Not all spiritual practices are the same.
Some practices reinforce faith. Faith has become synonymous with religion, but not all religions encourage it—because it's not always a good thing. Faith is primarily an act of belief. I've been scolded many times by people who tell me it is much more than that: it involves love and respect. I always ask these people if love or respect on their own, without belief, would still count as faith.
The answer is always no.
So, heathen though I may be, I continue to equate faith and belief. This is a cornerstone of several religions, and unsurprisingly those religions make heavy use of practices that strengthen faith. Two of the practices that do that best are reciting creeds and communing with a god.
Reciting a creed verbally affirms that a god exists, and communion takes the practitioner through the actions of actually addressing that god—even visualizing the deity or his response. Daily prayer does the same thing in a less dramatic, but more frequent way. These practices only make sense if the deity is real, and people hate to doing something unless it makes sense. So the result of these practices is stronger belief. If God didn't exist, I wouldn't be doing this... so He must exist.
On the other hand there's meditation.
There are lots of types of meditations so I'll be more specific. I do awareness meditation. This is the kind of meditation where you give your attention to one thought or image, and put aside any other thoughts that come up.
I do this gently. It is not an act of intense concentration. Instead, it becomes a practice of soft but continuous discipline. The mind is directed back to the object of the meditation, and away from other various thoughts and daydreams. This is done over and over.
This kind of practice leads to something very different. Rather than faith, the result is doubt.
The meditative mind is trained to be more aware: of the self, and of the surroundings. Most people don't notice when something is distracting them, nor do they catch themselves when they cover up pain or anxiety by putting their mind on something else. During awareness meditation, these distractions are turned off. The mind frantically throws new distractions in place (a memory, a daydream, a sound from outside) but each of these is dismissed in turn.
By doing this for years, meditators begin to doubt the little lies we tell ourselves. We tell these lies constantly, every day, to maintain our comfort level and manage our stress. It isn't an efficient system, but it works some of the time.
Meditators begin to manage their stress differently, by seeing through the little lies and distractions, right to the root causes, and then seeing through those too. The truth is that most of the things that cause us stress really aren't worth it; they have no hold on us beyond what we give them. They are distractions just as much as the lies were.
When you learn to navigate the mind and see through its shadows, faith begins to look a lot like one of those lies we tell ourselves. There's someone looking out for me. There's a reason things happen the way they do. If I'm good I'll be rewarded.
Many people wouldn't think that's a good thing. People with faith derive a sense of strength from it: it becomes an unshakeable certainty which can overturn adversity in their lives.
But the meditator develops a strong sense of inner confidence. This presents itself as a calmness that can be carried into any situation. Unlike the confidence of faith, which is drawn from something outside the self (a god, an ideal), the confidence of meditation comes from within the self. Faith is based on hope, which can sometimes be misplaced; meditation is based on knowing yourself, which can never be refuted.
For me, the advantage of this faithless practice came out in times of duress. Meditation doesn't provide comfort like faith does, but it removes the need to be comforted. It taught me to question my assumptions about where I draw my happiness from, which allows me to navigate seemingly terrible losses. Whereas faith can be taken away (“If God is so good, why would he let my brother die?”), the meditative mind relies on nothing external and cannot be threatened. It is a fortress the practitioner always has access to.
If you have thoughts on doubt, faith, or meditation, tweet me @Rogue_Priest. If this post made you think, please retweet or facebook share it!
Drew Jacob is a priest of many gods, a seasoned nonprofit professional, a writer, an observer and all too frequently a student of his own misadventures. He follows the Heroic Path: the idea that the highest goal in life is to live gloriously, to distinguish yourself through your deeds, to be clever and brave and become known for it – to use the moments of your life to leave a lasting and worthy impression on the world.
Drew lives in the Twin Cities and frequently forays into the wilderness to experience nature and challenge himself. He believes in meditation and all other forms of healthy living.
Follow Drew’s blog Rogue Priest and twitter @Rogue_Priest
Posted by Saum at 2:53 PM