Practice makes . . .

. . . better. Practice makes that which once seemed difficult easier.

In athletics, and even in playing a musical instrument, or doing any other action requiring motor skills, practice can create something commonly called “muscle memory.” The repetition of an action makes the action more natural and less dependent on intense concentration. An accomplished basketball player might be able to spin a ball on the tip of her finger, for instance, a skill I would find immensely difficult and even, at least currently, impossible.  The basketball player does it almost without thinking. 

Our spiritual journey can also benefit from repetition.  That’s the part we call “practice.” 

I think it’s important that we differentiate between beliefs and practice. Someone can have beliefs with no practice. It’s also possible to have a practice without specific beliefs. But when we combine the two, we create a spiritual life that is alive and growing and engaged and the source of a consistent river of peace and joy that flows through our lives.  Perhaps most important, it is the ongoing practice of our beliefs that strengthens our intuition and allows us to be the primary guide on our own journey. It’s how we become our own guru. 

A spiritual practice can be almost anything as long as it occurs with some regularity and is meaningful to you. Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, mantra chanting, prayer, reading a spiritual text, listening to music that centers you — these are some of the more common spiritual practices. But a practice can also be planting flowers or looking up at the full moon or lighting incense or volunteering or acknowledging the four directions or making good use of that magic wand you bought on a whim at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  You give symbols their meaning, and whatever you decide is significant . . . is. 

The paradox is that it’s not the practice, but it is the practice.  Let’s break that down a bit. It’s not the practice in the sense that any physical action or practice we engage in within the temporal realm of ego and this physical existence is not inherently important. The Truth with a capital T is that the Divine Essence that you are remains the same regardless of any act you carry out.  Whether you meditate today or not, you remain the Presence of Divine Love. 

But, in this dynamic life, the life of time, the life of beginnings and endings, it sometimes takes a practice, even just a quick breathing exercise or making prayer hands, to remind us again, and again, and again, of who we truly are and what is truly real.  And in time, we create a spiritual muscle memory that helps us to live more consistently from the core of our being, the place where only love and peace and joy reside. 

That’s what practice can do.  It can help us uncover our Divine Nature, and it can help us live from that place more and more consistently all the time.  It can be the conduit to the the most important discovery of this life — the discovery of the Self. 

But there is one thing practice won’t do.  Practice won’t make perfect. Because it doesn’t need to. You already are. 

Why does God . . .

. . . allow suffering?  If you go to Google and type in “Why does God,” the first autofill answer you will get is “Why does God allow suffering?” When I clicked on that option, I got over 77,000,000 results in half a second.  It seems a lot of people have asked that question and almost as many have tried to answer it.  And they’ve been asking this question for a long time.  

Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fourth century BCE, was asking this question before Jesus even walked the earth and long before the Prophet Muhammad received his revelations. Epicurus drew a sharp line between the potential for God’s strength and the capacity for God’s compassion.  He asked, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.” In other words, a God that would allow suffering he is powerful enough to stop must be cruel.

Ooof. 

On my Google search, the first page of the 77,000,000 responses comes from mostly Christian sources.  The “answers” put forth included “Well, God doesn’t cause suffering, but he allows it” and “Suffering is a way to enter into relationship with God,” and “The message of suffering is that life is hard, but God is good.” That last one especially seems it might be of little comfort when tragedy strikes. 

The best answer I found was one that recognized the compassion and unity that can result from suffering, but also acknowledged that it’s a mystery. Compassion and unity are vital concepts for a fully realized spiritual being, and it’s true that they often seem to rely on crisis and division to act as springboards for their creation. But an omnipotent God could surely find a way to inject my soul with compassion rather than through another’s suffering, right?  Though if no one ever suffered, would we even need compassion?  

Now, in full disclosure, I want to make it clear that I do not have the answer to the question of why God allows suffering. And, I would suggest that you proceed with great caution around anyone who claims to have that answer.  

I’ve had a few times of tragedy in my life, and I know that doesn’t make me special. It doesn’t make me different from you, and perhaps it even offers ground where we can meet. I may not know your pain or your story, but here are nine things I do know, and I can only hope they provide comfort, if not insight.

