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Three attitudes towards spiritual practices

It is fairly common to get into a certain practice by imitation. Something becomes the hype of the moment and one wants to try it out. Or for some reason, it looks good, nice, fascinating, and the people who practice it are inspiring or have something attracting in some respect. So, I want to be part of the group, let me join. One might (or might not) be interested in the underpinning ideas, views, and soteriology of those practices—or might investigate them only much later. The first attitude is not ‘let me understand…’ but rather ‘let me try!’


There is nothing wrong per se with this way of approaching spiritual practices. It makes them into a sort of hobby, which is fine, since even when done without much understanding, they are usually safer and healthier hobbies than many other available on the market. But clearly this attitude does not bring much farther than a sheer orthopraxis, the ability of learning and repeating a set of motions as if they were a magical—maybe beautiful—ritual, expressed in an ultimately unintelligible language.


On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who seek solutions for some more or less pressing problem. Usually these are existential or psychological problems: from anxiety and relational troubles, to inauthenticity and lack of meaningfulness (or just not finding what the meaning of things or even life could be). People in this second group will look at available spiritual practices as tools, and probably chose one to try out, based on circumstances (availability of teachings and teachers, personal predispositions and abilities, time commitment) and understanding (an intuitive or reflecting sense that this is what they are looking for, given their departing problem).


This more instrumentalist approach has the advantage of taking seriously from the start the fact that spiritual practices are really nothing but tools designed to help practitioners to realize certain soteriological goals. Sometimes the same tool is put at use for pursuing different goals, and sometimes the same goal is pursued through different tools. This might be confusing, although it is also a hopeful situation, since it allows for sufficient variety and difference for anybody to eventually find something that could fit their condition and work within their being. The main risk with the instrumentalist approach is to take oneself as the ultimate measure for assessing the worth or effectiveness of a practice. A general feature of all spiritual practices is not much that they are tailored around each individual's needs, but rather that they work on the individual in order to deconstruct their pre-established needs and shapes. Of course, a practice has to work for me, but the fact that it does not, does not necessarily entail that it is wrong, inferior, or to be rejected.


There is a third group of people, maybe less numerous... Instead of jumping on a practice due to fascination or social visibility, or seeking it out as a remedy for a spiritual ailment, one can simply ask: ‘what is your vision of the world? How to you understand life? And what do you seek to make with it?’ This is a more philosophical and dialogical attitude, in which one is first curious—so to say—to hear from the practice itself what it is about, and possibly to hear that from the sources (living or historical) in which the practice is grounded. This curiosity can be open to the fascination typical of the first group, and it can be moved by concerns typical of the second, but by itself it takes here the lead and go ahead by following its own demands.


The obvious disadvantage of this attitude is that it can remain confined within the scope of sheer curiosity. In the end, this will remain at best a sort of spiritual tourism, moving through different practices as a flaneur would move within a museum on a Sunday evening. But the advantage is that, if one gets beyond this level of sheer curiosity, one is also in a better position to eventually understand what each practice in its own right is (and several of them when compared are) about.



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