Visions of Daniel

Meditation without Myth


Papers link

Chapter One

In Quest of Spiritual Understanding

When I was younger, I wanted to be a saint. A well-behaved child, I did what I was told, and more. I worked to be the best at everything. In the Polish Catholic community in Pittsburgh , where I grew up, the best one could be was a priest, and the best priest was a holy one. So, at an immature seventeen, I entered a Catholic seminary. I was ordained, served in a parish, and then pursued an educational ministry. I later left the priesthood to work full-time as a psychology professor and a lecturer. According to official Catholic teaching, while in my soul I am a priest forever, I have betrayed God and the Church in taking up my own life, and I am a sinner, hardly a saint. This judgment does not matter to me now. My understanding of sanctity has changed. The same forces that led me into the seminary to be a saintly priest continue to guide my life. But these days I just try to be a good person-honest, just, loving, compassionate.

In the seminary I diligently followed all the rules. I was one of the few who actually attempted to use those early morning periods set aside for personal prayer in chapel after Mass. I knelt up straight, fought sleep, and day after day struggled to meditate.

Every Wednesday evening after dinner and recreation period during my latter college years, we had a "spiritual conference" in the basilica crypt. That space lent itself to spiritual pursuits-deep, dark, mysterious, punctuated with short, fat columns, covered with a vaulted ceiling, lined by alcoves enclosing private altars. As I remember it, the monk assigned as "spiritual director" gave the same talk every week. He spoke of the need to build a solid foundation: a house built on sand could not long stand. I certainly wanted to build such a foundation in my soul, and I kept wondering what it meant to build such a foundation. The practical meaning of that metaphor eluded me. I faithfully put in what efforts I could, but I saw no progress in my spiritual construction. I seemed to have no deeper good will or stronger virtue than I had had when I was living at home.

We had week-long, silent retreats every year. These were to be times of "intense spiritual pursuit." After a good retreat, we were supposed to be "spiritually" renewed, refreshed, strengthened. But after a week's retreat I was usually just tired of trying to be spiritual. I was happy to get back to a regular schedule of classes, recreation, and conversation at meals.

Week after week after those spiritual conferences, I would return to my room through the monastery corridors, processing with the other seminarians in our long, flowing, black cassocks, heads bowed, and silent. Week after week, I would think to myself, "Somebody must know something about this stuff!" I do not believe that anybody really did at that time.

Sometimes when I read student papers today, I come away wondering what the students were trying to say. Paragraph after paragraph the papers go on using words that don't fit together and sentences that have no logical connections. The sentences make no sense because their authors don't know what the words mean. Although the grammar may be correct and the sentence structure, standard, the result is gibberish

I used to get that same impression from those weekly spiritual conferences. The monk used all the "spiritual" words, quoted all the relevant doctrines, faithfully supported the official Catholic teaching, and even quoted Jesus from time to time, but on the whole made no sense. In Rome as a seminarian I learned an Italian word for such talks: fervorino -an inspirational, exhortatory sermon. The talk was supposed to motivate you. But motivate you for what? What was the task we were to pursue? Despite all the good will in the world, I didn't know how to direct my efforts.

Similarly, I did not know how to make use of those long, silent days of retreat or the "meditation period" after morning Mass. I did not know what I was supposed to be doing to "meditate." The bigger problem was that, as far as I could make out, nobody else did, either! Oh, there were inspirational books on prayer, meditation, and holiness, and I read them. There were meditation books to follow, the "daily-thought" sort of thing, and I used them. There was even a required course on spiritual theology, and I poured over the dry and tedious text. My major impression remained: nobody knows what this stuff is about. Or in any case, I was not getting it.

I was not alone. A friend in New York City , also a former priest, recently started meditating at a Buddhist center. He was pleasantly surprised to learn how much the Buddhists know about the process of meditation. Referring to our seminary days, he stated outright, "Meditation time was for sleeping."

Only years later did I have any major insight into spirituality. By then I had been ordained seven years, had served four years as an associate pastor in a large suburban parish, had spent a year as a junior member on a seminary faculty, and was now pursuing doctoral studies in systematic theology. I had made some bumbling progress in my spiritual pursuits. In the most self-determined decision of my life thus far, I had left parish ministry to become involved in seminary education. I was beginning to find myself. By then, I had also abandoned slavish commitment to praying the breviary-the book of prayers Catholic priests are required "under pain of mortal sin" to say at various times throughout the day. I had had the good sense to realize that just "getting in" those required prayers was keeping me from really praying from the heart in the few moments during busy ministry when I actually had time to pray. I had definitely outgrown the annual priestly retreats. And I found the courage to do something about the situation. I began making my annual retreat at a Buddhist meditation center.


New Directions

In the Buddhist retreats I discovered many of the same elements that were part of my own spiritual tradition: silence through most of the day, performance of assigned menial tasks, abandonment of one's given name for a name that expressed one's new spiritual identity, the wearing of ritual garments, affiliation with a new community, and, above all, long periods of meditation. But the Buddhists had a genuine understanding of these things, and through the Buddhist perspective I began to recognize why these things were a part of my own haphazard spiritual formation, and I began to understand what psychological effects they were supposed to have. Most important of all, the Buddhists taught me how to use periods of silence to deprogram the crazy-making, repetitive thoughts that went round and round in my head and to open my mind to a realm of serene transcendence.

