Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Spiritual Realism"

Over at one of my new favorite blogs, Katie wrote the following:

Having used the literary concept of “magical realism” on a few occasions to describe my experience at Goddard, I’ve lately begun exploring an idea of “spiritual realism.” It’s a phrase that speaks to many of my experiences in the last two years, and to my spiritual philosophy in general. I’m interested in the spirituality of everyday life, in the most mundane places — ugly, resplendent, boring, and everything in between. I’m especially drawn to spiritual practices that address the suffering inherent in social oppression. That’s why I practice Vipassana meditation at donation-based centers; that’s why I sit with a sangha led by and for people of color and queer folks (also on a donation basis); that’s why I live and work with the Faithful Fools, a street ministry in the Tenderloin of San Francisco.

I love her term "spiritual realism." Buddhism has a lot to say about those ugly, boring, or difficult internal places, and a lot of us were drawn to the practice precisely because of that. Learning how to work with, be aware of, and simply accept the muck within one's self is a core part of any spiritual path, but I think it's especially emphasized in Buddhism. However, what's so refreshing to me about Katie's view is that both the "internal" places, as well as the "external" causes and conditions that impact us are considered important.

In my yoga class this evening, we did some breath work that cued me in on this point. Doing a set of balanced breaths, where you gently make the inhalation and exhalation the same length reminds me now of how important it is to balance inner work with outer action. This is true not only for social justice work, but really anything one does in life. Unless you are a monastic with few responsibilities (how many of those are there really?), or are ill or otherwise not needing to do a lot, too much inward focus isn't such a great idea. The same is true the opposite way.

Doing a breath that focused on the exhalation reminded me of how it's important to act in the world with quality, not quantity, with confidence, but not aggression.

And while in corpse pose, where it's easy to fully feel one's inhalation, (and exhalation for that matter), reminded me of how refreshing and healing giving yourself time for contemplation and inner work is. I sometimes push too much, do too much, and find it hard to settle down. Even with all these years of yoga and meditation, I still can fall into shallow breathing patterns that reflect my external scatteredness and rushing.

Going back to the breath and the body is an easy, and always available way, to return to deeper awareness. It may seem obvious, but most of us forget our bodies and our breath more often than we care to admit. Part of "spiritual realism" is being deeply honest about everything in life, be it the impact of racism on a nation or the four hours that you rushed around overworking and forgetting your bodily home in the process.


Anonymous said...

"Part of "spiritual realism" is being deeply honest about everything in life, be it the impact of racism on a nation or the four hours that you rushed around overworking and forgetting your bodily home in the process."

Exactly. Beautifully put. Thank you for your honesty, insight, and link love!

Barry said...

I'd say that if our practice doesn't plunge us into reality, then it's not spiritual.

steve said...

Don't get the notion "inner work". It is a dark neighborhood between my ears & I suspect yours. I say there is no Cartesian there there. I inner work therefore I am is a kind of 60s hippie-talk update on I think therefore I am myth that helps people become cynics & spectators in their own life.

What there is is being in the world; just sitting in the world, just practicing yoga, or being a carpenter and ham
ering with Heidegger's hammer...or following Dogen's Instructions to the cook. Telling stories about inner work is amusing of course, but where I live it is more like the magical stories in Lake WoeBeGone. If you want to sit,sit; if you want tell stories tell real ones - but don't wobble in obsolete myths I think.
Steve Harrington, Rohrmoser

Nathan said...


That's fine if you want to lump my comments in with 60's hippies and new age types. I don't care. But maybe read more of my blog posts before assuming you know where my language is coming from.


steve said...

Well I don't believe, for my self, that it is OK to leave messages broken and incomplete.

My comment to your post seems to have provoked anger not dialog; It was not my intention to push words up your nose. Sorry for the upset I caused. Please accept my apology

Still I think there might be a possibility of dialog here.

I don't know the world of your presuppositions which generate "internal work" of course.

