It’s important to recognise that our spiritual or contemplative practice doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
While we can develop a resiliency and a capacity to be present with a wider range of circumstances through practice, our environments and the circumstances of our life will be the biggest thing that shapes our experience.
In some spiritual settings focusing on the material or relational aspects of life is either ignored or frowned-upon. But these things hold a huge influence over you and your way of being in the world whether you recognise it or not, so it makes sense to consciously engage with this and consider how you can create a life that feels aligned with your spiritual, material and emotional needs and desires.
If we refuse to recognise the reality of this, these aspects of ourselves will be in shadow. This means that rather than our needs and desires being a healthy expression of our beings, they become something that eats us up inside or that we enact in the world in unhealthy ways.
There is also the fact that we never arrive anywhere in life and we don’t exist separately from anything around us, so cultivating and participating in happy, healthy environments and eco-systems is ultimately the end goal of any spiritual practice.
If we have spent time reflecting on what really matters to us in life, we are much more likely to be a force for good in the world – we are much more likely to be willing to do what it takes to create a better world, rather than be pulled around by unhealthy forces and the will of others.
With this in mind, here are some tools for helping you reflect on your wider life and think about the things you would like to cultivate more of.
I ran a goal-setting group for years and have worked with young people on helping them make plans for their futures. There are a few things I have learned that help with setting goals that are inordinately helpful.
Here are some basic guidelines that are really helpful for people.
1 – Recognise that you have a flawed working model of the world
The things that people care about and how they perceive the world is highly personal and unique. Assuming that these things are the same for everyone increases a sense of competition and flattens our world-view. Realising that every person has a different way of experiencing the world opens it up and creates a huge amount of potential for spaciousness towards ourselves and others.
This is really important. The way we see the world and ourselves is heavily influenced by our upbringing, our culture and the people around us. There is no way to escape this – how we see things is not how they are.
If we don’t recognise this, it enforces oppression of ourselves and others. I’ve noticed that White British and American cultures are particularly bad for thinking that they have an objective view of the world.
Realising the depths of how differently the world can be experienced can be incredibly liberating – for example, noticing that there are cultures that don’t build someone’s worth on their productivity can be game-changing.
In order to do this, we want to take a wider perspective. This helps us keep an open mind about what we want in life, rather than being narrowly focused on what the people around us think.
Spend some time considering different cultural perspectives. Imagine looking at your life through the eyes of a good friend in order to see yourself more clearly or even ask them what they think to get some feedback.
Consciously reclaim your projections – be aware that things that create a strong emotional reaction in you are more likely to create a fixed way of seeing and understanding something. If there is an edgy emotion or situation, the mind is more likely to misinterpret the situation.
Understand that this is your life. Everyone else has their own flawed model of the world, so we don’t need to be too caught up in what other people think about us either.
We are learning as we go and working with the information we have – adopting this attitude helps us keep an open mind about what is possible and realistic.
2 – Make room for feelings, intentions and values
When people think about their life and their goals they tend to focus on how things look from the outside and what they will achieve or get.
Looking at things in this way can mean that you get caught up in status and competition. Or thinking about the things you think you should achieve through the eyes of others, rather than what is going to lead to genuine fulfilment.
With this way of approaching life, rather than assuming that what we think we want is going to make us feel good, we are flipping it on its head. We are thinking about the underlying feeling or intention that we are trying to cultivate or manifest, and being flexible in the way that we create that in life.
Feelings and intentions also can’t be hoarded, they are a shared experience with the people around us. If we make room for thinking about how we want to feel in life, this helps us adopt a mindset where we are all in it together.
This is much more reflective of what life is really like – we may think that a sports car is going to make us happy but focusing on cultivating joy as an intention is much more rewarding and meaningful.
It also allows us to be present with the process as it unfolds, rather than believing that our life is going to start when we achieve or get certain things.
Embracing this attitude can completely collapse the status-driven capitalist culture within us.
With this is mind, these are the underlying desires that fuel almost all decisions, to help you clarify what is driving you:
3 – What do you really want?
We tend to hide what we really want in life from ourselves and others, for a huge range of reasons – self-judgement, fear, oppression, trauma, shadows and misalignment with our environment all stop us from being present with our desires.
Framing the question as, ‘what do you secretly want?’ helps cut through this.
Getting really clear on what you actually want is super important. Be honest, if only with yourself about this, and get comfortable with the idea that you might not get it.
This is a fundamentally important part of growing up and being able to be mature and effective people in the world.
If we can’t claim our desires while also accepting that we don’t always get what we want, then it will drive us into narcissistic and power-hungry behaviours, where we are manipulating others and playing games to try and get as much as we can out of the system.
4 – Learning about ourselves
Reflecting on what we want in life is an incredibly rich process. Fantasy, when brought into the present moment, is one of the most powerful spiritual tools for connecting with our deepest nature.
Desire is the source of our eros and what drives us in life and developing an intimacy with this allows us to see the details of what we find beautiful, compelling, meaningful and worthwhile in life.
We are learning about ourselves through engaging with the process of imagining what we want in life.
We can also recognise that the process of cultivating this self-awareness is half the purpose of life anyway.
By realising that we never arrive anywhere – that we are always a work in progress – we become more focused on creating the conditions for that process itself to be enjoyable.
4 – Leave room for unexpected additions
One of the most magical things about life is that we can’t always imagine how things are going to pan out.
Leaving room for unexpected things to happen allows us to see change and uncertainty as an opportunity rather than a threat.
We can be clear about what matters to us in life and open-minded about how that it is going to unfold and present to us, which allows us to dance with life and the Universe.
When imagining the life you’d like and allowing yourself to express your desires in this way, you can unveil some of the magic of life. It’s amazing how much detail our subconscious and intuitive understanding can reveal to us when we aren’t overthinking things or fixating too heavily.
5 – Remember to appreciate and celebrate
When reflecting make time to look back as well. Remember where you were a few years ago and see how far you have already come.
If we don’t make time to stop and appreciate ourselves and all the hard work we have already done, then life becomes an endless slog.
Take pleasure in celebrating the things that you and other people in your life have achieved.
Here are two simple exercises for feeling into what you most want in life. It is worth writing them down, as the process of allowing things to come out often reveals details and new sides of things that we weren’t aware of.
My Life in 5 Years Time – an exercise for helping you envision where you would like your life to go
Life Areas – an exercise for focusing on the different aspects of life
Reflecting on Spirituality
If you want to focus more specifically on reflecting on your spiritual practice, I have also written about this:
Reflecting on Practice
Reimagining Spiritual Practice
I wrote this post specifically about engaging with social issues and living in service to the world:
Engaging with Social Issues with Friendliness and Care