By: David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei
The spiritual life is first and foremost a life in that it is apart of the sum of the phenomena we call “me”. It is not something we “take out” and wear during periods of contemplation, meditation, or feeling like a Buddhist when we are in the mood. Either we have it or not. It is that simple. A spiritual life is not something we can study. It is however, like all other dimensions that makes us up, when it is not nourished it will die. It can be like other interests we develop, spend time with, then move on to other things. What makes finding a spiritual interest different is that it appears to be a natural progression when we turn our attention to the bigger picture of what life may be about. Like seeking the wonder of our world, seeking the spirit seems to be connected to our human condition, not something handed to us “by the angels.” We live as spiritual individuals when we live seeking answers to the big questions. It is something man has been doing since he walked out of his cave and looked up at the night sky. The difference between him and us, is that we now have a language to express our spiritual natures, but the experience is the same.
To keep our spiritually alive we must constantly work at it. This is the reason we engage meditation and contemplative practices. I am reminded of the experiences I have had on my sailboat at sea in the fog, peering into the gloom listening for sounds and hoping I stay on course in order to avoid being lost and reach the harbor. The spiritual life is all about keeping awake. We must not lose our sensitivity to what inspires us to sit in contemplation keeping alert for “signs” we can use to stay on course. We must always be able to respond to the slightest warnings in order to avoid running our life on the rocks that can sink a spiritual life as well.
Meditation is one way in which the spiritual man keeps awake. The reality of a contemplative life , however, is that it puts us at risk of becoming distracted and falling asleep. Meditation is a strict discipline, and not so easy to do well, at least in the beginning. It requires perseverance and hard work to avoid falling into the trap of compromise. When our zazen and contemplative practice is compromised, it is a failure. Even when we keep at it without much focus. A contemplative practice is a body-mind practice, that is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit. When you enter into such a meditation practice it is not without a kind of inner upheaval. By upheaval I don’t mean a kind of ciaos, but a braking away of a normal routine of thought. We move away from ordinary mind into an extra-ordinary inner space. We move away from all those distractions that preoccupy us in our work-a-day world. We move beyond all that. It is not something that is easy moving from an active mind to a passive one so we can experience the quiet necessary to transcend the ordinary. The bridge is not easy to find either. It may take years to find the bridge. But once found, we know the way again.
Neither imagination or raw feelings are required for the transcending nature of the contemplative state of mind. It is hard to put into human language, but there is a very real and recognizable sense when we tune into our inner space. Our inner eye opens to the center of our spiritual natures. Meditation and contemplation is the opening of this eye.