Spiritual Disciplines: Reasons and Dangers

When I was around 16 years old, I discovered Zen Buddhism. Against the advice of everything I was reading, I taught myself how to meditate in the Zen style. I was a weird zenstatuekid. The practice, though, was powerful and I would say it was one of the great transformational decisions of my life. Zen meditation became a regular spiritual discipline in my life.

I was already pretty disciplined at 16. During teenage years, it is difficult to separate what is a disciplined activity and what is obsessive action. Exercise was my discipline, and the discipline was pretty extreme. I ran, I did push-ups and sit-ups by the hundreds, I had a body-building routine, I biked many miles a day. The activity level was sort of crazy, but I also had specific reasons for doing all those things. Mostly, the reasons had to do with not wanting to get beat up anymore.

Meditation was a whole other experience, though. Meditation was a discipline which required direct and focused attention, and, like exercise, seemed to have direct results. And it was a completely spiritual practice. I added Zen meditation into my various daily routines, and ever since that time, I have always had some meditational/devotional practice going.

I get bored easily, so I change up my spiritual practices every so often. I also believe it better to do something rather than nothing, and if the something becomes dull or stale, it is better to do a different something, instead of giving up everything and doing nothing. For a while, I was sitting in silence for as long as I could, and then ending my time with a moment of prayer. Sometimes, I use devotional materials written by others. I try to read Scripture every day. This morning (which isn’t a good example, because I am on retreat right now), I did some physical exercises, then read Scripture, did an Orthodox prayer technique, prayed, sat in silence, then wrote in my journal.

At this point in my life, I have nothing deep to offer about the real benefits of doing this daily meditation and devotion practice. Things in my life right now are changing on some deep levels. To the point, though, you might often hear people say something like, “If I miss my morning meditation/prayer/silent time, it wrecks my whole day. I can’t get focused.” I can’t say that, and nor will I, because my experience of daily meditation doesn’t really rise to that level. I suspect and believe, though, that doing a thing over and over across many years has deep and fundamental effects within the soul of a person. If I were to stop meditating tomorrow, I am sure the effects of not doing it would become apparent quickly. What I am trying to say is, quite simply, I value the discipline itself.

With that background, I wanted to share a few reasons the practice of any spiritual discipline may be of value for someone. Or simply, here are three reasons why I do some spiritual discipline everyday (or almost everyday…).

First, though, let’s define what I mean by a spiritual discipline. I have read a lot about these things, and I am sure someone has a better definition than I do, so recognize that this definition is merely provisional.

A spiritual discipline is any regular, repeated act done with conscious attention that also has a spiritual dimension to it.

This is obviously a broad definition, and that is intentional. It also makes no specific claim to any particular spiritual tradition. Every spiritual tradition has a discipline associated with it. More likely, there are many disciplines – entrance points to the transcendent, if you will. Also, practicing meditation or a devotional method does not demand belief in God, a god, or anything at all. They are all spiritual, however, in the sense that the discipline seeks to draw you out and beyond yourself.

That said, it is very difficult, and perhaps even disingenuous, to disentangle a spiritual discipline from its faith tradition. Zen meditation is not really Zen unless one is also engaging the foundations Buddhism provides; ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’ from the Orthodox tradition loses much of its meaning unless one has been exposed to some of the Eastern theology surrounding its value as a prayer; The ‘Hail Mary’ only gains meaning when one understands the position and theology surrounding Mother Mary in the Catholic tradition.

