DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

18Jan/11Off

MLK And Why I Write About Spirituality

Surprisingly, through all the talk about MLK we've heard today, there's one aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we aren't hearing that much about:  the fact that he was a Christian.

Yes, believe it or not, he had that "Dr." at the beginning of his name because he had a doctorate in theology.  Yes, he spent some time leading civil rights protests, but he spent much more time being a preacher.

Okay, maybe you knew that part.  But what we really don't hear about often is that King's Christianity was rooted in his personal spiritual experience.

When discussing his spirituality, people usually say King was influenced by Christ's or Gandhi's "philosophy" -- as if, based on a sober assessment of their logic and evidence, King concluded their ideas were sound -- but they don't touch on what King saw as his firsthand encounter with the divine.

MLK's Epiphany

I've read and listened to a lot about King, but I only recently heard this story.  One night in 1956, King's struggle was taking its toll, and he was feeling tired and defeated.  Sitting at his kitchen table, he started praying out loud.  Suddenly, he "experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before."

"It seemed as though," he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, "I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying:  'Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.'  Almost at once my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything."  This experience convinced him to stay on his course, and become the leader he became.

When reading about this event, it struck me that this would be a great story to tell the people I know and read who scoff at spiritual practice, and say it's a waste of time.  "Why spend all that time meditating or praying?  Why not go out and do some good in the real world?" they ask.

Some Crazy Ideas

Here's a controversial thought:  what if the very idea of "goodness" has its roots in spiritual experiences like King's?  In other words, what if we wouldn't even have any sense of what it means to "do good," without the guidance of people who have had personal encounters with divinity?

The founders of the great religious traditions -- Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and so on -- are all said to have had life-changing shifts in their consciousness that convinced them of their calling.  These figures' spiritual experiences inspired the teachings and behavior they brought into the world, which in turn created much of what we now call "morality" and "ethics."  At least, so some say.

And how about another crazy idea:  what if the very purpose of spiritual practice -- meditation, prayer, chanting, and so on -- is to bring about that same state of consciousness?  To give the everyday person access to the compassion, inner strength, and sense of universal interconnectedness that drove people like King to accomplish what they did?

If spiritual practice can do that for us -- and, in the interest of full disclosure, I believe it can -- I think it's actually one of the best uses we can make of our time.

7May/10Off

Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 4: A Postscript On Compassion

In the interest of clarity, I want to add a brief note summarizing what I'm saying in this series.

I believe there are two basic ways to think about compassion.  The first is to see it as a way of acting.  If you take certain actions in the world, in other words, that makes you a compassionate person.

People, of course, have vastly different ideas about which behaviors are compassionate and which aren't.  Some think of compassion in terms of individual acts, such as giving to a person begging on the street.  To others, compassion has more to do with a certain distribution of resources in society -- if we work toward a nation where people have roughly equal incomes, perhaps, we are compassionate people.

The second way of thinking about compassion is to see it as an emotion, or a sensation we experience in the body.  For me, when I am feeling compassion, I experience a warm, open sensation in my heart area.  Some might describe this in more mystical terms as a sense of "union with all that is."

Most People See It As A Behavior

It seems clear that, in Western culture at least, people usually take the first perspective -- that you are compassionate so long as you behave a certain way.  It doesn't matter how you feel while you are doing the act.  If you give to a charity, but only so that your name appears on the charity's website, you are being compassionate nonetheless.

I think this perspective is one reason why, in the West, we don't tend to see practices for cultivating a felt sense of compassion as particularly important.  Why bother doing practices like Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, we might think, when we can go into the world and actually help people?

I think the trouble with this perspective is that it renders the concept of compassion vulnerable to abuse.  It enables people who don't actually experience the felt sense of compassion to use the ideal of compassion as a weapon against others, for personal gain.

The Consequences

Look at typical political debates, for example.  Each side accuses the other, in venomous and belittling terms, of lacking compassion, honesty, morality and so on.  Ask yourself:  would they make such accusations against each other if they actually experienced compassion as a feeling -- that sense of warmth and openness in the heart I described?

On a larger scale, many political and religious ideologies have claimed to be rooted in compassion.  Christianity is said to be based on the compassionate teachings of Jesus.  Marx claimed that communism was a compassionate political philosophy.  And yet, of course, people have committed atrocities in the name of both worldviews.

Would these abuses have occurred if the people responsible had genuinely experienced the feeling of compassion, rather than simply believing in the abstract ideal?  (I don't mean to pick on Christianity or communism per se -- I think any doctrine or philosophy, in the hands of someone who isn't actually feeling compassion, can be used to justify destructive behavior.)

In other words, when we're in touch with the felt sense of compassion -- not just the philosophical abstraction -- we become far less inclined to hurt others.  This is why I think practices that help us actually experience the sensation of compassion are so important.

There are many practices aimed at this, and different approaches work better for different people.  In my own case, I know that heart-opening exercises in yoga are particularly helpful.  But the point is that these practices, far from being forms of "woo-woo navel gazing," are actually key to creating the kind of world many of us desire.

Other Posts In This Series: