I just came across this TED Talk by Karen Armstrong, author on comparative religions, that I think is particularly important because it points to the difference between spiritual practice and modern, religious expressions of faith. While this talk is about the Golden Rule--'don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you.'-- what I found of particular interest was her commentary on the etymology of the word, belief. We have an awkward relationship with the world, belief today. Before reading on, consider the way this word, belief, makes you feel or what it makes you think of.
Belief, in its original, 17th century sense meant, "an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions; I commit myself, I engage myself." In other words, trust in God was not something that one simply decided. It was through committed action that rendered one's relationship to God. In other words, belief was something that was discovered through practice. It wasn't just something you just swallowed down while ignoring common sense. You engaged in a set of disciplines on a day-in and day-out basis that gave you access to the deeper mysteries that lie at the heart of the teachings. As Armstrong says, "Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action. You only understand them when you put them into practice."
The source text of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, which is dated to the first century, around the time of Jesus, describes the results of all spiritual practice--higher powers, subtle states of awareness, and, clarity-- but the bulk of the text is organized around the practical application, "the doing," how we attain these experiences of yoga. While there is a sort of worldview that The Sutras hinge on, it's never explicitly described, nor does it particularly matter whether the yogi believes in it or not. Following the practice is enough, not because it leads one to being a good, moral yogi. Morality--good versus bad--isn't the game of Eastern spiritual practices. Instead, through commitment to practice, a sort of wisdom or insight is gained, the sort of insight that one can trust. By the way, that's the same thing as belief as Merrian-Webster describes it, "a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing."
In a way, I can't help but see that our attraction to the East stems from our modern religions having lost their way. Instead of providing us with a path, as they used to, many expressions of modern religion ask us to adhere to a comprehensive understanding of the world that divorces us from our common sense. At one point several years ago, I tried to evoke a debate with an orthodox Jewish friend's interpretation of the Torah. His response was that we couldn't carry on a discussion because he understood the Torah to be written by God, whereas I understood it to be written by men. In other words, in order to carry forward a good discussion, I'd have to disbelieve what I knew to be true. Bummer. What makes this even more of a bummer is that modern religions sanction this sort of divide. Some even sanctify wars.
I am not suggesting that all Eastern spiritual practice is perfect or that all religions promote xenophobia. The problem isn't the religions, it's the people that practice them, the one's that bring a sort of rigidity and orthodoxy to them. I've seen yoga teachers who's whole lives are dedicated to adhering to and promoting a severe approach to tradition, even when it creates injury, both to themselves and others. These people may be adept at contorting their bodies, but they never really grow. Practice, like religion, has the potential to be a trap, as well.
The role of discipline is to enlighten us, to awaken us to that which isn't obvious. It's designed not to be an end unto itself but to allow us to comprehend mysteries. A mystery is a religious truth that's hidden. It's only through practice that it becomes obvious. Once obvious, we can trust in it. To get there is a journey. In a way, each of our lives is a journey that's revealing one great mystery. And for each of us, that mystery is very individual. To take a set of propositions on faith is a sort of bypass of that journey. Blind faith is like claiming to know a subject we never studied before. Our job, as I see it, is to be willing to take that journey. It can help to have signposts of those who have come before us--whether they come from spiritual or religious traditions--to guide us on that journey. Ultimately, though, that journey is very individual. But if it is taken, wholeheartedly and with courage, the result is a sort of belief that is different from that of blind faith because it's the sort of thing that you know in your bones, even in those moments when you've lost your way.