My Wobbly Bicycle, 171

Posted by on May 8, 2019 | 1 comment

A while back, I asked for suggestions for blog posts. Here is one from a writer I admire, Kate Carroll de Gutes, that I think is pretty interesting—“How to maintain a spiritual practice in a social media world.” Well, Kate’s younger than I am, so my world is probably less social-media than hers. I don’t do Instagram, rarely look at Tweets, and even more rarely Tweet myself. Still.

“Maintain a spiritual practice” is a loaded. You might call a walk in the woods a “spiritual practice,” but that isn’t what’s usually meant. Even sitting in a church or synagogue or mosque may or may not be a spiritual practice. It could be just blind habit, or a vague sense that we’re somehow accruing merit.

The word spiritual is so popular! If only we could be more “spiritual,” we could solve our problems. We could be better people. Spirit, as in breath, as in floating above the fray. Admit it, when you hear the word “spiritual,” don’t you imagine someone lifted a few inches off the ground? Or, as in spirited, meaning full-of-it. I think we have not thought this word through. Am I more spiritual if I smile beatifically? If I join a monastery?

When you practice something, you have a goal in mind. You want to be a better concert violinist, you want to be a better writer, or whatever. You want to get good at something. What does it mean to get good at being spiritual? What exactly is it you want to be better at?

The word practice. This one is easier to parse. To practice is to repeat over and over in a disciplined way. In order to have discipline about something, there must be a protocol, a series of actions (mind and/or body) intended to lead toward something to do with the spirit.

Back to Kate’s question. I think she means that social media et al are highly addictive and scatter the mind so that it has trouble settling anywhere, and this thing called “spiritual practice” requires a singlemindedness. [Jeremiah 32:39, “I will give them singleness of heart and singleness of purpose.”]

Buddhist practice—and I think Kate might mean some form of this—is all about regular meditation. In fact, It’s pretty nearly impossible to make sense of Buddhist teachings unless you’re engaged in a regular sitting practice. You must see for yourself.

What one does on the cushion is not “quiet the mind.” Which is a quaint idea. Try it and see how far you get. Meditation is exactly, I would say, anti-Twitter. Instead of being constantly distracted, the mind is asked to sit quietly and watch what’s going on. What’s going on is an insane mess of uncontrollable thoughts! We stay. We sit very still.  We don’t leave the situation. This is discipline. We practice not leaving what’s actually there: our wild thoughts. We don’t hook into them. We don’t turn them away. We don’t ignore them. We watch them.

it is necessary to explain that to get to Kate’s question. We’re up against almost impossible odds. The entire world is frantic. TV and movies are frantic. Trump is frantic. War is frantic. Maintaining any sort of discipline that requires just looking at all this for a measured time without messing with it requires a huge commitment.

Of course we will mess with it. We will say “Oh my god, I’ve got to do something, now! I need to at least write this poem, now! But watching ourselves say this is an awareness, which is the goal.

We don’t get to be good writers magically. The desk and the cushion often serve the same purpose. And discipline carries over from one activity to the next. I think I was pretty undisciplined until I started working toward my Ph.D. I learned how to sit still, how to stay with it when I hated staying with it. I had a goal. Not a “spiritual” one, maybe, but a goal.

Kate’s question is how one maintains this practice, against the odds. Maybe you have to be miserable enough. Maybe you have to sit just long enough to see that it does seem to be clarifying your vision. Whether your practice is Buddhist or not, you almost certainly need a community of others who support you in bucking the system, in deprogramming your mind.

Maybe the most important thing is to be clear about the goal. It’s hard to maintain discipline if we’re not sure what we’re doing.

Here’s the way it looks to me: the goal is to be able to be as fully alive as possible. That is spirit. That means deep sadness, crying, laughing, loving, throwing a fit, sometimes, being jealous, depressed—the whole gamut of human feelings—but not letting them twist me out of shape. It involves following some path toward seeing what the ego is made of, so that everything can quit being about me me me.

All way too involved for this little post. The main thing is to understand that the goal is not to rise above (i.e. be “spiritual”) but to live fully inside of. To be aware, so that when we do need to act, we’re not doing it knee-jerk, but with clarity about what we’re doing.

I know what it is to want to stay in touch, to get our own work out there, to remain a presence in the writing world. But probably if we can get to our computers every day, we can get to the cushion, or the prayer-place, too.

I would love to hear your thoughts and questions. Please write. I’ll use what I can to continue this conversation, or something related.




One Comment

  1. I love this in particular: “The main thing is to understand that the goal is not to rise above (i.e. be “spiritual”) but to live fully inside of. To be aware, so that when we do need to act, we’re not doing it knee-jerk, but with clarity about what we’re doing.” Living fully, being aware, having clarity — thank you, Fleda!

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