Spiritual Awareness

Engaging the Risks of Contemplative Practice

Across all great spiritual traditions, there are warnings about risks in contemplative practices. This article explores some of those risks and associated problems, all of which I have personally experienced to some extent. 

The Problem of Results

I’ll begin approaching this issue from the observation that each of us has a tendency to judge some particular kind of experience as especially meaningful or rewarding, and so we can naturally focus our efforts on contemplative practices that we believe improve our chances of having such experiences, our metaphorical wages.  However, because very few practices have a 100% return of the desired results, the effect of partial reinforcement can push us toward a kind of addiction in which we feel compelled to try harder and harder to get the high, no matter what the cost.  In effect, we run the risk of our practice becoming a drug that we use to attain our particular favorite high. Casinos profit obscenely from this phenomenon, and so do some people in the spirituality/religion business, but I digress.

From this point, let’s consider different categories for experiences and practices people commonly consider meaningful or rewarding in their spiritual lives.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place and you are encouraged to add some ideas of your own.  It will probably be fairly easy for you to look at the list and pick out a few things at each end of your own like/dislike scale.

Intellectual – These experiences are about the discovery, acquisition, processing and communication of information, ideas, and insight.  Along with such effects through the usual academic pursuits, this category would include those from all forms of analytical, theoretical, and speculative thinking, as well as from visions and related psychic experiences.

Social – These experiences are dependent upon relationship with other human beings, and involve themes of acceptance, belonging, support, roles and responsibilities, status, esteem and power.

Physical – This category involves increased or decreased sensory stimulation.  Nature, art, ritual, ceremony, service to others, dietary observances, exercise, sex, austerities, and the bodily aspects of meditation and prayer all have relevance.

Emotional – Here we are speaking of heightened or lessened feelings, such as pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort, satisfaction, frustration, excitement, sadness, happiness, anger, peace, confidence, anxiety, fear, release of tension, relief from boredom, and so on.

It’s apparent that these categories aren’t completely discrete from each other; they are interconnected.   In considering that interconnectedness, you might have already noticed how often the emotional category serves as the final arbiter of our choices.  We can contrive lots of rationalizations and justifications for pursuing one thing more than another, but the deeper we look the clearer we see that we’re more likely to follow through with something if we believe it promises some sort of emotional satisfaction for ourselves, whether it is comfort in having done the “right” thing or even a kind of masochistic satisfaction.  Even the continuation or cessation of our own physical lives is subject to this dynamic.

It’s not my intention to encourage self-flagellation about our very deep and powerful tendencies to serve ourselves.  I am convinced that emotional self-interest is an inextricable part of human nature, and any attempt to pretend otherwise only leads deeper into a life of unhealthy illusion.  These observations are instead made primarily to point out some of the most crucial dynamics leading to imbalance, disharmony, and fragmentation in our souls.  Likewise, they suggest that our choices about contemplative practice can actually contribute more to psychospiritual dysfunction than to wellbeing, even when they feel very good.

The Problem of Discipline

With regard to discipline, in observing my own practice and the practice of others, it’s obvious that consistency and persistence can be huge challenges. Quite frankly, I believe a large part of this problem is our wanting easy, low-cost, instant gratification. It might be a little reductionist, but it sometimes seems to me that we regard contemplative practice more like a form of entertainment than a way to greater awareness, wholeness, integration, and depth of being in ourselves, in relationship with God, and in our presence in this world.  Many of us also want our experiences to be intellectually or emotionally profound, and perhaps even socially or materially tangible.  Any practice that doesn’t seem to quickly produce such fruit can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different; we can also imagine ourselves as having already “advanced” beyond the need for that practice.  It’s so easy to ignore how often the great saints and sages have asserted the value of enduring commitment to the most basic practices.  My personal observation is that it’s often in persisting through boredom with a contemplative practice that we begin to gain the most significant benefits, subtle though they may be. 

