Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Dimensions of Balance in Spiritual Practice

The many facets of our humanity call for balance. In growing up, we need a balanced education and a balance of discipline and love. For physical health we need a balanced diet as well as a balance between activity and repose. For mental health we need a balance between work, leisure, and family. So too, we need a holistic approach toward our inner work for spiritual development.

As complex beings with complex demands placed upon us, for most of us no single method of spiritual practice will prove adequate. An understanding of the variety of methods and their place in the spiritual path serves us well in discovering and filling the gaps in our inner work. Through actual practice we grow familiar with the relationships among the methods and their effect on our being. We acquire a taste for how to balance our inner life. Toward this, we now examine four dimensions of balance in spiritual practice: context, mode, vehicle, and style. Though handed down from ancient times, these were powerfully posed by G.I. Gurdjieff in the twentieth century. An understanding of these dimensions helps guide our steps in the unknown territory of the spirit.

Context

The first dimension of balance concerns the three possible contexts of practice: ourselves, our family and society, and the Ultimate. If we direct our spiritual life only toward ourselves, we risk growing self-absorbed and losing sight of the greater purpose. If our practice centers solely on serving others, we risk losing ourselves, losing the energy and peace of mind we need to serve well. If our practice focuses exclusively on the Divine, we risk losing our footing on this wonderful Earth, losing our ability to relate well. All three together, however, forge a remarkably potent combination. In our spiritual droughts, when we lose contact with one, another will provide a way to reinvigorate the first. Working in all three contexts, we discover a sense of completeness and integrity.

Mode

The second dimension of balance addresses the active, open, and harmonic modes of practice. The great traditions inform us that reality has a threefold nature. The ancient Indian Vedas, for example, instruct us about the three basic elements, the three gunas: rajas, tamas, and sattva. Christianity offers the image of the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life arranges its ten sephirot in three columns and with triadic connections. All these reflect the fact that threefoldness enters the whole of reality, including our inner work, through will.

The active mode of will displays an affirming, directed, outward flowing, effortful quality. The open mode embraces an allowing, accepting, receiving, inward flowing, non-directed, surrendering quality. This second mode can also manifest as passivity, inertia, laziness, and resistance. The harmonic mode brings a creative freedom, a catalyst enabling the other two modes to cooperate in a quite natural, balanced, unforced way. We see this harmonic mode in sports when an athlete is “in the zone,” in effortlessly perfect action. In the spiritual path, we seek to be open to the higher while active toward the more external, in a harmonious, wise, loving, and productive way of life, with will flowing through us from the higher to the lower.

Balance is essential among these three modes, especially as they characterize our spiritual practices. If we always pursue an active practice, we shall have little peace and stillness, and our activity will be confined to the lower rungs of Jacob’s ladder. If openness constitutes our sole choice in modes of practice, we will not gain the strength required to create a viable vessel for our soul. If we only seek harmony, we will fail because that bird cannot fly without the two wings of active and open practices. Working with all three modes, their interaction enlivens us, inspiring and enabling us to reach new and unexpected depths in our spiritual life.

Vehicle

The third dimension of balance operates among the four vehicles of our body, heart, mind, and spirit or I. Here, vehicle means the mechanism through which will acts in us. Our body has the ability to move, to act, and to maintain itself in the material world. In our heart vehicle we have the full range of emotions, which broker our contact with worlds outside and in. In our mind, we have the ability to cognize, think, visualize, plan, imagine, daydream, remember, and understand. Most of us tend toward unbalance in terms of these three vehicles. We might live primarily in our thoughts, or in our feelings, or in our physical abilities and appetites. Balanced spiritual work includes developing our neglected vehicles.

Our spirit typically remains hidden. Thus, our practice aims, in part, at reconnecting our daily life with our true spirit, our own “I am,” which alone has the power to unify our body, heart, and mind.

Style

When we think of spiritual practice, we usually think of a formal style of practice: meditation, ritual or communal prayer, chanting, and the like. Such formal practices, repeated at regular intervals, constitute the foundation of the spiritual path. These practices collect and transform energies, exercise our will, and let us delve deeper than would be possible in more ordinary circumstances.

But a completely different genre of spiritual practices stands equal in importance to the formal style: continuous practice sustained throughout our ordinary day. Instead of getting up from meditation or prayer and leaving our spiritual work behind until the next day, we continue to practice awareness of bodily sensation, presence or prayer as much as possible all day long, even as we go about our normal daily activities. The practice that we continue while engaged in our day may not be as deep or as strong as formal practice, but it does enjoy the distinct advantage of having more time available for it. The cumulative effect of continuous practice can be even greater than that of formal practice. If you sustain and renew your inner work at frequent intervals, by the end of the day you may find yourself in a deeply centered and spiritually refined state. Furthermore, change of being means change of our usual state. The more continuously we practice, the more we raise our usual state, and the closer we come to permanent change of being.

Formal and continuous practice support and complement each other. Meditation and prayer can provide the surplus, high quality energy we need to practice more continuously. Work at presence throughout the day strengthens and purifies our will, consolidates our gains from formal practice, and deepens our meditation and prayer.

But formal and continuous do not exhaust the categories of practice. If we look at the continuum from inner to outer, we see that formal practice belongs primarily to the inner whereas continuous practice falls between inner and outer. In the fully outer realm of external manifestations of spirituality, we enter the way of right action in the world, the way of responsibility and kindness, creativity and service. These constitute a third major form of spirituality, of equal standing to formal and continuous practice, supporting and complementing both. Our ability to be kind, responsible, or creative grows as our being and will transform. Formal and continuous practice together lead to that transformation. The potential of our own right action in the world, however, gives us a strong reason to pursue formal and continuous spiritual practice. If we wish to serve well, we need to develop our being and purify our will. The way of right action puts the results of our inner work to good use.

Between the styles of formal, continuous and manifested practice, we seek an appropriate balance, attuned to our own propensities and possibilities.

 


        

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