I frequently ask you to do spiritual practices in my religion classes and, regardless of the motive, most of you seem to benefit. But in this entry, I’d like to turn the spotlight on the question of motivation and explore what our assumptions about doing these practices tell us about our entire approach to life.
Let’s consider, first, your motivation at school more generally. Think about the multitude of activities you participate in and ask yourself: are these motivated primarily by fear or love? Why do you study so hard, out of fear or love? Why do you play sports or do drama or practice the violin, out of fear or love? Why do you maintain your various friendships, out of fear or love?
Let’s use our imagination with these two contrasting motivations. Consider the physical postures associated with fear. This probably conjures up images of contraction, alertness, and self-preservation. A recent psychology experiment found that a mere 13% of our thoughts are positive, while 87% are negative. Our default consciousness, it appears, is negative and fear based; it sends out messages that reality is frightening. Hunker down for protection.
Now, by contrast, turn your attention to love, which should elicit a sense of expansion, full-bodied aliveness, and openness to connection. Imagine for a moment that you woke in the morning trusting that the universe operated on the principle of love; you could count on the universe to co-create truth, beauty, and goodness with you. Imagine how every cell in your body, every tree and plant, every person you would meet would respond to this core belief!
We know that fear concentrates and isolates, while love flows and glows. Love certainly is a more preferable scenario upon which to build one’s life. But the real question is: which assumption best serves as the most reliable foundation for living? Even more to the point, how can one determine if the appropriate foundation of life is fear, a common, if not the default, human assumption, or the energizing force of love?
Epiphanies of Love
The answer, it seems, can only come through the subjective living of one’s life, so here’s a bit of my own journey with this question. If you read my blog, you know that meeting priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault has been a major turning point in my life. Cynthia, like mystics of all traditions, sees reality as inherently trustworthy and friendly; like other such visionaries, she perceives love as the beating pulse of the universe.* (Yet even for her, it’s been a journey. I remember one of her teaching sessions in which she honestly confessed to an incredulous audience, “It only took me 60 years to realize that God is for us, not against us.”) The great 20th mystic-scientist Teilhard de Chardin was getting at love as the prime reality when he wrote, “Love is the most universal, the most tremendous, and the most mysterious of cosmic forces . . . . The most telling and profound way of describing the evolution of the universe would undoubtedly be to trace the evolution of love.”
Last year at school I was sitting up on the 7th floor on a Monday doing my lessons plans for the next day – simply because it was a beautiful day. The question that we were addressing in Humanities I in Action was a big one: what is the collective purpose of humankind? Not why am I here, but why are we all here? My pondering was interrupted by the scene’s beauty: sunshine was just at that moment breaking through fog after a rain-soaked Sunday, illuminating our yin-yang island at the center of the plaza. I whipped out my phone, snapped a few shots, and sent them to a friend whom I thought would similarly appreciate the moment. As I returned my attention to the question, an answer about humankind’s purpose bubbled up effortlessly from within, “Make love manifest.” Yes, that’s a plausible and even poetic collective purpose, I thought.
Relating this story brings to mind another – when my daughter Christa was born, now 22 years ago. The Sunday after her birth I went to church alone, while Ms. Talbot was still recovering at Mathilda Hospital from her C-section surgery. I sat in the back and, as the service was beginning, I glanced in front of me and saw a father holding and patting his very young daughter on the back. All of a sudden, I knew, really knew, what that father was experiencing in his affection for his daughter. Then the bottom dropped out of the experience, and suddenly I knew what all fathers across time and space had known when they held their children.
Which foundation, fear or love? The few times in my life when reality’s curtain seems to have been drawn back, I have marveled that perhaps the mystic’s intuition is right: maybe love is the deeper logic of the universe.
Fear or Loved-Based Meditation
Yet this, too, is a work in progress. As memorable as these experiences were/are, they have frequently not been sufficient to build my life around; it’s much more common to slip back into negative, fear-based mental habits. About five years ago, I finally made the commitment to begin meditating on a regular basis; but when I think back to my decision, it definitely felt fear-based. I didn’t welcome the discipline; I was way too busy already! But because I was very sick and wanted to get better, I finally pledged to take up the practice. I wanted something that the practices promised, so I gritted my teeth and made the commitment.
Now five years down the line, there seems to be another dynamic at work. Frequently when I arrive at school in the morning, I feel a subconscious tug to meditate before I start a busy day of teaching. It’s not because I want peace in my life – meditation doesn’t usually produce a significant change in mood for me – nor am I calculating from a “no pain no gain” perspective that if I don’t invest in my relationship with God, I’ll lose it; both of these possible motivators would have emerged from a belief in my own inner emptiness seeking fulfillment. Rather, it feels more akin to being lured by a blooming flower to stop and appreciate its beauty. As I wrote to Cynthia,* the early morning desire to meditate seems to be my heart’s yearning to “greet something familiar that brings joy.”
My conscious self cannot take credit for this pull towards meditation, saying: “Oh, the heroic sacrifice I have made to meditate, which has catapulted me into my current intimate relationship with God.” No, these desires seem to happen in spite of my early morning mindset of focusing on getting prepared for the day. Is it possible that love is always lying quietly in the background waiting to be discovered?