The Problem of Discernment

Here we are beginning to consider how confusion about the value of experiences can impair discernment about the value of a practice.  A major element of such confusion is assuming that the value of an experience, and therefore the practice that facilitated it, is measured by the magnitude of its immediate impression upon our conscious minds. Another aspect of this confusion is in taking an extraordinary experience too literally; there are countless stories of visionaries who have brought horrible suffering to themselves and others because of knee-jerk reactions to their own inner experiences. For example, strong desires can lead to mistaking an experience as a direct contact with something that the experience actually only represents.  More specifically, a flash of light experienced in the depths of meditation may reveal something to us about the presence and action of Spirit, but it does not necessarily mean that the light was the appearance of a particular spiritual being.  Similarly, just as the on-screen image of a movie actor is not the actual character portrayed, or even the actual actor, so too can dreams and visions about other beings be far removed from actual contact with them.  Even the images of these words are not the actual forms on the screen, let alone the actual thoughts in my mind, but are your mind’s perception of the words and the thoughts behind them.  Another potential confusion is taking the magnitude, frequency or total number of one’s experiences as an unquestionable sign of spiritual “progress.” Such an attitude is dangerously self-aggrandizing and a highly volatile fuel for wish-fulfilling delusions.

Mediating the Risk-Benefit Problems

So, is there some way to minimize these risks without turning contemplative practice into nothing but a heartless drudgery or abandoning it all together? 

One generally useful guideline found is to carefully attend to the overall integration and harmony of the psyche’s different aspects and functions. Of course, this guideline is itself based upon a very deep, broad and persistent practice of honest self-awareness and caring self-acceptance.  Said another way, it is the practice of being lovingly present with oneself, and thus becoming increasingly aware of the very fluid interconnectedness of everything within us – head, heart, and gut. 

Along with this practice of presence, all the great spiritual traditions recommend the mindfulness and application of certain virtues.  In Masonry we traditionally rely on the Four Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice – and the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (from caritas, spiritual love).  But it’s very important to understand that the practice of the virtues is not about forcing one’s external behaviors to conform to some predetermined model of perfection.  The object here is not to build up some new external facade of perfection in the place of being more consciously whole; in fact, when rightly understood, the virtues are first and foremost internal processes. When incorporated with the practice of loving self-presence, they shed significant light on the ways one is at odds with oneself, suffering from psychic fragmentation and compartmentalization, while also pointing out paths toward greater integration and harmony. 

A third recommendation is to seek companionship and mentoring from others engaged in contemplative practice. While it is often advisable to avoid making one’s contemplative practices a topic of ordinary conversation, there are significant benefits in comparing notes with others seriously engaged in work similar to ours. This is especially true with people who not only have more experience with the work, but also impress us as having grown wiser and more loving in the process.

Being more fully present with ourselves, the checks and balances of the virtues, and the company of fellow practitioners don’t provide a foolproof guarantee that we won’t make mistakes, yet they can reduce the risks in making them.  When we do make mistakes, these guidelines can help us lovingly embrace them as learning opportunities and thus become even more meaningful experiences in our spiritual lives.  Beyond these very significant benefits, they may also facilitate a deepening awareness of something in ourselves and our relationships other than thinking, feeling, sensing, and doing – something quiet and still, and at first seemingly tiny and insignificant, yet more vast and powerful than we can comprehend, let alone control. Awareness of this perplexing presence can be fascinating and frightening – fascinating in its penetration into a very deep mystery of our being, and frightening in our awareness of the comparative smallness and powerlessness of that part of us we most often identify as “me.”

Conclusion

With contemplative practice, like the rest of life, let’s acknowledge that there is no way to totally eliminate risk; even in retreating to avoid some risks we fate ourselves to take others.

So the question I’ll leave you with is this: What risks do Faith, Hope and Love call upon you to take?

