Spiritual Discipline

Spiritual Discipline December 15, 2011

Confession time.  Spiritual discipline is not my strong suit.  I left the Mormon church when I realized that I lacked and always would lack the discipline to live the Mormon lifestyle.  Why did I lack the discipline?  Because deep down I lacked the desire.  Sure I wanted to be a good Mormon.  But did I want to do all of my church duties?  Did I want to refrain from watching rated-R movies?  Did I want to avoid reading anything that caused me to question my faith?  No.  No.  No.  And at the heart of it all was a fundamental doubt that doing these things really made me a “good” person anyway.

A Mormon would likely look at my exit from the LDS Church as an illustration of a fatal lack of willpower. Actually, I would have to agree.  I came to believe, though, that the whole concept of “willpower” is bankrupt.  It presumes that one part of our selves should exercise dominion over other parts.  The a-ha moment came when I was reading, not Jung, but Paul Tillich:

“Freedom is the possibility of a total and centered act of personality, and act in which all the drives and influences which constitute the destiny of man are brought into the centered unity of a decision.”

— Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology

Contrast this with a quote by another person named Paul:

“For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

“I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”

— Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 7 (KJV)

I can relate to Paul in this moment of self-disclosure.  I wonder what “sin” was it that haunted Paul so?

Anyway, I left Mormonism specifically, and Christianity generally, precisely because I wished to leave behind the kind of spiritual schizophrenia that plagued Paul.  I wished to find a more “interesting idea of goodness ” (to borrow a phrase from Anne Rice), an idea of goodness based not on some abstract ideal divorced from human experience, but based instead on the notion of wholeness.  I came to believe that the key to personal power lay not in the divide-and-conquer strategy of the “ethical monotheisms”, but in Tillich’s vision of a “totally centered act of personality”.

A few months ago, in the “Spirit Circle” discussion group at my local Unitarian church, someone asked us to share the one belief we could not do without.  It was really interesting listening to everyone’s responses.  My answer came easily.  It was a quote from John Middleton Murry that I have posted before:

It is better to be whole than to be good.

Wholeness came to be my guiding light.

My father is a case study in repression.  If he ever decided to write a creed, I would not be surprised if it consisted of this simple statement:

I believe in strength and weakness.

For my father, everything falls into one of those categories.  And most everything in the world falls into the latter category.  All need of any kind is weakness.  Need for food.  Need for sex.  Need for other human contact.   Even physical pleasure is, to him, a weakness.  Not to mention all forms of religion.  His morality is so rigorous, I can’t help but admire him though.  He is easily the most self-controlled person I know.  And he is also one of the most repressed, out-of-touch people I know.

I have to admit though, my father is an extreme case.  Consider my wife, who is one of the most integral persons I have ever known.  But she very strongly believes in the principal that you work until you feel it.  And she very much fears that, if she were to “work with her motivation”, she would never get out of bed.  She may be right, at least about herself.

For me, I’ve gotten along pretty well by working with my motivation.  But I am still left with a practical dilemma.  What do I do at 9 p.m., when I want to go to sleep, but I have not conducted my nightly devotional?  In more general terms, do I practice my religion when I don’t feel like it?  For ethical monotheists, the answer is simple and obvious — but not so much for a Neopagan like myself.

If I skip the ritual (and I do frequently), I risk the eventual disenchantment of life.  If I “force myself” to do the ritual, I risk the ritual form becoming empty of meaning.  Either way, I risk the loss of meaning.  Incidentally, the “disenchantment” I speak of is a loss of the”mystic spiritual tone that Oliver Wendell Holmes speaks of in the quote below:

“Life is a roar of bargain and battle, but in the very heart of it there rises a mystic spiritual tone that gives meaning to the whole. It transmutes the dull details into romance. It reminds us that our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole. It suggests that even while we think that we are egotists we are living to ends outside ourselves.”

Tibetan Sand Mandala

Not all Pagans are laissez-faire about spiritual practice.  T. Thorn Coyle is a Pagan who I greatly admire who strongly advocates regular spiritual practice as a discipline.  And her words on the subject resonate with my own experience.

“Effective people all have some daily touchstone. If your life is not as you wish, or you are foundering spiritually, running from epiphany to being stuck, it is likely that daily practice is missing from your life.”

— T. Thorn Coyle

I admit that my experience has been mostly of neglecting my spiritual practice and consequently experiencing a disenchantment of my life.  And the notion that forced ritual becomes empty ritual is largely theoretical for me.  But at the heart of by reluctance to embrace spiritual discipline is my earlier experience of “spiritual schizophrenia” and my fear that “discipline” is the equivalent to “dominion”.

It just occurred to me that the John Middleton Murray quote I post above was not the entire quote.  The full quote is:

“[T]he task of maintaining himself as a locus for the free resolution of conflicting responses will make a far greater demand upon a man’s ‘moral’ energy than any that has been made before. For the good man to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a strait and narrow path compared to which his previous rectitude was flowery license.”

— John Middleton Murry, God: An Introduction to the Science of Metabiology (1929)

Thus, my a-ha moment realization about wholeness  is not an invitation to antinomianism.  According to Murry, we should expect even greater rectitude, albeit of a different character, from those who have departed from the moral path of the ethical monotheists.  So Murray has laid down a challenge for me.

I honestly still do not know how to reconcile these values. So I don’t have a nice little bow to tie up this post with.

It occurs to me though, that perhaps I can find a compromise.  When I am exhausted and want nothing more than to crawl into bed, perhaps in lieu of my full evening devotional, I can perform a truncated version of the ritual.  Perhaps even a simple one-line prayer would be better than nothing.  If I can do something, perhaps anything would be better than nothing.  We’ll see.  I let you know how it goes.  In the meantime, let me know if you “work with your [spiritual] motivation” or if you are a “spiritual disciplinarian”.

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  • I’m actually experimenting with something similar at the moment, as I’ve tried both extremes and have felt the actual emptiness of forced ritual as well as the disenchantment from lack of practice. However, I think a balance can be had.

    In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, towards the beginning, Blake puts forth the idea that Good/Reason/Soul is the outward bound of a process while Evil/Energy/Body is what moves and gives life to a process. From what I can tell, following only Energy (or what you’re feeling) will lead to a lack of structure and discipline, and therefore disenchantment. Following only Reason (or discipline) sucks the life out of spiritual practice, and leads therefore to emptiness.

    So instead of either working with my motivation or being a spiritual disciplinarian, here is what I’m trying: I am now sticking strictly to daily devotional time, but at the same time am filling the devotional either with what I need to emotionally deal with or something that I will emotionally enjoy, which forces me to never let the practice become stale. Yes, there are rote repetitions in this practice in order to give it structure, but mostly it is an extremely personal and invigorating experience, and I look forward to it [almost] every day. So I think the key is being disciplined and finding something that will motivate you.

    • Very well put Luke. I think you zeroed in on my dilemma. Thank you for the advice. I am going to follow it. I might give different names to the two factors than Blake, but I am definitely looking that up.

    • Luke: I haven;t heard from you in a while. I miss your thoughtful comments. Would you be interested in submitting a guest post on the topic above, or any other, to this blog?

      • C Luke Mula

        Sorry that I’ve been inactive here lately. However, I do admit that it feels good to know that I’ve been missed.

        As far as submitting a guest post, I’d absolutely be glad to do so. For my topic, though, I think I’d like to write about “not believing anything.” It’s something I’ve been dealing with a good bit lately, and I’d like a public place to explore the idea some more.

        I’ll write up a draft and send it over within a week or so to see what you think.

        Keep up the great work here, by the way.