The Instrumental Self

Religion is nothing if not a practical approach to life; however, it is very little practiced. To explore and explain what I mean by ‘practical’ let us compare and contrast an imaginary book: ‘How-To-Play-the-Guitar’ and any serious spiritual book. You can read and reread a book on how to play the guitar but unless you pick up the instrument and practice the steps outlined in the text you will never truly know how to play a guitar. At best, you’ll have a decent theoretical understanding but if you ever get called on stage you are going to crash and burn because, for all your knowledge, you simply don’t know how to actually play the guitar. This is equally true of any practical discipline; one cannot advance without theory and praxis. Actual practice teaches things that you could not learn any other way and makes possible instruction on more sophisticated techniques. This principle holds for religion as much as anything else.

One of the major problems confronting religion in the West is, not only do people not ‘read the book’ but the religious services they attend are usually provided by people whose only qualification are that they have ‘read the book’ – but who are not necessarily proficient as a result of practice. So, not only do many not ‘read the book’, they have inherited a culture where it is considered acceptable to outsource that responsibility to others – others read it for them and report back what they consider to be the important bits. And so we find ourselves in the rather remarkable position of being born into a culture that has unquestioningly succumbed to the delusion that they can master an instrument by merely listening to someone talk a little about it – that, as if by osmosis, they’ll acquire proficiency by just listening. I’m afraid, brothers and sisters, nothing could be further from the truth and few errors have more painful consequences.


You simply cannot master an instrument without application of the precepts outlined by the masters. As a result of this erroneous approach to the practice of religion it is easy see how our current perceptions of religion, its purposes and practice, have become distorted to the point of delusion. When presented and experienced in these terms religion will inevitably appear ineffectual and relatively redundant. So, in what way does true religion differ from the current dominant format?


Religion considers your body an instrument [gifted to you for one lifetime] and nearly every religion offers some practical teaching to help the aspirant achieve mastery of this instrument – a method of acquiring the greatest possible benefit attainable from this most sublime of gifts. They all teach that the measure of harmony, beauty, and joy that can be experienced by you is a co-efficient of your level of self-mastery coupled with how effectively you have harmonized your existence with the perfection ideals of the Eternals. The true religions teach that insofar as we harmonize our lives with truth, beauty, and goodness we achieve the expression of our ideal selves and thereby achieve our highest possible experience of joy, peace, and contentment. Indeed, as with any instrument – no one else can do the work for you – you reap as you sow.


Furthermore, they teach that Self-mastery alone, without morality – without the guidance afforded by spiritual values, cannot confer happiness. Self-mastery simply means that you are the master of your desires and that your desires do not master you – which is a prerequisite for happiness. However, the fact that you are free to choose the direction in which your will is applied: to heed or ignore, heal or hurt, create or destroy, means that everything you do has a consequence, whether it is done consciously or unconsciously – intelligently or foolishly, that your choices inevitably carry moral implications. Therefore the consecrated pursuit of higher, holier, and nobler goals and values leads inevitably to greater levels of happiness – which is the personal experience of the actualization of your highest potential, becoming the best person you can be.



We are confronted with the challenge of having to train our minds to go in the direction we wish them to go or suffer the fate of being drawn off to places that we would rather not be. Such things are not accomplished through mere listening. Overcoming the self of animal origin, the ego, is considered among the world faiths as one of the supreme achievements of mortal life. You see, it is an awful lot easier to listen to someone extol the virtues of self control than it is to actually exercise self control and while throwing some coins in the collection plate might go some way towards assuaging the sense of guilt and shame for not doing more, such actions cannot atone for the lack of, nor can they buy the blessings inherent in, true self control.



It is easy to listen to one extol the virtues of turning the other cheek but it is entirely another matter to actually turn one’s other cheek when someone has slapped you in the face. It is easy, and even pleasant, to listen to someone extol the virtues of forgiveness but it is another matter entirely to forgive someone that has betrayed you. It is heartening to hear someone encourage us to bless those that curse us, pray for those that spitefully use us, and to sweep up in loving kindness and unselfish service those that would treat us cruelly and gladly sell us out, but it is another thing entirely to overcome personal resentment and hurt and actually do those things. It is, indeed, easy to be ‘hearers of the WORD only’ but what this world most needs is DOERS of the WORD.


Take up your magnificent instrument. Get to know it. Learn how to make beautiful things with it. Use it to make the world a better place. Give ear to the old masters and learn from them. Who knows, perhaps one day you will be a master and the world will stand in awe of the beautiful things that you have created with your life. Perhaps someone will look at your life and be inspired, draw courage, hope, and light from the spectacle of your life, discover life’s magnificent possibilities and go out and make them realities.


Barry Culligan

Hi, I’m Barry – the Strange Preacher. I'm from Clare but live in Galway. I have worked as a chaplain and retreat facilitator. 

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