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Tolerance: A True Measure of Compassion

                                                                                 Constant Union Masonic Lodge, Rio Grande, Brazil - Credit: Eugenio Hansen

                                                                                 Constant Union Masonic Lodge, Rio Grande, Brazil - Credit: Eugenio Hansen

Originally Published in the June 2014 Edition of Living Stones Magazine

We came here to learn to subdue our earthly passions, to increase our intellect and spiritual awareness, to find Light, or better yet, our spiritual reality.  Going one step further, we search for the true understanding of life, our place and purpose in it through the ability to reason.  The realization of the true ability to find reason within the mental and emotional processes of life is the fulcrum between the choices of good and evil, and between right and wrong.  This is what we are truly saying when we recite the beginning of our catechism.  Sure, the words may differ from one masonic jurisdiction to another, but we all came here to subdue our passions and improve ourselves in Masonry.  This process is accomplished through different practices.

We learn the definitions of the Masonic symbols and from our mentors, we are explained the philosophies.  The transformative process of Masonry, the change of one state of conscious and subconscious conviction to a more improved state through the application of spiritual exploration and the understanding of various philosophies, communicated through various symbols within the construct of Masonic ritual to our inner most convictions, start to make themselves realized by the epiphanies we come to have and the changes in our perception of life and those circulating in it.  These changes are only possible through study and discussion with those others who have themselves solid understandings of such, and who can provide credible explanations that contributes to self-reflection without bias to the conclusions.  How do we measure through self-reflection of how far we have come though?  One of the identifiable measures of how far our passions have been subdued is to pay attention to the depth of our tolerance.  In this article we will search to understand specifically what tolerance is, whence it derived its meaning, and the difference between possessing tolerance and simply being tolerant.  It is that understanding that allows us to measure the tolerance one may possess to calculate how they have identified their vices and superfluities to illustrate to them the direction of education that may need to pursue in the improvement of self.

Tolerance is defined as the “willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.[i]  In regards to religious tolerance, Daniel Taylor of Christianity Today writes that intolerance became a sin and was developed as a result of the Christian wars of the 16th and 17th century that resulted in mass slaughtering in the name of Christ.  He states the answer to the problem was tolerance and that historically then, “was the liberal, secular answer to the inability of conservative religionists to compromise with those who differed from them.”[ii]  Voltaire, who lived from 1694 until 1778 and who was a Freemason actively involved with the Enlightenment stated that, “Of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”[iii]  The word itself came into usage in the 14th century and by the 17th century in France, it meant the same as when it was first used as a “tendency to be free from bigotry or severity in judging others.”[iv]  Not only is tolerance taught and espoused by Christianity, it is found in all religious dogma in one verse or another.  What is interesting is that with examples of tolerance found in all religious texts, the practice of intolerance can be seen in our society by many professed religious leaders from the West for those of other religious faiths, ethnicities, or politics.  In an effort to be politically correct, they ACT tolerant, but do not demonstrate a POSSESSION of tolerance.  The possession of tolerance, and it having depth, is different from simply being tolerant. 

One’s depth of tolerance is predicated on several aspects such as education, philosophical understandings, and the ability to evaluate without influencing the results with bias of self- conviction.  Dialectical thinking, “a form of analytical reasoning that pursues knowledge and truth as long as there are questions and conflicts,” is a great asset to have when doing such evaluating of one’s measure of tolerance.[v]  The absence of bias and attitude of dismissal is essential in the successful use of this method.  An example of the use of this type of investigative academic procedure is the Socratic Method.  But as Manzo notes, this method can be easily abused as one asking questions can easily begin their quest as educationally investigative, but without specific and moral direction of the questions, the quest can become misaligned and promote defensive mindsets then resulting in fruitless arguments rather than expanded understanding.  The indifference that may result relieves us from gaining the possession of tolerance and may leave us with the resolve of simply tolerating an indifference as to not further spurn more arguing, instead of intellectually or spiritually increasing our understanding of foreign convictions that tends to expands tolerance.

