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Spiritual Material Automation

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I came across a website advertising Mala beads as a solution to life’s problems. The author claims that “Buddhist jewelry can help people to improve their lives,” and that by simply wearing this jewelry, “one can do less and achieve more in his/her life.” If only it were so easy to harvest and reap spirituality through material automation.

Mala beads are similar to Holy Rosaries; they symbolize intention, devotion, and prayer. The object itself is unimportant, because it is not the source of spiritual power. By nature, the spiritual object is insentient. It does not feel or think.

Moreover, objects can possess any meaning that we assign to them. The expression of the object’s meaning is in the assignment of its symbolism, therefore the source of the object’s power is truly in its possessor.

There are thousands of examples to illustrate this point, but let’s use one that can induce a laugh. In this key moment in Spaceballs (1987), Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) channels Yogurt (Mel Brooks) after Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) throws the Schwartz ring through a floor grate.

As we hear, Yogurt tells Lone Starr that the Schwartz is in him. The ring never had anything to do with it. “The ring is bupkis. I found it in a Cracker Jack box.” Lone Starr’s spiritual power is found within.

I won’t invest much more rhetorical criticism on what is clearly a predatory website that preys upon people’s spiritual fears ten to one hundred and thirty dollars at a time, but I will discuss how this pertains to what I’ve learned so far and how it connects with another spiritual aspect of my life.

When my university switched to distance learning and remote operations, I called campus counseling services and requested telecounseling. I was encouraged to attend tele-recovery sessions, which use communication technology to facilitate recovery groups. I was a little reluctant to go to the recovery meeting due to my personal and professional experiences with previous recovery models, but I went anyway, and I can’t quite pinpoint why.

Recovery, as I quickly learned, is not inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation. It’s a step in a longer process that I understand to be between personal relief and personal reform.

Recovery posits that spirituality is a means to an end, and to what end that is exactly, I can’t or won’t attempt to articulate right now. Know that recovery is not a cardinal value. It’s not a single point on a line — it is the line. But wouldn’t it be easier if it was just a point that could give us needed healing, happiness, and spirituality? Absolutely, but that is in essence asking for the same spiritual material automation that our friends over at the Mala bead shop are selling us.

In the Dalai Lama’s book An Introduction to Buddhism, he writes:

You need to appreciate, however, that this process will take time. It requires commitment to a long and sustained period of spiritual practice. So you may need to overcome the modern-day habit of automation. We flick a switch and something pops up! We need to strive to overcome this conditioning and go back through more than 2,000 years of human endeavor, to a time when hard work was the only viable method.

Lama, Dalai . An Introduction to Buddhism (Core Teachings of Dalai Lama) (p. 3). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

Roll up your sleeves and get to work, right? It’s similar to a mystic who I’ve heard say, “This is not a self help manual.” Spirituality is not a pill. It’s not a best seller. It can’t be swallowed all at once in an attempt to produce some kind of universally predictable outcome. It takes practice. But what kind of practice?

As a little league baseball coach said to a team of children, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” When I remove the helicopter parent from that statement, I can reduce it to a much healthier, albeit ambiguous, statement, “intentional practice expresses meaningful practice.”

This also means that practice doesn’t involve the assumed quality of your tools. The instruments (whether they are baseball gloves and Mala beads), are more useful in practiced hands.

In recovery, the quality of the program, the facilitators, the counselors, or the technology are useful in those who practice with intention. As I’ve seen in a number of video conference calls, you can’t just turn on Zoom and expect good results without first practicing. And as I’ve noticed in recovery, you can’t just show up to recovery and expect better behavior. And as I’ve noticed in Buddhism. You can’t hold insentient beads and expect your suffering to wear away. Roll up your sleeves. It’s time to get to work.

Here is a screenshot of the website I referred to. You can read it yourself. Since reading it, I’ve been asking myself where I believe in points and where I should believe in processes.

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