I have been wondering for quite some time now about the ethical underpinnings of spiritual practice in the West. The first time it hit me was in talking to a Buddhist about karma. She said that the West interprets karma in an ethical way, with a “just deserts” implication. The original term has no such weight though. It is much more like gravity or electricity. Just karma. No judgement, no punishment. And punishment is always how I thought of karma, or at best a punishment/reward cosmic mechanism.
Moving away from this technical discussion I started to notice that pretty much everything in Western spirituality is fundamentally ethical. It is all about rewarding the good and punishing the bad, about going towards (or grabbing closer) the good fruits, and throwing out (expelling, purging) the bad rotten fruit. Even the rottenness of fruit carries some moral undertones. Or at least it does to me. Like it is the fruit’s fault that it has gone bad. And again “gone bad” as a description is a big hint.
Does it need to be this way? Is this the particular genius of Western civilization? To bring ethics into the discussion of every aspect of life?
Right now I have been trying to come to grips with an unethical form of Christian practice, well I should probably say “ethicless” not really unethical. What would it mean to strip away from my practice everything that has to do with judgement and prejudice (i.e. pre-judgement)? The Desert Fathers talk a lot about apatheia, which is one of my own central practices. It seems to me that apatheia has a strong component of ethiclessness to it. You are not to spend time thinking or even caring about whether this or that is good or bad, whether this or that person is good or bad.
One of the methods they use is to radically, deeply come to grips with my own personal sinfulness. If I am quite certain, deep in my bones, that I am unworthy of not even being a neighbor, let alone of coming before God’s attention, then I am much more likely to give other people some latitude.
Now this is a pretty violent approach, and can (and has!) lead to abuses. Both self-abuse and other or systemic abuses. So there are many pitfalls. When I was back in high school I came up with a few formulas. One of which was “To be generally kind and specifically unfair.” I think I meant that you give others a lot of room for mistakes and excuses, but when you are dealing with one person in a specific context, and when dealing with myself, then fairness goes out of the window and you are hard, demanding, “unfair”.
This could work, but again it is all in the delivery. No one wants to be around a difficult and demanding person unless that person is even harsher on themselves, and if that person takes the time to celebrate the positives. Because when we are harsh we tend to avoid the positives at all – and that is where the imbalances occur. Paul’s letters are a good example of balance, because they always start with positives, event to the Galatians!
But how to look at sin in a non-ethical way? After all isn’t sin the very bedrock of ethics? The way I have been trying to work this is to use an inversion which my friend Allen told me about a long time ago. When looking at the 10 Commandments, instead fo seeing a list of Shall Nots we should look at it this way: when you are perfect (enlightened, etc) you will not murder, you will not steal. So the 10 Commandments become a mirror which reflects only the True Self.
This adds some context to Jesus’ pretty outrageous commands that even looking at a woman lustfully is like committing adultery. I mean, really? Well, from the position of the true Self it is! From that vantage point, your compassion and love for every human being makes it pretty nigh impossible to look at any other person as an object to satisfy my personal appetites. First because appetites are something that belong to the False Self. Second because the Tue Self is satisfied with Christ. If you got God, it ain’t a pretty girl or a pretty car or a pretty house that are going to do the trick is it?
Another level. The ethical underpinnings of spiritual practice are driven by psychological rules of purity (as Richard Beck consistently points out). This means that we sublimate/mutate a mechanism which is used for food and eating into a set of rules for social interaction. Guess what, if you spend your life using food rules for social rules, is it any wonder that you will continually think of people as objects to satisfy your appetites? That you will call some a good fruit and others a bad fruit? That we will eat people with our eyes and that a multibillion dollar porn industry will gladly offer you some “food”?
For me the shift from ethical, food based spiritual practice to non-ethical, REality-based practice comes when you make a concerted effort to respect the integrity of every human being. This is exceedingly hard. The first stage of practice comes from simply recognizing our anthropophagous nature. The second practice comes from learning how to properly fast from such food, and thus tame the cravings. The final part comes from being able to join Jesus in saying:
While this was happening, Jesus’ disciples were saying to him, “Teacher, please eat something.” But Jesus told them, “I have food that you don’t know anything about.” His disciples started asking each other, “Has someone brought him something to eat?” (John 4)
What is your food? What do you eat every moment of your day? Are you stuffing your face full of enmity, strife, jealousy, greed, lust, self-righteousness? These are questions I am asking myself, trying to make sure I am improving my diet one thought at a time. The Real Body and the Real Self need Real Food. It is not about making an artificial discrimination. It is simple biology…or spirituality.