For most, spirituality is a foggy topic. It's something that most of us believe is important, but which we've barely the slightest idea about.
We know it has to do with something "greater" than ourselves, either in the form of a God, nature, or the fact that we're interconnected much in the same way that a tapestry is woven together, and we know almost instinctively that it's important to practice regularly the act of "touching" that source of existence, or source of life, in some way whether we actually do it or not.
Unfortunately, that's about as specific as most of us get with regards to our understanding of spirituality. But fortunately, while it may seem oversimplified, that's more than enough to serve as a basis for a more thorough understanding of what spirituality is and how it actually takes shape in our daily lives.
So let's get to it...
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What this Guide will Do for You
Because the topic of spirituality is a big one, and I intend to cover A LOT of ground, I want us to establish ahead of time what the purpose of this guide is and how it will help you so that you can stay focused throughout your reading. This guide will:
- Explain clearly what spirituality is
- Explain clearly why spirituality, and a spiritual practice, is important, and
- Cover various practices which you can apply to begin cultivating a sense of spirituality in your own life from the very moment you stop reading
Ultimately, this guide is intended to part the clouds so to speak on your understanding as to what spirituality is, clearly explain its importance, and then provide a set of simple and straightforward guidelines and practices which you can then use to build your own spiritual practice.
My intention is to give you sensible, universal, and practical answers to the various difficult questions that rest within the idea of what spirituality is and it's purpose.
After reading this guide, my hope is that you'll never again wonder what spirituality is or why it's important and that you'll have the tools to begin following your own daily spiritual practice if you haven't already done so before this (and if you have, that you pick up on something to deepen your existing practice).
Spirituality is an Experience
Spirituality is difficult to define. In a sense, both because few people seem to really know what it means (even their own interpretation is clouded) and because we can't all seem to agree on a definition, it's undefinable.
Well, that was easy, wasn't it!? Let's go home...
Getting serious now, spirituality is an experience, one which can be placed into words but only as effectively as when someone explains what it was like to get bitten by a shark, assuming you've never been bitten by a shark before.
You've probably been bitten by something before, but not likely a shark (your brother, for instance). And while you probably haven't seen a shark before face-to-face, you've surely seen a picture, or maybe even viewed one through the glass at an aquarium.
So while someone can attempt to explain their spiritual experience to you, and you'll be able to piece together an idea of what they're describing to you, you'll never fully comprehend their experience unless you experience it for yourself.
That's what all levels of spiritual experience are like.
The point being that the definition or explanation isn't the actual experience itself. They're separate things no matter how accurately it ever seems to be explained, therefore you can't gain an accurate understanding of spirituality or a spiritual experience through listening to someone's explanation of it (no matter how hard you believe in something).
So how does this realization help us practically? The point is essentially this:
Seek to experience spirituality directly, as opposed to learning about it or discerning it through intellectual means.
It's for this reason that I begin the guide with this section, as a reminder that the words written here are not spirituality in themselves, but a gateway to it.
Use what I describe in the third section of this guide, "How Can You Develop Spirituality?", in order to develop your own spiritual practice and experience it for yourself.
Having said that, you can get a pretty good idea of what spirituality is about by looking for and studying the similarities within what various people call (or have called) spiritual activities and experiences.
What's the central idea? The signs across all religions and spiritual traditions, all beliefs and understandings, and all time periods point to one unequivocal definition:
*Spirituality: Having to do with coming into, connecting with, or being one with, a higher or "ultimate" level of existence or consciousness (also known as the ultimate reality, the fabric of existence, the ground of being, God, reality, nature, universal or greater consciousness, etc.).
This definition fits all religions and spiritual traditions known to man. The only thing up for interpretation is what exactly the ultimate level of existence looks like. By that, I don't mean physically, but it's qualities or elements.
Discussion on the qualities or elements of the ultimate level of existence is beyond the scope of this guide, but I would like to offer one important bit of advice: don't make the discovery of such things a primarily intellectual process, or think it's an act of belief. Do that and you'll get nowhere fast. Follow your spiritual practice and discover the qualities of the "ground of your being" through your own direct experience. This is the only way.
Back to our topic. Based on our definition, for something to be spiritual would mean that it would need to have the quality of being able to connect us (or reconnect us) with the ultimate level of existence. Remember this when we get to Part 3.
