What do we get out of spiritual practice? Not much, hopefully, that we can turn into cash or use to make our CV more enticing. When Jesus speaks about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, he disappoints the ego by the way he places it off the radar, away from any source of pride or self-congratulation. ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’, when you give alms, he says. Not only are we not allowed to bargain for recognition by others, even the self-observing ego isn’t allowed into the game. ‘Secret’ is the word he uses more than once – in Greek it’s ‘mysterion’. Don’t extract spiritual practice from the realm of mystery, of unitive knowledge where there are no actors and no appreciative audience.
This un-self-consciousness is in reality a higher form of consciousness. Hard though it may be for us to give up our position in the control tower of the ego, we actually see and know much more when we do so. Just how hard it is to let go of self-consciousness is evident as soon as we sit to meditate and keep our attention on the mantra. Just how ‘rewarding’ this is, is evident from the fruits that pop up all over our life surprisingly and wonderfully, like simple but heart-breakingly beautiful spring flowers emerging from the barren ground in the change of seasons.
Many religious people think that reward is a fair understanding of what we get from spiritual practice and the exercise of virtue. But it is only a metaphor. God no more rewards than He punishes. The very idea of merit that fills the minds of many Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Jews is dodgy. It is a commodification of what is spiritual, that is immeasurable, and resides only in the secrecy of mystery. Merit is hard to separate from self-satisfaction. What we get, then, from Lenten observance and our daily practice is simplicity. There is no end to simplicity and so it is not a goal to achieve. At a certain point the desire to be simple dissipates and we only become truly simple when we stop thinking about it. Thomas Aquinas thought that ‘God is infinitely simple’. (What a relief to know we are created, redeemed and loved by a God like this).
The meaning of our practice is that we become like God, simple, (by becoming like Jesus). The ego is wary of this at first as it only wants to be like the glitterati at the Oscars or the successful icons enthroned in the media. But the ego, like a greedy child, can learn to grow up. We learn that simplicity happens through the hard but necessary process of dis-illusionment.
When we say ‘I feel disillusioned’ or ‘people are disillusioned with politics, religion, journalists, bankers..’, it sounds sad and disappointing. We have to think about what it means so we can say, ‘hooray, I am disillusioned.’