2013-05-27

But Do You Have a Spiritual Practice?


The Temperament and Character Inventory developed by Robert Cloninger assesses self-transcendence as the sum of three sub-scores:
  • Self-Forgetfulness
  • Transpersonal Identification
  • Acceptance
There’s a fly though, I think, in Cloninger’s ointment for measuring spirituality. My complaint is not so much with the particular reliability and/or validity of his measure. My complaint is with the idea of measurement itself when it comes to spirituality.

The implicit message of any measurement is: "measure up!" With measurement comes judgment – as most of us know from the last time we measured – and judged – ourselves on the bathroom scale. When it comes to physical fitness, or cognitive fitness, or emotional-social fitness, judgmentalism about ourselves or other people might sometimes provide short-term motivation. It can also often be counter-productive. When it comes to spiritual fitness, judgmentalism is flatly contrary to the very spiritual fitness we are judging inadequate.

There is an appropriate, limited role for judgment. With spiritual development we learn how to also at the same time hold in our awareness the wider context within which judgment has its little corner. That wider context transcends our petty assessments of better and worse.

Your spirit is the part of you that understands that you are good enough – that you are, in fact, (as mentioned in the "Blessed Affliction" series), perfect, exactly the way you are.

Moreover, you can’t make yourself spiritually mature. Yes, there are practices that will tend, over time, to strengthen the spiritual virtues: equanimity, peace, compassion, wisdom, presence. Spiritual practices do tend to do that, though not with the kind of predictable timeline that benchpresses strengthen the upper body. Rather spiritual practice cultivates spiritual virtues on the spirit’s own schedule, in its own way, on a path with irregular ups and downs.

"So, Meredith," you may ask me, "why would I undertake a practice of such uncertain payoff?”

And why would I want spiritual development if I'm already perfect?"

Those are logical questions. I can only say I began a spiritual practice because I didn’t feel perfect. In fact, I started my primary spiritual practice for the worst reason: because an authority told me to.

Twelve years ago I was in Chicago trying to pass muster to become a minister, trying to prove I was good enough. I had just finished my first year of divinity school, and I was meeting with the Midwest regional subcommittee on candidacy (which is a subcommittee of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The path to professional ministry is gaily festooned with committees.)

"Do you have a spiritual practice?" asked a member of that subcommittee.

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church.

But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a university professor of philosophy for four years. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was there.

But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't. Nothing I regularly did was centering or cleansing, or put me much in touch with myself, or interconnected me with all beings, or produced a luminous sense of joy and peace flowing throughout the world, or made me feel lighter as I went about subsequent tasks -- or even inclined me to smile more. “Get a spiritual practice,” the committee told me.

It is contradictory to take up a path of self-acceptance and trusting in my own inner wisdom because an outside authority told me to. Yet that’s what I did.

It is contradictory to judge myself for judging myself too much. Yet that’s what I did, and still do, albeit somewhat more gently, usually.

* * *
This is part 5 of 6 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: "This Is It: Atheist Spirituality"
Part 2: "Spirituality and Types"
Part 3: "The Class Atheist"
Part 4: "Self-Transcendence, Huh? What Is It Good For?"
Part 6: "Woooo-Hoooo"

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