7 Things I Wish I Had Known About Spiritual Practice
I had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to my first “satsang.” As a scientist and as a woman, I felt uncomfortable, even scared, by the whole setup. Unfortunately, I also felt judged for my questioning. So I didn’t go back for a decade. Here’s what I wish I had known.
1. Just because the speaker is a man who sits on a dais, seems wise, and speaks slowly to a rapt audience, YOU DON’T HAVE TO BELIEVE HIM.
It’s ok to want to know about the speaker’s background, conditioning, treatment of others, and commitment to practice what s/he preaches.
I was actually in a state of panic that first time because the setup triggered my wounds from organized religion. Also, I hadn’t generally experienced men in positions of power to have my best interests as a woman at heart, and I it wasn’t obvious to me why should this be any different.
It didn’t feel safe for me to trust the leader, the container, or the teachings at first. I had no tools for looking into myself, so I didn’t know that’s what I was feeling; I just knew I wanted to criticize everything and run. That made it hard for anyone to hold me through my process.
Opening to spiritual practice is a deeply vulnerable thing. Keep someone around you who you trust when you go through it.
2. Spiritual practice is not a another race to the finish line to collect a trophy.
I thought everything was a competition, especially if someone told me it wasn’t.
But practice isn’t something to accomplish. It’s not another thing to put on the to-do list.
It’s an attitude - an opening and a letting go. It can also be joyful.
My whole life had been based on being the best, accumulating awards and degrees. There was always an upcoming evaluation and, over it all, the idea of a looming judgement. So, stepping into a world where merit wasn’t how I was measured put me seriously off balance.
I had no framework that allowed me to just be. I actually thought it would be dangerous to let myself be instead of do. What if I missed something - got behind and never caught up?
Practice is also not about escaping somewhere beyond, into a magical realm.
It’s about being fully immersed in reality, as opposed to the stories we tell ourselves about reality.
It’s an investigation of who you are.
The idea of getting curious about myself without condemnation felt radical, and, again, dangerous. Noticing my joy, desire, and pleasure in life without feeling shame or guilt was even harder. Realizing how much I beat myself up about these things was the revelation that started my journey.
3. Spiritual practice does not entail relativism.
There are ethical guidelines in spiritual community, they just don’t work through punishment and shaming.
It was difficult for me to understand what any guidelines could be based on or how everyone would agree to follow them if they weren’t handed down by the God I had known as a child.
I had learned that the only options in life were strict obedience or a dangerous free-for-all.
Of course, there was a middle way. A subtler way. And it does take context into account. Like a lot of things in spiritual practice, understanding how to be required study, patience, loving intention, the ability to listen, and real intuition.
4. Don’t trust your intuition
My impression of spiritual practice was that it was all about following your heart. But I had never felt any connection with my “heart.” When I listened inside, I heard the voices of fear and condemnation.
Actually, I was critical of “follow your heart,” because I thought it was license to indulge in whatever felt good or fed the ego.
Then I started to hear, from multiple teachings, something that rang deeply true for me:
A lot of what we think is our intuition is actually our conditioning.
Until practice has started to peel back these default layers of programming, it may actually be wise to ask “what is underneath that” when so-called intuition arises.
I had to learn to develop real intuition. What did I really want, in any given situation? Often, I had no clue, or I thought I shouldn’t want what I wanted. I suppressed any desires that didn’t fit the image of who I was supposed to be.
In the case of spiritual practice, I might never have opened at all had I listened to the voices of fear that were all I could hear.
5. Stop bitching and start practicing, but don’t divorce discernment.
If you’re going to follow a practice, really do it. Get into your body. There are deeper layers to us that matter. I was trained to only value the mind. I could argue and criticize forever. I was faced with a huge wall of resistance. I thought I knew better.
But then, why was I there? To stand around and criticize?
Spiritual practice is a humbling. It demands at once a real strength and a softening, dedication and inspiration.
Once I felt the effects deeper in my bones, in my whole being, then practice made a lot more sense. What a wonder it was, when for the first time, I felt what it was like to move through the world with sweetness, ease, and curiosity. I felt expansion where once there had only been contraction.
Practice is important.
And yet, spiritual practice is not about blind obedience to a guru. A good guru will eventually make you independent of her.
So, ask: do the books, the teacher, and your own experience line up? Is your practice having a positive effect on your baseline of daily life?
Listen to your teachers, yes, AND listen to your body, and look around you at the whole of your experience.
6. Find a mentor.
It’s ok to be worried, confused, and triggered - this does not mean you are a bad person. When shifting from a black-and-white belief system and opening to the value of subjective experience, it can feel scary.
How do you evaluate what is true or right if you can’t trust your intuition and your old strict rules are gone? Until your system has reoriented and your practice has shown you a new ground of being, making decisions can be overwhelming.
Find someone you trust who can be a touchstone for you through it.
7. Awakening is not an excuse to be an asshole.
I call it the enlightenment (awakening/liberation,etc) mystique: justifying the total lack of transparency around this concept because it simply cannot be explained in words; it just happens. Or: enlightened people just are the way they are, they can’t help it.
These terms need to be explicitly addressed. What are they, exactly, and has a leader or other people in positions of power in the community experienced them? If so, what does that mean about how we evaluate what is said and done?
I wondered where spiritual leaders got their authority. How could they just make pronouncements as if they were universal truth and offer no evidence to support their case? Where were the graphs, citations, and supporting material?
I resented the subtle pressure I felt to trust spiritual leaders based on the possibility that s/he might be awakened, a vague and magic-seeming criterion.
If a leader is engaging in bad behavior,
You don’t have to take it.
True awakening is said to be humbling and to bring love and compassion.