On Spiritual Practice

This essay was first published under the title “Expertise” in May of 2013 in the annual journal of Brooklyn Aikikai. I am very grateful to the dojo’s sensei, Mr. Robert Savocca, for inviting me to publish a piece in his dojo’s premier issue.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identifies a precondition of expertise. He argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master a discipline. If you want to be good piano player you must practice 10,000 hours; if you want to want to be a good computer programmer you must program for 10,000 hours; if you want to be a good carpenter you must build for 10,000 hours; if you want to earn a black-belt you must be on the mat for 10,000 hours. How long is 10,000 hours? If you work a 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year, it is 5 years. At two hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, it takes 20 years to accumulate 10,000 hours.

The point, of course, is that (pick your term) expertise/ realization/ understanding/ insight/ proficiency/ mastery requires practice, a lot of practice.

This is no doubt true of all human enterprise, but I don’t think Gladwell’s formulation applies to spiritual matters. Or, more precisely, I don’t think there is a linear correlation between practice and realization. This statement is not at all radical. In the 19th century a Zen master named Sengai painted a now famous cartoon of smiling frog on a lily pad. The caption reads: “If by seated meditation one becomes a Buddha…” Sengai leaves it to the reader to finish the sentence: “then all frogs on lily pads are Buddhas.”

Today pictures of smiling frogs hang in meditation halls and zendos across the planet.

Clearly Sengai is telling us that besides accepting the forms left to us by generations of seekers, something else is necessary: we need to be intelligent and we need to be hungry. The Buddha did not just happen to sit under the bodhi tree for eight days any more than Paul just happened to take the road to Damascus. The Buddha and Paul paid for their realizations not in eight days under a tree nor in thirty days on a road, but by staying in front of their unknowing for years until, depending on the story, they sat or walked until they broke-through to a new understanding. The notion that realization will just come to me, in an unpaid for bolt from above, is stupid at best, spiritually decadent at worst.

The Sufis, known for aphorisms rather than paintings, have a formulation as rattling as Sengai’s:

All are doomed save those who know;

All who know are lost save those who practice;

All who practice are adrift save those who practice with right intention;

And all who practice with right intention are in grave danger.

It is of course glib to mix metaphors and ask: “Can a frog have right intention?” But it is not at all glib to ask what practice is. In fact, if I don’t ask the question: “What is practice,” and confront what I find in my life, I will live thinking I know until I die, like a smiling frog on a lily pad.

If we look we see practice—or what passes for it—all around us. We see members of various religions adopt specific costumes and diets and hair cuts as integral parts of their daily practice. We see women with yoga mats stuffed into their knapsacks on the subway and on the street. We meet vegetarians who tell us that they forsake meat in the name of world peace. We see people cross themselves before eating. We see church parking lots full on Sundays. At sunset during Ramadan we see men gathered around plates of dates. We see self-appointed true believers shave the beards of others they deem apostates. We see all manner of unspeakable violence visited on members of one religion by members of another, on the scale of individual horrors and on the scale of vast populations, all carried out in the name of practice. George Sydney, in his autobiographical novel For the Love of Dying, tells us that American chaplains deployed in the Korean War taught young soldiers struggling with having become killers that if they killed not for killing’s sake, but with knowledge of the justice of the cause, then their killing was not murder, but an act of Christian love.

No doubt these chaplains had 10,000 hours of practice. But I don’t think Mr. Jesus would have seen these chaplains as ministers of his teaching. On the contrary, I think his judgment would have been harsh: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Mathew 7, 15-16 KJV

And, I don’t think it is a stretch to add: We shall know ourselves by our fruits. Our “fruits” derive from our being, from who we actually are ontologically. And our practice exists—depending on the metaphors we adopt—to transform our being, to bring us closer to God, to realize our true nature, to find the Way, to arrive at the Promised Land.

And here’s the rub: I can measure what it means to play the flute well, to program a computer well, to cook well, to dance well, to draw well. Any of these I can accomplish in 10,000 hours if I have the energy and inclination and the time before I die. But I have no idea what it means to be closer to God, to transform my being, to find my true nature, to arrive at the Promised Land. The fact is the object of my practice is my own perfection, my own evolution, my own transformation—to use the alchemical metaphor—from a man of lead into a man of gold. And I have no idea what this really means, the realization of my coarseness and my hunger for a finer life notwithstanding.

So, in the face of this fact a subtle and generally unnoticed movement takes place: the object of my practice is concretized. Put poetically: the ineffable is inexorably materialized. And put simply: since what we seek is mysterious and unknown, we seek-out instead the known and the defined and the easily grasped.  This impulse to replace the unknown with the known, the mysterious with the defined, and the magical with the mechanical is an elemental fact of how we live and make sense of the world. Analogous reductions are useful for many things, like transforming wind into electricity and the wish for justice into campaign contributions. But in the realm of spiritual practice such reductions enjoin the possibility of a deeper understanding because they move us from higher worlds to lower worlds, from the sacred to the generic.

