A Spiritual Life Is Not A Mental Life

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

A spiritual life is not a mental life.  It is not thought alone that creates a contemplative state of mind.  It is not a life of sensation or felling of ecstasy.  Contemplation is not about stepping on the mystical carpet and flying away.

The contemplative aspects of a spiritual life, however, does not exclude thought and a deeper sense of awareness either.   But it is not just a life where the body-mind and imagination are excluded.  If that were the case, very few individuals would be able to have a successful contemplative practice without retreating into a cave for a decade or two.  Considering man’s social natures, that would not be a life enriched by an engaged social practice, but one totally turned inward toward the self excluding others.  Even though the intent of such a life might be honorable.  It would not be one most would associate with Mahayana Buddhism.    If we are to be truly alive, we must be committed to our practice body, mind, heart, and spirit, directing our compassion towards helping others.  For a monk, that is the heart of our Bodhisattva vows.

It is unproductive to try to achieve a contemplative state of mind merely by stringing thoughts together and then “thinking” about them.  While thinking is the first step in our contemplative session, we must use those thoughts as a springboard into our inner world that reflects the state of our practice beyond words and thoughts.  The quality of such a practice depends on the depth we venture into as we activate our inner-vision.  A purely mental practice may destroy any chance we have to go beyond the ordinary.  In that case we substitute thought and ideas for the real thing; for real awakened moments.  Any activity associated with what makes us human is not purely mental as we are not just a disembodied mind.  This is why validating our experiences is so important to our contemplative practice because it keeps us balanced.

What we achieve from a contemplative practice must also be brought back into our everyday lives in order to move our knowledge to wisdom that gets us ready for more awakened moments.  As we make it apart of ourselves, we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.  This is the cycle-of-life of a contemplative.

Thomas Merton in his work, Thoughts In Solitude, said, “Living is the constant adjustment of thoughts to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new.  Thus life is always new.”    It is yet another illusion when we think that our contemplative mind state is separate from how we live our lives as though it is separate and two different concrete realities.  When we sit in contemplation we are not sitting in a dream state.  We must keep an alert mind not distracted by our personal filters that dilutes how we see the world, AND the Universe around us.  This is why zazen is so important.  In mindful meditation we are preparing the mind for the contemplative.  A quiet mind, is a ripe mind.  That is the platform upon which our contemplative practice stands.

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