Spiritual Practice: Going to the Source

Delivered before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, Boston

Practice. Just think about all the things we practice in our lives, or have practiced, or have admired someone for practicing. When I think about all the meaningful activities in my life, I realize they not only require practice, but revolve around it. Scales and arpeggios, practicing music. Blogging and poetry, practicing my writing. Sitting, the practice of breathing and being. Getting better at something, slowly, over time, can move our whole being—spirit, body, and mind—in profound ways.

Then there’s something my heart yearns to practice again: flying the old Piper airplane I used to rent when I was in the Air Force. For Christmas I received a computer flight training simulator which models all sorts of stuff pilots like to practice (navigation, landings, instrument flight rules), and is used by aviation companies to model new aircraft designs because it so accurately represents how airfoils fly. Maybe too accurately. The first time I booted the program, I loaded a 747 … and drove it right into the ground. They are as heavy as they look. Next I booted up a F-22 fighter … and ripped the wings clean off.  Finally I caught on. I had no idea how to fly those aircraft, no practice or experience. So I booted up a Piper Warrior, in which I have flown, in the real world. I know its best rate of climb and final approach speed. I’ve shot dozens of landings in them. Wouldn’t you know, I landed it right on the numbers.

Running the flight simulator program is fun, but I am aware that on a minister’s salary, the chances that I’ll fly again, as my father used to say,  are slim and none — and Slim’s skipped town. Other callings have taken priority — finishing school, starting a family, following my dream to become a minister.  So why tease myself with that flying program when it only whets the appetite for the real thing? It’s about hope, yes, but it’s also about practice. It’s about being prepared for whatever dream may come, as improbable or unseen as it is. It’s because I am, among many things, an aviator.

It’s not just airplanes that pull my gaze heaven-ward, and even though I don’t believe in a personal God that exists only up there, I do find many of my prayers unintentionally floating in that direction. It’s the way I spent 20 years practicing them. Being raised a Christian Scientist, prayer as a spiritual practice isn’t only routine, it’s ingrained. I can hardly move without asking the spirit that guides the universe for insight each and every day.

So entrenched I am in my own ideas of the spiritual and the secular that I am often curious about the way in which  almost everything is lumped into the category of spiritual practice these days. Prayer, meditation, chanting, jogging, playing a drum, playing a fiddle — even roller skating and playing poker I’ve heard described as spiritual disciplines. Can anything really be a spiritual discipline? Or is it inaccurate, even false, to call every enjoyable, relaxing, or intellectually enlightening activity spiritual practice? Are self-help practices, even therapy, spiritual practice?

Last year a Buddhist teacher challenged my view of spiritual practice, one that, he felt, was a little loose. He asked me, after I had been coming to his sangha for two years, “Why are you here?” I thought it was a strange question. We’d spent hours upon hours meditating together, talking dharma, reading sutras.

“When I come here,” I told him, “my days go better.”

“Ah, so it’s for self-help then?”

Wrong answer, it seemed. My teacher wanted me to look for a more true reason for why I sit. A few months later, sitting in his kitchen over tea, he asked the same question. I took the esoteric approach this time: “I do not know why. I simply have something to find.”

“And have you found it?” he asked, smiling.

I sighed, and kept working. Finally, I proffered the intellectual answer: “It’s about practicing ways of losing the ego-self that we all drag around, to decrease suffering, to touch emptiness and invite insight.” He smiled and raised an eyebrow in reply. Not quite it, yet.

So I keep practicing my answer, and maybe that’s the point. These are tough calls.  Spiritual practice? Or self help? What’s the difference? What’s the big deal?

The key in my experience is right intention, the second way of the Buddha’s eight-fold path. Do we engage in a spiritual discipline to promote awareness, lovingkindness, compassion, generosity, and selflessness, to the end that, as the old Universalist benediction proclaims, “all souls grow into harmony with the divine?” Or is it for ourselves, to make ourselves better? There is an element of truth to the idea that when we improve ourselves, we’re better able to help others, to make the world a better place, and I’ve found a limitation there, too. Eventually, I’ve found that self-help only takes me so far, and I yearn to connect with that which is outside of myself.

Practicing a skill, such as a musical instrument or a flight simulator, cultivates skill, but it doesn’t move me beyond creating music, or flying an airplane. As good as those things feel, they’re still about me — a very true and deep part of me — but me. It’s about the way in which you experience the practice, as an end in itself or as a doorway into a mystery you may not be able to fathom. That’s why, for example, a yoga class at Bally’s Total Fitness gym can be a very different experience than learning yoga with a mindful teacher grounded in the Yoga sutras of Pantajali. It’s why sitting meditation on a once-a-year retreat can be a very different experience than practicing sitting several hours a week, or every day.

It is mindfulness and right intention that transform a practice into that which is able to sustain us as we dip into the well spring of life for nourishment, and then travel back into the dust of the desert, as we do, over and over, again and again, throughout our lives. From the wellspring, back into the desert, over and over, again and again.

And as we practice our many returns to that well,

I invite you to ask:

Why do I go to that source? What are my intentions?

If I intend only to drink from the well, only to take from it, I will get what is visible: water, one day, perhaps nothing on another.

But if I go to the well to know the well, to practice understanding it, to practice my relationship with it, to accept my dependence on it for sustenance?

Then I know what to do when the well runs dry.  When we go to the well to know the well, we learn that we can dig deeper, we can trust the unseen, and trust that there’s always more water down there to nourish our practice.

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