Love’s Golden Tipping Point
When students start to meditate, they obviously hope to benefit from their practice. But implicit in this empty-to-full scenario is a subtle fear-based motive lurking behind the positive habit. The practitioner brings dualistic thinking to meditation – spiritually skilled students do the practices and gain the benefits, while the less attuned just don’t get it. Again, we’ve created a ladder of success, which is accompanied by the fear that we may not measure up.
When I asked Cynthia about what should motivate our spiritual practice, she took another tack,* “I think the experience you share of feeling drawn to do Centering Prayer for the simple motivation of ‘greeting something familiar that brings joy’ is exactly what I’m talking about here, that golden tipping point when practice seamlessly shifts in the direction of being a fruit of gratitude rather than a means to secure some desired spiritual good.”
Meditation as a fruit of gratitude puts spiritual practices into a spacious, generative, fertile field. Or, perhaps more daringly, if the simple message that love is the basis of reality is accurate, then meditation can be seen as a lovers’ rendezvous. Such a shift away from a fear-based approach buoys the practitioner; maybe falling in love is the more operative metaphor.
So, then, dear students, I gently suggest trying to suspend, if you can, your normal “I’m-doing-this-to-get-something” motivation for doing meditation, which is how our scarcity-based educational system has conditioned you to think, and open to the possibility that your heart subconsciously welcomes meditation as a path to your core desire: to discover a love-based approach to life. Viewed from the perspective of this new paradigm, spiritual practice becomes a joyful fanning of a flame that has been burning inside of you for a long time, a deepening recognition that divine gravity has been steadily pulling you towards love as the terra firma of existence. In a love-based universe, even the desire to search can be perceived as a result of the all-pervasive gravity of grace.
I recently enjoyed listening to the interview with you on “Buddha by the Gas Pump,” but you said one thing [at 1 hour 20 minutes] that keeps coming back to me. In response to the question whether spiritual practices prepares one for receiving God into one’s heart, you said yes and no. Of course, the yes answer seems self-explanatory, but you were keen on emphasizing the no. You explained that doing spiritual practice is more of the fruit of oneness rather than the cause of it. The concern with the “yes” response, you went on to say, is that spiritual practice quickly devolves into a scarcity model in which only the “most spiritual” receive divine visitations, which is back to the “ladder” concept of spiritual growth. I know that I often think of spiritual practices in the former and teach my students this as the rationale: dampening the mind opens the body and heart intelligences to the vertical dimension of life. But yet there seems something true about your “fruit” statement that I don’t think I know how to explain, even if I have a sense for it. For instance, as I’m running off to class on an early morning, I find that there is a part of me that really wants to pause and do some Centering Prayer for a few minutes, and I don’t think it’s because it brings me so much peace, although it may be peaceful, and it’s not a scarcity model that I’m clawing my way to God; it’s more in the sense of greeting something familiar that brings joy. But it’s not really a conscious thing – it seems to bubble up from somewhere else oftentimes. So, while I have some intuition for this in my own life, I have no idea how to explain this to my students who are coming to spiritual practices to gain something rather than to celebrate some invisible ontological reality. Or perhaps that’s the point – as you grow into a practice, you come to understand the grace that propelled it all along. Despite my confusion, there seems something very light and spacious and effervescent about prayer as a fruit of the journey. ~ Marty
Sorry for my delay in responding to your question. It had the bad luck of arriving just when I was in the midst of a pretty intense teaching week in the UK.
But yes, I think the experience you share of feeling drawn to do Centering Prayer for the simple motivation of “greeting something familiar that brings joy” is exactly what I’m talking about here, that golden tipping point when practice seamlessly shifts in the direction of being a fruit of gratitude rather than a means to secure some desired spiritual good. And you may be right that the nuance is perhaps too subtle for beginners to pick up. At the beginning it may all have to look like goals, destinations, techniques because that’s how the mind at that level works; it needs constant reassurance in its illusory sense of control. But as the heart opens in the space which practice provides, the new seeing begins to unfold. I love Kabir Helminski’s description of the journey: “You see the majestic mountain peak in the distance, hop into your car, and charge off to conquer it. Halfway there, your car melts.” The car, of course, is your ego system, the only system you have online at the beginning. Once it melts, rivers can again be rivers and mountains mountains. But it’s a fair bet that for most people, ego perception is not going to melt on its own recognizance. Practice gets the ball rolling, even if the direction it’s rolling in ultimately proves to be illusory.
* Let me share an amazing description of someone who did gain a moment of realization that has guided her career. Take a moment and enjoy reading this profound paragraph by Jing Lin, a professor of education at the University of Maryland, who shares this anecdote in the acknowledgments of her book Love, Peace, and Wisdom in Education: A Vision for Education in the 21st Century:
“I came to know that there is an all-encompassing love in the universe only after I met Dr. Yan Xin and began to cultivate an authentic, traditional Chinese qi energy cultivation system. Opening myself to all life forces and the energies in the universe, I experience the interconnectedness of all people and all existences. My most astounding experience came one day when, after visiting the Great Wall, I literally heard the pounding of a great heart in the universe. This heart was pumping into all existences a love so profound that it is utterly beyond description. The whole universe pulsates with this love. I was completely awestruck and moved beyond words. As the love penetrated my cells, I was transformed and realized we need to reveal this essence to others. I realized that we have solutions to all of our major problems if we choose to love each other as our beloved brothers and sisters – rather than hate each other – and if we care for nature like we care for ourselves. Since that day, all people I meet, regardless of their race, gender, and cultural background, appear to me like my own family members.”