This movement, from the ineffable to the concrete, takes many spiritually insidious forms. For example, when my body becomes still in seated meditation I quickly discover that I cannot escape what Korean Buddhists call “the chirping of cicadas,” that is the endless loop of associative and spurious inner-talking that passes for consciousness and upon which, to a large extent, I base my ego.  Faced with this fact I have a choice: on one hand I can suffer that I am mostly unconscious living meat on a meditation cushion, a realization that can be utterly undoing if I take it in. But, on the other hand, if I switch the focus from my ontology to something simple and measurable like time, I can boast to myself and others about how many hours I sit each day. And presto I am no longer a lost soul seeking a finer insight; I am instead a senior seeker with a deep practice.

In just this way, by attending mass every Sunday for a year, I can earn an award from my pastor for my manifest devotion to Christ and his teaching. Or I can wear special clothing to show all those who see me that I am a reverent member of a clan-that-is-better-than-you. Or, if I am some kind of clergy, I can get a special hat, or robe, or belt or title. By adding-up my time on the way, or by wearing a costume or haircut or beard, or by changing my diet or by embracing some other concrete form I no longer have to face the mystery of metanoia; instead I “repent” by counting Hail Marys. (Footnote: A particularly interesting essay on metanoia was written by Maurice Nicoll and is included as the fifth chapter of his posthumously published book: “The Mark”)

And so, after 30 years of chanting/ sitting/ praying/ seeking in a community I can claim eldership for my long involvement that I label “practice,” my inner nullity, my “fruits,” notwithstanding. Now I can approach my death like a smiling frog, confident of my transformation conferred automatically by years on the lily pad.

Practice that defines itself by forms, I suggest, is not practice at all: it’s a balm against the terror of getting older. Such “practice” has nothing to do with the inner suffering attendant to the alchemical transformation of lead into gold; instead it is all about getting a gold crown and earning a “place.”

If the substitution of the known for the unknown is not a practice that leads to transformation, what sort of practice does?  And what is an intelligent approach?

Clearly what is intelligent is not simply the accumulation of hours and years. Nor is it enough to say that the time must be well-spent in sincere search. Practice, if it is to be liberating, must have another aspect. Practice must be in the direction of increased consciousness, which I propose derives from a new capacity of seeing.

To my mind practice cannot be separated from life itself. Life is lived only now, only moment-to-moment. I believe that if practice is to be transformative it must, like living itself, become a moment-to-moment enterprise of seeing. What use is it to me if on the cushion I find a special energy that animates me, if on standing I become again and again a venal, ordinary man?

Yes, of course, at the beginning, and for a number of years, glimpses of a finer possibility are signposts that suggest that I’m on the right path, but a practice that yields only glimpses after 30 years is neutered.

The practice on the cushion, the practice in church, the practice separated from life has meaning only if it becomes a practice in life, in the moment.

When I realize that my practice is not transformative, that I’m living only for glimpses, I realize then that my practice cannot be separated from my quotidian existence. If in the exchange of money for a bus ticket I am simply a juggler paper and metal discs I do not exist as a man.

In the face of such an impression there can be a strong impulse to retreat to the cushion in search of a moment of presence. But to my mind the stronger response to this impression is to struggle to watch, and in the watching become more than a robotic handler of paper and coins. In fact, it is the practice of watching that brings me into the present. It is the practice of watching that must become my actual practice. In a word, I must learn to “see.” And my practice must become seeing.

This is not new, in some traditions growing the capacity to see is called “developing a third eye.” Zen Buddhists teach that real living is “moment-to-moment Zen.” In the English translations of the New Testament the seeing I am describing is called “watching.”

I am not a Buddhist, I am a Christian, and so the vocabulary that I use to describe practice derives from the New Testament. Probably, given what the church has done to the teaching of Jesus, few people who describe themselves as “Christians” would ever guess that the essence of the teaching of Jesus is to find enlightenment (The Kingdom of God) through watching.

Of course the modern church does not teach “watching” as the key to enlightenment. The modern church teaches some sort of mind-numbing gibberish about taking Jesus as a “personal savior” and through that relationship gaining eternal life in heaven, or something like that. The modern church—and I lump all the denominations together—has nothing to do, or very little to do, with the teaching of Jesus. In fact, many who call themselves Christians would label me a heretic for suggesting that the Kingdom of God is enlightenment and not a concrete post-death reality where the righteous live eternally in bliss. I am not at all concerned with “Christians” of this sort and I refer them to this:

Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3, Lambdin translation.

“The Kingdom of God,” contrary to Sunday school notions, is not some external reward for being very, very nice or, in the absence of nice, a reward for those who feel very badly about not being nice and pray for forgiveness. Such notions, while they anesthetize hundreds of millions against the horror of facing a death defined by eternal obliteration, are of no spiritual value whatsoever. The Kingdom of Heaven, I submit again, is enlightenment in the here and now attained by the practice of watching in the here and now.