Why do I attempt to define spirituality even though the definition itself can't ever transmit a complete or accurate understanding of it? Because just as language isn't the thing itself, the experience, but still helpful in allowing you to understand or become closer to said thing, having a clear and universal definition of spirituality can help us to bring clarity to our own spiritual practices.
So use this definition to bring clarity to your own spiritual practice and help you in building (or deepening) your practice.
OK, so we have a clear and concise definition of spirituality which helps us understand what it is in a basic sense and how to go about pursuing it, but we still don't have a very clear understanding of it.
There's one very important point I'd like to cover with regards to that which will help you further understand what spirituality is with much greater clarity. In this case, it will help you begin to understand what spirituality feels like in a real sense.
Spirituality, more than anything, is about consciousness.Or more specifically, it's about touching or "tuning into" a higher level of consciousness.
Activities can trigger this (such as religious activities), the effect essentially being you "coming in tune" with reality (and the ultimate level of existence) as it were and coming into this expanded state of consciousnesses, but the activity can also be done in a way that it doesn't trigger this effect.
So spirituality isn't what you do, but how you do it. Or more correctly, it's who you're being in this exact moment. Or in other words, the signal you're transmitting.
Right now, you exist within a certain state of consciousness, and that state of consciousness can be the greater expanded state of consciousness we identify with spirituality (feelings of being connected to God in Western religions and the "universal" consciousness in Eastern traditions), or it can be your ordinary everyday consciousness.
In each and every moment, you choose which state of consciousness you reside in. It's completely up to you. It's always been up to you, you just didn't know it.
Of course, this doesn't mean that you can just flip a switch after reading this and awaken, but the reality is the only thing standing in your way of realizing this greater level of consciousness is yourself.
Spirituality and Everyday Life
To further clarify your understanding of spirituality, I want to make one last and very important point clear:
There is no difference between spirituality and your everyday life.
Spirituality is nothing special. By that I mean it's nothing unique, or out of the ordinary. It's inseparable from our everyday life, in fact, it is our very everyday life. Any effort to separate the two is a misunderstanding.
Our definition of spirituality talks of touching the ground of our being, but everything is a part of that (or more accurately, the ground of being or ultimate level of existence is reflected in all things), it's all interconnected, so it's really just the process of reconnecting with our true nature.
Because spirituality and everyday life are one and the same thing, spirituality is simply the act of touching your everyday life deeply and truly, with all mental barriers removed.
Finding Wholeness and the Benefits of Spiritual Practice
"We are not meant to be perfect, we are meant to be whole."
- Jane Fonda
Spirituality is important ultimately because the further we become distanced from the ultimate level of reality, the fabric of existence, God, reality, universal consciousness, simply nature, or whatever the heck you want to call it, the more "haywire" we act.
Our software starts to short circuit, or in other words, if we were an instrument we'd be out of tune.
So then, keeping with our tuning/vibration example, spiritual practice is the act of using yourself as a sort of instrument which can connect or communicate with the ground of being when properly tuned.
By doing so, we realize inner peace and true happiness, both lasting and unbreakable provided we continue to keep ourselves tuned (continue to practice daily).
Spiritual practice is a daily endeavor, most commonly in the form of meditation or prayer, the by far and large most common spiritual exercises.
It's important to point this out because if you don't practice every day you'll become out of tune again (or never become in-tune in the first place), so it's very important to make spiritual practice a daily endeavor and not a secondary "keep me running efficiently so I can work better" sort of supplementary activity. It needs to stand on its own as important in its own right.
In a weird way, when it gets right down to it, spirituality helps us find our place. We go our entire life feeling like something's missing and as if there's supposed to be something more, or like we're lacking or missing a piece of ourselves.
Spiritual practice "cures" us by allowing us to touch the ground of our being and realize our "wholeness" once again. It completes (or re-completes) us in a sense, much in the same way that many of us think "the one" or our true love is supposed to do once we find them.
For this reason, there really could be nothing more important than following an authentic spiritual practice.
Following an authentic, experience-based, spiritual practice is not only the source of true peace and happiness for ourselves but the source of greater peace for the world at large.
Things to Watch Out for: Spiritual Materialism
A regular spiritual practice gives us the ability to operate and exist in this world effectively which profoundly affects our peace and well-being.
