Yoga and ch’i kung and other associated body work or therapies are examples of bodily practices that were originally spiritual in nature and purpose. Both however have become materialised, or 'physicalised' in their move to the West. Because there was no cultural understanding of the phenomenon of samādhi – the phenomenon of chakras or of ch’i – the brightness within the body was taken to be some kind of energy rather than a manifestation of emptiness. This is a natural enough mistake to make when we associate physical exercise with the generation of energy of some kind. It is a mistake that will be reinforced over and over if the people coming to learn these skills are looking for energy.
This mistake can end up leading us in completely the wrong direction. It is not that we do not find energy through our practice, but that this is a phenomenon of mind rather than a physical energy. Instead of trying to find this emptiness and to keep the emptiness empty we try to create something. We do not see that the emptiness is filled by, obstructed by, our desire – even this desire to create energy. Or usually we do not see the emptiness at all but associate spiritual energy with more mundane feelings that are, after all, experienced in the body too.
The same mistake is thankfully true of dark, negative energy as well. Interestingly people can see that this is associated with a negative state of mind (perhaps what is obviously negative is clearer than that which is truly positive) but again it is 'physicalised' so that people become afraid of being effected by the negative thoughts of others. The darkness of others' minds is not a threat, it cannot effect us directly but only if we share the unwholesome ideas or perceptions that are at its source. Yet on this basis people are excluded from meditation retreats if they are not vegan or eat garlic and on it goes to the point where anyone with a problem could find themselves excluded until they can sort themselves out. So much for compassion. Where this leads us internally is no less scary. We can be led into a never-ending effort to purify ourselves of something that is not really there – through a deep confusion between the physical purity of diet or exercise and the purity of the mind.
People also run away from all this to seek spiritual seclusion, but this is supposed to be aimed at getting us away from our desires and calming the mind toward Nibbāna; it is not a way to get away from everything we don't like, away from bad old saṃsāra. This is just following our desire in the opposite direction. This is wrongly blaming the world for the suffering that comes ultimately from our own desire and craving.
Let us consider also the example of sexual, tantric practice. Here there can be a confusion between the rapture of orgasm which arises out of the body and the rapture of samādhi. It is tempting to say that this confusion has been exploited by gurus since time immemorial. These kinds of rapture are, however, of a completely different nature. The rapture of samādhi is an explosive opening, a feeling that opens the mind free of attachment and desire. But they are both rapturous so again an easy mistake to make and yet again a mistake that, this time so very obviously, takes us in a completely different direction. It is true also that the heart chakra is the most powerful of all, but this is not associated with our romantic feelings of love but with a higher kind of love, an unconditional love in which we let go of our attachment to one individual and love all beings the same – and it is the letting go of the first that gains us the second form of love.
Moreover, sexual exploitation is not the only kind of exploitation in quasi-spiritual circles. In modern consumer spirituality a lot of money can be made from making people's relatively ordinary experiences seem more special. In this way there is no need to do all the hard work of the spiritual life but just to do the nice exercises and then form a nice and spiritual view of ourselves. The reality is that nobody gets samādhi easily, but also that this experience is far more marvellous than anyone can imagine. So spiritual life above all is the one that requires the most dedication in order to break through, otherwise it will not be so special, yet people with real faith can be prepared to practice for life-times, through all kind of hardships, to finally get there. One tiny glimpse of samādhi sets a seed so deep that it is enough for someone never to look back. However, someone who has not experienced this should be careful to criticise lesser pleasures or they risk just entering into a dry idealism; so many monks and nuns do this and become gradually more and more miserable. The clever ones make do with a walk on the beach.
A further mistake of the same we can make is to think that highly spiritual beings have limitless physical energy or resources, they can even mistakenly think this themselves or that their selflessness can end up taking them beyond their physical limits. We should not be disappointed by our limits. If we had no such limit as spiritual practitioners would we not eventually find ourselves with an indestructible mind in a worn out body unable to escape? Doesn't sound good. The Buddha himself relinquished his old body when it wore out.
But lets not fall into seeing such considerations as negative. All of this kind of thinking is neither placing some kind of limit on our spiritual endeavour. Nor is such discrimination just a dry intellectual exercise. It is rather wrong understanding that limits us. Confining ourselves to an energy or bodily feeling is what is limiting us in time or space.
Perhaps we can need to recognise how our spiritual practise can become tainted by the desire for power or to be something special in the world. Or maybe our hope is for a physical healing beyond the limits of our minds. In contrast if we can humbly bow and let go then we can have found something real that we can come to realise is everlasting. Something within the world that is also beyond the world. We have found freedom and true spirituality, not just another kind of slavery in spiritual materialism and it will not be hard to let go of a lesser happiness for a far greater one.
I offer this for your reflection