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More than ever before, many of us are struggling to cope with the trials and tribulations of modern life. In this concise and eloquent volume, D. Patrick Miller inspires us to meet these challenges with a practical faith, which he describes as "the way out of misery, the way into self-knowledge, and the way toward a more fulfilling and effective life."
Miller outlines a path to a "useful spirituality" that can be floowed by anyone with or without traditional religious beliefs. In four lucid steps--Releasing Guilt, Gathering Trust, Practicing Patience, and Learning Transcendence--Miller shows how to develop a practical faith in the midst of everyday life. A journalist by trade who has rediscovered the value of faith after a health and spiritual crisis, he condenses years of personal and professional study into an exceptional synthesis of contemporary wisdom.
In today's tumultuous world, The Book of Practical Faith offers all of us an invaluable gift: a sensible path toward an everyday experience of faith that is at once pragmatic and profound.
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About the Author
D. Patrick Miller is a senior writer for Yoga Journal and a frequent contributor to The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas.His work has also appeared in Natural Health, Self, The Utne Reader, The Columbia Journalism Review, and many other periodicals. He is the author of A Little Book of Forgiveness and co-author (with Tom Rusk, M.D.) of Instead of Therapy and The Power of Ethical Persuasion. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Miller lives with his wife, Laurie Fox, in Berkeley, California.
Read an Excerpt
The Book of Practical Faith
A Path to Useful Spirituality
By D. Patrick Miller
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 D. Patrick Miller
All rights reserved.
What stands in the way of faith is not cynicism, but guilt. While cynicism is a compensation for living faithlessly, it is paradoxically a kind of faith itself. Instead of relying on hope, possibility, and the best in other people, cynics rely on disappointment, pessimism, and distrust. By maintaining this attitude, they hope to cut their losses and be amply prepared for the next insult or disaster that life sends their way.
Cynicism seems to have a lot going for it in the modern world. Any cynic worth his or her salt would say it's always been the best policy. I know that I didn't give up cynicism until it utterly failed me as a means of self-protection. I reached a point in life where I had nothing left to lose but life itself, and even that didn't look like much to hold on to. As I began to understand the psychological roots of my physical collapse, it became clear that my cynical, stressful attitudes toward life had delivered me into this catastrophic condition.
But that wasn't the biggest surprise I experienced. The real shocker was comprehending that the source of my cynicism was neither the sorry state of the world nor any betrayal I had experienced at the hands of other people. The source of my cynicism was my own guilt: about what I had done and not done with my life, about my family, about my intimate relationships, about sex, about food, about almost anything you could name.
When all of this self-judgment became overwhelming, then I decided that the world was in terrible shape and that I had to maintain a wary, jaundiced point of view lest I be victimized by someone. All the while, of course, I was the one doing the most damage to myself. It is the peculiar torture of the cynic to be wearing full battle dress on the outside while the enemy is on the inside, already ravaging the soul's territory.
The enemy is guilt. Guilt arises from the reluctance to change. If we harm someone or violate our own inner sense of right and wrong, we should feel a sense of alarm. In response to that internal alarm, we need to acknowledge our error and either correct or try to make up for it. At the very least, we need to start changing inwardly, changing into someone who would not make that mistake again. It's when we don't act inwardly or outwardly that we begin to accumulate guilt. While it's true that we may finally act responsibly when guilt becomes unbearable, guilt should not be mistaken for a motivation in itself. Something else within ourselves — the soul that is always yearning for greater clarity and purposefulness — will eventually recognize that guilt must be released and real change undertaken.
The first step toward a practical faith is the most radical, for our belief in the value of guilt is incredibly powerful — bred in the bone, it seems. Questioning a single particle of our guilt can seem like heresy, particularly if we have been raised in a religious tradition that teaches themes of sin and guilt. Many people struggle to preserve their religious faith and their guilt at the same time, and in nearly equal proportions. This is highly impractical. Guilt takes up inner, psychic space where faith could otherwise abide. Guilt and faith cannot have a peaceful coexistence. In the choice between guilt and faith lies the world's fate, for faith can conquer all. Guilt will sit on its hands and not do a damn thing.
The key to releasing guilt is unbelievably simple: even if the process may be long and difficult. Ask for guilt to be taken away by a power greater than your own, the original creative intelligence that some of us call God. To ask for this divine favor, it is not necessary to believe in God; it is only necessary to be willing to change. (Personally, I believe that a God powerful enough to have created the universe is a God who feels secure enough to help out disbelievers.) The tiniest kernel of a willingness to change is the first seed of faith and the beginning of the end of guilt.
Ending the Inner War
To release guilt is not to fight or deny it. Most people cannot remain guilty for very long without fighting the feeling, and this incites an inner war. But it is only an inner surrender that brings about change. When guilt seems implacable and change impossible, it's time to surrender to the obvious — that is, we cannot release our guilt on our own. We must invite assistance from unseen powers.
