Inner Peace: Psychological Development, Religious, and Spiritual Practice – 2015

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

A few years ago, I had a client who came to therapy who said her goal was inner peace. I thought that was an excellent and succinct way to phrase the goal for therapy, and that it was perhaps the real goal for all of therapy. However, soon after she came to therapy she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wasn’t able to grasp the meaning of her illness; she became very anxious and confused. I visited her the week before she died and she said at that time that she wasn’t ready to die, and she couldn’t accept that that was what was going to happen.

For someone who works in the psychological field, it is interesting that I primarily focus on spiritual practice when it comes to inner peace. This is not because the psychological part is unimportant. I have learned that psychological work and growth are prerequisites on the journey towards inner peace. Aspects of psychological work that are important to address are: issues related to our childhood or family history, traumatic or significant events that have happened in our past, character or personality issues that cause difficulties in our relationships or employment, working through other relationship or personal issues that cause conflict or dissatisfaction, developing self esteem and a strong sense of identity, working towards other, specific aspects of growth and development. But — I have learned that, surprisingly, psychological work alone will not result in inner peace. So I recommend making a specific effort to do the psychological work that may be necessary, and at the same time to begin to explore a path that you can follow as a spiritual practice.

Unfortunately, inner peace is not something we can attain overnight or just with the intent for peace. Maybe it is more like running a marathon or winning a medal in the Olympics. It takes setting a goal, determination, discipline, and perseverance for a long period of time. If you want to run a marathon, a half marathon, or a 5K, it is necessary to start on day number one with a short, easy walk or jog. It takes working over time to increase your distance and speed. It takes effort and practice. Siddharta Gautama, The Buddha, when he meditated under the “bodhi tree”, experienced “realization”. One of the things he came to understand and teach was that the spiritual path requires effort. Mathieu Ricard, in his book “Happiness” echoed this point explaining that happiness can’t be obtained with a materialistic value system, but rather requires a long term effort at both mindfulness and meditation.

To think about Christian requirements – or recommendations – for religious practice, or to think of spirituality in terms of requirements of specific practices may seem repugnant. Or we may prefer to find our own way in terms of what we need to do. This is OK. It may be even good. In fact, it is what we usually try to do – at first, or second, or one hundredth, or one hundred and tenth. The problem is when we try our own way – like maintaining an addiction, doing something illegal, maintaining selfishness, being inconsiderate of others – we find out that these ways unfortunately really do not lead to inner peace. After some struggle, and if we’re lucky or if we persevere enough, we may then realize that it has already been figured out what combination of activities leads to inner peace. The Christian and Buddhist paths are two examples. Other great religions also set forth guidelines for us. It’s up to us whether or not we want to truly come to an inner peace.

In the book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes the activities that he feels are required in living a religious life. For example: prayer, meditation, fasting, study, solitude, confession, worship, and community are some of the components. A long time ago I read a little article by Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and author. It was called “Lifestyle of the Lay Contemplative.” He described the daily life of someone who is dedicated to living a religious life. He explained that being a “lay contemplative” requires some time each day of solitude, silence, reflection, prayer, and participation in religious ritual. Bernard McVeigh was previously the Abbot of the Trappist Monastery in Lafayette, Oregon. He mentored lay contemplatives in the Portland area. He told me, “You can’t just think about, read about, or talk about spirituality. To live a religious — or a spiritual life — requires a specific daily practice.”

Robert Aitken Roshi, a Zen scholar and master and my own teacher for six years, has written that the essential components of Zen Buddhist training are Zazen, Sesshin, Dokusan, and Samu. This means sitting meditation, retreat, meeting with the teacher, and community work practice. It has been known throughout the ages, and with diverse cultures all over the world, that to develop ourselves and to find an inner peace requires specific aspects of practice and development. Robert Aitken’s early book Taking the Path of Zen describes what the Zen journey consists of. In a later book, Mind of Clover, he describes the Ten Precepts, which, sort of comparable to the ten commandments, address moral guidelines. It is necessary to follow ethical and moral guidelines, as well as to have a specific daily spiritual practice, in order to come to an inner peace.

Beginning regular or daily meditation is a good way to begin a spiritual practice. The first question, though, is what is an appropriate posture for meditation. One view is that reading and/or reflection in a relaxed posture constitutes meditation. Almost all classical and contemporary descriptions of meditation begin with a description of a specific sitting posture. The classic Zen meditation instruction is given by Dogen Zenji in the 13th century in his writing, Zazengi, in the Shobogenzo. In Zazengi, Dogen gives specific detailed instructions for a sitting posture. Robert Aitken wrote that two things are necessary for “meditation”: breath and posture. You might think that breath is the most important of these, but he surprisingly and specifically wrote that he felt that the most important of the two is posture.

There are various instructions for the method of meditation depending on different schools and traditions, but generally if you assume a sitting meditation posture and you are trying to follow one of the methods, regardless of what is going on in your head, you are meditating. I say this because many people think that meditating requires a quiet mind, and when they try to meditate they immediately become discouraged. The mind thinks. So for the beginner, and even for the advanced meditator a lot of the time, the mind is going to think. One effort is to let your thoughts come and go without discrimination or preferences. The classic meditation instruction is to focus on the count of your your breath, or to focus on the breath. Dogen Zenji wrote that to study the Buddha Way is to study the self. It is important to observe yourself without judgement, and you will learn and grow in the process. You will also become more accepting and able to quiet your mind. Dogen said, to study the self is to forget the self. If you forget yourself, your mind will quiet and awareness of your body will also fall away.

Over time if you persevere with a regular practice of meditation, you will develop the ability to quiet the mind. It helps to have someone, a guide or a teacher, who can provide instruction and help you with the obstacles and hindrances that you encounter. In the two books, “Taking the Path of Zen” by Robert Aitken and “Zen Mind Beginners Mind” by Shunryo Susuki, the authors include a detailed instruction for sitting meditation.

Robert Aitken provided some beautiful instruction for meditation when he wrote,

“Come back to your home…. Even in jumbled peaks, it is calling clearly. Even in the most difficult circumstances, when you feel isolated by the malice of people on the job and misunderstandings with your family members, when injustice is everywhere and the world is in crisis — the thrush sings magnificently in the hibiscus hedge. Come back to your home, come back to your place of rest. When you come forth from there, you come forth appropriately.”

The length of time recommended for meditation varies: 20, 25 or 40 minutes are standard times. But I recommend for beginning meditation it is helpful to assume the posture and to sit for just 3, 5 or 8 minutes at first. Then to increase the time naturally towards 8, 12 or 15 minutes. This gives the body time to acclimatize and accommodate to sitting meditation, just as the runner doesn’t start with 5 miles or a half marathon. It is important to sit daily, even if the length of time is short at the beginning, and then to continue a daily practice slowly settling into a time that works for you, 15, 20, or 25 minutes.

I feel that the important components of a spiritual practice include study, sitting meditation, dialogue and relationship with a teacher, and, if possible, participation in a spiritual community. There is also the ethical/moral component which is inherently and necessarily part of a spiritual practice. With a daily practice and with effort in these aspects of a spiritual life, we can develop, grow, and mature in a spiritual practice. These are the components that can lead, over time, to inner peace. My client who developed pancreatic cancer didn’t have time for the development of a spiritual practice. Unfortunately, she never accomplished her goal for therapy. She never found her own inner peace.

With awareness and with a long term effort, we can find peace. In “The Original Dwelling” place, Robert Aitken explains that our practice, with all the components that it includes, with study, meditation, a teacher, and a community, what we will find in the end is that “the Way itself will turn out to be peace.”