I asked a psychologist friend from Minneapolis who is visiting me what those words meant to her she said: it is having private reflections, private considerations, is the private thinking that goes on before you do something in public; it has to do with the shadow side of a persons thoughts, dreams, unconscious. She made reference to theory from Freud & Jung.

Her words sounded to me something like an intention to rehearse, an intention to replay, something that an actor would do privately to take on his lines before the live-time play. Maybe this rehearsal is like my memorizing new spanish words before I put them to work in a real conversation with real Costa Ricans.

I invite you to consider a different view point something like Mark Okrent's comments on intentionality: " As soon as one realizes that, for Heidegger, intentionality is always practical rather than cognitive and that the primary form of intending is doing something for a purpose rather than being conscious of something. His discussion talks about engaging in the world, practicing in the world in a certain way like:
-a yoga teacher invites you to take-up a pose
-Katagiri Roshi invites you to just return to silence and sit wholeheartedly
-Dogen says something like enter the kitchen and cook your life
-a pilot invents something that has never been done before, like land an Airbus in the Hudson river.

Disengaging from the world, leaving a community of practice and conversation, standing back and entering into a private world of thought and reflection may actually be counterproductive to the world as Heidegger would say that is "ready-to-hand" at every moment. According the Herbert Dreyfus at UC Berkley, the stand-back position is the beginner's mind position and it is good and valuable and necessary. And also, at some point the practitioner - maybe a zen student or a yoga student or a baseball player gets to be in the moment gets to be "all-in" with nothing held back. Gets to "play" full-out. For example a skillful surgeon has to put the blade to the correct fold of the skin or not, has to be able to distinguish in the particular detail of individual anatomy for her self and for her students, where the cut line is or not.

I remember my two daughters learning to ride their bikes at the Mn State Fair Grounds at the age of 6 or 7 : no amount of pictures, theory of gravity, knee pads, helmets or training wheel rehearsals helped them much in the launch moment when they decided to guide the bike around the parking and said: "I've got it!". It was the moment they became bicycle riders and they still are riding and they are still learning as far as I can tell. It remains very difficult to ride a bike and ruminate about how you are riding a at the same time. You can practice ruminating or you can practice bike riding each at their own time not together. Probably the rehearsal without performance becomes self-defeating and boring at some point and theater without preparation is also silly.

Quoting Dreyfus again referencing a movie: "
Farther to Son: why don't you do something you are what you do;
Son: No, what you do depends on who you are;
Jude [listening in - says in a very Heiddegerian way] you are how you do it; it is not just a role, not just the totality of action but how you are- the special way you take over to give inteligibility how you perform a publically inteligible role.

You are how you do it. You are how you think it. Both skillful means: one helps practitioners practice, one helps beginners begin practicing.

Nathan said...

Hi Steve,

I appreciate your reply. I wasn't angry, but probably irritated would be accurate. However, what you have said in your current response resonates very much with me. The trouble with language is that it doesn't always do the job, and even at it's best, is just a pointer.

The "inner work" phrase is clearly one that has been sucked up by soft pedal New Age approaches, so I know that it's a phrase that can easily be misinterpreted.

The thing with yoga or meditation is that it often is just what you said - a practicing handling what comes up, which may or may not appear in one's regular life at some point. My yoga teacher, who also has been a meditation student for two decades, frequently speaks of certain challenging poses as being "opportunities" to work with challenges that will appear in your everyday life.

But in the end, it's totally true that "you are how you do it" whether it's a pose in a yoga class, zazen in a retreat, or words and behavior during a workplace conflict.

When I spoke of "inner work," it was coming from a place paying attention to the "self" as it's supposedly manifesting, but also paying attention to what is present with that self - including "mundane" things like air temperature, the people breathing around you, etc. "Inner" leads to an assumption of an "outer," but Zen tries to break that belief in separation down.

I tell people that this blog is part of my Zen practice and, as a writer and Zen student, it's my job to be diligent and attentive to language. So, even though I did my best with using the phrase "inner work," it could, I suppose, use some work.