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There are those who practice and then again, those who practice

By - Jul 28, 2009 - Category Practice - Print Print - Version française

Dance class

But what exactly is practicing?

In everyday language, practicing is generally understood as “practicing a religion”, that is observing a set of rites and instructions, such as prayers, fasts, dietary laws, commemorations or specific ceremonies on certain occasions. People usually tend to reduce spirituality to religion and to consider that practicing means abiding by more or less dogmatic rites, prescriptions and restrictions. Such misunderstanding makes it impossible to consider the possibility of believing without belonging to a religious group or conversely, impossible to practice religious rites without believing in their spiritual foundations. Difficult as this latter attitude may seem to understand, I have personally encountered such cases.

We will still have to understand the possible function of certain rites, particularly the usefulness of prayer in a spiritual approach, but to begin, it is necessary to define what we mean by “practice”. In other words, how can “a practice” be defined if it does not mean practicing rites?

A minimal definition, in keeping with the one proposed by Ostad Elahi, would take up just one sentence: to practice means to develop virtues in ourselves by struggling against our character faults, be they innate or acquired. A first deduction would then be the following: knowing that the purpose of practicing is the transformation of the self and considering that we are permanently, so to speak, in the presence of our own self except when sleeping or in a coma, it is possible for us to practice at any moment. Then we discover that each particle of our daily life involves an opportunity to struggle against our failings and develop our qualities, from the moment we wake up till the moment we go to sleep, in all our acts and in each and every thought crossing our minds or every emotion experienced during the day. Consequently, and contrary to what is usually thought, practice would therefore not be linked with certain places, certain times or days in the week; it would constitute the invisible fabric of our daily life, provided we look at it in an active state of mind and consider each situation a possible opportunity to carry out our ethical principles.

But enough of this theorizing: practically speaking, what does “to practice” mean?

The newcomer

I belong to a work group which functions very harmoniously. What I like best is to feel useful and appreciated by a team that often gives me opportunities to show my skills in a flattering light. I enjoy working in such conditions, feeling well integrated and recognized as being competent. One day, the team temporarily grew bigger when someone new attended one of our meetings, someone who obviously wanted to join the group on a permanent basis. Just after that meeting, we all got together to exchange our impressions on the “newcomer”. Most of my colleagues were very enthusiastic about seeing the person again after that first meeting which admittedly the person had managed to make a very favorable one. Without being able to clearly analyze the reason at the time, I couldn’t help but feel some dull pain deep down inside me. I had an unpleasant impression of discomfort which grew greater and greater as the discussion was evolving towards a unanimous opinion among all my colleagues. As for me, I was more than doubtful. Irrational as it may have seemed, I felt as if I was personally threatened. My position in the team had been very rewarding thus far and I couldn’t help thinking that that valued equilibrium might be challenged by the arrival of a new element. The powerful desire to intervene and say something to restrain the group’s enthusiasm crossed my mind. I could have easily done so by uttering some criticism which, although not directly related to the subject, might have somewhat tarnished the still immaculate image of that person whom I undeniably saw as a competitor.

And then, crash!

It was our lunch break. I had been waiting for that moment for days. One of my best friends works in the same neighborhood as I do, but we never have time to meet. We had been meaning to have lunch together, but with the amount of work we have, it took us weeks before we could eventually spend some time together. I knew she had tons of things to tell me about what had been happening to her since she’d changed departments and since her love life had started going wild; she had e-mailed me that she’d met the man of her life. So there we were, the two of us, all excited and happy to be together. But hardly had we settled down than an old acquaintance of mine showed up, a person I had never really hit it off with but who, for some obscure reason, appreciated me. I couldn’t avoid saying hello. She was alone and there was a free seat at our table. In a quarter of a second, the dilemma was obvious and almost tragic: I was dying (and so was my friend) to finally spend some good time talking about some very personal matters with one of my best friends and if I invited that other person to sit down with us, our whole plan would fall through and that moment would have to be postponed.

First conclusions

Several lessons can be drawn from these two very commonplace experiences. In each case, despite the apparent composure of the narrator and the triviality of the circumstances, the person is faced with genuine inner agitation. In both accounts, different currents of thought patterns can be perceived, with contradictory emotions, raw impulses, premises for reasoning, scruples and hesitations. To put it simply, in the two sequences of events, there is an imperious desire to let oneself go and surrender to some immediate impulse which is apparently legitimate but always aims at preserving one’s comfort and immediate interest. Yet, in each case, this first impulse is countered by another demand that is directed towards a noble aim: respect for other people, giving up one’s primary objectives and showing altruism, generosity, loyalty and emotional detachment, in a word, humanity. This exercise does not seem to amount to much, but some real “inner turmoil” is experienced in these situations and we could find an infinite number of such examples. In the present cases, we do not know the end of the story so we do not know whether the narrators succeeded in living up to their personal ideal of humanity or not. They may have failed, but in any case, if they tried to resist, they undoubtedly experienced a burning sensation signaling that some interior struggle had taken place and that it had been” painful”, so to speak. After such pain, proportional to the effort made, they each developed their humanity a bit more. Sportsmen are familiar with that sensation of heat and slightly stinging numbness that corresponds to the combustion of lactic acid in a muscle during a sustained effort. They also know that it is their effort which makes it possible for them to increase their muscle mass by increasing the number and the diameter of the fibers that are activated during the exercise.

