Posted by: dacalu | 3 April 2015

The Point

Yesterday my spiritual director asked me if my Lenten discipline was having the desired effect.  I paused for a moment, confused.  I have chosen daily silence, not just physical silence, but the mental releasing of cares.  As usual, the question provoked thought.  Did my discipline need a goal?  Can it not be silence for silence’ sake?

I began thinking of meditation, in the Buddhist sense.  For Buddhists, tranquil awareness is the goal.  They do not meditate in order to get something else, to achieve peace or enlightenment or insight – though those might be products.  Rather, enlightenment is neither more nor less than true meditation.  They seek to find that all life has become meditative.  Goals get in the way.  In a very real sense, meditation with a goal is no longer really meditation. Because it looks beyond itself, it cannot be wholly centered in the moment.

Christian meditation need not be the same, though I think that contemplation (as in St. Theresa) comes awfully close.  It is a type of prayer that seeks nothing more than tranquil awareness of God’s grace.

In teaching religion, and teaching about religion, few things have been harder to communicate than this idea that we might do things for their own sake.  Consider a chain of desire: I want to go out…because I want ice cream…because I want to satisfy my craving for sugar and fat…  Every chain must end somewhere.  Every chain of desire must have an anchor.  The anchor for this might be “…because I want to be happy” or something else entirely.  Philosophers might critique this as naive.  It is not logically necessary for a chain of desire to be rational or discrete.  I’ll accept that.  Nonetheless, when I attempt to address my desires consciously – when I think critically about what I want and what I want to want – I create rational and discrete chains of desire to convince myself and others.  These chains require anchors.

In Buddhism, tranquil awareness or something very close (perhaps meditation or enlightenment) anchors the chain.  To claim that Buddhists meditate for some other reason misses the point.  Again, I must be very careful here.  I’m talking about a chain of desire – rationally thinking about what we want – not a chain of causes – trying to explain, often scientifically why something occurred.  An individual Buddhist will meditate for any number of reasons – habit, boredom, social pressure.  Still, when I speak of Buddhism in practice and theory, I speak of the chain of desire most commonly used to justify and advocate for specific choices.

Frequently, when talking with others, we assume that their chains of desire must eventually come around to our own anchor.  This leads to rampant miscommunication.  It may be true that your chains always end (or you hope they end) in tranquil awareness while mine end in obedience to God.  Alternatively, yours may end in service to the community and mine in increasing happiness for humans.

One of the major functions of religion is to help us set anchors.  You can, of course, do this without any appeal to the supernatural or authority figures.  You cannot, in my opinion, do so without being profoundly impacted by your community, your history, and the language you use.  You cannot separate your ideas about what exists from your ideas of what you value.  You cannot separate your preferences – both conscious and unconscious – from your behaviors, routines, and rituals.  Science and the major religions all tell us so.  We are incarnate, social, thinking beings.

When you anchor on something, someone who controls that thing (or appears to) controls you.  Atheists often worry that Christians who anchor on salvation will be susceptible to authority figures claiming to control who goes to heaven and hell.  Christians often worry that Atheists who anchor on physical well being will be susceptible to military and civil leaders exercising control over weapons and money.  Both are, to me, very real concerns.  Jesus died because he succeeded in changing people’s anchors; he was a threat to religious and civil powers in Judea.  Martin Luther King, Jr. died for similar reasons.

Today, Christians observe Good Friday in remembrance of Jesus, who judged his life of less import than his message and who was crucified for changing people.  I challenge you to think this day about where your anchors rest, how those anchors give power to others, and just what you’d be willing to give up to follow through.

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