Spiritual Hygiene

05/07/2015 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016
Courtesy Hwansan Sunim

A long time ago my teacher Son Master Songdam asked me, "Do you take a shower every day?"

"Yes, I do," I answered.

"Then, let me ask you something," he held me with his clear, steady gaze. "Imagine that you see a man fall into a cesspool. You go to help, but he refuses you! He stretches back in that foul liquid and tells you that he wants to wallow in there a little longer. Tell me now. Is this man mentally healthy?"

I burst out laughing and, eyeing my response, he continued with relish, "Wouldn't you say that he is mentally abnormal? And yet foolish people fall into states much filthier than a cesspool. These emotions are dirtier and more poisonous than a cesspool. If we really did fall into a cesspool, only the surface of our bodies, just our clothes and our skin, would get dirty. You can sterilize your clothes and take a bath. But when we fall into craving, anger, or delusion, we become dirty and diseased on the inside. Why is it that we know to keep our bodies clean but not our minds?"

It's a powerful teaching: That we ought to take care of our minds with at least the same loving care that we bestow upon our bodies. Let's follow this simile to its logical conclusion.

What happens when we don't bathe for even one day? Many of us will notice an added layer of discomfort, like a film that coats our skin and hair. We feel less socially confident and we'll long to get home to take a shower. If we haven't brushed our teeth, we'll probably look for mouthwash or gum. On the whole, we'll worry that others might notice our apparent lack of personal hygiene.

After a few days of not washing, other people will definitely notice. They'll most likely keep a discreet distance from us.

Imagine going a few weeks without washing. We'll be kicked out of theaters and restaurants. When we sit on the subway or bus, people will move away from us. We'll become a pariah.

Now consider going years without washing ourselves. I'm not joking when I say that we'd most likely be arrested. And that's if we haven't already been hospitalized because of some infectious disease.

To follow Son Master Songdam's reasoning, if we know to be appalled by the course of illness that follows upon neglectful personal hygiene, why are we not similarly offended by the effects of unclean consciousness and social behavior?

We may think of a negative thought or emotion as a kind of bacterium. When we allow it to occupy our mind, that's like going for a day without washing. We feel emotionally uncomfortable. We are aware that there is a kind of bacterial growth inside of our psyche. We're distracted by it and take care not to reveal our personal discomfort to others. We don't want them to know that we're upset.

If we allow negative mind states to proliferate within us for longer periods, we project an aura of negativity that is at least as unpleasant as actual physical odor. The elements of our behavior -- the look in our eyes, our facial expressions, the tone of our voice, our body language, the way we move, and the kinds of things we say and actions we pursue -- reflect this inner negativity. We then unconsciously inflict this negativity on others through remarks that we don't realize are sarcastic, cynical, and even spiteful. As negative mind states take root in our minds, they harden into attitudes of indifference, hostility, and boredom. Our behavior toward others becomes increasingly self-preoccupied and insensitive.

In these ways, what we experience internally becomes unwittingly expressed outwardly. When we can observe in a moment of clarity the connection between our internal states and our outward behavior, we realize that the social equivalent of body odor and bad breath is irritability, gloominess, forgetfulness, ennui, nervousness, meanness, aggressiveness, self-pity, and so on.

I once heard someone say that pride is the flatulence of the soul. But the same can be said of nearly all negative mindsets, attitudes and behaviors. We take such care to exercise personal hygiene and maintain appearances during important social occasions. But we often fail to recognize that it is the height of rudeness, bad faith, and poor taste to spray others with the gall and misery that we have, for some inconceivable reason, stored up in our own hearts.

If we persist in harboring negativity for extended periods, our personality will become twisted as surely as our physiology becomes perverted in the deep throes of disease. We may exhibit cut-throat competitiveness, narcissistic megalomania, amorality, sadism, and brutality in our behavior.

Now let's imagine decades of living in a competitive, achievement-oriented society without ever taking the time to cleanse one's heart and mind. Our baseline state of consciousness may reflect chronic fear, hostility, cruelty, bitterness, and self-loathing. As time continues to pass, if we allow this negativity to grow unchecked, how we feel toward ourselves, others, the world, and life itself may merge into one horrific blaze of hatred and despair, as unbearable as it is inextinguishable.

Profound inner suffering like this completely distorts our social behavioral patterns. The mortifying consequences of our now-dysfunctional behavior compound our initial personal suffering to create a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of misery.

Moreover, this fearsome cycle of unhappiness does not end at the personal level. Just as many organic diseases are transmittable to others, inner suffering affects those around us. People closest to us, our family, friends, and co-workers, feel it from us first as our dysfunctional behavior begin to impact and then later interrupt their lives. Afterward, acquaintances, strangers, and anyone we come into contact with will be affected by our behavior. Eventually, the outwardly rippling behavioral influence of millions and tens of millions of unhappy people in a given society measurably impact the national economy, legislature, and public health system.

This, then, is the contention of Son Buddhist teaching: An unattended negative mind state can lead to individual mental disorder whose effects radiate outward through networks of social relationships to spur societal unrest. Interestingly, the solution that Son Buddhism offers derives from the same kind of reasoning that justifies the social convention of brushing our teeth and bathing at least once a day. Son Buddhist masters advise that we take a preventive approach to mental health.

Rather than waiting for disease, mental or physical, to set in and then set about trying to cure it, let's avoid the whole terrible drama altogether by doing what Son Master Songdam suggested. Let's make it a custom to keep our minds as clean as we keep our bodies.

Then, how specifically do we keep our minds clean? The answer, of course, is through Son meditation.

Son meditation is the method for washing, cleansing, and purifying our minds.

Proper posture and breathing stabilize our thoughts and emotions to produce an inner state of peace, stability, and clarity. The "Yi-mwot-go?" ("This. What is this?") question and the mental state of the Great Doubt that it raises, produces the so-called cleansing effects of meditation. Our mind begins to glow and burn like a crucible in which previously uncontrollable cycles of obsessive thinking are disrupted and disintegrated. Endlessly recurring, emotionally charged memories and mental imagery subside and wither away. Deep, barbed, internal knots of emotional pain in our hearts, whose cause we can barely remember, seem to dissolve as they disentangle. These meditative effects bring an immense sense of relief that is difficult to convey. It's as if we have been released from torture.

It's simply astonishing that in all of the years of our educational, professional, social, and cultural training, we as individuals are never once formally taught how to care for our own hearts and minds. If you don't wash your body, it doesn't matter how nice your clothes are or how safe your house is. You will get sick. If we don't cleanse our minds, it doesn't matter how much money we have, how close our family and friends are, or how accomplished we are. Our toxic personalities will put our wealth to perverse use, poison our closest relationships, and undermine our most meaningful achievements.

I would like to suggest that learning a systematic method of mental self-regulation like Son meditation is not merely an optional personal health care choice. It is our civic duty as members of modern society. Our thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and mindsets shape our behavior, which in turn affects not only other human beings, but the entire natural world as well. Therefore, taking responsibility for the development of our own consciousness ought to be the foundation -- as well as the goal -- of our entire system of social conventions, societal practices, and cultural values.

I am not urging everyone, however, to run out right now and try to change the world. I am only suggesting that we might begin to practice a little spiritual hygiene. Let's try to make a habit of mental self-cleansing and practice Son meditation every day.

Palms together,

Hwansan Sunim

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