10/19/2011 10:19 am ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

What I've Learned From The Spiritual Masters

Thomas Merton, Roman Catholic Trappist monk (1915-68) was one of the greatest proponents of "inter-spirituality" in modern history. He believed that the pursuit of a mystical life was the key to meaning, as well as unity, between people.

He was right then. He's still right today.

I'm a Christian by heritage and by choice. But I'm also a proponent of all spiritual traditions and so I encourage "interspirituality," too. I do so for two reasons: One, as I learn the practices of other traditions, the practice of my own takes on more meaning. How could you ever read, for example, the love poems of the Rumi, the Sufi poet, and not be deeply moved?

Two, if history has taught us anything, it is that there will never be just one religion. Huston Smith made this point abundantly clear years ago in his classic, The World's Religions. The longer a religion is around, the more diverse it will become.

Even people in the same religion disagree and so divide. Today, for example, there are approximately 20,000 different denominations within Christianity alone. In Hinduism, there may be twice that many. Given more time, Christianity will only become more diverse and divided, too.

When I came to this awareness, I decided to spend the rest of my life, not trying to convert everyone to Christianity, but instead seeking to create an environment of cooperativeness between all traditions. I even designed a Unity pendant that, while resembling others I had seen over the years, expressed for me the essence of my ambition. Shortly after creating it, however, I discovered that I was not alone -- that many others shared a similar vision for the world. I cannot imagine the survival of the human species is possible outside an environment of mutual respect and cooperation.

Here I note, as I have in previous posts, two additional things I've learned from the spiritual masters of various traditions.

I'm learning the importance of meditation. My own tradition has mistakenly taught that meditation is an eastern practice and that Christians pray instead. What many do not know, however, is that meditation is the highest form of Christian prayer, too.

Regrettably, most Christians are taught to pray the way Aladdin rubbed the lamp to release a genie to grant his wish. Meditation, however, transforms this limited perspective on prayer. Instead of prayer being the recitation of one's wishes, meditation brings one into alignment with Life itself. It silences the mental noise, enabling the nurture of a quiet, trustful heart instead. This is why the Buddha said, "The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go," which is, of course, what Christians mean by "trust."

Meditation awakens you to life itself. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist monk, said, "We don't meditate to become good meditators; we meditate to become more awake." This present moment becomes more real through meditation; the past and the future less significant, which is why Jesus said, "Take no thought of tomorrow..." (Matt. 6:34).

St. Paul said, "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). You could only ever do this through the art of meditation. This explains why the Benedictine monks practice it daily. Jesus said, "When you pray do not be like the hypocrites who pray in public," (Matt. 6:5). Yet, most churches are obsessed with the practice of public prayer and too often at the expense of private prayer, silence, or meditation. "When you pray," instructed Jesus, "go into your closet..." (Matt. 6:6). This was his way of saying, "Go into the inner world -- that is, meditate in that world where the real Kingdom exists (Luke 17:21).

The benefits of meditation and prayer have been well documented in recent years. But, as Christiane Northrup has observed, "It's most unfortunate that for people in the West, the only acceptable form of meditation is still hospitalization."

I'm learning how to live in space, not time. That is to say, I'm learning how not to be bound by clock time. For example, I don't wear a timepiece anymore and for two reasons. One, I have a clock on my smart phone. Two, whenever I feel the need to know what time it is, I am reminded to be more conscious of space itself, out of which all time emerges.

For much of my life I've had a fascination with the stars and planets. In recent years, however, I've become more keenly aware of the emptiness out of which all heavenly bodies appear. In other words, I'm infinitely more fascinated today by the infinity of emptiness itself. Space is more of nothing than it is of anything, if that makes sense.

Now, I know almost nothing about the cosmos or Einstein's theory of relativity and even less about quantum theory. But what I do know is that I live with a profound awareness of nothing. I cannot explain this and I realize how subjective it is. But, for me, the greatest mystery, as well as paradox, of human existence is that space may be the place of grace. When you are aware of nothing, you may have tapped into the reservoir of eternal wisdom.

Could this be what St. Paul meant? "Fix your attention not on things seen, but on things unseen. For what is seen lasts only for a time; what is unseen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18).