Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions
For my girlfriend Carina, Tucson, Arizona is as close to heaven to not make much of a difference. Therefore, she needs to buy every cactus she comes across while traversing the German supermarkets. Makes sense.
I didn’t want it in the first place. She had so many already. “And now you want me to hold it?”
Yep. All the way home.
It didn’t fit cozy in my lap, as if cacti ever nestled anywhere cozily; I had to hold it between my feet, carefully navigating it to its place on the floor-mat. As you might imagine, I grew more annoyed with each tetris-shift required.
“You’re just jealous you don’t have a special place like I do.”
Perhaps it’s only her therapist profession peeking through, but it never ceases to amaze. She could’ve started at any number of places–why was I being such an asshole, why was I being such an asshole so close to our time apart, was I just tired?–but she skipped all peripheries and went to the core.
“That’s right.” She pouted her lips, nodded her head. “Your just jealous you don’t have a special place like me. I’m not gonna apologize just because Tucson has a special place in my heart.”
It wasn’t true. I had a special place. “Right here,” I said, tapping my chest with my pointer finger, “a special place inside. The Kingdom of God; and I don’t gotta travel anywhere to go there.”
She squinted her eyes as if sucking a lemon, shaking her head a couple times. “Well, that sounds like a lonely place to me. I don’t see the point of having a spiritual place if you can’t share it with anybody.”
There it was again: the glaring differences between our personalities. For Carina, sharing and community come as naturally as selfishness and isolation to me. But in this instance, I had to admit (though not yet aloud), she had a point.
“If we take the path of centering–which is present I think in all the primary meditative traditions–this is the astounding adventure of human life, to have this incredible potentiality and unquenchable longing for perfect happiness, and to share it with every other creature, which is an essential part of happiness. There’s no such thing as self-happiness as a particularity–everything in this universe is shared, interconnected, and interdependent, and is completely One. (And at the same time, infinitely diverse)”
The most striking thing about Father Thomas Keeting was how articulate and eloquent he was. By any standard, he was skilled at getting the gist of the abstract across through words. Considering the fact that he was 90 years old!, it practically made him Shakespeare.
Seriously though, I had tears in my eyes when I was listening to the guy speak. If any of you have been following these posts, you’ll remember from last time that I’ve got a soft spot for Christianity, an appreciation for its myriad forms that can easily get swallowed up by the prominence of its Evangelical, proselytizing, judgment-slingers. Why, I was lamenting the loss of a modern (or post-modern) translation of Christianity to our lifestyles, when here—at just this precise moment—comes along a 90 year old monk to offer that translation. The tears, you see, were a type of healing of my soul, and as they overflowed its banks, Keeting even hit on this point of healing:
“God has many roles, but certainly the healing of the depth of the human unconscious and the psychological weaknesses that we all endure in some degree, requires the skill that is virtually infinite, on the part of the Creator, to bring us through these evolutionary steps, and to heal us without overwhelming us with the divine power. Giving us the opportunity freely to accept this journey, or this choice, or these gifts, or these failures, and take responsibility for our life.”
I freely admit that when I first let go of my drug-support to get through this life, and began to use the crutch of religion I despised so much to walk, I was crying all the time—the natural result of so much repression. I can tell you though, that it was definitely a dose of the Divine I was feeling, and I can only concur with Keetings enunciation of the psychological (and spiritual) experience of deep—I’m talking soul level—healing. When you are finally smashed down enough by an addiction that you’d been trying to beat on your own for so long, the process of healing and every bit of learning gleaned along the way certainly seems skillful, virtually infinite, and something only a “higher power” can provide.
But why I felt this healing so deeply when listening to Keeting speak was what he was offering—a relevant, beautiful vision of Christianity tailored to our lives as they’ve evolved to now. One look at a medieval church quickly reveals how much beauty this religion it contains, and it was so relieving to hear this wonderful man offer his wisdom. And it was also nice to have a monk acknowledge the post-modern reality that his path was not the only one. While at the same time, it wasn’t diminishing anything from the great tradition that Christianity is.
“Just to sit down and be still. This is an intuition all the great religions or spiritual practices have discovered and recommend. You don’t have to do a thing! But because we are doing other things–because of our habits, mindsets, behavior patterns, cultural influences and so on, it’s all those things that we’ve tried to make a life out of and have failed, that fall silent. But the true you is waiting to be discovered. That seems to me to be the true purpose of all religions–and indeed of any serious form of education in any kind of specialty or science. If it doesn’t bring us to the realization of who we really are–including our potentialities for boundlessness–then it’s not doing its job.”
