-legged silently with eyes closed for any period of time. The real purpose of a spiritual practice, be it meditation or any other, is that we become more capable of applying and using what these practices do to us and for us in everyday life; confronting the challenges of the day, each day.
Sitting in a quiet temple with no distractions is the training wheels of spirituality. The life of the monk is the life of putting oneself in as easy conditions as possible for spiritual progress. Those who face the highest challenges are those who are working jobs, navigating relationships, raising kids, paying bills, and contributing to their communities. Those who choose to undertake a spiritual practice in such conditions are the high-level practitioners – playing the game on the highest difficulty setting. Though, to be sure, that isn’t to say we are wiser or that we haven’t anything to learn from those who have, due to their easier conditions, been able to move further down the path and give us good information about how to walk it and what lies ahead. Such leaders can make excellent guides and we should respect their dedication and knowledge – but we cannot confuse their external lifestyle conditions with the essence of spiritual practice.
Everything we do, from caring for children, to running errands, to cleaning, to interacting with one another, is an opportunity to put spiritual wisdom into practice and further hone our habits, character, and state of being. If spiritual teachings are not applicable to the real life of ordinary human beings, then they are useless. This should help illustrate how off-base are thoughts of real life being an obstruction to spiritual practice. Real life is what spiritual practice is all about.
Thanks to B.T. Newberg and Rick Heller for their proofing and advice on this essay.