Such assistance arrives on its own schedule, and through subtle means that may escape your notice at first. For instance, someone may begin to treat you more mercifully than before, although you may not immediately relate this change to your prayer for release from guilt. But it is my experience that divine assistance does eventually arrive, and whenever it is recognized it may be said that the existence of God is proved because God has delivered a change within ourselves that we did not know how to induce alone. When we have found the way to authentic change, we have found the way to a real God. God is a purpose, not a boss or a judge.
Guilt is seldom present without its unhappy partner, helplessness. If you are steeped in guilt, you will judge your present condition as unsatisfactory yet believe that you are either unworthy or incapable of changing for the better.
The willingness to change begins with self-forgiveness — which is a way not of excusing one's problems but of recognizing them in a compassionate light. To recognize one's flaws and failures mercifully is to acknowledge that we all come by who we are honestly (even if we have a flaw of dishonesty) because we are always trying to do what's best for ourselves. We may be greatly misled by our self-interest, but it is always there, and within it lies the key to productive change.
Compassionate self-recognition allows us to see how we have been serving self-interest in a narrow, conflicted, or counterproductive way. Recognizing and forgiving our selfishness enables us to enlarge, extend, and refine our self-interest. As our self-interest matures, we increasingly find that it matches the interest of the whole human species — and then the interest of nature, of which our species is a part, and then the divine interest of the cosmos.
Guilt keeps us feeling small and lonesome. Compassionate self-recognition, founded on forgiveness, lets us feel at home anywhere and everywhere.
Resisting the Popularity of Guilt
Make no mistake, to begin releasing your guilt is to go against the way of the world. Many people believe that releasing guilt means condoning errors and abdicating responsibility. But true responsibility inspires a response, an act of change. Guilt points toward a problem while denigrating the abilities of everyone concerned to do anything about it.
To release guilt is not to say, "I didn't do it!" and attempt to shift responsibility elsewhere. To release guilt is to say, "I have done the best I could, and I will try to change or improve to correct my flaws or failures." To release guilt is to surrender our taste for self-punishment. This is revolutionary work, for the world runs on guilt and punishment.
To gauge the popularity of guilt, ask the people you know whether they believe in the effectiveness of punishment. Very few, if any, will answer that they find no use for it at all. What would become of the world, they may ask you, without guilt and punishment?
The answer is that the world could become a place of faith and continuous learning. To test this vision, begin answering your own mistakes with an honest, open compassion and a willingness to learn. Never consider the struggle to change yourself a failure; consider it always a learning process whose duration and final outcome are unknown to you. Guilt will tell you that the battle to improve yourself is lost. Responsibility knows that the process of growth is always beginning.
As you learn to treat yourself with kindness, clarity, and responsibility, your own belief in guilt and punishment will subside. Resisting the popularity of guilt begins with casting your single vote for healing instead. It doesn't matter that you will be outnumbered for a while, for you are casting your lot with a great power.
Releasing Guilty Secrets
Guilt thrives in secrecy. For many of us, whatever public shame we have suffered pales beside the intensity of private self-condemnation over certain secrets, large or small, that help define our personalities. The first step to releasing any guilty secret is to examine it honestly in a way that is new to most of us. Ask yourself, "How useful is this secret in achieving my ultimate goals in life?" or "What does this secret serve?"
A guilty secret cannot really be released until it is seen as useless to the pursuit of spiritual growth — and spiritual growth is understood to be the process that achieves all of one's important goals. From this point of view, protecting a guilty secret is not "bad" so much as it is a waste of precious and limited time. At the heart of faith is just such a clear and simple practicality.
Of course, the release of profound secrets requires a profound vulnerability: a willingness to be seen for who you truly are, within and without. But I doubt that anyone can surrender all of his or her secrets at once. We must start surrendering some of our smaller secrets in order to discover or comprehend our larger secrets. By learning in small steps that the practice of openness and vulnerability leads to freedom, you can eventually develop enough faith to pursue the great freedom of profound vulnerability.
Guilt and Addiction
Although some addictions can entrap the body, they are not the body's fault to begin with. The appetite behind them is the mind's appetite, not the body's, and it is primarily an appetite for guilt. We accept guilt as "natural," and we seek a constant infusion of it to maintain our sense of the normal. What guilt creates, however, is a false sense of stability, an internal condition more akin to perpetual crisis management. This is the state of existence most of us are used to.
To constantly feed our minds with guilt, we must do something guilt inducing. In terms of addiction, we take something pleasant — a chocolate chip cookie has always been my favorite — and we use it as a means to create pain through the repetitive indulgence of remembered pleasure. That is, when I eat something that I remember as pleasurable — but for which I have no hunger — I set myself up for the pain of shame ("I have no control"), the pain of self-resentment ("I knew I shouldn't have eaten that cookie"), and the pain of indigestion ("Bleah!"). I know this cycle well, and from my studies I recognize it as the same cycle behind more serious addictions. Of course, more serious addictions allow people less time to figure them out before irretrievable damage may be done.
