What is Pragmatic Spirituality?

I have borrowed the term “pragmatic spirituality” from Ken McLeod, a brilliant Buddhist teacher, founder of “Unfettered Mind” in Los Angeles, and author of “Wake Up To Your Life.”  He calls his work “Pragmatic Buddhism.”  My deepest practice and training is also Tibetan Buddhist, but I also have long experience in Christian, Sufi, and other mystical traditions, and also modern psychology and philosophy –  especially existentialism and phenomenology – so a more generic title is appropriate for me to use.

It may be surprising to find spirituality and pragmatism connected – especially mystical and contemplative, practice-oriented spirituality that aims at union with the divine.  Mysticism is generally considered mystifying and not practical.  But if you want to find the happiest people, donít look at Wall Street, look at the deep spiritual practitioners – the mystics.  They are happy – and what is more pragmatic than something that will consistently deliver bliss and delight?  And letís not be misled that all mystics are in monasteries and other “out of the world” places.  Increasingly, we meet them everywhere.  (Question: So why are there so few spiritual practitioners if that delivers real joy?  Answer: Most of us are actually addicted to unhappiness and prefer it!  Cf., Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now.”).

If you look at world history, mystical movements and practitioners have had profound effects not only on their own personal lives, but on the practical and even political world – think of Jesus, Mohammed, and Ghandi.  It wasnít their political ideas that moved people.  The cycle of “withdrawal and return” ñ going into retreat, meditation, and prayer, and then returning to the world of action is a characteristic of some of the most powerful world changers. One could argue that mystical awareness has been the most powerful influence on the course of history.  Mystics donít fight wars; those who claimed to be followers of mystics but who misunderstood and/or misapplied the principles have fought many wars.  Examples of practical effects of spiritual practice are easy to cite because, in fact, spirituality is essentially pragmatic – intending to bring about the deepest reality of well-being for the largest amount of people. The purpose of spiritual practice is to make profound changes not only in individuals, but also in the very foundations of the world itself.  How practical can you get?.

The deepest possibility of well-being is usually expressed as heaven. (The Buddhist term is nirvana – which I translate to mean, “extinguishing self-clinging” that causes suffering.)   There is no need to posit some distant after-death realm of heaven.  We human beings have habitually disempowered ourselves, thinking that “godlike” or “Christlike” qualities are out of reach to all but the greatest “spiritual athletes” – so weíll have to wait until some dreamed-of heaven after death to experience them.  The spiritual giants and pioneers throughout history have never affirmed this.  Only timid followers have.  The spiritual masters themselves have consistently pointed out that the highest spiritual qualities are available right now to you and me.  Jesus said, “You will do even greater things,” and “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The mantra of the Buddha of compassion says, “The jewel is in the lotus” (Om Mani Padme Hum), which means that the jewel of full enlightenment is in every embodied being, and we have only to wake up to the truth now.  Amazing that this is not commonly understood.  We assume that enlightenment is far off.  One explanation for our misunderstanding is that we are frightened by our own potential for greatness..

Marianne Williamson, in her book “A Return to Love” writes (and this is often attributed to Nelson Mandela),

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world,
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others

We clearly have heavenly experiences in our everyday lives – as well as hellish experiences.  These actual “heavenly” experiences in our lived moments are the aims of all serious, pragmatic spirituality – discovering the free and open present moment as “heaven,” right here.  But because our fear and anger feel more reliable, we are drawn to them, rather than to the gentler, more powerful experiences of openness and compassion.  This brings us a hellish experience, which we repeat, because we think it is the intelligent thing to do.  The story of Hakuin below reveals what we need to learn.

Hakuin, the venerated Zen master, was sitting in deep meditation.
Suddenly he was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior, one of the most renowned of his generation.  The warrior had sought the famous Hakuin as one who was qualified to teach such a powerful man as he.
“Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”
At first, there was no perceptible response from the monk. After a while, he began to open his eyes. The faintest hint of a smile played around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood in front of him, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing moment.
“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt.”
The samurai uttered a vile curse.  Everyone knew that insulting a samurai meant instant death. His hand instinctively went to his sword.  His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief.
The monk was not phased.  ”You ask me to teach YOU?  You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”
The samurai, now enraged enough to not care that this monk was venerated throughout Japan, drew his sword and prepared to sever the monk’s head from its shoulders.
“THAT IS HELL,” said the old monk suddenly, just as the sword began its descent.
In that fraction of a second, the samurai stopped his sword in mid flight. He bowed.
“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”

[Adapted from "A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul"
Copyright 1996 by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen]

The pragmatic aspect of spirituality is expressed in Tibetan Buddhism through cultivating bodhicitta – the will to create the greatest amount of well-being for the largest number of people ñ everyone throughout all time.  This will to work for the heaven of love, compassion, joy, and peace for all beings is expressed in the clearly revolutionary and moving Bodhisattva Vow – the vow to continue to enter human life of difficulty and struggle until all beings are free from difficulty and suffering.  Others first, but all eventually.  I, with millions of others, have taken this vow.  No matter how little I embody it, it motivates my work.