But keep in mind that a spiritual practice isn't about adding something new to your life, acquiring something, or improving yourself, but about reducing friction through dissolving the ego and re-tuning yourself with the ultimate.
Especially in the West, spiritual materialism is a real problem. Spiritual materialism is the desire for your spiritual practice to gain you personal advancement.
It's the belief that an all-seeing judge is sitting above the clouds ready and waiting to judge you if you do bad and reward you if you do good. This distorts spiritual practice into something altogether different and actually promotes the ego and perpetuates suffering in the long run.
But to live in this way is highly damaging. Spiritual practice is, in large part, an act of dissolving the ego in order to realize your true nature.
But spiritual materialism only seeks to further promote the ego and is directly at odds with an authentic spiritual practice of any kind.
Be warned- attempting spiritual practices with this ideal will only perpetuate feelings of lack and incompleteness, not cure them.
True peace and happiness aren't achieved by promoting the ego, only by finding wholeness through an authentic spiritual practice which dissolves the ego and cultivates love for all beings.
Defining Spiritual Practice and Identifying Obstacles
"The world is not to be put in order, the world is order incarnate. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order."
- Henry Miller
So now you know what it is, and see clearly why it's important. But where do you start? This can be as confusing as the first two questions in this guide, so I'll go into detail as to what kinds of activities really allow you to touch your true or "ultimate" nature and develop a sense of spirituality.
First, what is a spiritual practice? What does one look like?
Based on our definition and complete understanding of spirituality, a spiritual practice is:
*Spiritual exercise: Any activity that allows you to touch your sense of spirituality (your perception of the ultimate level of existence).
*Spiritual practice: Any set or collection of activities that allows you to touch your sense of spirituality (your perception of the ultimate level of existence).
Also, spiritual practice can be broken down into two sections:
By obstacles, I'm mostly referring to things within yourself which are keeping you from fully expressing your true nature.
Various things can hold you back, such as fear, anger, and other limiting beliefs, but they all center around the existence of the ego, the single solitary obstacle on your path to realizing spiritual awakening.
The ego is what convinces you that you're a separate entity, apart from other living and non-living beings. It's an "artificial" construct born from our own limited conscious experience.
Because of this, dissolving the ego is a major focus of spiritual practice and really the one obstacle you need to focus on overcoming (or dissolving).
Developing a Spiritual Practice
There are various angles you can approach spiritual practice from, but for the sake of the guide, I'm going to talk about the fundamentals and my own personal practice.
All this talk of spirituality and spiritual practice might seem other-worldly, but I assure you that spiritual practice itself is as real and down to Earth as it gets.
What I mean by that is, spiritual practice, for the most part, is really just you working on you (or discovering the real you) in very real and practical ways.
Forget all the fluff and shiny stuff, all the "ultimate level of existence" this and "ground of being" that, spiritual practice is really about you becoming self-aware and shedding the ego. Or in other words, it's about waking up in a very literal sense and realizing that you're the very ground of existence yourself (and not the "little" you, the separate person your ego works to convince you that you are).
The below are key aspects of spiritual practice which you can use to build a strong foundation for your own spiritual practice. By no means is this section meant to be all-inclusive, but rather to provide you with a strong foundation and some direction to build your own practice.
1. Awareness (or Mindfulness)
"The first step is to make friends with ourselves."
- Chogyam Trungpa
Mindfulness is the foundation of spiritual practice. Nothing much more needs to be said than that.
Spiritual practice is the practice of discovering the truth, and mindfulness is the path to obtaining clarity and realizing that truth.
To be clear, without mindfulness, a spiritual practice is possible. But a spiritual practice not based on developing awareness, or mindfulness, as it's foundation is ineffective at best.
Chogyam Trungpa, the 20th-century Buddhist master, said of spiritual practice, "The first step is to make friends with yourself", and it's through mindfulness that we learn to do so.
Mindfulness can transform your very life from the ground up. The simple practice of becoming fully conscious of yourself in this moment, and in a way discovering yourself deeply for the first time, transformed my own life and continues to do so in many ways.
For these reasons, and others, the first place I'd suggest you start in your spiritual practice is with mindfulness.
Virtually Everything is connected to, or enhanced by, mindfulness. Hence why it's the foundation of a sound spiritual practice.