The other lesson to be learnt from these accounts may be even more important. In each case, the situation is so trivial and ordinary that one could easily experience it personally without realizing anything whatsoever. Looking back on it as an “outside observer”, it is easy to clearly distinguish each stage of the scenario, but when you go through such live situations personally, you do not always feel that inner tension, much less realize the ethical issue at stake. We can practice anywhere and in any circumstances, sometimes so close to us that it is all too easy to miss opportunities that arise under our very eyes. Occasions for practicing make up the invisible canvas of our daily life. Practice needs no particular place, time or conditions. This is what makes all the difference between practice in the ritual sense and practice in the spiritual sense.

That does not mean that what is commonly called ritual practice should be denied all value and this is particularly true for prayer and those privileged moments of attention to the divine. To use yet another medical metaphor, ritual practice acts as an adjuvant on our soul the way vitamins act on our physical organism; vitamins are essential to our metabolism in the sense that vitamin deficiency—avitaminosis—leads to death. But then again, a diet based on vitamins only would also lead to death, even more rapidly.

“Do you practice?” Here is a question that is often heard. Reconsidering what practicing means in the light of the few conclusions drawn from this reflection, would I say about myself that “I practice”?


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12 comments

  1. Blake Sep 16, 2009 4:52 pm 1

    This was wonderfully simple enough; yet tangible and pragmatic for me to understand something

  2. Ada Oct 07, 2009 10:19 am 2

    Thank you for these very simple examples of every day situations. It is fascinating to realise that you can actually practice spirituality “anywhere and in any circumstances.” It seems simple, but it’s not that simple, actually. Because even though I’m interested in spirituality and I feel concerned, and I would like to “develop virtues in myself” as Ostad Elahi puts it, I don’t know where to start. The question at the end of the article “Do I practice?” gave me an idea, which is quite practical, I think: I should always be asking myself this question in two contexts:
    1. “Do I practice what I preach?” I mean, there are things which I believe are right, fundamental principles of ethics: am I always making sure I’m not influenced by ideas that do not conform to my principles? Nor dominated by some kind of pressure (coming from my surroundings or from inside my own person) that makes me totally obliterate the principles I’m supposed to cherish? Obviously, I don’t pretend I could pay close attention all the time, but I could, for example, try to review elements of my day in the evening and check if my behaviour was in accordance with my belief.
    2. “Do I practice?”: Do I perform exercises regularly in order to become more proficient? Like for the dancers in the picture, I know for sure that in spirituality too there are gestures that are difficult to perform in the first place and that you have to repeat them again and again before you can hope to improve them. For example, I have such a hectic schedule that I find it hard to spend time listening to people, even though I know it’s something I should do. Practicing, in this case, could mean arranging a kind of programme to make myself more available.
    In any case, I have understood that it will require a big effort. No pain, no gain 😉

  3. Zulu Oct 12, 2009 4:53 am 3

    I have been pondering on both experiences for some time. I totally understand the essence and purpose of the experiences that show the existence of a strong desire within us that solely thinks of its own interest. Especially, with the first experience, it is very clear that the person was experiencing a feeling of jealousy toward the newcomer. And, we all know such feelings are detrimental and negative. But the second example is not as clear as the first. I see more legitimacy in it. In the first example by acting on one’s negative feelings, we are trampling on someone else’s rights, and as a result we will be accountable for it. But I don’t see the second example the same way. The “crash” example is neither unethical nor illegitimate. The two friends had planned for such meeting for a long time and they wanted to be left alone. And just by seeing an acquaintance, we can’t decide on our own to invite him/her to our table without the consent of the other party. What if our friend doesn’t agree and by imposing the presence of our acquaintance we are infringing on his/her right? But I understand the point that the person should not feel agitated by seeing a minor threat that might ruin his/her plans. We should demonstrate flexibility in our lives to certain extent and be prepared that sometimes things won’t go as we have planned. Or, in some cases be able to yield our feelings and desires in favor of others.
    For instance, I have an experience I would like to share that is related to a similar “inner agitation”:
    I was chatting with a close friend of mine on the internet. It has been a while since we had talked and we weren’t able to find a time to chat recently. So I was very enthusiastic to find him available to chat. After five minutes, someone rang my doorbell repeatedly as if in a hurry. I asked my friend to wait a minute. There was my neighbor at the door. They were about to leave for a short trip and was asking if I could feed their dog and walk him for the weekend! I said, I surely can do it but my neighbor wanted me to go to their house to give me the instructions. And yes, my neighbor wanted me to go right away!
    At the onset I was somewhat irritated and thought to myself “how selfish of my neighbor.” Obviously, they had planned for this trip before and could have contacted me earlier to arrange some time that works for both of us. But then I told myself that this could be a great opportunity to help someone. So despite my inner agitation, I cut my chat with my friend short and went with the neighbor.

