Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Managing Bodily Excesses

The spiritual path begins right where we are. As long as we seek to fill our emptiness through addictions of one kind or another, we shall be barred from any real progress on the path. If the nascent vessel of our soul leaks, we shall never collect enough energy, enough consciousness to progress. Relaxation of body and heart plugs some of the leaks. But plenty of us have other major leaks, most notably bodily excesses such as those concerning food, alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. Patching these leaks will conserve the energy we need for our practice. In a deeper sense, stopping these physically harmful habits is an act of respect for ourselves, for these remarkable bodies we have been given, and for the limitations of the Earth’s resources. The discipline of working against harmful habits provides us with a truer picture of ourselves, while purifying our will.

The path calls us to forgo excess in favor of moderation, to neither seek nor allow the extremes of asceticism or hedonism, to heal our addictive behaviors. In moderation, we can enjoy life’s pleasures without overindulging in them. If we are, indeed, God’s eyes and ears, then appreciating the fruits of this life on Earth is normal and natural.

Our fertile minds, however, inevitably look for wiggle room in the definition of excess, the meaning of which legitimately varies from person to person. The basic criterion is whether any particular activity diminishes our ability to be present or to engage in spiritual practice.

Here are a few specific guidelines to consider:

First, in working toward moderation, we work on one thing at a time. Let’s say we have two bad habits. If these habits grip us powerfully, our will is probably insufficient to have any effect on both at once. So we start with one bad habit and work seriously on it until we get it right. All the while, we remain watchful not to allow the energy released from stopping one bad habit to flow into making another one worse. For example, we avoid the temptation of being grouchy with people when we give up snacking. Instead we work harder to transform the energy released from giving up snacking into being more constant in our spiritual practices.

Overeating destroys certain energies we need for our spiritual inner work. The body consumes those energies in digesting the extra, unneeded food. If we feel full when we finish eating, we have probably eaten too much. If we feel stuffed or bloated, we have certainly eaten too much. There is a story of the Prophet Mohammed. A certain king heard glowing reports regarding Mohammed and wanted to support Mohammed’s mission. So the king sent his personal physician to live in the Prophet’s community and minister to his followers. After a year among them, the doctor went to Mohammed and reported that, during the entire time, none of Mohammed’s people had come down with even a mild illness. The doctor asked Mohammed why they are all so healthy. Mohammed replied that their good health derives from the fact that he instructs his followers to rise from their meals before they are full.

To bring the daily act of eating into our spiritual path, we can focus our full attention on our food, on its taste, texture, and aroma, on how full our stomach is, on every aspect of eating. As a side benefit of conscious eating, fully experiencing our food enables us to enjoy it more, to be more readily satisfied, less prone to overeat, and freer in our relationship to food.

Moderation with alcohol means never getting even mildly drunk and not drinking more than once or twice a week . For most people, this amount of social drinking will have no ill effects on their inner lives.

With tobacco and drugs, moderation means none. Tobacco, besides being physically destructive, burns up energies we need for our practice. The same holds even more emphatically about recreational drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, LSD, etc. While a drug may give a temporary high, even one mimicking a spiritual state, in the long-term it burns up an exorbitant amount of energy, weakens our will, and debilitates our spiritual practice. Drugs and spiritual development do not mix. Sincere spiritual practice leads to deep satisfaction and unadulterated joy, much more profoundly and durably than can drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.

For some of us, though, our addictive behavior arises from using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate our psychological problems, depression, stress and so forth. In these cases, we’re infinitely better off if we can bring ourselves to seek professional help and face our problems forthrightly. Consistent and systematic relaxation practice also diminishes the need for drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.

Entrenched habits resist our attempts to break them. Fortunately, very few actually need to be broken altogether for our spiritual lives to flourish: we need to stop all use of tobacco and drugs, and refrain from excessive consumption of food and alcohol. These create major impediments to our spiritual path. Working against such habits can be extremely difficult, but tremendously rewarding. Persistence, perennially starting over again, eventually pays, clearing obstacles from our way. In the meantime, working on these habits reveals unknown aspects of ourselves and strengthens our resolve. Eventually we learn to love and respect our body in its service to our higher nature.


     

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