Sunday, January 11, 2004

Challenge and Comfort

Dave wrote:

Dale, you write very persuasively and engagingly about your life in the sangha. I wonder if you have read any of Idries Shah's writings on the evils of social conditioning, and if so, how you would answer his charge that most of what people seek in religion is the opposite of true seeking: to be comforted rather than to be challenged?

No, I'm afraid I haven't read Idries Shah, but I do have a glib answer to the charge as I understand it here. I can't imagine a relationship to a church that wasn't made of both -- both the desire to be comforted and the desire to be challenged.

I would have to be a person with a vast experience of churches, rather than a person with very little, to hope to answer whether most of what people seek is comfort. And I view such quantifications with suspicion. "Most," measured how? I can make a wild guess as to the proportions in my own case -- maybe 20% comfort, 80% challenge? But I could easily be off by 40 points. And my guesses about other people in my sangha would be even wilder, and if I were to guess about people in the Pentecostal church down the street my guesses would be completely worthless. I don't have a clue.

There are a couple assumptions that may be implicit in the charge (always bear in mind here that I haven't read Idries Shah, so I'm just answering what I imagine he said, which is probably considerably less intelligent than what he actually said).

1) That the desire for comfort is usually a bad thing. It can be a bad thing, certainly. There are times when I go the sangha hoping to cash in on previous meditation and experiences of the numinous. Hoping to trade them for worldly respect and ease: to sit down and have a nice session of mutual congratulation, and hold the terrors of real introspection and real openness at bay. But there is also a desire for comfort that is humble and open. The sort of thing I imagine Jesus had in mind when he spoke of "the poor in spirit" -- the recognition of my spiritual poverty, and the recognition that I need the help of people wiser and braver than I. "Nobody can walk the path for you," is profoundly true. But it's also true that it would be absurd to rely on my ego -- which got me into this mess in the first place -- to get me out of it.

2) There may be an assumption -- certainly is in the suspicion of churches that I commonly encounter -- that the proportions of challenge and comfort are a characteristic of the institution, rather than of the individual's relationship with the institution. I have no doubt that some institutions are more skillful than others in challenging people. There may be some (though frankly I doubt it) that have no interest at all in challenging people to real introspection, and real openness to spiritual experience. And I think my own sangha is especially skillful this way. We never have a "service" that doesn't include some fifty minutes of silent meditation. It's pretty damn hard to sit silently for fifty minutes without some challenge coming along, no matter how hell-bent on comfort (in the bad sense) I may be.

But really what matters is what I bring -- my own motivation, my own daily practice. It helps to have a skillful tradition and a skillful teacher. It helps a lot. But it's my own motivation that determines whether what I'm doing at the sangha is practice, or the avoidance of it.

Finally, the question is not simply, "do I find more spiritual challenge or more avoidance of it at my sangha?" The important question is, "will I find more spiritual challenge at my sangha than I would have found staying home tonight?" Milarepa was quite right to stay in his cave rather than going to practice at a monastery. He wasn't going to spend the evening rereading Patrick O'Brian and eating ice cream. For me, however, the answer's usually not far to seek. There's going to be more challenge at the sangha.

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