Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


The Role of Ideas in Spiritual Life

Descartes summed up his philosophy in the famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am.” The more a person grows in the spiritual domain, however, the less that person relies on thought. While we may conceive of distant realms, of heaven, of other universes, of higher dimensions, even of God, our thinking itself remains inexorably bound to the world of space and time. As thought junkies, though, we nurture our addiction to listening to, floating in, adding to, and arguing with the ever-flowing stream of thoughts and images in our minds. One cannot think one’s way into heaven. The concept trap ensnares many spiritual seekers as we unwittingly substitute thoughts and ideas about the path for the path itself. For actually traveling the spiritual path, thoughts, no matter how elaborate, abstract or holy, are the wrong vehicle. Though words of prayer or a Divine name can orient us in the right direction, only by seeing beyond thoughts and beyond mental imagery can we begin to touch the higher worlds. Thoughts and concepts play no role when we stand before the ineffable.

So why publish thousands of books on spiritual subjects? Right thinking and true ideas offer two invaluable ingredients for the inner life: motivation and guidance. Great spiritual poetry and myths, stories in the holy scriptures, and other written sources contain ideas and images which can serve to raise the level of our spiritual aspirations, moving us to renew our commitment to the path, helping us through our dry spells, periods of doubt, and the inevitable and numerous obstacles we encounter along the way. Eventually, the wonders of the path itself provide ample motivation. But until that door opens, books and ideas can help propel us toward the non-conceptual. The key to avoiding the pitfall of concepts lies in not confusing the moon with the finger pointing toward it.

The inner landscape hides a territory unknown to us. The deeper realms lie shrouded within what psychologists call the unconscious. A trail or set of signposts through this land would prove most useful. Unfortunately, such definitive guidance eludes possibility because the inner landscape is not material in the way that streets, sidewalks, and hills are. Books and ideas can, however, provide building blocks for a mental map of the inner realms. Through a difficult and continual effort of map-making, we calibrate, revise and align our conceptual map to conform to the actual landscape, to the experience of walking the path. Understanding deepens.

In certain circumstances, for example on a spiritual retreat, reading can only interfere with our inner work, arousing thoughts and fixing our attention on concepts, rather than moving beyond them. But in most circumstances, in everyday life, our thoughts perpetually cascade through the foreground of our minds. Reading texts of the spirit, pondering their contents, and drawing inspiration from them channel our thoughts and hearts toward actual steps along the path, toward moment-to-moment presence and practice.


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