Attention, Suffering, and Refining Our Practice

When we begin a spiritual practice such as meditation, we begin a process of refining our attention. By examining reality over and over again, we strip away the overly simplistic narratives we tell ourselves. We also undermine our uncertain bedrock of habit and convention.  Casting these narratives aside, we enter into the guts of the situation and work fully with complexity.

Without the crutches of ego, we come to realize our own pain. This pain is not necessarily physical. It is more of an existential grief, tied to our own mutability and the problematic nature of human existence. It is also closely related to our own transient nature. We share this pain and finitude with others. This grief is something we may actively try to avoid. Even meditation cannot provide the permanent states we seek. At some point, the multiplicity of suffering becomes apparent.

If we only associate the spiritual with bliss, this may feel like the removal of the divine from our lives. St. John of the Cross refers to this state in his work The Dark Night as “the knowledge of self and of one’s own misery.” (The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 385). He elaborates:

The glad night and purgation causes many benefits even though to the soul it seemingly deprives it of them. So numerous are those benefits that, just as Abraham made a great feast on the day of his son Issac’s weaning [Gn. 21:8], there is rejoicing in heaven that God has now taken from this soul its swaddling clothes; that he has put it down from his arms and is making it walk alone; that he is weaning it from the delicate and sweet food of infants and making it eat bread with crust; and that the soul is beginning to taste the food of the strong (the infused contemplation of which we have spoken), which in these sensory aridities and darkness is given to the spirit that is dry and empty of the satisfactions of sense. (Ibid., 385)

Couched in this experience of pain is a tremendous opportunity. It is an opportunity to truly grow spiritually. Through an understanding of the multiple dimensions of suffering, we no longer cling to distorted views of spiritual practice. True spiritual practice is to acknowledge and engage with whatever is happening in the present. If we seek only pleasurable sensations, we deny the numerous and rich dimensions of life.

The stakes are high for this kind of investigation. Since there is no life that escapes suffering, the way we relate to it has important consequences. To hone our practice in this sense is to move ever closer to our own suffering, see how often we act from it, and actively change our states of affairs. As all other life undergoes suffering, so action becomes our primary focus towards others. In lessening other’s pain and sorrow, we lessen our own in turn.

This is to experience and connect to the limitless god, in which our freedom to feel, experience, and act with intention lead us towards deepening involvement with the divine.

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