“Let not interest, favour, or prejudice bias your integrity, or influence you to be guilty of a dishonourable action.”[vi]

Cultural Relativism, “a method whereby different societies or cultures are analyzed objectively without using the values of one culture to judge the worth of another,” is another means to implement a progression in the depth of one’s tolerance.[vii]  In the analysis of another person’s character, conviction, or cultural practices of varying natures, our experiences, education, dogma’s and so forth, our culture, undoubtedly coerces us to judge in relation to them.  We must, in the interest of the exploration of cultural assimilation of moral improvement to be exemplified to mankind, resist this innate desire to judge with bias. This is not to say that all we objectively inspect will be of virtuous quality that is beneficial in a positive means of assimilation to our own moral betterment, but if we cannot without bias analyze those that are different from us in whatever respects that are presented, we will deny ourselves even the opportunity to explore if there were qualities that were beneficial to begin with. 

The growth of tolerance and resistance to simply be tolerant is a necessity in the advancement of moral progression of humanity with Freemasons being the exemplars. 

“The blind force of the people is a force that must be economized, and also managed, as the blind force of steam, lifting the ponderous iron arms and turning the large wheels, is made to bore and rifle the cannon and to weave the most delicate lace.  It must be regulated by intellect.  Intellect is to the people and the people’s force, what the slender needle of the compass is to the ship…”[viii]

As many athletic coaches have stated during practices for big games in whatever sport, it is what you do in practice that will ultimately determine your performance on the field.  This is not so different than Lodge, which actually is not limited by the walls in which we tile as the Lodge symbolically extends from the East to West, between North and South, from the Earth to the heavens and from the surface to the center.  What we exercise in demonstrating the possession of tolerance in Lodge with our brethren and their shared opinions or beliefs is what we intrinsically will demonstrate, and maybe with less awareness, in the public.  I do not doubt that we have heard the sighs from the sideline when a Brother may be expressing a thought, even though he has repeated the same objection time and time again perhaps, as the Brethren have grown tired and desire to end lodge, but I ask, is that a demonstration of tolerance, or simply being tolerant because there are visible repercussions?  We must search for why someone is speaking or acting from a particular mindset or with a certain ideology before we can began to rule out the validity of their position.  It is this act, this being in “due bounds of mankind and more especially a Brother Mason,” that will ultimately vindicate the conviction of our members to be involved with lodge instead of feeling as if they are an outcast, will ultimately give them confidence in contributing to the betterment of the lodge.  This act of compassion, this demonstration of tolerance exemplified by the Brethren within the lodge will be exemplified by the same members outside the lodge with an inherent confidence that will leave those of mankind one comes in contact with, inspired. 

So, we must ask ourselves, “What came we here to do?”  To that, we must add the question of how do we accomplish the answer we profess every time we sit in the West of the Lodge, or listen to the Senior Warden recite to the Master of the Lodge.  How do we stem the rising of our blood pressure at the speaking of, or action, of another?  How do we measure our growth of compassion?  Tolerance.  By understanding how we can develop our tolerance of others in a morally upright manner, we can better implement the tenets of our institution and inspire the world that merit is the title of our privileges and that on us, they have been deservingly bestowed.  This will undoubtedly influence those we come into contact with to consider their own moral convictions as they see in us a mirror of their own conduct to be measured.  I charge myself often with this large responsibility to improve so I may become a better human being.  I encourage you to charge yourself with the same responsibility.  Together, we can move forward parallel to one another, our differences and similarities working in harmony, expanding our positive effect on one another, and inspiring a better world for those that will endeavor to follow us into the future. 

 

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END NOTES:

[i] Tolerance. (n.d.) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tolerance

[ii] TAYLOR, D. (1999). Are you tolerant? (Should you be?). (Cover story). Christianity Today, 43(1), 42.

[iii] Voltaire

[iv] Barnhart, Robert K., (1998) Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co.

[v] Manzo, A. (1992) Dialectical Thinking: A Generative Approach to Critical/Creative Thinking, Institute of Education Services, 

[vi] Preston, W. (1776) (1867) Illustrations of Freemasonry, Masonic Manufacturing and Publishing Co.

[vii] www.sociologyguide.com/basic-concepts/Cultural-Relativism.php

[viii] Pike, A. (1871) Morals and Dogma