The Nature of Spiritual Practice


If you ask most Westerners about their religion (if they have one) they  will likely tell you what they believe. They may also tell you about worship, rituals, or sacraments that are part of their religious observance. If we were to turn to the (traditional) East and ask someone that same question, we might hear more about spiritual practice (yoga) than about belief or ritual.

The word yoga literally means yoke, which refers to one taking on a particular discipline or spiritual practice. The essence of spiritual practice is that of cultivating the growth of one’s consciousness rather than trying to achieve salvation after death.

Many religious approaches to spirituality start with the assumption that we are spiritually (and perhaps psychologically) broken or incomplete and are in need of some form of redemption. This assumption is embedded deep in the Western psyche–even for those who may not profess a religious affiliation. Many people in our culture turn to psychotherapy rather than religion to heal this sense of brokenness or deficiency. Psychotherapy can help, but it cannot heal our deepest wound.

Many people turn to some form of Eastern spiritual practice–usually meditation–with the intention of healing this sense of internal deficiency or brokenness. They see spiritual practice as a potential remedy for their deep pain. Starting with feelings of depression, anxiety, or emptiness they may engage in meditation to try to heal this condition. Meditation can help, but as long as the motivation is to fix something that is broken progress will be limited.

Effective spiritual practice begins with that which Buddhists call Right Understanding and Right Motivation. (The word “right’ can be interpreted to mean “wise” or “skillful.”) Right Understanding and Right Motivation can perhaps be illustrated with a story about a time when someone asked Michelangelo how he was able to transform a block of marble into the masterpiece known as David.

It is said that Michelangelo replied, “It’s quite simple. I bought a block of marble and chiseled away everything that wasn’t David!” He perceived “David” already existing within the stone block and he removed everything that wasn’t part of this vision.
And thus it is with spiritual practice: we begin by resting in our deepest truth: we sit as the Buddha or the Christ; we rest in True Nature as a here and now reality. Spiritual practice will then bring into our awareness all of the internal resistance that blocks our conscious experience of this fundamental Truth. This resistance may be hidden from consciousness until it is uncovered by our spiritual practice.

What are we to do with the resistance that arises? In a nutshell: “Just keep engaging the practice.” We meet this resistance as would the Buddha or the Christ: we meet it with awareness, clarity and nonresistance–without judgement, interpretation or analysis. As resistance is consciously recognized and met with nonresistance, it will begin to dissolve. Fear, anger, judgment, shame….whatever arises, we meet it with an open mind, an open heart and with no reactivity. This will eventually dissolve all forms of resistance.

We don’t have to agree with the story or narrative that may be part of the resistance. (“Ain’t it awful.” “Shame on them.”) –but we don’t argue with it either. We simply allow what is, to be what is, without adding anything to it. We experience the resistance in the form of body sensations, emotions and thoughts without attachment, identification or resistance.

To understand and believe a spiritual truth is a good start but it is not enough to transform ones consciousness. Transformation occurs only through some form of spiritual practice. Having a good map can be helpful, but only if one engages the journey!