Again the 90-year old renouncer had his finger on the pulse of our modern lives. I recently read a Pew reporter stating that the fastest growing “religion” in America is atheism. You see, believe it or not, the young people didn’t see any use or relevance for religion. But Keeting realized that religion is much more than a “belief” to defend, but a living, vibrant practice with practical ends.
–“This is a good test of how valuable the religion we may be practicing really is. It’s not an end in itself. God has no need to be worshipped, or even thanked–it’s we who need to be able to do that, in order to get started in our self-esteem and relationship with something that is so new to us and so challenging and so overwhelming.”
Of course, the feeling that this man was somehow God speaking to me exactly where I was at in my mental journey grew enormously when he compared the spiritual path to the 1st step of AA. Keeting was swinging close to home, indeed:
“The first step of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] is really the first step of any spiritual journey: we become aware that on our own strength, our life is completely unmanageable. There’s the starting point of what humility really is–it’s the recognition that we can’t do anything of ourselves without the enormous help of the One whose power is totally in the service of mercy, generosity, and compassion, and of those whom He inspires to help us on our journey by putting in our path–these wonderful opportunities and people to support us and sustain us, in moments when our best aspirations seem to be degenerating.”
My God, quoting him here again, I’m once more so appreciative of how succinctly this guy puts it—“to sustain us when our best aspirations seem to be degenerating”—that was me when I was snorting about a gram of heroin through my nose once every other day, giving it my best to cut it down.
Perhaps at this point, someone might be asking what makes this approach uniquely “Christian”—these thoughts don’t seem to have any particularly Jesus spice to them. Well, here is what a post-modern Christian worldview might sound like (take it away Father!):
“Here’s how this process of centering works (it’s only one method, it’s not the only one). Its point of departure is the Greek term: gnosis. It’s a term that is ascribed to the Son of God in the Trinity, who abandoned being God in order to join and identify with the human family, precisely in its distress and needs and powerlessness. This unmanageable character of our life–as we learn through self-knowledge and through the discipline of centering prayer–is also joined (and wouldn’t be genuine humility unless it was joined) to this complete turning over of our life to the divine mystery, the divine reality, and letting go of ourselves in boundless confidence to a divine plan for human life as it has been unfolding and evolving (Step 3), now that human consciousness seems to have taken the major role in the evolutionary process.”
“But however it started–with the capacity for abstract ideas, self-consciousness, self-reflection, relating to the cosmos and its source and to other aspects of creation–whenever that happened, it put us in the situation of trying to maintain a balance between our evolving from lower forms of consciousness that we can’t escape from; we can’t return to the irresponsibility of the beast because we’ve been given this freedom–however limited it may be because of psychological and other factors. And we can’t transform ourselves on our own strength (Step 6, 7) into the divine participation to which we seem to be called by the very fabric of the universe that is evolving towards complexity, and then towards spirit.”
“Now we’re in the place where evolution is focused on the evolution of consciousness–not just individuals, as has been the case in the past, but the whole human family is called to become the ‘body of God’, you might say. In the Christian scheme of things, this is sort of celebrated in the ritual we know as the Eucharist, in which we’re incorporated as living cells in this body of God, the human race, or the human family. And at the same time we have to struggle with the viruses, the diseases, the limitations and immaturities that exist within ourselves, and all the other members of this body, which is just un-evolved.”
“I think that the one thing that Christianity could contribute to all the forms of meditation is the willingness to accept the personal aspect of the divine energy. Now, ‘person’ is not the same in God as in us. It has nothing to do with ‘personality’, that, I think, has hindered some Buddhists from giving this idea some consideration. It’s the personal touch, taste, poise, that goes with silence, and goes with the experience and surrender to our own nothingness. Because it’s not really nothing; it’s the nothing of our false self and our ego, and our opening to that which Is–and is always Is-ing. It’s never a noun. The ultimate reality is always happening, and happening now! To let go into that space is immensely refreshing and healing.”
“Our faults are not ‘bothering’ God–they’re just usually upsetting our pride. The way our belief systems have been communicated, we’re not supposed to have any faults. It’s important to remember that the Christian God (at least) is understood to give us millions of chances, and expects us to fail. Failure is part of the journey towards inner freedom (from our pretensions and hypocrisies and presumptions).”
Below, I’ve provided a basic outline of how centering prayer looks—quite similar to other forms of meditation, as it turns out.
Centering Prayer (simplified)
Centering prayer starts with 1. Acceptance (of God and God’s plan),
Moves to 2. Consent (to God’s presence and action within us) –more “whole hearted” than acceptance.
