In my recent Pantheacon sessions I brought up a couple closely related points. First, that there is no other vehicle or container for sacred sentiment than the self; we are our only site of practice and the human element is ever-present in one’s movement through the experiences, thoughts, sensations, and realizations that distinguish this path. The second is that there is no such thing as “advanced” devotional practice. If sacred sentiment is the core ingredient of devotion, then there is no meaningful way in which one dimension of sentiment can be measured as more advanced than another. It is, however, possible to refine our capacity for sentiment, to expand our spectrum of emotional experience, to increase our vocabulary with which we talk about sacred emotions, and to improve ourselves as a site in which and through which devotion occurs. Even so, we will constantly find ourselves at the beginning of a new aspect of our devotional life; as we advance our skills in one respect we discover before long what needs addressed next. If I might be so bold, perhaps this ever-present newness and the on-going need to return to the mind and stance of a beginner is something characteristic of emerging polytheist devotional traditions.
I picked up a book recently called The Three Principle Aspects of the Path, a book containing the oral teaching of Geshe Sonam Rinchen (tran. Ruth Sonam). Though based in a Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the book struck me as enormously helpful so I bought it. (While Buddhism’s many threads aren’t really my jam, I have found many of its teachings to be enormously beneficial so I tend to pick at philosophy and thought from the Tibetan sects from time to time to give me a refreshed perspective.) The book so far has some very good points in it, its main one being that if one doesn’t attend to the necessary mental and emotional refinements then any amount of formal or organized practice is going to be more or less useless.
As far as devotional practice is concerned, I don’t think that one’s formal practice – being in front of the altar, praying, studying, etc. – is useless in the same absolute sense that the text describes regarding its own body of practices, I do think that the fullness of these basic devotional practices will be lost unless effort is made to improve the self, and especially the pieces of the self that come into most obvious contact with our expression and experience of sacred relationship(s). For instance, if I have difficulty trusting in general, I will have difficulty trusting the Holy Powers I’ve chosen to share my life with. This lack of trust or difficult achieving a solid basis of trust will prevent me from experiencing the full unfolding of the relationship(s) I find myself in. I will also have trouble experiencing any more nuanced forms of interaction, new experiences, and other riches that might be available.
To clarify – if I (in this hypothetical) struggled with extending trust to the Powers with whom I shared relationships I have absolutely not failed at devotion. My practice isn’t broken and I am not broken. I simply have a problem with trust. Effort is required to see how that problem manifests in my practice and in my interaction with the Powers. I must also strive to see how the problem prevents me from approaching Them with honesty, clarity, and openness. Taking steps to resolve this trust problem will help me better understand my emotional nature and see how distrust interferes with having the kind of life experiences and spiritual experiences I want to have. Improving myself is therefore not separate from improving my practice.
This little book has had many valuable passages and phrases that have struck me deeply. Perhaps most significantly I have so far taken away the message to develop contentment. This is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time and only fairly recently have I been able to put a name to it. Gradually I discovered that despite having achieved most of the Big Picture goals I have in life, I am not actually very happy. I experience constant worry and anxiety even though there seems to be nothing particular causing it. I must conclude that either I actually want very different things than what I have achieved so far OR that my happiness is not caused directly by having these things. In my case, I believe the second interpretation is the most correct. I will not find contentment, happiness, peace, or satisfaction from sources that ultimately can never provide these things. For instance, the apartment I have always dreamed of having is more or less exactly the one I have now – but there is nothing intrinsic to this apartment that causes contentment. Where would this substance of contentment be? Is it in the floorboards, the glass windows, the tall ceilings, the stairs leading up to my door? Is it in the kitchen or the bedroom or the bathroom or the tiny hall? I must bring my own contentment to this space in order to experience it at all.
I have chosen to seek a leave of absence from one of my jobs in order to give myself some essential time for healing. I’ve made myself physically and mentally ill by working as hard as I have. I’ve told myself it’s necessary, that every dollar is required to attend to my needs, responsibilities, and obligations, that every dollar left over is helpful for my dreams and desires. And this is true as far as it goes. It is also true that I’m now seriously sick. I can pare down enough to live very simply for a few weeks and do some tough thinking about myself and where I’m at. Time seeking a little inner contentment will not be wasted. I know I won’t achieve much of it but experiencing even a little bit will be good. It’s necessary.
Once again, begin at the beginning; return to the student’s stance and let the unknowing state wash over me. This is my constant truth and it will always be fresh and unfamiliar.