A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality

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What is a Spiritual Practice?

img_0685The short answer: I don’t know. That is, I don’t know what it is for you. I have read about the spiritual experiences of mystics and saints and ordinary people throughout the ages and I have had to conclude that a spiritual practice is a deeply personal experience. Many roads lead to the same destination. I do believe it is my life’s purpose to describe my own experience in the hope that my words will be helpful to others. I want you all to have what I have.

The essence of my spiritual practice is this: Pay Attention to Everything. I watch myself reacting to every situation, word, action, condition, both “belonging” to me as well as to the outside world of people and things. In the past several years I have added my own thoughts to this list. Everything.

Everything? At first I could only pay attention to other people: my mother, my father, my siblings. I was an infant. Next I added myself; I paid attention to being hungry or cold, lonely or bored. Eventually I added in the rest of the world but I could only pay attention to the bad or the good things they were doing. At some point I realized that if I wrote them down, I could pay attention to my thoughts. And that lead to paying attention not only to the situations and things produced but also to the words that others used. I was capable of paying attention to everything brought to me by my five senses and my thinking mind as well. That is everything. I had become fully aware.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a practice. I may be aware but I am not yet able to pay attention 100% of the time. Although I consciously remember doing it for the first time as a preschooler, I once went two whole decades without paying attention. And yet, eventually, I paid attention to that. I had awakened.

Time passed and one day I noticed that I was paying attention to myself paying attention. Uh oh. That’s when I got scared and tried not paying attention for a while. But paying attention had become a habit I could not break. I searched for ways to do it. I tried drinking, but the hangovers really bummed me out. I tried drugs but my “attention payer” was much too paranoid to allow me any fun. I tried sex, but there she was, commenting on every move, wondering when the orgasm would happen. I paid attention to the suffering that I was undergoing, the exhaustion of all the paying attention and I stopped. I’d had a realization.

I realized that I was going mad. My life was chaos from all the attention paying and reacting. I had very few clues about how to improve my situation. And what to do about my attention payer? She was there to stay. So I decided to give her just one thing to pay attention to, something to keep her occupied. What would that be? So many choices, lots of suggestions out there. I began to do more reading. I reread all the books by the mystics and saints and ordinary people and they had all paid attention to something. Things like the breath, or their drinking, or God or Love or their thoughts or sex or the words of a teacher.

Wow! What would I choose? I went on, paying attention like crazy, unable to decide, feeling more lonely and scared while things fell apart all around me. And this went on for the longest time. I tried everything to control my paying attention. I tried the breath, and drinking and God and Love and my own thoughts and sex and the words of a teacher. Then another teacher and another teacher and another teacher…

The words of the teacher. One after the other. I began to listen. That kept my attention payer very quiet. Things began to settle down. Life was not so chaotic when I was paying attention to the teacher and just living my life the rest of the time. Eventually the teachers began to multiply. Soon they were everywhere. I began to see the teacher in every person I met, every story I read, every word that I wrote. I began to see myself as the teacher. I began to see the wise teacher within and that’s when I started to pray. And as odd as it sounds, I prayed to myself and my prayer went like this:

“Please guide me and give me the courage to follow the Guidance.”

One day shortly after I began my prayer. I began to get Guidance and I began to follow it. It caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect such an immediate response. After all, I was praying to myself, a known procrastinator. Also disturbing, I clearly heard the Guidance and It said that I must act now, without waiting for the courage!

During the three to four month period that followed, I did everything Guidance told me, even though I was terrified every day, so terrified that I could barely leave my house. I stopped returning phone calls. All my clients went away. Money stopped coming in. I spent hours alone, frightened and unable to move. Sometimes Guidance told me to get up, take a shower, and brush my teeth. That’s all I got. At other times Guidance told me to spend time with a friend or my son or to take a walk or play with my cat. Guidance told me what to wear, what to eat, what to say. Guidance told me to write and I wrote, shaking like a leaf, so afraid.

From time to time I would try to disregard Guidance and terrible things would happen. A friend’s feelings would get hurt. I would burn my fingers on the hot stove; a business deal would fall apart. But mostly I would feel disconnected and even more afraid. Now I was afraid to follow Guidance and I was afraid not to follow Guidance.

But the fear would not subside until the whole world, it seemed, was fearful too. Terrorists attacked a city I had airline tickets to visit. Americans began making runs on the bank. People became afraid of losing their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods. Guidance could barely get through with all the fear. So I turned off the radio and tuned in more closely to my inner transmitter. I listened until one day, very gently, Guidance said. “You are a coward.”

My spiritual practice today can be summed up this way: Pay Attention to Fear.

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The Truth of Memoir

Every once in a while I pick up a book that transports me directly to Truth. The book Take Me to Truth, by Nouk Sanchez and Tomas Viera, is just such a volume. I recently met Nouk and Tomas and found them to be ordinary people and extraordinarliy gifted teachers. They possess the ability to clearly articulate their own personal spiritual experiences in a way that exposes the underlying truth beneath. Appropriately, their work is about ego release and they bring a contemporary framework and sensilbility to the oldest of spiritual disciplines.

I also have a personal history with Truth. As far back as I can remember I have lain awake at night searching my thinking for answers. As a small child I trusted the universe that was accessible purely through my own contemplation. At the age of three I would wait for my younger sister to fall asleep at night so that I could luxuriate in my favorite inner dialogue which sounded like this:

“How big is the universe?”

“As big as the sky.”

“Then what is beyond the sky?”

“The sky is limitless.”

“What does this limitlessness look like? Is it square like a box, or round like a ball?”

“It can’t have a shape because then there would be something beyond it.”

In those days I always fell asleep before I came to the answer, or “final cause” as I later learned to call it when studying Aristotelian philosphy in graduate school.

Recently I have returned to thinking about what it takes to expose the Truth. As my interests have turned to writing I have begun reading while asking the questions, “What is my experience of Truth? What is my relationship with Truth? How do I recognize Truth? How is Truth different from belief? Is there such a thing as Objective Truth? Is there such a thing as shared Truth? What is the nature of Truth? How is Truth expressed? How is Truth held in the body?

Recently answers have begun to come in such an interesting way.

I am writing memoir as a spiritual discipline. Each Saturday I get together with a half dozen committed writers and we read our pages out loud. Acclaimed memoirist Jennifer Lauck moderates as we struggle through the telling of closely guarded secrets and family legends, all through a process called “on the body.”  The idea is this: get into a quiet state and see, hear, feel, taste, and smell your story. Transcribe. That’s it. And like meditation, it is surprisingly difficult.

As I have begun to get into the flow of the daily writing process, the daily process of being in my body in the present moment, I am noticing a funny thing. The most quiet places of my mind cradle the wise, innocent, inquisitive child that I am. Like time travel, my practice immediately  transports me right back to my bed as a preschooler, right back to the original project and my quest for Truth. And like that wise little child I once was, still am and have yet to become, I know that Truth is indeed found inside me, if only I have the courage to go after it.