I have been doing most of my occasional writing in G+ so I have been relatively silent here. But I will always update this blog with my sketches of ideas, too nebulous even for places like G+. Also, I can write here about my passion, which in G+ it is more about conversation. This is my bully pulpit, even if it is mostly a monologue.
And what is my passion? I am constantly refining it down to the level of a bumper sticker, but for now the best I can do is refine it to an elevator pitch. My passion is understanding consciousness, how the self blossoms (and sometimes fades away), and what do the monastic practices which frame my day simultaneously chip away and bolster the self. Yeah, even when I re-read it I find it less than exciting. But there it is. I want to get to the core of spiritual practice, and the way I go about it is through the careful accumulation of scientific facts!
The great thing about practice is that it is so,w ell, practical. It is about what works, even if there are times when it is not possible to understand precisely why something works. It is also very visceral, or in Christian terms, incarnational. There is little in spiritual practice which is abstract. I am not suggesting for one moment that the more abstract areas of thought, for example theology, are unimportant. They are very important, and I try to read theology as much as I can. But, monastic practice, like liturgy, like evangelism happens in the doing. is it critical that in sharing the faith, we share the right faith? Yes. How will we know what is the right faith if we do not learn it? (Rom 10:13-15)
But then, at some point or another, we have to actually do the deeds. We have to pray for the healing, and we have to touch the sick. We have to pray for justice and we have to visit the prisoners. We have to pray for peace and we have to visit the dying and comfort the bereaved.
As far as I can recall I have always been this way, this damnable pragmatism. “Does it work?” is more critical to me than other questions. “How does it work?” is not very interesting, unless the “How” produces more procedures, protocols, methods. Yes, I am a closet Methodist, I guess. I certainly sympathise with the Holy Club and their attempts to systematically live a holy life. Their only error (if I can call it that) was in trying to reinvent the wheel – the monastic communities could have given them much of the systems they needed, and which they had to “discover” on their own.
My son is at the transition age from boyhood to adulthood. A little behind, actually, if measured by world standards, but in America we do tend to try to extend boyhood well past its expiration date. But I digress. In conversations with him, I try, as every father has always tried, to impart some knowledge of things to help him along. No I do not believe in protecting him from every harm, but I would be a bad father if I did not point out that a dark alley or two were most likely bad shortcuts. I find myself repeat three things to him over and over (I am methodical after all!): know the score, have a goal, and kaizen. By know the score I mean that every top performer in their field, from manual labor to sports, has been shown to know the score. An example: at work if you ask someone “How many widgets today?” a top performer will say “I have done 8, 10 more to go. Should be finished by 4.” Or some such thing. In interviews Michael Jordan has said over and over that he did not need to look up at the scoreboard: he kept track in his head of points, of fouls for both his team and the opponents, and so on. He knew the score and could exploit players who were in danger of fouling out, for example. So I am constantly quizzing him on his “score”: homework, projects etc.
The other thing is “have a goal”. This means develop strategies and tactics. For myself I am going to run a marathon in November. I have never run one before, and it is on my bucket list. My plan is two-fold: to run all the way, and to not get hurt. I know it does not sound that ambitious, but those are my goals. I got a plan. I will run the thing, and it will not be traumatic to my body.
And this is where “kaizen” comes in. To be able to achieve my goal I put together after much research a spreadsheet with every single day planned from February to November. I know at any time what steps I need to take to be able to run my marathon. Even when the step required is “rest”. I got those in there as well. I am frankly at a loss how anyone can accomplish anything without having the steps mapped out. You still got to do it! I still have to run 18 miles in practice this weekend. But just running 18 miles without the overall goal and all the supporting smaller actions would be impossible.
So, again, I give him the only thing I know works: a process, a protocol for engaging life. The rest are the details which he will have to fill out in his life. Ica n;t do it for him. Having said all this I turn to this article on Neuroscience and spirituality which inspired this post (http://www.markvernon.com/friendshiponline/dotclear/index.php?post/2012/06/21/Neurospirituality). One quote which got me was:
“Why two hemispheres, not just one brain? In short, because we need both kinds of attention to survive. The left hemisphere’s narrower focus supports the capacity to control the world. The right offers the capacity to maintain a sustained, open engagement. If the left longs to make the world its own, the right receives. If the left conceptualises, the right is expectant. The two are in a creative tension. Put them together and you have the brilliant capacity, say, to stand back from reality whilst remaining part of it; to have a distance from things without becoming detached. That must have tremendous evolutionary advantage: other animals have split brains too. In this process of right-left-right exchange, human experience deepens. It becomes three dimensional. One seamless self-consciousness is the result of embracing the wills of the two hemispheres.”
Embracing two wills. This is practical stuff which I can work with! The author quotes Dyonisus the Aeropagite:
“‘The tradition of the theologians is twofold, on the one hand ineffable and mystical, on the other manifest and more knowable… the ineffable is interwoven with what can be uttered. The one persuades and contains within itself the truth of what it says, the offer effects and establishes the soul with God by initiations that do not teach anything.’ The marriage of the left and right hemispheres could hardly be more precisely expressed.”
The monastic traditions during all times have been experientially practising some powerful neuroscience! I have also found that the traditions tend to produce very earthy persons, interested in embodied, actual results, which can be measured and lived. As the author states (I concur and I myself have always recommended this!):
“Hence a spiritual director is likely not to advise you to contemplate ‘proofs’ for the existence of God to deepen your relationship with the divine, but to go on pilgrimage, attend liturgies and rituals, or introduce discipline and pattern into your life.”
For example, the practice of contemplative prayer, which is known by other modern terms like ‘mindfulness’. Turns out that it “works” because it is able to bring the brain to some sort of stillness. When the brain has been brought to the point of quietness, by the traditional means which we are taught, there is a definite silencing of the mind. This silence, neurologically, leads to a receptivity between the hemispheres, a sort of truce which allows both sides to be surprised by what the other has to show them, to embrace the “new, unsettling and unexpected vision of things.”
And this is what really matters. Method opens me up to the new and unexpected. Routine and habit are great practices which foster and uphold a new vision of things. It is through a rule (or in my case the Rule) that meaningful, open, deep relationships can occur. And the only progress that is possible is through small, daily, hourly applications of the methods of your tradition – Daily Office, daily meditation, daily acts of service. The embrace of difference and the bringing them together in one love.