Consent moves to 3. Stillness
Following on the heals of the uniquely Christian vessel that aids all seekers towards the transcendent Divine, Keeting stipulates a few other aspects of his “centering prayer” that might be termed more “spiritual” and released from any one religion or religious context. As he’s been known to do, Keeting sums it up so beautifully:
“God is interested in love, especially in being allowed to give us this immense love that is so great it can’t remain alone. It has to be shared. What we have to overcome is our doubtfulness, our lack of trust, our giving too much weight to our own ideas. The best way to do that is to let them all go by. To respect whatever beliefs have been helpful to us in the past, but not so dependent on them that we’re radically upset by seeing them questioned, or in questioning them ourselves.”
Again what’s striking about the differences between the “religious” person and the “spiritual” is how the “spiritual” person is not at all interested in defending a viewpoint—from this standpoint religion is and never was about clinging to a stipulated set of propositions or notions. In fact, quite the contrary: someone engaged in the spiritual process has to have the repeated courage to let go of old belief systems—even those that once served us quite well.
“One of the great contributions of the Buddhist religion is impermanence. Our belief systems themselves have to go through some metamorphosis or change in order to really be the beliefs that we started out with.”
“(Above all, its important to have an) openness to new creation, to new ideas that are solidly rooted in the experience of those whom we regard as the primary masters of the wisdom teachings of the ages”)
So, if you’ve carefully read the above quote, you’ll note that Keeting isn’t say we dump the tradition all together, but look back deeper into it so we might scatter the essentials of it over the landscape of our modern and post-modern lives that we now walk through. Above all, Keeting offers us with his “centering prayer” a spiritual practice that supports us through the process of our lives. If we can take time to go “within”—not just once in a while, but daily—it sustains it. We not only survive, but we thrive.
“Then the activities of daily life tend to reinforce the insights that are coming from within, so that the whole process, both within and without, is refreshing and healing, and enables us then to address the interminable problems of everyday life with a certain poise (“we are going to be able to handle certain situations which used to baffle us”)–a lack of stress, or certain trust, or a certain peace–that this is part of what happens, and this is God manifesting Himself in my life at this moment, right now (“God is doing for us what we could never do for ourselves”). All I have to do is let it happen, and then I’ll know what to do, if there’s something I should do about the situation.
“Like in the wave and particle theory, the particle and the wave are distinct–but they’re never separated. The particle returns to the wave to be reinforced or renewed. Moments of prayer are like ourselves as little manifestation of divine energy, battered by the circumstances of human life, returning to its source–which is silence.” (“Silence is certainly God’s first language–everything else is a poor translation.”)
It should be noted that this talk was given as an online seminar as part of an “Enlightenment Conference.” Enlightenment comes with such a heavy (or really, really light) connotation, but what does it actually mean? According to Father Thomas Keeting, Enlightenment is simply Transformation.
“It frees from any judgment about others and ourselves. It doesn’t evaluate events as good or bad. It feel them as good or bad–but it’s getting beyond these mental, egoic, or rational judgement which always present reality in some form of opposites or controversies, because that’s the nature of reason. This is why humanity as a whole, to solve the immense problems of the present day, has to move into the intuitive level more than it has. More people need to move into it. Practicing this kind of openness to reality (or to God) is probably the greatest contribution we can make, at this moment, to the healing of the human society as a whole. It’s not going to come from just the bright ideas of a few rational folks who are still struggling with their own immense unevolved potentiality.”
Harkening back towards the post-modern reality—the daily context that most of us plugged-in and online engage with—Keeting stresses the need to let go of the ideas that there is only one method, calling for collaboration:
“Wisdom has to be shared. There must be no competition between methods. There are so many people, and each one probably has their own special version of whatever meditation they’re doing. Because God and every human being is in unique relationship, and we need to have our meditation and our lives tailored to our needs, for the full effect of divine love to transform us into compassion as well.” (“chances are, we’ll still have plenty of work to do besides meditating”)
“There’s no use judging people, because most of the time we don’t know what we’re doing fully, and we’re influenced so much by culture, upbringing, education, prejudices, and unquestioned values that we picked up in childhood. So this movement then–a serious form of meditation, or prayer if you want to put it in the Christian perspective–has got to deal with these realities of evolution–physiological, mental, spiritual and social.”
So, if this blog post has found you at a certain, synchronistic point in your process and evolution, I can only feel blessed that God might work through me. May it sustain you as you continue. Perhaps we’ll meet, further down the river.
“Whatever we attain really comes from God’s secret working in us–that little by little becomes less secret. Events encourage us, or synchronicities remind us, that this is not a private journey; this is not a lonesome road, but one in which God is accompanying us at every moment.”
Carina was right: my special place was certainly not meant to be a lonely one. Maybe I’ll go buy another cactus before she gets back from Tucson next week.