People engage in a spiritual or contemplative practice for lots of reasons. And I am one who believes that there is no bad reason to begin a practice. In doing workshops with professionals and teaching mindfulness to my college students, I have found that one of the primary reasons that people become curious about meditation is because they are seeking a way to reduce stress. There is no doubt that the current popularity of mindfulness and yoga are directly related to our desire to find a way to live with more calm, greater focus, and more in tune with our bodies amid the busyness of modern life.
For those of us who teach practices that support contemplative prayer or meditation, It is important to meet people where they are at, while also introducing them to practices that have been supported in ancient spiritual traditions and/or validated by scientific studies. Bearing in mind that any reason to get one’s butt on a cushion or to engage in a genuine spiritual practice is a good one, it is also important to recognize that all spiritual traditions link contemplation to deeper spiritual aspirations as well as moral growth. (I have a podcast on purifying intention, and have written previously on the power of intention in one’s practice.) It is not surprising, therefore, that some are asking critical questions about the cultural popularity of what may be called the “secular mindfulness” movement.
For example, a friend of mine recently sent me a link to a forum hosted by Buddhadharma magazine titled “What Does Mindfulness Mean for Buddhism?” And I have recently explored similar question about what the mindfulness movement means for Christians. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of us are asking similar questions: Can you practice meditation or contemplation without also linking it to one’s deeper spiritual aspirations? What is the relationship between ethics and meditation?
Christianity, Buddhism, yoga philosophy and other traditions teach that although stress reduction is a nice benefit of meditation, it is not the final goal. They also teach that it is possible to become too fixated on the expectation of positive outcomes from one’s practice, and that this attachment can become an obstacle to deeper spiritual growth. For St. John of the Cross, for example, the dark night of the soul is experienced as the loss of the comforting sense of God and the joy in one’s prayer life. But if it is truly the dark night that leads toward greater illumination and deeper friendship with God, this loss of consolation may in reality be a a sign of spiritual growth and the purifying actions of grace. It is also true that a lack of attention to ethics and to important relationships in one’s life can be a reason for stagnation in one’s practice.
I recently finished reading B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life, and I was struck by his insistence that the physical practices of asana in yoga are only one of eight limbs of yoga. The ultimate purpose of yoga is to lead one deeper in the path of meditation toward samadhi, or union with God and ultimate freedom.
I think it is important for those of us who teach contemplative practices to uphold the vision that mindfulness is a tool for moving toward deeper experiences of contemplation and transformation – ultimately to taste Total Freedom, Enlightenment, Unconditional Love without limit, and union with God. It may not be popular to use these kinds of spiritual terms in a secular approach to mindfulness (and certainly not everyone is going to understand them in the same way), but I think that something essential is lost if we don’t keep these higher spiritual aspirations in mind and uphold them as the ultimate goal.
So, it is always worth asking the question, to ourselves and to others: “Why do we practice?” It is also worth continuing to ask the question over and over. If the goal is truly to touch the face of Unconditional Love, this is a question that will never be fully answered in this life, but one that may provide ample motivation to continue our practice and discipline amid life’s challenges.