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Introduction, Workshop 5: Mind Practices

In "Spirit in Practice," a Tapestry of Faith program

I call that mind free, which escapes the bondage of matter, which, instead of stopping at the material universe and making it a prison wall, passes beyond it to its Author, and finds in the radiant signatures which everywhere bears of the Infinite Spirit, helps to its own spiritual enlightenment....

I call that mind free, which is not passively framed by outward circumstance, which is not swept away by the torrent of events, which is not the creature of accidental impulse, but which bends events to its own improvement, and acts from an inward spring, from immutable principles which it has deliberately espoused.

—William Ellery Channing, "Spiritual Freedom" (1830)

We can sometimes get the impression that "spiritual" and "intellectual" are mutually exclusive characteristics, or that we need to "get out of our heads" to experience spiritual growth. This perception may come, in part, because the modern emphasis on spirituality often calls for types of experience other than the purely intellectual. It may stem, also, from expressions like this one, from Taoism's Tao Te Ching (chapter 48)"In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped"—or Zen patriarch Bodhidharma's famous dictum, "no reliance on words or letters." Christian monks such as St. Francis of Assisi again and again emphasized their own simple nature as opposed to the learned people with whom they were often in conflict. And so, in the popular imagination, people often equate "spirituality" with contemplative practices such as silent meditation rather than, say, reading a good book on astrophysics or engaging in a lively debate on the psychology of politics.

Yet throughout time and across cultures, it has long been recognized that reason and rationality are among many paths to the discovery of deep truth. In Hinduism there are said to be five primary paths, or margas, leading to the same goal: realization. These are Hatha Yoga (body), Karma Yoga (willing), Bhakti Yoga (feeling), Raja Yoga (mind), and J n ana Yoga (knowing). According to Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Judaism embraces six different spiritual paths: transcendence, study, prayer, meditation, ritual, and good deeds. The Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York has a schema with eight "gates," among which is the discipline of academic study of scripture. (These eight gates provide the framework for the Eight Spheres of Spiritual Growth that undergird this program.) Evelyn Underhill , a well-known British expert in mysticism, said in her book The Essentials of Mysticism that "reason has a well-marked and necessary place in the soul's approach to God."

While it may indeed be true that many people can get "stuck in their heads" and miss out on what Margot Adler calls "the juice and the mystery," it is by no means a direct correlation that the use of the intellect requires one to be blinded to the miraculous. Consider Albert Einstein, who said that he knew his special theory of relativity was correct not because all of the equations added up but because it was so "beautiful," and who opined that "the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious." Many of the world's most rational thinkers find that the more they learn, the more their appreciation for the majesty and magnificent mystery of life grows as well. And isn't this at least a workable definition of "spirituality"—that which deepens your appreciation of the magnitude of life?

So along with personal spiritual practices, communal worship, spiritual partnerships, body practices, soul practices, life practices, and justice practices, the schema that informs these workshops—the Eight Spheres of Spiritual Growth—includes also the importance of actively involving our minds. This, too, is essential if we are to have a whole and well-rounded spiritual life.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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