I tend to get it from both sides when I talk about spiritual practice: many of my fellow skeptics blanch at the word “spiritual.” And many Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Sufis, and what-have-yous seem to think that rationality and spiritual practice are at loggerheads. But humanists value connectedness and experience wonder just like everyone else. As far as I’m concerned, that’s spirituality.
I grew up Pentecostal. The spiritual practices taught in that tradition are daily bible reading and prayer. There is much talk of “having a prayer life.” As a kid, I assiduously read the King James Version of the bible. I completed the task when I was twelve. Admittedly, I didn’t understand much of what I read, but I credit that practice with preparing me for reading Modernist literature when I got to college. What’s a little James Joyce after you’ve read Leviticus at twelve?
Along about the time I was fourteen I began questioning praying in the manner I had been taught—petitionary prayer. I decided that it was presumptuous to ask God (if that god knows all and can do everything) for anything. On the other hand, I knew then, and I still believe, it is mentally healthy to pause, consider the needs of others, and think of ways that one might help others achieve those needs. That’s another sort of prayer entirely.
Nowadays Christians have rediscovered “contemplative prayer.” It is an interesting practice. But it wasn’t much known back in the days when I was searching.
When I was twenty-two I traveled to Boulder, Colorado to Naropa Institute. I went to study at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I went because my poetry hero, Allen Ginsberg, was there. I discovered the serious practice of Buddhism.
At Naropa, Ginsberg and Gary Snyder both taught that meditation had to be an end in itself—the point isn’t to meditate on something to write or to be a better writer. Meditation just is. The point isn’t “enlightenment.” Rather, meditation tunes the mind.
I have to admit, I’m fidgety. I didn’t meditate well then; I don’t meditate well now. The writing of poetry became for me a spiritual practice. That, to, focuses the mind and centers one in the moment. I have continued that practice through my life—through births, deaths, disappointments, divorce. Every day, I write. It is part of me. Some days it has been all I have had to keep me going.
I use tricks to keep my writing a priority. I blog. I work on a chapter of the Daodejingevery day, polishing a translation I have been working on for a long time.
Most days, I also practice meditation in the Buddhist manner that I learned at Naropa, even though I’m still fidgety. I sit down, quiet the mind, watch the thoughts pass, and realize that they are thoughts. The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh perhaps sums up Buddhist meditation best in his book Being Peace:
A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty.
For me, anyway, the great Buddhist insight is that each of us has the ability to step between a thought and a reaction . . . to realize that our minds are creating stories, that these stories shape our lives, and that these stories can be slavishly followed . . . or changed.
Writing poetry and meditating have sustained me as a humanist. Sure, “spiritual” is an overused word in North American culture. But in that heap of salesmanship, there are some real gems.