What Makes A Spiritual Practice? Five Tips For Keeping It Real

What is more spiritual, doing a complicated three-hour Yoga routine on the top of a mountain in Nepal, or washing the dishes in a grimy east-London apartment? It really depends on your attitude. If you wash the dishes mindfully, staying in the present moment and returning your focus to those grimy dishes every time a thought comes up, then you are doing a spiritual practice. If you do the three-hour mountain Yoga session in a state of spiritual-smugness, thinking about how impressed your friends will be when you post it on Instagram, you are not doing a spiritual practice!

It is possible to do practice Yoga and for many years without getting any meaningful result whatsoever. No insights, no revelations, just hours of twisting your body into unusual positions. Sure, you may end up stronger and more bendy – but you kind of miss the point if you do not have the correct attitude. Yoga as described 2500 years ago by the sages of ancient India had little to do with the trendy classes we see today in the West. The purpose of Yoga was to transcend the illusion of separation – realising that you are one with the rest of the Universe. This may not result in sexy Instagram photos but, being one with the Universe, you probably wouldn’t care.

The same is true for meditation. It is possible to spend hours and hours in silent sitting but without really getting anywhere. Like the Yogic tradition, Buddhism teaches us that the world we live in is an illusion, that our idea of being a separate self is false, and that only by realising this can we escape from suffering. Taking selfies with Buddhist monks will not achieve this!

Our task-oriented society can sometimes turn our practice into a kind of spiritual “to-do” list, where we imagine that by doing X amount of classes we’ll get to where we need to be. In reality though, it is the attitude that matters: it is not what you do, but how you do it.

So how can we practice in a way that will actually get us somewhere? This article provides a few pointers to help you on way.

1) Be Brave

Realising that everything you thought you knew was actually a giant lie created by your ego is kind of a big deal. If you have seen the film, The Matrix, think of the scene when Neo first gets unplugged, he doesn’t look to happy about it. For this reason, a certain degree of fearlessness is needed. Not the kind of reckless fearlessness that would have you doing all sorts of dangerous things in pursuit of spiritual knowledge, more like a willingness to embrace the unknown and be open to whatever is happening. A true spiritual awakening is a huge adjustment to the mind. The attitude of accepting whatever comes up without running from it, or even trying to explain it, is an important one to have on the spiritual path. Without this attitude, any real insights you receive may be pushed away as there will be conflict between your old, habitual mind and the new world revealed by spiritual practice.

One powerful way to avoid any fear and confusion is to fall back on the practice. When anything unusual comes up, instead of running away from it, analysing it or tweeting about it to impress your friends, try simply carrying on with practice – be it Yoga, meditation or whatever it is you are doing. The mind likes to over-complicate things and drag our personal dramas into everything, so it is better to just do. Having a supportive community of like-minded people can also help you to be fearless as there will be reassurance that you are not in fact going crazy, and that there are others who have been through whatever it is you are going through. This article mentioned some dramatic stuff about non-separation etc… but often it is better not to think about this stuff too much and go back to basics – i.e. do some practices!

2) Be Persistent

A few couple of sun salutations on Mondays, meditation centre on Wednesday, reading a spiritual book on the toilet on Thursday, burning a bit of sage and wearing a crystal on the weekend… All of these things may have some benefits, but with all the different information available these days, we can end up with a bit of a haphazard approach to spirituality. It is good to try different practices and explore different traditions, but it is important to have at least one practice that you do consistently since this will allow you to go much deeper into the practice.

Persistence is also important for sustaining any insights that come. If we spend much time in mediation we may catch glimpses of what the likes of Buddha were talking about, but when we go back to the ordinary world, pretty soon the old mind comes back. This can be seen by all those Facebook posts along the lines of, “OMG, I just did a 10-day silent meditation retreat, it was so awesome!”.

Persistence can also help dissolved any inner conflict or confusion that can come up, again you can always fall back on the practices.

