Six Building Blocks of a Spiritual Life
"I. Personal Daily Spiritual Practice: Personal practice is the cornerstone of a spiritual life. Practice cultivates concentration and awareness: over time, you purify and transform your illusions and delusion, thus becoming more and more transparent to innate wisdom and spontaneously expressed compassion. There are two main keys to spiritual practice. The first is to connect regularly with it: find a regular time and place; develop a regular sequence; and do it on a daily-ish basis. The second key is to find something that fits you, or it just ain't gonna happen! Discover which practice (or practices) moves and opens you, unravels you, takes you beyond yourself right into this present moment . . . and is doable within your given circumstances. Examples: meditation, yoga, tai chi, lovingkindness, chanting, prayer, connecting with nature, walking meditation. Transformative spirituality is an inside job. We all want to change the world for the better, but who is ready, willing, and able to change themselves?
"II. Spiritual Study: Both formal and informal study can enhance and deepen your spiritual life by providing a broader context for practice. Great teachers from the past speak directly to us through the timeless writings found in every wisdom tradition. Contemporary authors and translators help us access these teachings in our own language, using modern examples. Read, listen, learn, and actively inquire: find the essential meaning of the teaching, then apply it to your attitude and intentions, explicit practice, and your life. Examples: books, journals, scriptures, myths and tales, poems. Study your life.
"III. Inner Growth Work: As Western spiritual seekers, we are fortunate to have access to so many different skillful means. Inner growth work is an integral part of Western Dharma and can help remove inner and outer obscurations on the spiritual path. It can also help you deal with the apparent complexities of modern life: clarifying goals and aspirations, establishing priorities and setting boundaries, purifying selfishness, raising a family, making a life as well as a living, embracing a life partner, dealing with health issues, etc. Examples: self-inquiry, psychotherapy, journal writing, relationship work, creative self-expression, dietary regimes such as vegetarianism or fasting, exercise programs, healthy living."
"IV. Group/Sangha Practice: Spiritual practice within a group context provides gifts from beyond the boundaries of ego. A supportive environment enlivens practice in the good times and helps keep you on the path in the rough times. Interaction with other members will help round off your rough edges and show exactly where you are still caught by either gross or subtle forms of egotistical ignorance, attachment, and aversion. Also, you learn so much more in a group setting others will raise issues and ask questions you didn't even know you had! Examples: church going, women's or men's circles, study groups, 12-Step recovery programs, synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha (community), retreats, pilgrimages.
"V. Teacher Practice: Direction and guidance from a spiritual mentor or wise and experienced elder can accelerate your progress by pointing out the most direct way, helping you avoid deviations and pitfalls, and advising you through obstacles. In a very real sense, connection with an authentic teacher is no different than direct connection with the living, high-voltage current of Dharma. Ultimately, the outer teacher is the mirror in which you see your own nature reflected back at you again and again . . . allowing you to discover your best Self, your inner teacher. Examples: lama, spiritual advisor, priest, mullah, roshi, pastor, rabbi, shaman.
"VI. Service/Seva: What is the point of a spiritual life without the intent to give back, to relieve suffering in the world, since we are all in the same boat and all rise or fall, sink or swim, together? On an outer level, cultivate action that is not just non-harming, but helpful, generous, and altruistic. On an inner level, cultivate non-ego-based intent: to serve others; to discriminate what needs to be done; to do your best, and bring forth your best inner self, no matter what. And finally, recognize that real seva, real compassion in action, doesn't have to look like anything in particular. It's essentially a quality of being, of authentic presence . . . Make a life and not just a living through engaging in one's true vocation through that naturally arising action that is effortlessly appropriate, selfless, non-harming, and full of both joy and dignity. Examples: karma yoga, compassion in action, volunteerism, right livelihood, parenting, informed citizenship, environmentalism, elder care, social activism.
"I have come up with this framework, after many years of teaching and observing the opportunities and challenges faced by spiritual seekers and sincere practitioners in these fast paced, post-modern times. As 21st-century Westerners, rather than medieval cloistered hermits, monks or nuns, our spiritual practice must integrate Dharma into daily life. A well-rounded spiritual life contains elements from each of these six building blocks; taking on even one of them will definitely help transform your life. As pillars of practice and a firm foundation for joyful enlightened living, the emphasis between blocks will be different for every person, according to each unique circumstances and life stage. You may choose to actively cultivate a different block each month, thus cycling through all the blocks twice a year. Or you may choose to focus on a particular block for a year or longer. Remember that continuity is the secret of success. Consistent training in all six styles of practicing over time allows you to engage fully in the world, assimilate everything into your spiritual path, and effortlessly embody wisdom in action, compassion, and impeccability. How delightful!"