When spiritual practice gets in the way of spiritual progress
Spiritual practices are intended to help us free ourselves from self-clinging, but sometimes they can become subtle, or not-so-subtle ways to cling.
The Buddha said his teaching was a raft: something designed to help you get to the “other side.” Once you arrive at the destination, it’s pointless to hoist it onto your head or carry it on your back. But sometimes even before we get to the other side, we find ourselves overly attached to the raft. It’s as if we push the raft half-way into the water, but don’t quite launch it. And then we get quite proud of the fact that we’ve constructed such a beautiful raft. And maybe we spend a lot of time tweaking the raft, so that it’s going to be nice and comfortable for the journey. Or we have a little snooze on it. Or maybe we look around at other designs of rafts and wonder whether our raft is good enough; maybe we need to spend a bit more time checking out various raft designs before we commit ourselves to crossing over?
“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.”
So we end up clinging to the raft, and not using it for its intended purpose. Take a simple practice like bowing. This is, in essence, a simple act of paying respect. “Clinging” to a practices like bowing might involve trying to get more out of it than it can actually offer, because your sense of self depends upon it. So you might get very caught up in “doing the bowing just right” as if the exact performance of the act of bowing inherently makes a difference, irrespective of the spirit with which it’s done. “Doing it right” becomes a matter of getting the physical act correct rather than the inner act of reverence and mindfulness.
We often, in fact, mistake a kind of self-critical judging of actions as being a kind of mindfulness. And this becomes an “other-critical” judging of actions as well, so that we look down on others for not following the rules. This is the opposite of the point of practice, which is to lessen our attachment to a sense of self. Non-attached bowing is simply a non-selfconscious act of showing respect. It’s done mindfully and in a positive frame of mind. And there’s no judging or competition involved.
Sometimes, people have negative clinging, or aversion, to a practice like bowing. It reminds us of self-abasement and monarchical political systems, and the ego feels threatened. But of course bowing in a Buddhist context is just the equivalent of shaking hands respectfully in a western context.
Before we go any further, though, I’m not really talking about bowing. That’s just an example of a practice we can take as being an end in itself. Any practice can be misused in this way. Buddhist ethics, for example, is about taking responsibility for your own actions. But what’s the first thing that happens, often, when the question of ethics and precepts comes up in a discussion class? People start offering up examples of how other people don’t follow the precepts. This totally misses the point, and rather than helping us to let go of our self-clinging, it does the opposite, but allowing us to convince ourselves that we’re fine, and that it’s other people that are the problem.
So here are some examples of how we can sometimes use meditation in ways that reinforces self clinging:
- we could for example be overly concerned about whether we’re doing the practice right
- or we could be convinced that we are in fact doing the practice right (and others aren’t)
- or we could invest a lot of energy in insisting that there’s only one right way to meditate (which, coincidentally, is the way we’ve learned to meditate)
- or we could be doing the practice in a mechanical and half-hearted way that lacks genuine openness, curiosity, and investigation
- or we could be attached to particular meditative experiences so that our meditation practice keeps us in place rather than takes us forward
- or we could think that the amount of time we spend on the cushion is more important than the quality of what we do
- there might be a lot of emphasis on “doing” in meditation and not enough on “receptivity”
- there could be an emphasis on being mindful in meditation that we drop as soon as the final bell rings for the meditation
- there could be excessive pride involved in our practice
- we might be continually looking for a “new, improved” form of practice, because we think it’s the tool that’s going to make the difference, rather than the degree of skill with which we use it.
Confession: I’ve done all of these things!
Actually, it’s inevitable that we’ll do these sorts of things. It’s in the nature of the unenlightened mind that we cling — that we look for security and safety and try to stick to the known. In fact we’re doing this most of the time, in one way or another. What we can do, though, is to set up conditions so that we’re more likely to go deeper, and to find that spontaneous occurrences of “letting go” happen.
Mainly, I think, it’s the quality of attention that we bring to any practice that makes it genuinely useful. The main qualities that we can cultivate that allow for spontaneous experiences of letting go to occur include:
- Humility: Recognizing that we have a long way to go in our practice, and that there are infinite depths to explore compared to the shallows that we know from our current experience.
- Curiosity: What’s going on here? How does this work? What happens if I try this, instead of that? Being prepared to step outside of the known is hugely enriching to our practice.
- Kindness: Being a friend to yourself helps your experience to unfold. Treat every experience as a welcome guest with an interesting story to tell, and you’ll find that you learn more. Treating experiences as unwelcome guests is a good way to shut your experience down.
- Receptivity: Don’t be one-sidedly concerned with doing in your meditation practice. When you are doing something — anything — be aware of what effect it’s having. But sometimes you need to remember just to be.
- Wonder: If you think you know what it means to be human, you don’t know what it means to be human. Because no one knows. Life is a mystery. Experience is a mystery. Allow yourself to feel wonder.
- Respect: The Buddha emphasized the importance of the wise friend — the person who is further along the path than we are. Yes, we do need to question authority, but we also need to respect the wisdom and compassion that others have developed.
- Appreciation: The unappreciative mind is starved of joy and learns little. When we appreciate the simplest things about our lives — the fact that we can breathe, and be conscious, and that the universe supports our existence — then every experience becomes an opportunity to explore. The appreciative mind is open and ready to embrace change.
There’s no way to guarantee that our practice isn’t going to be a hindrance to spiritual progress, and as I’ve said it’s inevitable that it will at times, but these qualities, as well as an awareness of the dangers of using our practice to bolster self-clinging rather than abandon it, can help us to push our rafts into the water, where they belong.