I could go on, but for now, here are three reasons, and the concomitant danger associated with the reason, to do a spiritual discipline:

  1. For self-development

Perhaps you have become aware that you are blocked by something in your work or your relationships. You do not feel enough, you are incomplete. Maybe there is some healing that needs to occur from the distant past with family, or maybe there has been an act of mental, emotional, or physical violence that has limited you in some way.

mirrorfeetA spiritual discipline provides a mirror upon which we can project our experience and reflect on it deeply. One of my favorite examples of this reflective practice comes from, of all people, the Puritans. One of their spiritual disciplines was an imaginative prayer experience. If there was a difficulty in the Puritan’s life, they would take that difficulty into their prayer time, read a passage from the New Testament Gospels, and then sit in silence. They would then enter the story imaginatively and let themselves stand in for other characters in the story. Then they would bring their problem into their mind as they stood with the character. “What is Jesus saying here? And how does it apply to my difficulty?” “What does this situation look like from the perspective of Peter, Thomas, Judas?” It is a powerful and engaging practice. This spiritual discipline is clearly a personal and self-directed activity. The opportunities for self-reflection are endless, because we are constantly changing beings who can only see from our own perspective.

It may not be a personal difficulty that inspires one to take on a spiritual discipline; it may be that you are interested in self-betterment. How can I become more focused, more efficient, more centered? A spiritual discipline can provide the foundation for this sort of outcome, often quickly and with remarkable effectiveness.

The Danger of Self-Development

The danger in this first level of taking on a spiritual discipline is because it is so easy for funhousemirroreverything that happens and everything that we do to become self-referential. Focus on the self creates more focus on the self. Martin Luther, riffing off St. Augustine, had a great phrase for this – incurvatus in se, which is Latin for to curve in on oneself. The personal is a powerful lens, and when we are completely focused on the self, all light bends toward the self. This is perhaps the greatest danger of all spiritual practices, disciplines, and perspectives. When one believes oneself to be the source of all light, the rest of the universe goes dark.

2. For others

A second good reason to take on a spiritual discipline is to, quite simply, become a better person to others. Here, the focus is also on the self, but for the benefit of other people. Maybe I want to become kinder to other people. A spiritual discipline will help me define what it is that keeps me from being kind to others. Perhaps I am too reactive; I take everything personally and therefore perceive any outreach from another as an attack first. A spiritual discipline can help me notice the internal reaction before it becomes an external reaction. Perhaps I am inattentive and miss the cues that others are putting out there for their need for kindness. A meditation practice can help me become aware of details I would normally miss. Perhaps I have so little experience of kindness in my past that I do not know what kindness looks like or really means. A spiritual discipline will open us up to the possibilities of becoming a better person in our relationship with other people.

servicetoothers

Here, a spiritual discipline could be a regular activity that engages the community directly, like serving at the food shelf or homeless shelter, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, or visiting people in nursing homes.

Or it could be even simpler than that. Maybe it is praying for people who are in need in some way, personally and directly, not as a large group. Not, “O Lord, I pray for all the homeless in our area”, but rather, “O Lord, I pray for Jeannette, who has been homeless for a year. Help her find the help she needs, and let me be a part of that help in some way.”

The Danger of For Others

The danger of our spiritual discipline being focused on others is becoming judgmental. In judgment, we can begin to develop ideas about what we think is best for others because we are focused on others. We can begin to judge people for not conforming to the outcomes we have determined for them. We begin to judge the people who are not doing things for the people I am doing things for. We begin to judge because we believe our righteous work for others is beyond judgment itself.

Or the judgment flips, and we judge ourselves harshly because we believe ourselves to have failed in some way. Spiritual disciplines for the sake of others is often action focused, and so it is also outcome focused. When the outcome does not match the effort put into the discipline, we judge ourselves.

Hieronymus_Bosch_-_Last_Judgment_(fragment_of_Hell)_-_WGA02578
Hieronymus Bosch – The Final Judgment

The reality is, people are not subject to our desires for them and the outcomes we expect for them. A person is never the person you thought they were. We live in a world where there is a system, a switch, a process for everything, and if you tweak the system, flip the switch, manage the process just right, we will get people to behave or think in the way we think they should. But if we put any confidence in a God who creates, or the flourishing chaos of evolution, then there is only one true thing about other people – other people are a kaleidoscopic prism of vast diversity whose thoughts and behaviors are equally vast. By believing the light of the universe shines in a single frequency, in one color, we put out the lights of that vast, thriving, frolicking universe.

