One thing that puts a lot of secular and rationalistic thinking people off of spiritual disciplines is the requirement to follow certain religious traditions or revere certain historical figures that any rational person cannot in good faith do. Even the word spirituality can be problematic as it implies belief in non-corporeal substances that cannot be observed by today’s scientific methodologies. It is interesting to note that the word spirit actually comes from the Latin, spiritus, which means breath. The word spirit has over time been adopted by religions and faith schools to be used as this catch-all term to describe anything wispy and undefined. Anything that is separate from the material body that we cannot observe. It is a shame that terminologies and exclusive methodologies that religions adopt puts off so many people from exploring the state of reality and the truths about themselves.
We all know that religions and faiths often make some very ludicrous claims that anyone with a rationalistic approach to reality cannot accept. We also see on a daily basis that religious approaches to human rights and tolerance are often stuck in the time of their conception. This doesn’t mean that we should throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. A lot of religions, when the politics, cultural and racial contexts of the time of their conception is removed are in the end an attempt to make the human being look beyond it self and aim for something greater.
As I discussed in a previous blog post, Christianity teaches at its core the sacrifice of self through the lessons of the cross. But to get there we need to look past the intolerances towards certain groups and unscientific claims that it makes. Islam teaches complete submission to the will of Allah. This again teaches the disregarding of self and of personal desires and submitting to a divine being. It is a shame that the submission is made to a creator that promotes violence against non-believers and promises paradise to believers who kill themselves in his name.
Spiritually should have nothing to do with god, the afterlife or questions to do with moral and ethical ways of living. Spiritual disciplines should be concerned with one thing only and that is for the person to understand the truth about themselves and the reality that they occupy. The best way for anyone to truly begin to understand anything is to observe it. By this logic the best way for anyone to begin to understand the nature of their own minds is to observe their own minds. We as humans spend all of our lives looking outwards and reacting to the events and stimuli that our world and our fellow humans throw at us. What we need to do is spend time looking inwards, because when we do that and we see the processes that are at work in our own minds, we can begin to see outwards with a greater clarity, unhindered by false mental patterns and beliefs that we have accumulated over our life.
One good method of doing this is something called mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation does not require you to believe in any god or gods. It doesn’t require you to go to any special services or wear any specific clothes. All you need to do is find some time to look inwards.
1. Sit down in a comfortable position, posture upright and body relaxed.
2. Take a few deep breaths to settle into yourself.
3. Close your eyes and start to observe your breath going in and out. (Make sure you don’t get caught up in trying to control the breath or directing it in any way or form. Just observe it, like you would observe a candle flame swaying in the wind.)
4. You will inevitably be drawn away from your breath by noises or other sensations in your body. When this happens, don’t allow this to annoy you or cause frustration just take your concentration to this new stimuli and observe it until it passes and then come back to the breath.
5. When you notice that you are caught in thought and no longer on the breath, without frustration on annoyance bring yourself back to the breath.
6. Do this for as long as you like, it can be 5 minutes or 1 hour. It’s up to you.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the easiest methods one can begin to use and at the same time one of the most difficult methods to do correctly and sustain it over a period of time. When doing this method of awareness practice you will very quickly begin to see the reactive nature of your mind and how quickly it attaches to every stimulus that it is given.
This exercise is just a tool and like all tools it has strengths and weaknesses. Just like push-ups or sit-ups are done to help strengthen certain muscle groups, this exercise is done to help strengthen your non-attaching awareness and concentration. Don’t attach to this exercise or any exercise.
I have recently heard critics of meditation criticising this method as they claim internal contemplation of this sort removes the will to better the world and attempt to remove the world’s problems. I think this criticism highlights the lack of understanding most people have with how problems and suffering arises in the world and how best to deal with them. I will leave you with this quote from the Burmese – Indian meditation teacher, Satya Narayan Goenka,
“If there is no peace in the minds of individuals, how can there be peace in the world? Make peace in your mind first.”
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!