Similarly, the Hebrew idea of the “Promised Land” is not a geographical place on the earth but, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is a metaphor for enlightenment. The Israelite’s journey out of “Egypt” into the “Wilderness” and finally to the “Promised Land” is a metaphor for the spiritual search. It starts in “Egypt” which is a symbol of ordinary life devoid of meaning or, in the language of Exodus: “slavery.” Egypt, built on sand, symbolizes the instability of ordinary life. The “Wilderness” is the state of being in question, of seeking, of unknowing. Eating unleavened bread in the wilderness represents living a life only partially informed with a greater meaning. The text of Exodus states that the Israelites “went up out of Egypt.” Wandering lost in the wilderness—a metaphor immediately meaningful to anyone who has searched—is on a higher spiritual level than the instability and absurdity of ordinary life, thus “up out of Egypt.” Wandering in the “wilderness” for for thirty years, daunting as it is, is a precondition to finding the Promised Land, that is to enlightenment.

In the Gospels Jesus is very clear that seeking and finding is for very few. It is only the institutional church, founded by Paul, that teaches general salvation. Jesus states: “…for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Matthew 7:13-14 KJV

My spiritual questions led me to the academic study of religion, to the Gurdjieff Work and to Mount Athos. On Mount Athos the monks endeavor to be present to their lives moment-to-moment while simultaneously praying ceaselessly. The practice of watching moment-to-moment they call “nipsis,” and define thus: “watching innerly and outerly simultaneously, soberly.”

George Gurdjieff made no secret of the origin of his teaching: he said that his work was “esoteric Christianity.” To my mind Gurdjieff’s genius was to strip the near-secret Athonite practice of its devotional element, and bring a teaching based on nipsis, which he called “self-observation,” to the secular west.

The academic study of religion brought me some knowledge, but no help with the questions that plagued me and brought me to the study of religion in the first place.

I think that most–after many years in search of a vivifying practice that can be lived day-to-day, moment-to-moment–will eventually hear an organic cry for help issue from their depths. This cry appears almost unexpectedly. If this cry is directed at others, it can only lead so far. But when the ache for being and understanding becomes unendurable the appeal for help becomes an action we call prayer. Practice leads to prayer. It is not the other way around, as anyone who has an existential struggle has realized.

The word “prayer,” unfortunately, is so freighted with diverse associations and evokes such strong reactions–positive and negative–that its essential meaning is obscured. The premise behind prayer, and a spiritual sensibility generally, is that we live in a hierarchical universe. The world we live in is one world. There are higher and lower worlds. Prayer is an attempt to make a connection between worlds with the aim of informing a lower world with the intelligence and energy of a higher world.

The most important Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, follows exactly this structure. It opens: “Our Father who art in Heaven” which is the acknowledgement of levels, and continues “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” which is the hope that the higher inform the lower.

The impulse to pray appears when I feel that the energy and intelligence available to me as I am is exhausted, and nothing will help except something entirely different, higher and currently unknown.

The Athonite prayer, with which the monks try to stay in contact ceaselessly, is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” I think this prayer, powerful as it is, has lost its energy for a modern man. Invoking the intercession of the dead, and maybe the never existing, is not compelling to the cultured and educated of our time.  A modern man must find a different mode of prayer.

There are no one-size-fits-all approaches or prayers. But I will share my approach.

In the Gospel of Thomas, an Essene text discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, a question is posed to Jesus: “Rabbi, what is the secret?”  And Jesus answers: “The secret is a movement and a rest.” In the Lambdin translation the saying is rendered: “If they ask you, ‘What is the sign of your father in you?’, say to them, ‘It is movement and repose.'” (Saying 50)

I have found that the wish for presence is constantly undone by the action of living. I wish to be in one instant, and become hypnotized and lost in the next. All who try to become present discover this.

The movement and a rest that Jesus teaches, like the “push and a pause” that Gurdjieff teaches, is the method I follow. I engage into the flow of life, into the current of doing. In that engagement I lose myself. Then I return, I receive the impression of what is by watching innerly and outerly. In time the movement out and the movement in become like a kind spiritual breathing: I vanish, I return; I’m dispersed, I’m collected.

This approach, this method, I find very helpful, but it is not the end of the story. The energy I need for return wanes, and an organic wish appears to connect to more potent energies with the hope that they may help. It is at this point, in my experience, that prayer has meaning.

Which prayer? I can think of no better prayer than Jesus’ last: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? But it may be that the primal prayer that best expresses my longing is one word long: “Please.”

The point of practice, I submit, is not to see God. The point of practice is to see what is.

What is, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is within you and without you. The practice of watching reveals not only my inner life to me, it also brings a larger clarity. As I begin to see myself more clearly, I also begin to see others more clearly: their motivations, their fears, their attachments, their relationships one with another. Practice brings understanding.

But does practice lead to the growth of the soul? To immortality? To objective meaning? I don’t know. But I do know from experience that there is an ontological difference between a man with a real practice and a man without one. I have seen again and again that a man of practice gathers inner quiet and, when the situation is tense, is capable of response over reaction. Put somewhat differently, a man with a practice struggles to be. A man without practice simply assumes that he exists.

Daily practice is the work, not willy-nilly but over a lifetime, to come into being in order to participate more consciously in life. To some this last sentence is gibberish. To others who have tasted their nothingness, and are ready to pay for their transformation, it is their touchstone.