Why a spiritual recession is good for you

Updated On — 12th Jun, 2020

The other day I was re-reading parts of Karen Armstrong’s illuminating autobiography The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Her experiences as a young nun in England struck a chord, particularly the shock of re-entering the world and dealing with her religious brainwashing in the convent. But Karen’s stunner is a simply worded plea: spiritual life is all about doing something to transform our mind and heart.

I happened to have been glancing at another book while re-reading Karen’s –James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief in which he says practically the same thing–dogmas and beliefs have nothing to do with spiritual life.

The point of religion is to shift consciousness, and has nothing to do with what happened under a tree in India 2600 years ago, or in Sinai in 1446 BCE , or in Mecca, Assisi, Jerusalem or Upper Myanmar.

Raymond Sigrist, in a comment to my last posting, mentions spiritual poverty. I think we all could do with a thumping deflation in our spiritual accounts.

It’s time we welcomed a Great Spiritual Downturn.

A spiritual recession.

Raymond writes: “Spiritual poverty, as seen in both Zhuangzi (“I depend on what I don’t know”) and some of the Christian mystics like San Juan de la Cruz (pobreza espiritual), is an efficacious perspective. I think there is a disadvantage in claiming that I can completely eliminate the ego. In fact, it might even be the ego that makes such claims.”

From the point of view of this much needed spiritual recession, it doesn’t matter whether God is a benevolent being half involved in the workings of the universe or a hallucination.

All that matters is that we routinely access a set of skills that can transform the self, open the mind, and motivate decent, principled action. It’s the transformation, not the myth, that matters, adds contemporary Jewish mystic Jay Michaelson.

In writing about the pragmatic approach to prayer in my previous post, Raymond Sigrist made the following comment, which I will quote at length. In recounting an incident that happened when he was a voluntary chaplain in a hospital, Sigrist writes:

In the praying together, the client and myself were both acknowledging that in order to effectively cope with the situation they were in, we needed to find a perspective that could transcend the boundaries of typical habitual thought patterns and machinations.

What I found interesting was that we could access a dynamic process that was not as available even by listening with that powerful tool which Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”

As soon as we started to pray, the gestalt in the hospital room shifted markedly, and sometimes dramatically. The discursive thought of ordinary mind nearly completely vanished. Something from the center of our being had become acutely awake. Something quite beyond the thought of having or not having a God.  It is something Meister Eckhart prayed for: “I pray God to be rid of God.”

I have suggested on this blog that there is no one transformational cookbook that resonates with everyone. But the doing is the thing, not the believing. Jay Michaelson observes that we must “shift away from a belief-centered, ethnicity-centered, and history-centered religious worldview and toward a pragmatic one.”

We also need to shift how we view role models. In the past, much of the truly deep spirituality was associated with an elite minority. We need to re-consider spirituality as a pragmatic, everyday deal, just like keeping fit and eating healthily. It’s do-able. You just need to put the tush to the cush.

Here’s Jay Michaelson again:

Spiritual excellence is every bit as real as physical or intellectual excellence, and to my mind, smart people who don’t do any work on themselves are as out of balance as bookworms who never go to the gym. … But if you aren’t doing something, you’re the spiritual equivalent of a 98-pound weakling.”

It isn’t easy. Neither is going to the gym, lacing up your running shoes, or cooking most nights.

But ya gotta just do it, as the Nike folks say.

You’ll be glad you did.

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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

14 thoughts on “Why a spiritual recession is good for you”

  1. I started a new blog called active bodhichitta. its based upon patrul rinpoche’s instruction to practice the teachings.

    I wanted to see what would happen if i actually followed the sage’s great advice. So i commited myself to a year of practice on the Bodhicharyavatara and its commentary Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech

    Also i have made a new Guest Blog. Where my friends and those who are practicing similarly can write a essay and i’ll publish it under guest blogs with your name and a link that you would like backlinked.

    Mine is http://activebodhichitta.blogspot.com If you’d like write me and maybe you can do a guest blog for me.

  2. Yes Tom, well said. If I can remember to employ (deploy) that pre-reflection, I will, as Zhuangzi put it, “naturally (spontaneously) fall in love with everyone.” I will need to make no further effort. Or as Guanzi says, “If I clear its abode, the uncanny force will come into me effortlessly.”