3) Be Present

In “spiritual” talk, we hear so much about the present moment that it becomes a kind of cliché. But the awareness of the present moment really is the heart of spiritual practice. Patanjali’s Yoga sutra (the 2500 old “Bible” from which much of or modern knowledge of Yoga comes) begins with, “Now begins the scientific discipline of Yoga”. Not tomorrow, not when you finally sort your life out and start being healthy, not when you are bendy enough to touch your toes… right now – that’s where the action is!

Thousands of years ago the ancient sages of India, in their infinite wisdom, developed the Yogic postures in order that we can impress our friends with sexy-Instagram photos. Actually, they had a slightly different intention: the Yoga Sutras only briefly mentions the postures, which were developed simply to allow the body to spend longer in meditation.

It is only in the present moment where we can escape the illusion and catch a glimpse of the true nature of reality. The trouble is our minds tend to prefer endlessly dwelling on the past, worrying about the future. With practice though, you will find that the mind will start to prefer the calm meditative state to the usual frantic-worried one.

Getting into the present moment will also dissolve any fears, doubts, and internal conflicts that may come us. Basically, the mind cannot comprehend this deep stuff anyway so we need to shut it up!

4) Be Happy!

This article pokes fun at people who show off about their “spiritual” experiences but an even bigger problem is the opposite. Instead of using spirituality to blow our own trumpets we are more likely to use it to beat yourself around the head with a big stick. To the self-critical mind, the spiritual path can become one giant guilt trip, “My mind is too full of crap to meditate!”, “Other people are better at Yoga than me!”, “I’m way too lazy to get enlightened, I’m doomed to wander samsara for all of eternity!” etc. etc. All of this internal drama is what takes us out of the present moment and keeps alive the story of “me! me! me!” ensuring our continued separation from the wondrous, mysterious, and beautiful nature of reality.

Spiritual practices are supposed to make us lighter, more joyful and less attached to all the daily bullshit. If instead they are making you sulky, you are doing it wrong! Of course, becoming more aware of the mind, can shine a light on all sorts of dark parts of ourselves we’d prefer that didn’t exist – but we should not take ourselves too seriously. Whatever comes up can be viewed with a kind of playful curiosity, after-all becoming aware of all this stuff IS the spiritual practice. As the saying goes, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly”

Doing Yoga and meditation can be spiritual practices, but so can anything that makes you feel alive and connected to something more than yourself – so we should seek out such experiences.

5) Be Nice!

Breaking out of the, “me! me! me!” drama that keeps us stuck in the illusion of separation can be challenging, especially as there is a tendency for the ego to get hold of the spiritual stuff: using Yoga to impress others, or your meditative insights to punish yourself as discussed. One way to get out of this trap is to practice not for ourselves, but for others. This is why Buddhists will often say a prayer after a practice, dedicating it to the wellbeing of all sentient beings. Serving others, treating them how you would like to be treated, is central to pretty much all of humanities great spiritual traditions (maybe this is slightly ironic given different religions tendency to fight with each-other, but at least the thought is there!).

So we should remember it is not, “my spiritual journey”, it is “our spiritual journey”. By practicing Yoga and meditation, you can clear out any selfish tendencies making it much easier to serve others. The job you do, how you use your free time, how you treat your family, friends, and strangers, all of these things can be an opportunity to serve others and therefore become a spiritual practice (even more spiritual than doing 108 sun salutation every morning!).

There is a beautiful circle that forms with compassionate action. The more you realise that others are not-separate from you, the more compassionate you are. The more compassionate actions you perform, the more you realise that others are not separate from you. So, compassion can be both the beginning, and the end result of spiritual practice.
Attitude Is Everything

It is great to do things like Yoga and meditation, but without the correct attitude, you are not likely to realise anything that is really worth realising. Sometimes washing those dirty dishes really is more spiritual than performing complex Yoga poses on a sacred mountain top!

So be prepared to embrace the unknown, be persistent, try not to take yourself too seriously, and focus on serving others. And most importantly, remember that the spiritual path begins right NOW.

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