All that practice really is, is a way to experiment with and cultivate capacity for connecting with ourselves or the world in a different way than how we normally operate in our lives.
We are essentially using tools and practices to open up to news parts of experience. Hopefully in ways that are healing, awakening or helping us grow as people.
Depending on what sort of person we are, what sort of culture we exist in and our life stories, we will naturally be open to some parts of experience and closed to others. Practice should help us open and heal new parts of ourselves up and become healthier, fuller expressions of our beings for the benefit of us and others.
Aspects of Experience
The four parts of us – body, heart, mind and soul – correspond to different aspects of experience:
- Body – doing
- Heart – feeling
- Mind – seeing
- Soul – being
The parts interact with each other very closely and when we are closed to one part of experience it affects another – we end up offsetting the balance by overcompensating.
Imagine that this image is a drawing of a set of scales seen from above. When one part of the diagram is out of whack, it causes all the other parts to go off balance.
The opposite ends of the scales tend to affect each other most strongly. These are the common ways in which most people are out of whack:
There are underlying emotions or feelings that can’t be felt
2. Overwhelmed with emotion
There is something that can’t be understood
You don’t have the resources or capacity to do what needs to be done
4. Over-doing/ over-achieving
Something isn’t allowed to just be as it is
As well as these four, there is also the space we allow ourselves to operate in, which affects how these things manifest.
Closed/ Out of Comfort Zone
When we are closed and don’t feel safe, overthinking, overwhelm, over-entitlement and overachieving seem really bad – we tend to hate ourselves and others for these things because they are too far outside of everyone’s comfort zone.
Open / In Comfort Zone
When we are open, safe and in a space of allowing and gratitude this gives more room for things to flow freely and we see that sometimes embodying these things can actually be a really helpful and enjoyable way to function.
Thriving Not Squashing
It is important that when we are practicing or doing healing work, like therapy, the goal is not to squash the part of us that is overactive. That part is overactive for a reason, it is a behaviour that we have learned in order to keep ourselves safe and functioning.
Instead, we are opening to and connecting with the part of ourselves that are inactive or underdeveloped.
This starts by being able to be vulnerable and honest about the things we find challenging.
It’s a continuous process of refinement. There are many layers to how we operate and different situations will bring out different strengths and weaknesses. If we aren’t able to recognise our weaknesses we will not be able to grow.
There is no end goal with practice, we are building capacity and resilience in the system to be able to meet each moment and connect more openly and sincerely with what is happening now.
These are some practices that are antidotes for welcoming the parts of us that have been closed.
Here I have shared links to my practice guides and described some of the Buddhist traditions that best embody those practices.
1. Balancing overthinking, by opening to feeling
Tradition: Brahma Viharas (Buddhist heart practices)
What the practice does: Opens up a way of connecting with our heart spaces and our deepest desires to wanting to be well
Practice guide: Heartfulness
2. Balancing emotional overwhelm, by gaining perspective & clarity
What the practice does: Gives people the tools to see the bigger picture. The three characteristics are essentially the doorway to getting a perspective that is bigger than ourselves, which gives us clarity on the true nature of reality and allows us to be less attached to our own emotions
Practice guide: Mindfulness
3. Balancing over-entitlement, by increasing our sense of empowerment
What the practice does: Visualisation exercises, meditations and energy work allows people to reclaim their embodied power
Practice guide: Embodiment
4. Balancing over-doing, by allowing ourselves to be with no expectations
What the practice does: Allows people to open to just being exactly as they are, without feeling the need to do anything to justify their existence
Practice guide: Soulfulness
What is worth recognising, and that is often failed to be recognised in spiritual practice, is that we are an eco-system. We’re not an on and off system of 0s and 1s where we can flip and switch and everything is different. As we awaken and grow we will need to respond to our changing inner worlds with different practices.
We are also all part of a wider eco-system. We are each one part of the picture of our world and experience and often the reason that we feel out of balance is not just personal but also collective.
Being out of balance catalyses change and causes growth. We see this through how society changes and grows as a whole and also through the individuals in society who are willing to go out of their comfort zone to stand up for the imbalance they see or experience; in order to bring about more balance and harmony in the world.
It is often the biggest overthinkers, over-feelers, overachievers and visionaries who change the world. Something to them feels so far out of whack that they have to do something about it – for example, great poets who are so subsumed with intense emotion they have to write about it in order to get some perspective on life. This is then shared with wider society as a whole, which allows people to connect with their own emotions and inner worlds better.
Rather than approaching practice as a way to game the system and win at life, spiritual practice works better and creates change faster if we see it as a way in which we are here to learn to be more helpful for the world.
This can include learning to take care of ourselves better or enjoy ourselves more, but it is a different approach to wanting to achieve perfection as individuals or trying to get something from the system.
Teaching Spiritual Practice
If the objective is to open new parts of people that are oppressed or shut down, there are different ways to achieve this.
One is that you can pick a practice that has worked for you, by opening something in you, and share the information required for people to be able to replicate this.
If it is simple and easy enough for people to understand, this has the benefits of being able to reach a lot of people really fast.
The disbenefits are that if it was really that easy – just a piece of information that people were missing – people probably would have already solved that.
The reality is that people need to understand and connect with themselves better and this is a delicate topic that requires a huge amount of care, refinement, patience, humility and grace to facilitate.
Ideally, you want to be able to meet people where they are, sense where there might be an imbalance and creatively offer a way for them to open up to a new way of being. Either by working with individuals, through sharing your own story in a way that might resonate, giving people explicit options or through offering relevant practices to a group.
Large Goenka style retreats, for example, work by creating a very structured environment that is designed to invite a certain aspect of people’s being into it and helps people change the way they relate to that aspect. It works for some people, some people aren’t welcome in the environment and some people it affects very negatively.
One of the issues of focusing in so tightly on one aspect of experience, is that if a different part of someone’s experience starts opening up or coming out, the space suddenly becomes an unsafe and unwelcoming place for that person to be, which can be unproductive or unpleasant at best and catastrophic at worst.
The style of teaching that I most enjoy is the absolute opposite end of the spectrum to this. It is about welcoming the whole of a person or group of people and feeling in to the specifics of what wants to be brought back into balance with each individual or in the group dynamic.
The more you want your teaching to be like the latter, the more you have to truly embody what it is you are teaching. It can’t be things you have learned intellectually it must be something that you have integrated into who you are through all the different aspects of your being so that your behaviour, emotional responses and ideas all feel aligned around what it is you are communicating to someone.
When you are in an open state yourself and the practice is being taught from a joyful, friendly, compassionate and inclusive space then people will feel that and be more likely to be able to relax into it, to enjoy the practice and make positive changes really fast.