What most impressed me about the Buddhist approach is this: it had nothing to do with theology. Oh, Buddhism has its beliefs, just like any other religion and oftentimes they are just as fanciful, but Buddhist teaching regarding meditation is supremely practical. It is based on centuries of attention to meditative practice and deals specifically with the workings of the mind. There is nothing in Buddhist teaching comparable to Christian "grace," the "gifts of the Holy Spirit," "acquired" and "infused contemplation," or reliance on the "supernatural" work of "God" in the "soul," about which I had heard so much in my Catholic upbringing. Nor did the Buddhism I encountered make much ado about spiritual entities with extraordinary knowledge, out-of-body travel, and supposed metaphysical realms, about which many contemporary spiritual movements are concerned.

In Buddhist meditative practice theology or metaphysics do not complicate the spiritual quest. There is no appeal to a magical mentality-the idea that somehow God grants spiritual insight to specially chosen souls or that we might be lucky enough to make contact with superior beings or that spiritual integration is purely a gift about which we can have no understanding. The Buddhist approach is wholly humanistic: it is based on the observable workings of the human mind. It proposes meditative techniques that address those workings in specific and specialized ways. It offers a method to tame the mind and to profit from long periods of silence.

Growing up in that Polish, mill-working community in Pittsburgh gave me more than a spiritual longing. It also gave me a strong sense of down-to-earth practicality. My practical bent was delighted to encounter the Buddhist approach to spirituality. Now I could go about my pursuit of holiness in a systematic way.


Meditation without Myth

Such a humanistic approach to spirituality is what I present in this book-not a specifically Buddhist approach, but a generic humanistic approach to which my Buddhist experience tipped me off. I want to present what I have discovered as the human core of all spirituality. I want to talk of spirituality without involving God or other supposed spiritual entities and realms. The psychological advances of the last few decades now make it possible to some extent to explain spiritual development scientifically. Spiritual advancement is not specifically a matter of God's grace or divine intervention or metaphysical speculation or cosmic forces. It is simply a matter of good psychology and honest living.

My title Meditation without Myth suggests this humanistic emphasis. I want to explain how meditation works. I want to take the magic or myth out of concern for spirituality. In doing so, I do not intend to get rid of God or religious belief and practice. I simply want to clarify how religion fits with what we now know of spiritual psychology. The two can fit together. But to fit psychology and religion together, we need first to tease them apart. And most of all, we need to propose a truly psychological explanation of spiritual growth-one that could stand on its own for non-religious people and, for religious people, could honestly fit with authentic religion.

Is it even possible to approach spirituality in so secular a way? How could we explain spiritual growth without involving God? Isn't the spiritual realm precisely the realm of God and religion?

These questions are completely understandable; they express legitimate concerns. In fact, they arise because-as I have been saying-there is precious little understanding available regarding spiritual growth. Despite the mushrooming of interest in recent decades, when it comes to spirituality, most people are still where I was, along with my fellow seminarians, the monks, and the staff, when I was in seminary. Spirituality is still a realm full of esoteric claims, metaphysical speculation, imagined powers and entities, fanciful promises, and fuzzy thinking. With this book I propose to bring some clarity to the matter.

Is such an achievement even possible? You, dear reader, will have to judge for yourself after reading this book. Surely, I cannot say in one easy paragraph what I took a book to write. But let me begin by drawing a comparison with another quest for understanding.

Isaac Newton is famous for his explanation of the solar system. In fact, Newton was an extremely devout Christian. He believed that he was explaining God's creation. In his mind, he had figured out the mathematical marvels that God built into the solar system. But Newton did not include "God" in his mathematical equations. Naming God would not have helped one bit. As Newton knew well, his equations regarded God's handiwork. The physical universe is what concerned Newton , not God. God was outside of, God was beyond, the matter to be explained, so God had no place in Newton 's mathematical formulas.

Similarly, we can believe that God is at work in our spiritual growth-just as God is somehow behind the solar system and behind all reality. But even as in the seventeenth century Newton was able to explain certain aspects of the physical universe, we are at a point in history when we can begin to explain spiritual phenomena. On the basis of the workings of the human mind, we can propose a scientific understanding of the spiritual quest. God, grace, the Holy Spirit, or other supposed spiritual entities do not belong in a scientific explanation of spiritual growth. Mixing God up in the matter-like quoting the Bible to explain nuclear energy-can actually mislead us, distract us, and confuse our spiritual quest. So I propose a wholly humanistic understanding of spirituality.

Nonetheless, for those who wish, I will bring God back into the picture later in this book. Understandably, for many people discussion of God is essential, so discussion of God will be of supreme importance for this book. But in the meantime, on the basis of psychological analyses and apart from theology or religion, I proceed to explain spirituality as a purely human phenomenon.

In the first part of this book, I will get down to brass tacks and explain how one does meditation. In the second part, I will I apply contemporary psychology to explain why meditative practice works. Finally, in the third part, I will explain what this practice has to do with God, ethics, spiritual experiences, and good living in general.

I intend to present spirituality as a natural aspect of the human mind, something fully open to religious believers and non-believers alike, indeed, something required by our human constitution and the human condition itself. Thus, I present an account of spirituality that should be supremely useful in the secularized world of competing religions, cultures, and markets. I offer a vision and practical spiritual advice for sane living in a pluralistic world. In short, I share the understanding of spirituality that I wish had been available to me during my seminary training.