You Are a Part. Not Apart.
The ideal spiritual practice fosters compassion, justice, love, and a sense of unity.
I’m a panentheist. I believe that God (however named) is the source and substance of all reality. For me, spiritual practice is about realizing that we are a part of, rather than apart from, God and then living from that realization. Knowing this frees us from alienation, fear, and a zero-sum worldview rooted in winners and losers (saved and damned, chosen and not chosen, believer and heretic, etc.). It opens us up to compassion, justice, love, and a non-zero-sum worldview of mutual caring and collaboration. My answers to questions regarding spiritual practice, the focus of this special issue of Spirituality & Health, reflect this view and do not speak for or to any specific religion.
I know that meditation is good for me, but I can’t sit still for five minutes, let alone 20. Is there an alternative to meditation?
Meditation is waking to God in, with, and as all reality. If sitting still aids in this awakening, sit; if not, don’t sit. Try hatha toga, tai chi, qigong, dancing, swimming, walking, aikido, knitting, gardening. Meditation isn’t about movement or stillness but about knowing God manifesting as Self and other.
Sometimes during meditation I feel my body is the entire universe. Am I delusional?
Think of it this way: Your lungs are part of your body, and without them you would die, but lungs alone are useless. Among other things, your lungs need oxygen, something your body doesn’t produce. Trees and plants produce oxygen, so it’s only logical to recognize trees and plants as part of your body as well. Trees and plants depend upon earth, sea, sky, and sun, so these too are part of your body. Since earth, sea, sky, and sun need the rest of the solar system to function, the solar system, too, is your body; and since the solar system needs the galaxy, and the galaxy needs. . . . You see where this is going. The entire universe is your body. Nothing delusional about this at all.
What’s the value of belonging to a spiritual community?
A spiritual community can anchor your practice: if people are expecting you to join them to sit, walk, chant, or study, you are more apt to sit, walk, chant, or study. Spiritual communities are places to share your journey and learn from people more experienced than you.
How can I tell a healthy spiritual community from an unhealthy one?
A healthy spiritual community is devoted to your spiritual maturation: teaching you how to engage the world with compassion and how to welcome those different from you with respect and curiosity. An unhealthy spiritual community is all about power and control and isolating you from people outside the community. But don’t imagine that a healthy community is a wise community: a lot of silliness passes for spirituality.
My best friend follows a guru who I think spouts nonsense. My friend says I’m closed-minded. Suggestions?
Don’t mistake an open mind for an empty head. If what you are taught is irrational, try another teacher.
Can you get enlightened from reading a book?
Enlightenment has two parts: (1) seeing all beings as expressions of the singular source and substance of all reality, and (2) engaging each being with love and respect. Books that bring you a sense of unity with, and compassion for, all beings can be enlightening. Books that breed division and contempt cannot. Be careful to plant seeds of love through your reading and not weeds of ignorance, arrogance, and fear.
I go to church to pray, but all we do is recite. Is this really prayer?
Let’s make a distinction between liturgy and prayer. Liturgy is a script; praying is a conversation. Prayer happens when liturgy is put aside and you address reality without the intermediary of scripted text. Prayer happens in situations so harrowing or so hallowing that scripts fall flat. I don’t want to dismiss the power of sharing liturgy; I just don’t want to mistake it for prayer.
I’d like to pray, but I don’t believe anyone is listening. Is this my only option?
Prayer is a conversation between my smaller self and my larger Self, the self that feels apart from the Whole and the Self that knows we are all a part of the Whole. When I pray, my smaller self verbalizes its deepest thanks, hopes, fears, and concerns, and it listens for my larger Self to open these to the truth of my oneness with all life.
I grew up in an abusive home, stripped of self and self-respect. Spiritual practice seems to diminish my self when what I need is to nurture my self. Am I wrong about this?
Spiritual talk often makes the self, or ego, an enemy of the Self, or God, and I would avoid any spiritual practice that does the same. I see the self as a wave of an infinite ocean (God). Each wave is unique and precious and should be treated with the utmost respect. But no wave is anything other than the ocean. Authentic spiritual practice honors both wave and ocean, both self and Self, thus freeing us from both selflessness and selfishness. If your practice does this, great. If not, change practices.
How do I know if my meditation is working?
Your meditation is “working” if it broadens your sense of connection and enhances your capacity for compassion. The deeper your meditation becomes, the broader your sense of connection; the broader your sense of connection, the greater your capacity for compassion; the greater your capacity for compassion, the deeper your meditation practice becomes. It is a virtuous circle.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is a regular S&H columnist, a poet and essayist, and the author of a dozen books, including The Sacred Art of Loving Kindness. Have a question for Rabbi Rami? Email [email protected]