3. For God/Spirit/Consciousnessalexgraytheology

The third reason to take on a spiritual discipline is to connect with something greater than ourselves. Humans fail, betray, and fall short all the time. A spiritual discipline can connect us with powers, agencies, or insights that are far beyond the human and the personal. Whether we phrase this “connection to God”, or “unity with Spirit”, or “expanded awareness”, or the greatly misused and overused “mindfulness”, seeing, hearing, and feeling from a wider perspective than the personal or even the human is an extremely powerful approach to the world.

This is the level of the mystical for many traditions. When our spiritual discipline is focused on this level, there are moments of seeing through into a deeper construct, a more profound reality, than the one we believe ourselves to be living within. Here, at this level, fears can be broken down, walls of resistance can crumble, love and care can pour into and through us for the benefit of self, neighbor, and world alike. We may develop a sense of belonging, a sense of connection, in this approach to spiritual discipline which is simply unavailable at the level of self-development, or even for others.

The Danger of The Mystical, for God/Spirit/Consciousness

There is a lot going on when you engage a spiritual discipline. You may not even have a clear idea of why you want to do it at all. When I started meditating all those years ago, it was not a clear decision. I just started because it seemed interesting to me, and I kept going.

The mystical, the level of God/Spirit/Consciousness, is in and of itself deceptive because it is fleeting, transient. There are no mechanisms or ways to summon the mysteries of God, the universe, or the mind in any fulfilling or clear way. Instead, there are only processes and journey which make us more open to God, more available to a higher awareness and consciousness. We cannot control these things at this level of spiritual discipline.

The danger, then, of the mystical is becoming delusional. The core of being delusional is fracturedselfmirrorbelieving we can control things far greater than ourselves, or, on the other side, we are completely powerless against things greater than ourselves. One way my pastor friends and I talk about this is the belief in a “God as vending machine” mentality. God wants me to have a Ferrari, and so if I say things in the right way, prove I am the right person, spin the combination lock in just the right way, God will give me what I want, because what I want is what God wants.

It is not that God doesn’t care about us personally – my theology says God definitely does. Nor does it mean we can’t ask God for things we think we need – my theology says God hears and answers prayers. But what is also true is that I cannot manipulate or control God into giving me what I want, and I am far enough along this weird path of spirituality to know that what I think I want is not a reliable gauge of what I really need. In fact, even what I think I need is questionable.

The world, when we have had the opportunity to slip into the expanded awareness of this level, is not what it appears to be. Whole theologies, whole religions, whole lives have been built on the single moment when one sees through things to a deeper reality, when one sees the world is not as it appears to be. The great quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote, “Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we CAN think.” Knowing things are not as they appear is the antidote to delusional thinking, and this thought trickles down to the other levels as well. The universe is not what it appears, other people are not who I thought they were, I am not the person I think I am.

How will you see through yourself, see into other people, and understand your world? A spiritual discipline is an opportunity to challenge myself on a daily basis to see myself, other people, and the world differently.

For we Americans, one of the big hurdles in taking on a spiritual discipline is that there may not be observable outcomes for a long, long time. I believe, though, that the value is not in the outcomes, nor even in the insights that may arise, but in the act itself. The regular, repeated exposure to the possibility of new light shining into my life, into others, and the world is the forming of a mindset and perspective which makes change possible. The repeated exercise in consciously attending to the spiritual dimension makes me open to change – in myself, in others, and in the world.

Peace and Grace!

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7 thoughts on “Spiritual Disciplines: Reasons and Dangers

  1. Some how the definition you chose for “Spiritual discipline” seems circular to me. Maybe devotional , sacred,divine or even religious dimension would avoid the circularity and suffice.

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    1. Thanks, Larry. Devotional might work, but I chose spiritual specifically because it was broad and non-specific. Is it circular because the same word appears twice in the definition?

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