Also, it's through mindfulness that we can see clearly how spiritual practice is inseparable from everyday life. To be mindful while sweeping the floor or eating a meal, deeply aware of your interconnectedness to the Earth and the rest of the world around you, can itself be a highly spiritual exercise.
Whatever you do, whether it's doing Hatha Yoga, sitting in silence, going to church on Sunday to pray, or just sweeping the floor, do it with mindfulness to bring yourself into the experience fully and to touch your sense of spirituality.
Action Step: Sit in Meditation
You can practice mindfulness in any situation, but before you jump out into the world and attempt to practice mindfulness while doing everyday activities, I'd suggest developing your mindfulness and concentration through sitting and following your breath with mindfulness.
This is the most basic, most common, and a highly effective form of meditation. All you need to do is sit and follow your breath with mindfulness:
1. Sit. First, find a quiet place to sit with minimal interruptions. You can sit however you'd like, but the lotus or half-lotus positions are preferable because they're the most stable.
2. Breathe. Turn your attention to your breath. Don't attempt to control your breath. The idea is to follow your breath with your complete awareness, not to breathe itself, so just let it go and observe it mindfully.
Even if your breath is short and sporadic, let it go and it will naturally calm itself simply through you turning your attention to it.
Follow each in-breath and out-breath from start to finish. If you become distracted by a thought, feeling, or sensation then simply observe that thought, feeling or sensation with your awareness and then turn your attention back to your breath.
3. Count. Now that you have the general idea, we're going to add a little exercise with which to improve your concentration and mindfulness which will gradually allow you to use your mindfulness in more difficult everyday situations.
Count each in-breath and out-breath starting from 1 and work your way up to 10. You'll almost surely not get to 10 now, if ever, and that's OK. The point isn't to work your way up to being able to be mindful from 1-10 without any interruptions, the exercise is simply used to improve your concentration, which helps you to touch the activities you do in your everyday life deeply and realize insight.
Don't expect to ever calm your thinking to the point of silence, because it won't happen, but neither is that the point. The point is simply to "be" and to study yourself directly through mindfulness.
Just sit and enjoy yourself, without expecting anything from your meditation, and observe everything that occurs while sitting in silence with your mindfulness.
*Bonus exercise: The next time you notice yourself feeling a strong emotion, take a seat (if the situation permits, if not just find some privacy).
Take a moment to "sit with" the emotion in mindfulness. Feel the emotion running through you and observe how it affects your breathing and your thinking. Imagine yourself embracing the emotion with your mindfulness and accepting it fully.
Breathe mindfully for a few minutes in order calm your mind and bring the emotion under control. The more you practice mindfulness the more you'll be able to notice with clarity when strong emotions arise in you and the more skillfully you'll be able to handle them.
2. Non-Attachment (Letting Go)
Spiritual practice is, in a way, the practice of letting go of attachments such as wrong perceptions and limiting beliefs and realizing how to fully embrace life without clinging.
This is commonly misunderstood to mean that you should or will stop feeling emotions, that you'll stop getting angry, feeling sad, or the like. But non-attachment refers more to the way in which emotions control us (or how we cling to them) than anything else.
Realizing non-attachment means you've learned how to handle your emotions skillfully and can feel fear without letting the fear control you, feel anger arise without allowing it to lash out in your actions, and feel sadness without letting it grip you and move you into damaging behaviors.
In my guide, The Beginner's Guide to Letting Go and Becoming Enlightened Through Non-Attachment, I break down attachment, non-attachment, and how to truly let go. I'd suggest checking that out for more in-depth information on the subject (it's a big one).
Action Step: Meditate on Impermanence
A good meditation for letting go of attachments is to meditate on impermanence.
It's a rather easy to observe the fact that everything in this world is impermanent and ever-changing, and this fact makes it easier to let go of the various attachments we hold onto in this life because it makes us face the fact that our life as it is and everything connected to it will end some day.
There's various ways you can go about doing this. In The Beginner's Guide to Letting Go, I detail a meditation on death, but if you're just starting out in your spiritual practice that might be a bit intense for now.
If that's the case, you can start by meditating on your life "as it is". That is, sit and imagine that all of the people, animals, buildings, pictures, and memories that you consider "yours" or a part of your life are beginning to disappear, one by one.
Start with the easy stuff- the pictures, videos, physical possessions, your house, car, etc. Then move on to the harder parts- any pets, memorable locations, memories, and finally the people themselves.