    By the way, today John Gallagher wrote one of the most succinct and insightful articulations of spiritual poverty that I have ever read: “…being perceptive rather than judgmental is the key to communication, and spiritual poverty is the key to being perceptive.”


  3. Patricia and Raymond–what gorgeous lines from Rumi/ Barks, what a perfect teaching from Deepak. Sometimes the simplest thing to ask before doing anything, if you are blesses with the skillfully gained habit of momentary pre-reflection, is this what love would do?

  4. Yes, the journey, the process is all. I would like to share with you a Deepak Chopra revelation. It addresses “mastering” difficult situations….”You are seeking to realize who you really are. Life will give you lots of opportunities to create that. This opportunity (the letter writer’s) you are facing now is one of them. So be thankful, and bless it. Why? Because that’s what love would do.”


    • A very effective idea Patricia.

      Reminds me of a Rumi poem (I think the translation is by Coleman Barks)

      “A joy, a depression, a meanness,
      some momentary awareness comes
      as an unexpected visitor.

      Welcome and entertain them all!
      Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
      who violently sweep your house
      empty of its furniture,

      still, treat each guest honorable.
      He may be clearing you out
      for some new delight.

      The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
      meet them at the door laughing,
      and invite them in.

      Be grateful for whoever comes,
      because each has been sent
      as a guide from beyond.”

  5. “But if you aren’t doing something, you’re the spiritual equivalent of a 98-pound weakling.”

    Hi Tom

    With qualification, I agree with these words of Jay Michaelson. The problem for me comes when comparison becomes prescriptive rather than descriptive. When I think I am normatively better than a drunk or felon, I don’t seem to be able to optimize my spiritual performance. I seem to remain safe only when the comparison is restricted to various levels of ability to enjoy life.

  6. “The point of religion is to shift consciousness . . .”

    No doubt shifting consciousness is one of the elements likely to be part of religion, but religions are what they are, and serve a broad range of functions, including social cohesion, moral authority, personal and group identity, mythological explanation, a focus for literature, art and music, a framework for ritual enactments, and so on.

    I like to think of religion as a language which allows things to be expressed that otherwise couldn’t. For example I think prayer and thanksgiving is innate, almost instinctive; so it’s necessary to construct myths that make sense of the instinct. Most religions started before there was organized science (including cosmology, physics, biology, psychology, neurology etc) so it had to be the vehicle of mythological explanations for phenomena as observed both externally and internally.

    The realization in late 20th, early 21st century, that various functions of religion may have been superseded, together with an increase in global communication, has led to a decline in traditional religious loyalties, a consequent panic reaction by certain traditionalists, and an impatience with traditions by intellectuals.

    I’d argue for greater tolerance and understanding in this crisis, and less cherry-picking in the matter of what the point of religion is.

    Sorry if the points made above are only tangentially relevant to the main thrust of your essay!

    • “I’d argue for greater tolerance and understanding in this crisis, and less cherry-picking in the matter of what the point of religion is.”

      That makes sense to me Vincent, as far as taking a normative view. However from an individual view it might be best to cherry-pick whatever works best for a person. Perhaps authentic spirituality is individual choice, and nothing more or less.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughts. I do agree with and value your comment “I like to think of religion as a language which allows things to be expressed that otherwise couldn’t. For example I think prayer and thanksgiving is innate, almost instinctive…”
      Yes. This insight explains why Raymond’s pragmatic apophatic mysticism works. Prayer and thanksgiving have been evolutionarily selected, they resonate, which, I feel, is why many folks who try bare-bones Buddhist meditation report feeling dry and lifeless at times. (And while there may be some benefit to working through these feelings, to get past them, I have my doubts about the long term implications).
      I do agree with both you and Raymond on the next point: that of cherry picking, and I don’t think what you two say are at odds. Yes, I also would argue for less cherry picking if by that we mean picking and choosing to the point of dissecting religious practice into inert slices; but I also feel that we need to find those aspects of religious practice which works for the individual without killing the root from which it emerges. Greater tolerance about what religion is — yes, and finding an authentic religious practice through the exercise of wise, non-harming discrimination–yes.


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