At any rate, when pain and pleasure get mixed up in our minds, they become useless as signals about how to use our bodies wisely in the world. Yet in the confusion of addiction, the mind is not a slave to the body, but a slave to itself. It's the habitual desire for guilt that creates false appetites, and then those appetites get blamed on the poor unsuspecting body. When the body subsequently becomes habituated to particular substances or activities, its urges can seem to be leading us astray — when in fact the body has only done our guilty bidding.
The cure? A simple if challenging moment of awareness with the arising of every addictive urge. Confronting the chocolate chip cookie, cigarette, or drug that looks so good but is not needed, one can ask, "Am I serving my happiness and freedom with this indulgence, or my guilt and enslavement?" That may seem like a big question to ask about a small decision of the moment. But if a small decision is fraught with tension and suffering, then big questions need to be asked. (With profound addictions, medically supervised withdrawal or recovery programs may be necessary before such a question can even be brought to one's awareness.)
This conscious approach to addiction is not an argument against pleasure. Rather it is an argument for the choice of pure and unmitigated pleasure whenever possible, and the denial of pleasure contaminated by guilt. For the fact is that a "guilty pleasure" is no pleasure at all over the long term. It is another surrender to the mind's circular trap of addiction to guilt.
A pure and unmitigated pleasure, by the way, will be some form of authentic service to self or others, or a form of worship. A pure and unmitigated pleasure may be tiny (a chocolate chip cookie enjoyed without guilt) or immense. An immense, pure, and unmitigated pleasure is one type of transcendental experience (see here–here).
Addiction and Forgiveness
We may sometimes realize that an indulgence serves only our guilt and enslavement, and then go ahead with it anyway. These failures to choose freedom must be accepted with as much awareness and forgiveness as we can muster. Forgiveness is the only quality that enables us to succeed after a thousand failures — and the only quality that enables us to grow a little even while we are failing. After all, we learn to accept peace and freedom in tiny increments and sometimes take two and a half steps back for every three forward.
Rapid change may seem to happen in dramatic moments of crisis and surrender, but such "accelerated" change relies on a lot of preparation (whether we know we have been preparing for change or not). Then, dramatic change needs to be confirmed by months and years of testing, checking, and certifying that one's way of living is really better than it used to be. This is the science of spiritual development.
The acceptance of the real and free self follows the release of guilt. As we gradually give up the chaos of guilt, we slowly find our footing upon the bedrock stability of fearless love. This stability is founded neither on the rigid denial of pleasure nor the slavish avoidance of pain, but on acceptance of both kinds of experience as the natural warp and weft of living in the body. It is in this stable state of mind that we can wisely use pain and pleasure as signals of which way to go and what to do in this world.
Accepting the Loss of Guilt
As an addiction or some other pattern of guilt begins to disintegrate, one may feel a distinct sense of loss. I've confronted this feeling a number of times: "Without this familiar habit, worry, or guilt, who will I be from now on?" As something fixed, heavy, and negative within the self dissolves, an unfamiliar sensation of openness, light, and permeability fills in. Such a change may bring about a feeling of queasiness, but that passes as one's sense of self eventually restabilizes — with a little more energy, optimism, and flexibility than before.
Accepting the loss of guilt brings on a fundamental realization about the nature of the self. Everything false and heavy within us is tied to guilt; everything true and light is illuminated by faith. Our personalities are limited and deformed by our wounds and guilt. We may take great pride in some of our scars, even defending them to the death against a healing that would dissolve them. To release guilt is to open ourselves to a creativity, generosity, and wisdom that before were unimaginable.
Paradoxically, we become truer to ourselves as we become less defined by our personalities. Along the way there will be many opportunities to mourn the passing of former selves, each of whom were limited by various pretensions and self-deceptions that are no more. It is alright to feel this grief and proper to honor the person we were yesterday — the person who did the best that he or she could and, by so doing, eventually transcended an old guilt and brought more faith into the world.
Guilt Versus the New Moment
We are often so fixed on the past that we overlook the potential of the present. We have never known as much as we do right now; we have a new sum total of knowledge and capacities at every new moment. Thus we are capable of some degree of change at any time, capable of putting together everything we have experienced into a novel awareness of ourselves and the world around us. And we are capable of acting on our novel awareness in unprecedented ways, initiating the liberation of ourselves and others from the dull habits of the past.
Guilt recognizes none of this, and would rather have us believe that a greater darkness is always closing in on us. The chains that bind us to the habits of the past are forged with guilt, and if we do not change, it is because we still believe we are undeserving of the gifts of our own potential.
Darkness and Light
Guilt is darkness, faith is the light; where they coexist is a world of shadows, that is, our world. The key to seeing through all of it is the release of guilt. This way the world gradually lightens and our passage through it becomes less painful.
Excerpted from The Book of Practical Faith by D. Patrick Miller. Copyright © 1995 D. Patrick Miller. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Four Steps to a Practical Faith,
I. Releasing Guilt,
II. Gathering Trust,
III. Practicing Patience,
IV. Learning Transcendence,
The Rewards of a Practical Faith,
Also by D. Patrick Miller,
About the Author,