This meditation isn't intended to cultivate a feeling of indifference in you so that when you lose them you won't feel pain. That's not what non-attachment and letting go are about.
On the contrary, realizing non-attachment means that you're ever aware of the impermanence of life and therefore cherish life and all those things you care about within it to the fullest.
*Bonus exercise: If you want to take it a step further, try this exercise: pick something materially valuable to you, and throw it away. Don't get crazy here, giving up your most cherished possession or anything, but make sure it's something which you have some sort of attachment to, however minimal.
This could be a picture of someone you care about, a special hat you used to wear as a teen that holds within it nice memories, or something similar.
This might sound a little intense to some, but it works. These physical possessions are typically nothing more than a source of positive memories for us, but giving one up is a sharp reminder to appreciate the present moment and your life as it is.
It's in the present moment where all memories are born. If we live our lives constantly reflecting on the past we'll die having only really lived a fraction of our lives.
3. Dissolving the Ego (and Realizing Big Mind)
"Being self-aware of one's ego is the true discipline of all spiritual paths."
- Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
Dissolving the ego is such an important part of spiritual practice because the ego is at fault for much of the suffering we experience in our lives. And it's the "single solitary me" syndrome that the ego convinces us of that is most damaging to us.
The ego would have you believe that you're a separate self, disconnected from the rest of life. Not only is this untrue, it's highly damaging. On the other hand, realizing that the ego is an illusion and working to dissolve it is a great source of peace and happiness.
The first step to dissolving the ego is a matter of realizing that it itself is just an illusion of our own creation. This is done through various means, most notably various forms of meditation.
A spiritual practice isn't a spiritual practice without a focus on dissolving the ego, even with regards to Western religions such as Judaism and Christianity where humility and servitude to God is seen as altogether necessary.
In Western spiritual and religious traditions the word "ego" might not be used regularly, and the idea somewhat different, but the intention is very much the same. If you look closely and honestly you'll notice quite a few similarities between seemingly different spiritual traditions.
But there's more to it than just dissolving the ego. If the ego is an illusion, what's real? Big mind, as it's sometimes referred to in Zen.
This is the ultimate level of existence we talked about earlier, a level of consciousness above that of ordinary consciousness in which we realize our interbeing with all living and non-living things.
Action Step: Meditate on "The You Before You"
This exercise has very simple instructions, but is a very deep and potentially intense subject to meditate on. What is it? I want you to meditate on this question:
Who were you before you were born?
When I say meditate on the question, I mean take a seat and let the question sit in your mind. Place your concentration on the question and simply observe everything that comes to you with mindfulness.
Keep in mind, there's no timetable for a meditation like this. It can take one session, months of sitting in meditation, or even years to realize deep insight as a result of contemplating on this question (or any one like it).
There's many variations of this question, including the Zen koan, "What was your original face, before your parents were born?" These questions might seem baffling, but they have a point, and that's to help you realize your true boundless nature apart from the illusory ego.
This is a difficult path to tread down alone, so I'd suggest you get at least a digital companion. One of my favorites for such meditations is Allan Watts, particularly this best-of audio collection.
*Bonus exercise: Do something purposely embarrassing today. Sounds overly simple and somewhat ridiculous, but just like the last bonus exercise, it's effective. Particularly effective in shaking up your self-image.
We don't notice it, but, every day we purposely do things as well as purposely don't do other things in order to avoid judgment from others.
Your mindfulness practice will begin to make you aware of these occasions, and in doing so will present you with an opportunity for spiritual growth.
“When I understand myself, I understand you, and out of that understanding comes love. Love is the missing factor; there is a lack of affection, of warmth in relationship; and because we lack that love, that tenderness, that generosity, that mercy in relationship, we escape into mass action which produces further confusion, further misery. We fill our hearts with blueprints for world reform and do not look to that one resolving factor which is love.”
- Jiddu Krishnamurti
Love, often referred to as "loving-kindness" in Buddhism, is the end-all-be-all. It's the very substance which connects us together. By love, I'm specifically referring to cultivating non-romanti love for all living beings.
True love is a love that's not possessive, "I need to have you" "I can't live without you", but a love born of freedom, based on understanding, and characterized by compassion.
Everyone from the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Rumi, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Yogananda, and countless other sages of past and present have preached this very same point.