  1. I know that sometimes tragedy brings out the best in us. 
  2. I know that although there may not be an adequate reason we might accept to explain tragedy, no grand purpose birthing a trauma, there can still be great lessons and awareness that come from these events. 
  3. I know that although my pain is real, my pain is not me.  
  4. I know that it’s possible to be on a spiritual journey and be mad at God. In fact, it can be among the most transformative of experiences if we retain just an inkling of faith. A mustard seed, even. 
  5. I know that love is God, and the tragedy of my past is a prime contributor to the degree of love I can bring into another’s place of pain.
  6.  I know that my suffering has created compassion and tenderness and gentleness in me that I’m not sure I would have had otherwise.
  7. I know that, as the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes, “The question of human suffering is central to the journey of grace and redemption.” 
  8. I know that I would be nowhere without grace and redemption.
  9. I know that awakening to the awareness of our higher Self, our Buddha nature, our Krishna consciousness, our Christ consciousness, can bring freedom.

Everything Happens for a Reason . . .

. . . at least that’s what folks say.  But, is it true?  Like many matters of faith, and this is indeed a matter of faith, it’s impossible to prove. If you could prove it, then it wouldn’t be faith.  

Not being provable, however, does not negate the value of a belief. It’s impossible to prove, for example, that Jesus was an actual person who lived, you know, right around the same time someone was inventing the calendar.  There are some theologians who contend that Jesus or Yeshua or Joshua, as he might more accurately be called, was a creation of the early Gnostic Christians, a kind of avatar of perfection, a character specifically developed to be a model and a cornerstone for this new religious belief.  But even if they are right, even if Jesus was a fictional character and not a real person at all, that doesn’t necessarily devalue his role in shaping world thought. Provability is not always the standard by which we can measure value. 

So, what value is there in believing that everything happens for a reason, regardless of whether it’s true or not? 

We tell ourselves that everything happens for a reason because we’re trying to make sense out of things that make no sense.  Sometimes life is a mystery. Sometimes it’s even a tragedy. For people of faith — whether that’s a traditional faith running as a thread through a particular religious tradition or whether it’s a private tendency toward hope — it’s important and even vital for this existence to fit into some grand scheme. We want to see a design, at first invisible, become gradually clearer, like those magic eye pictures that look like nothing more than busy wallpaper until we shift our focus, look through the picture somehow, and then, as if it should have been obvious the entire time, an image pushes through the chaos and becomes clear.

Believing that everything happens for a reason can be the reason we even start the practice of looking for patterns in our lives.  And those patterns are there. Of that, I have no doubt. I’ve seen patterns play out in my own life, and sometimes patterns within patterns, the events of my life acting as so many interconnected cogs in a giant machine. 

Believing that everything happens for a reason can also comfort us when nothing else will.  When we can’t understand anything about a situation, resting in the faith of believing there is a rhyme and reason to it can bring a kind of peace. But, the comfort of “everything happens for a reason” is a personal comfort. It can be a reminder we use for ourselves that everything will turn out okay, but it doesn’t always land quite right when it comes from someone else. 

I overheard someone at a funeral a few years back as they grasped the hands of the newly widowed woman struggling to make it through the unimaginable.  They said, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” and you could almost hear the internal cringe of several of us standing nearby.  Here’s a small piece of advice; do with it what you will. In that situation, the situation where someone has experienced tremendous loss, say that you feel for them, say you’re praying for them, say you’re carrying them in your heart — say just about anything except everything happens for a reason.  Even if you believe it’s true. Even if you know THEY believe it’s true.  Just don’t say it.  Not then. Not ever. Keep it for yourself.  

Actually, I might suggest that when people are really hurting we should set our “spiritual-ness” down and just be with them.  The hurt they are feeling isn’t in their divine nature anyway; it’s in the very human, fragile person they are, and the hurt they are experiencing is real for that person.  Any spiritual attempt to explain it, suppress it, redirect it, or enlighten it is often, in reality, acting to negate it, belittle it, and self-righteously sweep real pain away as if it was insignificant dust on an otherwise shiny life. 

Sometimes people need comfort, true and gentle comfort, not an aphorism or a spiritual sound bite.  “Everything happens for a reason” may be true, but “I’m so sorry this happened to you” is far more comforting.  And human. And real. 

And if our heart is right when we say it, no one will need faith to believe it’s true.