To be fair, not everyone or every teaching demonizes spiritual practice. I don’t want to overgeneralize here. But there is a sort of demonization of spiritual practice that happens in certain spiritual and therapeutic circles that I think lacks wise discernment. One of the main arguments against any sort of practice is the notion that there really is no ego, no self, that lies at the core of our experience. The argument proceeds: any self that would try spiritual practices is merely reinforcing a false identity, which can create seeking endlessly towards some future moment of freedom that never comes. Point taken! It’s a very strong argument on its own. And there is wisdom in it. But like all good arguments, it loses its potency as soon as it is applied across the board or turned into dogma that lacks a wise discernment about what good practice is and what it is designed to uncover or reveal in our experience. Almost any pithy, neatly packaged spiritual cliche, like “all practice is ego-based,” becomes dead in the water when it is believed and followed with the same kind of rigidity that accompanies dogma of any kind.
When a practice is employed through force of personal will to change or get rid of uncomfortable states, experiences, thoughts and feelings, it may be used as a means to strengthen the sense of a self that lives in time, that is trying to avoid something now and get to some place in the future. That’s really the nature of seeking, isn’t it? It’s the nature of escape itself. So the argument against practice fits well in those situations. But, when a practice is doing the exact opposite, the argument fails.
When a practice is employed in order to help the surrending, releasing, and resting into a deep acceptance of what is, that practice can be highly valuable. It can be employed for the purpose of seeing or realizing that lack of a self at the core of experience. It can reveal a natural being with what is, whatever that is, in a loving, gentle way. In that sense, a good practice can be deeply transformative. It can even obliterate dogmatic thinking.
The key is the discernment. Take, for example, the Living Inquiries. If one is employing the inquiries in order to avoid, escape or rebel against one’s present experience, then he is using it to strengthen the sense of ego and all the seeking, suffering and escape that comes with that. But if one is employing the inquiries in a way that reveals the allowance of everything – every word, picture, sensation and emotion – to be exactly as it is, then he is not employing it to get anywhere or to strenghten any false identity. Quite the opposite really! The inquiries used in this way reveal that there is no entity at the core of experience. There is only experience, happening exactly as it is happening in every moment. This depth of acceptance transforms experience thoroughly. Another example is body moment. Body movement, as I use the term here, includes Yoga, Qi Gong and the myriad forms of body movement that have been employed as practices for thousands of years. At the Kiloby Center, we employ certain forms of movement. Not just Yoga but also forms that we have developed on our own or refined from previously developed practices.
These include Aperioga and Natural Flow Movement. If these forms of body movement are employed to get rid of, change or react against our present experience, they can have the effect of strengthening the sense of self. But if they are employed in a manner that allows experience to be exactly as it is, the self is being seen through with these practices. The important point about all practices is context.
What is the context of a practice? What is its purpose? How are we using it? What beliefs are we reinforcing with it? Can it be used in a way that creates a natural, flowing acceptance of experience?
If these questions are asked and answered and then the practices are employed with the right context, these practices can make all the difference. They can be just the right medicine that is needed to recognize a deep and profound surrender and acceptance to what is.
Before you throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to spiritual practice, take a closer look at all this. Dismissing all practice in the name of a rigid, dogmatic argument can lead to a lot of suffering. I’ve gotten many emails through the years from people who have taken these anti-practice stances, only to reveal to me in a moment of honesty that they are still suffering because the sense of a self trying to exert control over experience is still operating. Look for those practices that question that self and that provide a skillful way of seeing through all that control, manipulation, resistance and personal will behind it all. Undemonize practice! Throw out only the dogma! Discern wisely!