Thursday, May 21, 2009

Survival: Returning to Ancient Practices

In a previous post on Tuesday I wrote about how our built-in survival mechanisms actually get in our way when we are no longer in a situation in which survival is at stake. More exactly, we were designed to deal with survival issues surrounding a scarcity of food and an abundance of carnivorous predators. In the U.S. most of us live in a culture with an abundance of food and a lack of predators--we're at the top of the food chain. Instead of acute but short-lived stress (walking in the woods and encountering a bear) we live with lower level yet chronic stress. Most of us need to lose weight and exercise more, but our lifestyles and our bodies defense against starvation work against us. In order to counteract our survival mechanisms which now threaten our lives, we have to discipline ourselves to eat healthy food and avoid unhealthy food (I love chips!), eat less food, and carve out time to exercise both to clean our arteries as well as to drain off the chronic stress most of us are under.

The same is true spiritually. Survival mechanisms are self-centered, but to develop the spiritual life requires us to develop a strong sense of other-centeredness. Jesus said to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. This isn't wholly alien to our natures, but it certainly goes against the grain of the survival instinct.

Paul talks about bringing the body under control through disciplines in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27: "Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it...."

Punish the body, enslave it. Harsh words, but that is what athletes do. They put their bodies through punishing exercises in order to get it to do what would otherwise be impossible. They are bringing it under control.

The early church developed practices to bring the self-centeredness of our bodies (and our minds) under control. Many if not most of these practices, called spiritual disciplines, are not found in Christianity alone but can be found in various forms in all religions. But just because Buddhists meditate does not mean that there is not a place for meditation in a Christian's life. It's just a matter of orientation.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies. That sure goes against our survival instinct. It's not natural. What's natural is to want to hurt our enemies, to kill them if need be. So how do you love an enemy. Well, Jesus said to pray for them. It will be hard at first, and your prayers might not be all that benevolent, but you discipline yourself to do it anyway. Praying daily and earnestly for a person you consider to be your enemy will make it harder to hate them, and not-hating is a first step toward loving.

Prayer as a spiritual discipline makes you more aware of God. And when you pray for others, you by definition are more aware of them. It's easy to ignore children dying of starvation if you never think of them. Make them a part of your daily prayer, and you will think of them. And they will haunt you. And you will want to help them. Whatever else that prayer might do, it keeps people and their needs on our minds.

Fasting is not much in fashion, except when trying to drop ten pounds fast. But it's purpose, among other things, is both to expose how dependent we are on gratification and also to wean us from that dependency. Brian McLaren, reflecting on a an experience of fasting, writes, "During that day of fasting, I felt and acknowledged my weakness in the face of impulses and cravings from my body."

When I call these and other spiritual disciplines ancient practices, I don't mean that they are out-of-date but rather than they are well-tried and have proven to be effective for thousands of years.

But they aren't easy. And they aren't natural. But with discipline and practice, they can become natural.

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