Cultivating love, as much as an aspect of spiritual practice, could be considered a unique path in and of itself. To be sure, the truth can be arrived at from numerous different paths, and this, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful.
Action Step: Love and Compassion Meditation
Meditating on love and compassion, also known as loving-kindness meditation (LKM) in some sects of Buddhism, is the act of cultivating love and compassion for all beings.
The general idea of loving-kindness meditation is to focus on the feelings of love you have for someone close to you- like your son, daughter, mother, father, or a close friend- and imagine those feelings of compassionate love gradually expanding outwards until they cover all beings.
To meditate on love and compassion, follow these 5 steps:
1. You. First, meditate on yourself and imagine feelings of peace and joy washing over you. After a while, let those feelings transform into feelings of strength and solidness, and finally transforming into feelings of love.
This first stage generally feels a bit awkward at the beginning. Don't worry, it's perfectly natural. Cultivating love for yourself is altogether necessary for a healthy spiritual practice and infinitely rewarding.
2. Someone you love. Next, think of someone you love. Imagine that person as vividly as you possibly can and feel those feelings of love swell within you. Accept this person fully in your mind with compassion and freedom and go until you feel those feelings of love swell to their maximum.
3. Someone neutral. Think of someone neutral to you such as a coworker or extended family member you don't see very often. Imagine those feelings of love you built up in step 2 washing over that person freely. Imagine accepting them openly and compassionately just as you do the person you love in step 2.
4. Someone you dislike. Think of someone you dislike (maybe even hate?) and imagine those feelings from step 2 continuing from step 3 into step 4 and washing over the person you dislike just as they did in step 3. It's a good idea to tap into your mutual humanity here as well.
You're both human, both imperfect, and both largely the product of your environment, and that includes your right as well as wrong actions. Understanding this, you can begin to cultivate compassion for this person.
This part won't come right away, so don't expect it to, but it doesn't need to. With time this meditation can help you cultivate love and compassion even for those you dislike. The key is tapping into your mutual humanity and cultivating understanding for their behavior.
Understanding is the foundation of love.
5. All beings. Now take those feelings of love and compassion you cultivated in step 2 and imagine them washing over all beings- you, your loved ones, those you dislike, and all other people either neutral to you or unknown.
Tap into your mutual humanity again for a moment and even imagine these feelings of love extending out to other animals, plants, and the Earth itself.
Expand these feelings of love out until they encompass all beings. Then, rest in this state for a few moments.
You can do this meditation in 5 minutes, 25 minutes, or much longer depending on your preference and experience with it.
I'd suggest just starting out with an easy 1-2 minutes per stage in order to get used to it as you can easily increase your time later once you've gotten used to it.
This is a meditation practice you can do daily and one which helps you begin on the path towards developing what's called in Buddhism, "bodhicitta", or "the mind of love".
*Bonus exercise: Simply go about your life-giving kindness and expressing compassion to others while mindfully aware of your interbeing (the state of being interconnected and interdependent upon one another).
There are few things as effective in spiritual practice than connecting directly with others in a deep and mindful way.
That must be the ideal. When two people feel an unconditional attraction for each other, and are ready to sacrifice for one another, they are truly in love. Then only are they ready for an intimate relationship in marriage. Mere possessiveness won't do. When one marriage partner tries to control the other, it shows a lack of real love. But when they express their love in continual thoughtfulness for the true happiness of the other, it becomes divine love. In such a relationship we have a glimpse of the Divine.
- Paramahansa Yogananda
5 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Spiritual Practice
Within spiritual practice, there are a number of critical mistakes which can be made, so to finish The Ultimate Guide to Spirituality I wanted to highlight the most prevalent ones I've encountered in order to help you along your own spiritual journey. They are:
1. Believing that spirituality, and the ultimate level of existence, is outside yourself
This is a surefire way to get confused and lost about spirituality. If you take one thing from this article let it be the knowledge that you can touch your spirituality within your ordinary everyday life.
This might seem odd or unbelievable to some, but the idea that you're a separate self apart from the ultimate level of reality was just as odd to every known legitimate mystic of the last couple thousand years.
I'm not telling you to believe them because you should experience it for yourself. But I am 1) reminding you that you believe you're a separate self just as you believe the belief about not being a separate self seems a little crazy. They're both no more than beliefs rooted in a rudimentary perception of reality (having not looked closely with meditation).