Bodhicitta (the awakening heart-mind of compassion) is what we most deeply already are: loving, compassionate, joyful, and peaceful.  In other words, altruism (which is the Dalai Lamaís translation of bodhicitta) and generosity and happiness are our actual nature, not something we adopt or construct.  We usually think that we have to do something to be happy.  We usually think that in order to be truly altruistic, “selfless,” and caring, we have to try hard to create those qualities in our naturally perverse and self-centered being.  The wisdom of the sages denies this, instead finding that the qualities of love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are, in fact, who we are.  Right now.  It is just that we have been trying so hard to be good egotists, practicing self-centeredness so hard that we have successfully hidden our true nature.  Spiritual practice, it turns out, adds nothing to our lives.  It uncovers the truth, so we can enjoy it. Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic said, “God [our true nature] is found by subtraction, not by addition.” And the mystic/poet William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is, infinite.”

You may find, then, as I do, a fairly easy connection between my psychotherapy practice and pragmatic spirituality.  My work of psychotherapy and my spiritual practice both aim to help people find happiness and well-being. I work for the welfare and happiness of others.

There are different levels of happiness and well-being that we can work for, depending on our awareness and understanding.  Psychological happiness, as satisfaction of wants, is different from spiritual happiness, as the expression of simply who we are with no regard to satisfaction.  I suggest that, if there is a choice, go for the spiritual happiness!  Itís more reliable.

Pragmatic spirituality encompasses both psychotherapy and spiritual practice.  Both aim to help us access deeper, more mature, and truer understandings and skills – with the aim to increase happiness and well-being.  The human being develops psychologically and spiritually – and these two developments intertwine into one psycho-spiritual process.  So, psychotherapy can be understood as an essential spiritual practice ñ clearing the runway for take-off, so to speak.

But there are also differences between psychotherapy and intentional spiritual work.  Psychology is about personal and social experience, catching in its net the dualistic world of individual experience in a separate world.  This self-world split and struggle is the focus of psychotherapy, and the aim is not to transcend the struggle and separation, but to find constructive ways to live with them.  As Freud said, the aim of psychoanalysis is to transform neurotic suffering (thinking that YOUR suffering is special) into ordinary suffering – the suffering that all of us experience.  It may be surprising that Buddhist spirituality has as its goal the ending of suffering itself.

It may also be surprising that I make a point of noting that psychological work deals with duality – self and world – because we take that so for granted that we usually donít consider that there is an alternative.  There is an alternative, and to spiritual insight, it is the deeper truth.  The alternative is non-dual awareness – awareness that sees all things arising together, rather than individual interactions. (Cf. www.pagl.org – the work of Thomas Hora)

Spiritual practice has a deeper goal than personal satisfaction.  It isnít against personal satisfaction; it just sees something more important, and personal satisfaction is either delivered as part of the spiritual growth, or it is transcended and not experienced as important.  Spiritual practice works for the transformation or extinguishing of suffering itself and the arising of profound joy that our psychological being can hardly dream of. Spiritual practice begins with the intimation that there is something better than the rat race of self-seeking. This is sometimes experienced as “worldweariness” and as seeing through the pretense that competition and personal aggrandizement makes one feel good.  It actually feels bad.  Along with this comes a sense of belonging, not just to a group, but to everything.  And a sense of care beyond self-interest – altruism. Through meditation and prayer, a “practice self” develops, transcending the “personal self.”  Spirituality then flowers into the experience of non-dual experience – not a self in a separate world, but a spacious, selfless flow of experience in a field of openness. This spiritual awareness doesnít solve all of our bodily and psychological problems, but it places them in such a context that everything is workable – just as it is, without strain or stress.

So, the development looks something like this:

  1. Ordinary life, ordinary assumptions that self-interest is first, but we moderate it with being “nice.” Faking it the way everyone does.  Addiction to false, but universally followed, ways of being.  On this level we operate as images and functions, rather than as people and presences.
  2. Insight into the falseness and into the way it really is.   Seeing through the pretense that self-centeredness feels good.  Worldweariness, knowing that the way we live isnít really getting us what we deeply want. On this level we operate as persons and sense our inner identity as “presence.”
  3. Taking up spiritual practice – meditation, prayer, being part of a group that shares a transcendent outlook. Relating to teachers and traditions. In this process, we develop a deeper sense of presence. Our psychological self quiets.
  4. A “practice self” emerges that is the product not of old habits, but of the meditation and other practices that open up and bring out layers of truer humanity.  In this process we begin to actually live as “presences,” more than personally interested people.
  5. Direct experience of transcendence, beyond self/other, beyond God/world duality.  The result of this is not being “other worldly,” but being powerfully rooted in reality and being a blessing.  On this level we operate as “beneficial presences” (Thomas Hora).

These processes, these levels, are not strictly chronological.  One can begin in some ways at any stage, even the end – and “back fill.”

Comments on this entry are closed.