  4. Ralph rodriguez Oct 19, 2009 4:37 am 4

    Thank you for your clarifications. I am just wondering whether this so called Ostad Elahi’s practices are really different than other types of practices in other religions. They all follow certain regulations to improve the virtues – based on their defined regulations- and they all ask their believer to obey some sort of rules and so on.
    Sincerely

  5. Mat Oct 20, 2009 9:33 pm 5

    The “crash” experience is so true. When one decides to practice, by paying attention to the source in any situation, s/he will be aided. In this example if the third person had not shown up, God knows where the friendly chat would be ended! In fact he was a savior.

  6. Zulu Oct 23, 2009 8:16 am 6

    Ralph, I think you raised an excellent question. I am not sure if I have the answer, but I would like to give it a try!
    I don’t think one could consider Ostad Elahi’s philosophy as a “another religion.” I am quite convinced that any person from any religion can follow his teachings without contradicting their religion. It is clear from his works that Ostad Elahi believed all religions to be derived from the same Source. According to him: “When you view all envoys and saints as True and no longer differentiate between religions, you have entered the realm of mysticism.” I take this as an invitation to seek for a higher level of awareness, reaching out for the essence of religion, rather than limiting ourselves with religious practices or rituals that may not necessarily be appropriate for our times. He also believes that spirituality should be compatible with time and place. People of our time are different from the people of the past and therefore the way they practice spirituality should be different. As a result, he introduces concepts such as the “Medicine of the Soul”, the “Imperious Self”, “Education of Thought”, etc.
    I find Ostad Elahi’s teaching to be comprehensive and cohesive; that’s what makes it unique to me. I find it alive, up to date and efficient; it challenges me to my limits and pushes me out of my comfort zone; and it is very rich. Well, I suspect most of the points I mentioned are very subjective and it is only through some kind of practice that one can gain a deeper undertsanding… Also, I don’t believe that Ostad Elahi’s teachings are the only path to the Source: one shall seek the path that one is more compatible with.

  7. Love for the Beloved Oct 26, 2009 1:20 am 7

    Beautiful explanation Zulu.
    On a side note: all these all articles are a blessing, thank you so much.

  8. Mat Nov 19, 2009 10:11 pm 8

    @Ralph

    Ralph, I just have to add on thing to Zulu’s reply on your question and that’s the “experience”. One, can not find the difference between Ostad’s teaching with the rest, unless s/he experiences for her/himself. Once, we begin to study the concept of his philosophy, struggle to educate ourselves with those principles, that’s when we have taken the first step to realize the core of his teachings which changes the world and it’s spectrum around us.

  9. SAEO Dec 07, 2009 8:45 pm 9

    This explanation was wonderful. A very helpful and practical article that will be extremely beneficial to me in analyzing my level of spiritual practice.

  10. Ali Tinat(Zoghi). Dec 13, 2009 10:02 pm 10

    Ada, I find your concerns in terms of Practicing on the basis of our daily lives a very important facet of spirituality that I’m sure concerns us all. However, and having Ostad Elahi’s guidelines as a criteria to weigh things against, I would like to add the following:

    I. According to Ostad Elahi, one must practice spirituality according to one’s own capacity and within his/her own framework of daily responsibilities.

    II. Spiritual good deeds and altruism is not based on a quantified format but rather quality plus intentions. A rich person offering one percent of his/her wealth to charity in the amount of €1 million can easily equate a poor one’s one percent being a mere €10. Extrapolating from the same analogy, and hectic as you are, this means 1 minute of your listening time is worth as much as 10 minutes of mine, most likely.

    III. The tasks we take upon ourselves should also start from small and minute, on a step by step coordinated effort; prior to the taking of the gigantic ones. This is the law of true practice in any form -being dance, various arts, or acquiring knowledge.

    IV. One might be practicing altruism and combating one’s “Imperious Self” without being fully aware of it. For instance, if your have read this far, you’ve already practiced being a good listener!Lol

  11. mariam Dec 14, 2009 5:45 am 11

    The “crash” was a great lesson. I have been in that situation many times and missed the point that when god is connecting with me I should communicate back and realize this is a message.

  12. Eileen May 16, 2011 4:01 am 12

    Thank you for such a clear analysis of an everyday experience that certainly I can relate to and I think, also, most other people. I have had similar experiences, but would not be able to put into words describing it and analyzing it in terms of putting our practical work into practice.

    Also, to Ali Tinat (Zoghi), thank you. Your analyses that you provide and the way you break the thoughts into separate paragraphs really, really helps me to understand better and enables me to hold my attention for easy reading and comprehension.

    Please know that I feel that I truly benefit from your comments on every subject matter you respond to and provide information with your analyses.

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