For that reason, follow the signs of those who have tread the path before and seek out the truth in your own direct experience and not what other things or people would have you believe.
2. Closing yourself off to other spiritual traditions
If you close yourself off to other spiritual traditions, you close yourself off to peace and happiness. True peace and happiness are dependent upon you cultivating a deep understanding of the world and our behavior as people.
Understand that we all have various interpretations of the ultimate level of reality. Everyone's at various levels of understanding, gradually advancing their spiritual comprehension. Some root their understanding of the fabric of existence in a belief as opposed to direct experience.
Whatever it is, it's simply a different understanding of one and the same thing. We're all together in this and we all want the same thing. Understanding this, you should embrace those of different spiritual and religious traditions.
If you can do this, you open yourself to a wealth of wisdom with which to learn from.
3. Falling for, or "buying into", spiritual materialism
This is a big one. So big that I included it in 2 sections of the guide. Understand that above all else, this is probably the most important point on this list.
The other points are misunderstandings, misunderstandings that can and often are corrected through an authentic spiritual practice. Spiritual materialism though is something altogether different.
Spiritual materialism is a complete misunderstanding the point of a spiritual practice. It's something which distorts your very perception of what an authentic spiritual practice looks like, and therefore doesn't allow for the practitioner to correct his or herself.
You should very much be a sort of scientist about your spiritual development. Don't believe anything you can't test for yourself through your own direct experience.
4. Closing yourself off to others
By this I mean believing that spiritual practice is about being alone to yourself and doesn't require, or benefit from, interacting with other people.
Most of us have a picture in our heads of a spiritual man living as a hermit away from society on the top of a mountain or something.
It's true, this was a thing for some old spiritual traditions, and there's value in it, but only momentarily. Stay disconnected for too long and you begin to lose touch with certain things. True enlightenment exists when you discover how to use what you've learned in everyday life, not when you need to hide from other people.
The Buddhist sangha, a sangha being a group of practitioners who live and practice together (a spiritual family of sorts), is much more effective because it helps us learn to live deeply and mindfully, and therefore strengthens our spiritual practice, in our everyday lives as opposed to requiring that the person stays secluded from others.
In the same way that a Buddhist monk or nun utilizes their sangha to grow spiritually, you can learn from the people in your own life.
The lessons will be different, and it will likely be more difficult because not everyone around you will be about your same goal of living with mindfulness, cultivating love for all beings, and developing spiritually in general, but it's still an effective way to develop spiritually if you can sift the lessons from your everyday experiences.
5. Not practicing daily
Spiritual practice isn't just an "every once in a while" type of thing. Practicing in this way is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
Many people think it's enough for stress relief and "re-balancing" to do something nourishing once a month or less.
But that isn't enough for a healthy spiritual practice, and it isn't enough to nourish your well-being. A daily practice, one which touches your sense of spirituality and nourishes your well-being should be a daily practice.
Your practice will often be indistinguishable from your everyday life, though. This is because it's a lot about how you react to what you do in your normal everyday experiences, not about adding a bunch of new things to your life (daily sitting meditation and whatever else aside).
Of course, what your daily practice looks like is ultimately up to you. But one thing is for certain- it should be a daily practice.
Spirituality is All Around You
Keep in mind, the ultimate level of existence isn't necessarily anything "special". You may understand it to be simply the physical world you can see and touch (i.e. reality, suchness, or nature), believing that the ultimate truths of this world are tangible and that your spiritual practice simply allows you to touch them deeply.
This is in line with a Buddhist path such as Zen. Zen may offer the practitioner a path to touching the ground of being and realizing their true nature, but it doesn't emphasize placing names to such things or expounding upon them intellectually.
Instead, it places its focus on practice and realizing the truth in your everyday experience, and doesn't pretend that such things are separate from the physical world we can see and touch.
This is the spiritual path I most follow, although I appreciate and have been deeply touched by other Buddhist teachers as well as many non-Buddhist teachers.
This guide was intended to help you gain clarity about and realize the importance of spirituality, as well as to either discover the beginnings of your own spiritual practice or deepen your existing practice.
I hope it's been able to do some or all of that for you.
“Whatever precious jewel there is in the heavenly worlds, there is nothing comparable to one who is Awakened.”
- The Buddha
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