The Illusion of Spiritual Practice

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By now you know I’m a deconstructionist. I didn’t start out that way, but I’ve learned over thirty years of ministry that we can’t just add something good to our life and hope that it sticks. Lasting change is like a kitchen remodel. The old cabinets and counters must come out if we are to enjoy the kitchen of our dreams.

When it comes to the substructures that uphold our identity, faith, and understanding of the Truth, then deconstruction is often horrifying, threatening, and quite painful. Of course that which replaces the old wineskin is so much superior that it makes the discomfort worth it. Nonetheless, we must all enter the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23).

For decades I’ve been deconstructing spiritual practices with the sole purpose of getting beyond them. Like peeling an onion, one layer gives way to the next. In the arena of spirituality, I’ve wondered: Why do people go to such lengths in spiritual practices? Not only have I interviewed hundreds of people from nearly every religion and perspective, but I have tried nearly every practice that I have been exposed to. You might be interested in what I found, but spoiler alert, if you like your rituals, then don’t deconstruct them or anyone elses.

Atheists believe that there is nothing behind spiritual practice. With no God behind it all, spiritual practice is viewed as an ancestral or genetic bend that makes us want to appease powers greater than us. This is how science describes tribal level consciousness. Ironically, those who tenaciously hold to this view are often appeasing to powers greater than themselves: we wouldn’t want to disappoint Dawkins. My point is that everyone gets pulled into the tractor beam on some level.

I’ve discovered that everybody without exception engages in spiritual practice. Some practice a strict religion to appease a specific god. Others practice mindfulness to appease a nameless energy or the universe. Still other practice to appease themselves. Every tribe has a secret sauce. We all have some experience of proximity to deeper reality which touches our existential questions of being. Some engage this proximity rarely and live mostly unconscious to greater realities. Others rarely leave this proximity, while most bounce back and fourth between.

This reality led me to conclude that spirituality is ontological not orthopraxy. Once these questions emerged in me years ago, I wondered why I needed to go to church anymore. Once the Sunday big show with all it’s songs, prayers, sermons, and superficial greetings were seen as  scaffolding to prop up existential proximity to my Maker, I no longer found anything there that wasn’t accessible anywhere else at anytime.

Sermons are 24/7 on the radio. Prayer is any moment we are conscious. Giving opportunities abound in life and community is the byproduct of living. For those churches that go beyond perfunctory performance, I’m still interested in visiting, but not weekly.

Deconstruction opened me to other practices. I began asking; “What are you experiencing in that practice?” So I began exploring. I’ve tried chanting, meditating, yoga, Tai Chi Cha, walking, countless types of prayer, numerous kinds of worship experiences, speaking in tongues, healing services, guided meditations, TM, acts of service, praying wrote prayers, poetry, symbolism, liturgies, journaling, obedience, fasting, immersion, endless amounts of study of numerous sacred texts, and countless strict obedience to laws, creeds, paths, pillars and techniques. All of these, we are told are the path to God and self awareness.

Here is the big question: Did they all work? The answer is no and yes. Each practice is a mere container and as such it may or may not have any Contents in it at any given time. I certainly have preferences. I can read the bible all day, but if you ask me to chant I can’t do it without laughing at the chanter. I love being in my body, but Tai Chi, Yoga, and walking are too slow and boring. Of course I was told that I wasn’t there yet. That I hadn’t gone through the hard work of learning how to be still or quite, or get out of my head.  I found each tradition has a guru that made me feel like a flunky and their only message is to say; “Wind it tighter, work harder, keep doing it.” 

I’m a man who is biased toward the head, but my gut and heart are not undeveloped. I discovered that there is a spirituality to speed, production, and noise that is completely lost on the slow, still and quiet. Turning me into an introverted, unattached, meditator is not spiritual progress, its the loss of self. It’s the same flaw as trying to turn my previous congregation into extraverted, missional, theologians who debate the bible, it’s ultimately tupperware sales (containers).

My suggestion is this: practice YOUR practice.  Whatever truly feeds your soul, do it. Whatever gives you a profound sense of the transcendent, practice that. I’m convinced that spiritual practice has never brought anyone to God or self awareness. Ironically, that’s always it’s goal. Instead, I believe God graciously shows up within a practice and makes us self aware. God shows up in other experiences too. Omnipresence means there is no “off” switch. Separation from God is the ultimate illusion. Spiritual practices can seriously distort reality by convincing us that we are engaging our Maker on our terms, when in reality, proximity is never on our terms, but Gods. They give us an illusion (bad theology) that we go in and out, close or far from God.

James Finely says the goal of spiritual practice is to assume an inner posture that allows the greatest opportunity to be taken over by that which we cannot control. I know that if the inner posture is receptive and desiring, then any practice will do.  And this just begs the question:

“Why not just live your life with a posture of receptivity to God? By picking and choosing our practices, we show ourselves as atheistic toward some practices, with atheists going one further than you. What if anything and everything is a conduit of divine proximity? Then each and every moment the Creator is coming to us in and as our very life, incarnated as our life. We all stand on holy ground. Whether we eat or drink, we do all things to the Glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). This is not pantheism, but the cosmic Christ being named above, beyond and in all things.

What if spirituality is just this pure? What if the universal and the particular join everywhere? Then what is your Maker saying through your life? Have you overdone it on the pomp? Have you sacralized only some things or nothing at all?

Will your life become your practice?