I have struggled with the word spiritual for a long time. It seems to conjure up images of tarot card readings, incense and angels - which aren’t really my cup of tea. Over the past six months or so though, something has shifted. Meditation practice and the study of Buddhist, Taoist, Stoic and Advaita Vedanta philosophy have come to mean more to me than simple attention training and reading for interest. I find myself increasingly referring to this mindful path that I am on as a spiritual practice, one that connects me daily to that which is fundamentally important, essentially human and at the core of what it means to be alive.
“Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense. Doing science is spiritual. So is washing the dishes. It is the inner experience which counts. And you have to be there for it. All else is mere thinking.”
Many scholars and authors who I admire, including Jon Kabat-Zinn who is quoted above, prefer not to use the word spiritual. They, like me, consider themselves agnostic or atheist and they are often reluctant to handle the heavy baggage that the word can bring. However, my eyes were opened last year reading Waking Up by neuroscientist and ardent atheist Sam Harris, who argues that we can and should reappropriate the word. You can read more of his ideas on this over here, and of course by reading the whole book - which is one of my favourite on the subject of consciousness and meditation.
“There is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.”
Writing about a topic this weighty in a short blog post has been difficult. Keeping my musings succinct, actually managing to articulate these ideas that have until now been solely in my own head, and coherently laying out the foundations of my personal practice were a definite struggle! I have no doubt that I will write about this again. For now though, I want to share with you what I consider to be the three foundations of my personal spiritual practice at this point in time - three qualities that underpin my approach to meditation, study and contemplation.
This practice has been and will always be, a slow process. It takes time to learn, time to integrate new ideas and perspectives. Spiritual practice for me is fundamentally a process of shifting my way of being in the world. I want to learn how to be more present in life, and to cling less tightly to particular ideas, desires or dislikes. As Sam Harris describes it, I want to “be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time…” Learning how to do this absolutely takes time.
We are all attracted to the shine of the quick fix, the instant solution or the flash or insight that changes everything. Eventually though, shine fades and we need to find something substantial to keep us grounded and content. I think we are also looking for a way to retain control, to placate the natural fear that comes from living in a chaotic world. Ironically, the core of the spiritual path is relaxing this control, and realising that peace comes from letting go.
Slow spirituality is about finding simple practices that keep you grounded and conntected to the things that truly matter. It is about learning to stay centred in a world that is constantly changing. The slow approach means we don’t need to keep chasing the next best thing, instead we simply take small steps on a path that cultivates the qualities we value, and we keep going. Fundamentally, the practice isn’t really about getting to any particular destination. Instead the whole journey is about learning to see what is here right now, to wake up to the world around you.
Consistency and balance are essential for positive change and creating new habits. Little and often, with regular practice, drop by drop the vase is filled (to borrow a Buddhist turn of phrase). To my mind the word steady also connotes a kind of even-handedness - not rushing or throwing ourselves into the deep end of anything. This definitely ties in with the first quality - slow and steady go together.
We can stay steady by cultivating equanimity, and committing to regular practice. Equanimity in all things doesn’t mean apathy or not caring one way or the other, but instead we could think of it as a warm-hearted acceptance of whatever is present. We respond to the situation, but we don’t fight the very fact that it is happening.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when life is hard. During grief, trauma, depression or illness, the last thing we want is to be present. However, when I went through a particularly difficult period in 2012, my yoga and meditation practice became the steady raft that helped me find a moment of calm at the beginning of the day. The ritual of sitting down was soothing, and the reminder that all phenomen come to pass eventually was particularly comforting. Steady practice through the ups and downs of life allows us to work with all the different attitudes, emotions and states of mind that we can experience as human beings.
Staying steady has also kept me from diving headlong into any one religious practice or school of thought. For some, immersion might feel like the best course of action, but personally I have preferred to stay skeptical and take time on my own to test ideas. The techniques and rituals that have stayed with me continue because I have found them to be beneficial, helpful, valuable. I’m not interested in labels - Buddhist, Yogi, Jedi, (just kidding, that would be awesome) or Believer. Instead, I’m interested in finding practical techniques and ideas that help me grow and live at ease.
Finally, my approach to spiritual practice is grounded by a fundamental commitment to rationality and evidence, rather than belief or superstition. I do not blindly accept anything - rebirth, karma, God or special powers. Instead, as I said above, I try to investigate and consider ideas for myself, and to practice holding on lightly to my underlying assumptions about life. One of the most influential books for me personally on this path so far has been Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, which lays out the Buddhist Dharma as a philosophical path to be lived and tested rather than something to be believed or accepted. This appeals to me immensely, I’ve never liked being told what to do without a why! This is the key reason I meditate using Buddhist techniques such as Vipassana - because I appreciate the importance they place on thinking for yourself and putting the teaching to the test.
I also think it is important to remain skeptical and rational to avoid some of the pitfalls of spiritual life. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says:
“A lot of harm has come in all eras from people attached to one view of spiritual “truth.” And a lot more has come from people who hide behind the cloak of spirituality and are willing to harm others to feed their own appetites.
Moreover, our ideas of spirituality frequently ring with a slightly holier-than-thou resonance to the attuned ear. Narrow, literalist views of spirit often place it above the “gross,” “polluted,” “deluded” domain of body, mind, and matter. Falling into such views, people can use ideas of spirit to run from life.”
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
Instead of clinging to any one set of ideas and taking them as truth, I prefer to practice mindfulness, compassion and gratitude, and to learn from many different philosophies. The question of what it means to lead a good life intrigues me and keeps me curious, and the fact that it is possible to experience a selfless state of mind free from suffering (if only for a moment or two) also motivates me to keep practising.
To simplify, I keep my practice secular, leaving aside anything beyond the natural world. My daily meditation and committment to living life mindfully and gratefully comes from a desire to change my perception of and interaction with the world around me. I would like to be more present and connected, less attached and focused on getting somewhere better or escaping anything in particular. I see no need to believe in the supernatural to accomplish this, my motivations are based on trying to live well in this life, and to appreciate the beauty of reality.
The path I’m walking is slow, steady and secular. Fundamentally, it is more about letting go - of hatred, greed and delusion (as Joseph Goldstein says) and less about getting anywhere in particular. Slowly does it, with steady progression and two feet on solid ground. No need for leaps of faith or magical revelations, I’m content to take my time and savour the process as well as the rewards.
I treasure my meditation and time spent contemplating the big ideas. I feel it connects me to the shared human experience and mystery at the heart of life. We all seek meaning, peace, freedom from suffering and a sense of connection with others. These can be found through relationships, through work, and for me through a slow and steady secular spiritual practice.