I always say that anything conditional is not ‘really’ spirituality. This is to point out that spirit is not a substance, as far as I can see: the Buddhists carefully discuss all manner of energetic and shamanic practices, even the psychic powers, as in the realm of concentration practice. The Unconditional is inexplicable and cannot be owned. However, the conditional is where we practice, and I’ve been reminded recently to keep that in mind.
The problem is not the desire to know the truth. The problem is that I started to believe the spiritual propaganda a little too much. When I say propaganda, I mean the exaggerations that are used in order to motivate, and the reifications of spiritual insights into concepts that are more concrete.
The former kind is expressed when teachers use hyperbole, such as expecting constant vigilant mindfulness, ‘practicing like your hair is on fire’, or that only the most dedicated life can produce any progress. This can’t be the case, because I am far from an ideal practitioner, and I know that I have made a little progress. I now think that this is because most people, especially those who do not consider themselves to explicitly have been called to a spiritual life but are in a religious community, don’t really put the effort in to awaken. Think people who go to church on a Sunday but don’t pray otherwise, or those who meditate to get some fuzzy feelings in an incense-filled room of a Tuesday night. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I don’t feel that this is a waste of a great opportunity. Others might come up against the first speed bump of dukkha in their practice, often after their beginning meditation was so novel and pleasant, and drop it like a hot potato- the ‘rolling up of the mat’ of those who have crossed the first tipping point and find the three characteristics really slapping them in the face. However, there are also the kinds of people who are prone to massive over-effort and wrong effort, trying to force themselves to see the truth, and I am definitely one of those. It is incredibly bizarre to sit on a meditation cushion and watch yourself fight this battle, and not be able to stop it- because the elements making up my body and my mind are not mine to control, are not permanent, and are definitely not perfect. I’m having to recognise this and go back to surrender, go back to humility, go back to stabilising myself through virtue practice, every day. Learning to accept that throwing in 110% effort makes literally no difference to the inexplicable grace of insight.
The latter form of propaganda, what I called the reification of insight, is the tendency to take scriptural descriptions of insights, and turn them into concrete goals and dogma that need to be aimed at directly. The whole point is that the Unconditional cannot be aimed at directly- what aspect could one aim at? What spiritual substance is there to hoard until you can pay for enlightenment? There is only the clearing of the ground for the seed to hopefully take root, and the watering of it when it does, to extend the metaphor. So my second embarrassing admission is that I’ve got too caught up with the idea that the self needs to go, and so subtly I’ve been trying to destroy it, which is the nihilistic near enemy of non-inherency. This kind of thing is the death drive incarnate, and not always indicative of a healthy self-concept either. So, once again, going back to surrender, going back to humility, going back to stabilisation, is this clearing of the ground. I cannot destroy my sense of self. Aiming for it because senior practitioners say it needs to go eventually is not good practice, but greed, hatred and delusion, the three outflows that cause suffering in the first place; practice turned on its head in the service of the self.
So, I have to meet myself where I am. If this seems paradoxical, then remember what I said earlier about watching myself fight inside the mind and not being able to stop it. I can know I am not going about things the right way, but I cannot tear up these habits root and branch by using those same habits. I have to cultivate different ways of doing things that starve these bad habits instead. There is a lot said about meeting other people where they are, and this is a superb practice, but it can (and in my case, often is) corrupted into a sense of holier-than-thou, that I must suffer the ignorance of others when I ‘know better’. The truth of course is that any ounce of delusion is still delusion. I am not better – or worse – than others.