Life as Practice #7: Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Determination

In 2005 (or 2006 – I don’t quite remember) I went to a retreat/conference for UU Buddhists. It was a wonderful gathering. John Daido Loori, who was the Abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, gave a talk in which he described this triad, or three legs to the stool of practice: great faith, great doubt, and great determination.

Being the Buddhist/Christian hybrid that I am, I think of these three a little differently than he did. And I would argue that these three are critical to a truly spiritual life, whatever one’s particular tradition.

For faith, I’ll just let Abraham Joshua Heschel speak for me:

Faith is sensitiveness to what transcends nature, knowledge, and will, awareness of the ultimate, alertness to the holy dimension of all reality… To have faith is not to infer the beyond from the wretched here, but to perceive the wonder that is here and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of living. It is not a deduction but an intuition, not a form of knowledge, of being convinced without proof, but the attitude of mind toward ideas whose scope is wider than its own capacity to grasp.

Faith is not some one-dimensional wholesale adoption of someone else’s truth. That isn’t really faith, that’s delusion. Faith is also a practice and a process. It changes over time, and over a lifetime.

So why is doubt important? Doubt is something to notice, to pay attention to, and sometimes to wrestle with. We doubt our practice will lead to joy. We doubt God is listening. We doubt things will change. We doubt our own abilities. Doubt is not only OK, but necessary, because without doubt, we’d not progress, we’d not find the holes to fall into, then crawl out of. We wouldn’t deepen our practice or grow.

Then, there is determination, because sometimes there is only doubt, and no faith. This life as practice path isn’t always easy. Sometimes we’d rather sit and eat bon-bons, or watch television, or get lost in a good movie than practice. It’s not that any of those things in themselves are problematic, of course. We need rest and enjoyment. But it’s too easy in this society to completely lose the track, completely stray from the path. There are too many reasons in this world to not want to be present and aware to what is going on.

With great determination we learn new kinds of ways to be in the world with awareness, love and compassion.


Life as Practice #6: The Power of the Word/s – Lectio Divina

Language is one of the things that makes human beings human. Science has shown that the acquisition of language shapes the development of the early brain. Basically, our thoughts are shaped by language – the way we think is shaped by the words we learn and use.

For most spiritual traditions, there are sacred texts – texts which tell stories, proscribe behavior, and explain philosophy and theology. For some traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these texts are central to belief and practice. On the other hand, many Buddhists have a devoted practice without ever having read the Dhammapada (I didn’t read it until more than 15 years into my own practice.)

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the theology of the Bal Shem Tov which describes one thread of Jewish philosophy of sacred text:

When God created heaven and earth He created also a light, the infinite light, the marvelous light that is absolute, ever warming, penetrating, eternal. But because of the failure of creation and the decline of goodness in the world, God hid that eternal light. Where did He hide it? He hid it in the words of the Torah.

But then there are the modern complexities around sacred text in a Christian context. Peter Gomes says in his wonderful book “The Good Book”:

What can be believed about the Bible? What do we need to know about the Bible? Can the Bible survive the efforts to interpret and understand it? Can we? Is it wrong to ask critical questions of the Bible? How do we reconcile the parts we understand and perhaps dislike, with the parts we do not understand but which may be salutary? When we speak of the authority of scripture, as certain Protestant traditions delight in doing, does that mean that we suspend all of those faculties of mind and intelligence which we apply to all other books and all other instances of our life?

For many, including me, sacred texts contain important wisdom. But there are also pitfalls. This post is not about the problems of literal interpretations of scripture – its about how to use sacred text in a life of contemplative practice. Sacred text, in fact, words of all sorts, are great fodder for contemplative practice. One of my favorite practices is called “Lectio Divina”, which translates as “Divine Reading.” It is a practice that allows you to get into the words in a much more personal way – to visit and embrace your feelings and thoughts about a particular text. This practice lets the text sink in in a very different way, and gives rise to very interesting and unexpected ways of interpreting a text.

I love teaching this practice, and using different kinds of text. For instance, I taught this once to a group of Buddhists, using the Dhammapada. I’ve taught this practice using Rumi and Hafiz (Sufi poets,) as well as more modern poets. A friend of mine and I even used prose by James Baldwin once. It’s all good, as they say.

What’s important about this practice is to reserve judgement about the feelings and thoughts that come up when you do it. Sometimes, I have used passages I really don’t like – and it has felt hard to reserve judgement about the fact I don’t like those passages. But looking at the feelings that come up, examining them is really powerful, and in my experience, helps me understand any text a lot better.

This can be done alone, or in a group. Start with a passage that is relatively short. A paragraph or about 5 verses of the Bible or other sacred text that is verse based.

Lectio: Read the text, slowly and with deliberation. When you are done. Say aloud one word that jumped out at you while you were reading.

(If you are in a group, leave room for everyone to say their word, and then pass the book to the next person to read.)

Meditatio: Read the text again, and say aloud a thought (one or two sentences) that come to mind as you reflect on that word you said first.

Oratio: Read the text again, and say aloud a prayer (a few sentences) that come to you.

Contemplatio: Read again, and sit in silence letting the text sink in for about 2 minutes.



Life as Practice #5: Flirting With Despair

Despair is a common emotion, and a very familiar one to me. It’s one of those strong ones – the ones that carry you away, in this case, downward into a place that feels impossible to get out of. Despair is an emotion that saps your energy and strength, and makes everything seem completely impossible.

Despair sometimes comes because of grief and loss. Sometimes it comes because we really are in a place of desperation – our life feels somehow unlivable. And sometimes, it just comes, for no good reason at all it seems, to visit with us.

The good news is that suffering because of despair is unnecessary. Yeah, I know – especially if you feel despair, that sentence seems completely… well, completely unbelievable. And there are many times when I would agree. But I do know differently.

Despair comes from the belief that nothing we can do will change how we feel, or the situation we’re in.

First, we can’t just change how we feel by force of will. That’s not how it works. How it works is that instead of plunging in, and being despair, we need to know the despair, and accept it for what it is. Don’t try to change it, or put it away, or fight it. Let it be what it is. Oddly, that is when the despair can shift.

There is always something we can do to change our situation, even though it might seem impossible. Sometimes, that thing is just to learn to be with the situation. Learn to not be averse to it, to not want it to change, also accept it for what it is. And sometimes, we need to change the situation – but getting distance from our despair is a necessary step.

And getting distance from despair requires practice – the practice of awareness, of noticing, and accepting what is.

So what about prayer? I happen not to believe in a micro-managing God. I don’t actually think that God is “looking down” at me, and is going to magically make things better (for me or for anyone else) if I pray about it. But that doesn’t take away from the power of prayer. The amazing, creative, compassionate, loving force called God moves us in the direction of our best, highest selves, and prayer is like oars or paddles for that stream. And like oars take you further down the stream in a real river, prayer transforms us, and takes us, and the people we love, further down the divine stream.