Is it necessary to live in a monastery in order to pursue a spiritual path? How can we focus in our daily lives in the midst of a technological and cultural onslaught? These are the questions that Les Kaye, the abbot of Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Silicon Valley, puts to the reader in the course of his book, A Sense of Something Greater. The extract below reflects on how it might be possible to blend a monastic attitude with our quotidian beings. Next week we look forward to publishing an Author Q&A with Les.
American culture has been transformed during the past hundred years by the rapid growth of technology and the increasing abundance of material goods. We’ve witnessed phenomenal advances in communication, health, safety, and comfort, at the cost of possession-obsession and a need for entertainment 24/7. Smartphones allow us to send and receive emails and news at any time, while we ignore those people right in front of us.
When a culture becomes consumed by materialism, its spirit diminishes. Fulfilling material desires isn’t enough to provide meaning. It’s always accompanied by an empty feeling. When we’re more concerned with what we have than who we are, we lose the ability to distinguish between what looks good and what is beneficial. Deceived by appearances, we become slaves to fashion and opinions. Owning fashionable things might be reassuring, but while we’re in pursuit of them, we need to be careful not to shortchange reflection, humility, and intimacy.
“Whats the point of my life? How do I want to live?” Spiritual practice begins when we recognize the ephemeral nature of pleasure and the ways attachment to a particular outcome can distract us from living fully with what is. In spiritual practice, we seek whats real, beyond ideas of right and wrong. We want to get to the heart of the matter.
People’s ideas about spiritual practice vary greatly. Some are skeptical of the whole realm, concerned it might diminish creativity and drive, interfere with normal life, or be too austere. These concerns are baseless. Material and physical comforts are not inherently bad. Having fun and feeling satisfaction can be terrific. Working and connecting with others can be a joy. It’s just that problems arise when we’re overwhelmed by or addicted to pleasures, possessions, and the unrestricted ability to do whatever we like, at any time, regardless of others’ needs. Consumerism stimulates our desires and attachments and interferes with our clarity, relationships, and peace of mind.
Monastic training offers little of this kind of comfort or pleasure. Monasteries are often located deep in the mountains, where there can be long spells of wet and cold, with temperatures remaining in the twenties, no TVs or smartphones, little free time, and no variation in the prescribed daily routine. Yet, after a while, the mind learns to let go of hoping for “something else” and accommodates itself to this seemingly Spartan life. Monastic training helps us give up striving and become satisfied, even delighted, with basic necessities. The crunch of a carrot at mealtime becomes music, and a closeness develops with nature and other people.
The monks life provides a mirror for the mind to see itself, to recognize its attachments, and clarify desires and delusions so they can be accepted, and ultimately, let go. The rigorous schedule teaches us how to work on the grounds and on ourselves at the same time. Practice for a time at a monastery can be a great resource. Yet not everyone can take the time from everyday responsibilities to spend weeks or months in monastic seclusion. So we have to learn to practice—to find the mirror—in ordinary circumstances.
The vital ingredient for practice is not a special place. It is the need for courage to accept what we discover about ourselves. It takes determination to continue to stay with the truth of who we are when events are painful and distractions abound. We can practice anywhere, anytime, including our workplace—with its creative energy and stresses—if we remain serious about understanding the truth of our life, beyond appearances. Most importantly, we must face our tendencies.
In his 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful, British economist E. F. Schumacher writes, “[The insights of wisdom] … enable us to see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends, to the neglect of the spiritual.” When people recognize the limitations of material possessions and comforts, they seek balance, and they often turn to spiritual practice to find it. A life confined to affluence and excitement leaves nothing to fall back on when we get lost. Spiritual practice can guide us back onto the path toward life’s larger meaning.
Material greatness is not a measure of the quality of a society or an individual. Our true measure is seen in our softer, nonmaterial relationships—how we support, care for, encourage, and acknowledge each other. To practice is to recognize that we are always in the presence of something greater than what we can see, think, hear, or feel. We practice because we know that things just come and go, with no permanence. We want to know their source and their meaning.