One of the things that really strikes me about a lot of meditation retreats is how serious, joyless and unfocused they can be.
It seems like everyone is there to sit still on a cushion, with no particular clear purpose behind it. I believe that people need to be a bit more focused with why they are practising and what they hope the intended outcome to be.
You don’t necessarily need to set goals and targets, spirituality is no-doubt mysterious and it is important to respect that mystery, but you can still be a lot clearer about your intentions and the impact that your practice has on your wider life.
A big question that feels deeply important to at least ask is, why do people practice?
So let me ask you. Why do you practice?
If you have never considered this in depth before it is worth doing this intention setting exercise for your own practice.
Values for Teachers
There is no right or wrong way to teach people spiritual or meditative practice. There is room for all the different approaches, but what is important is that traditions and teachers are clear about what their values are so that students can make considered choices.
Spiritual practice is inherently ‘fuzzy’; the purpose is less clear than it is in things like raising a family or running a business. This is partially why it can be difficult to assess whether someone’s behaviour is appropriate and whether they are a good role-model. It’s important to be able to do this for anyone who is entrusted with a leadership position.
It’s important for teachers to consider what their values are because this is a role with such a high level of responsibility. Spiritual leaders and teachers are some of the highest respected people; they shape people’s world views and impact on people’s experiences and beliefs about themselves.
There is a huge amount of power there to either improve people’s lives or harm them. If you are a teacher and you aren’t willing to spend time considering what the outcome is of the way you are teaching on the people that you are teaching, you should really consider whether you actually want to be a teacher.
Hierarchy and Structure
It’s about time we dismantled some of the old hierarchy and structures that exist around spiritual practice.
Spiritual practice should be in service to helping people connect with what feels true, meaningful and alive for them. When spiritual leaders are given a ‘golden ticket’ of unquestionable truth it can mean that they end up undermining other people’s truth at best and sharing messages that are either stupid or actually harmful at worst.
There are ways of working together that don’t require as much hierarchy. Any step in this direction is better than the model where teachers sit at the front doing all the talking and are generally assumed to have the answers, while students sit quietly, listen carefully, do what they’re told and are assumed to know nothing about their own experience.
Spirituality should support people to explore and embody their own experience. While the traditional model can be useful for sharing key information and laying some fundamental groundwork, it isn’t particularly effective at helping people really get in touch with their own experience.
If the hierarchy can be safely loosened, you may find that everyone has some wisdom to share. People learn from each other much better when it feels like a friendly space that they are welcome in. This also means there is less pressure on the teacher to know all the answers.
It can become a space in which teachers can share their wisdom and students are more empowered to take this and run with it – to incorporate it into their own development and learning. They aren’t expecting someone to be their mum or dad or to hand them all the answers. They are stepping into their own lives and experience.
This requires a certain level of maturity from everyone involved. A stricter hierarchy and a more rigid set of teachings and ideas is useful when it is important to maintain a certain level of safety for both students and teachers alike. When there is not enough wisdom and resource in the system for people to hold themselves individually accountable, the system has to support this and take some of the slack.
A good sign that a system is ready for this more mature approach is whether people can move freely within it – can teachers leave, can students move between different practices, does the system have enough resiliency to withstand some set-backs without it entirely collapsing. If this is the case, then people can engage as mature, open individuals who are responsible for their own practice.
From here, the most important step towards less hierarchy and more clarity in spiritual practice is for everyone to think about what their intentions and values are. These can be your guiding force for how you teach, learn, practice and/or live.
And if teachers can understand them clearly they can communicate them to other people, which helps everyone make informed decisions about who they want to practice with and why.
Change and Fluidity
Spiritual practice is all about change – changing the way you perceive yourself and your experience and changing your relationship to the world and others.
I would hope that everyone wants that change to be meaningful. In order for this to happen you need to connect with your inner compass – the values that feel most important and that can guide you to move from the heart. Either as a practitioner or a teacher.
Moving from the heart also has the potential to give teachers more freedom in embodying and sharing the things that they really care about and the ways in which they really want to make a difference in the world, rather than teaching the things they think they should be teaching.
This inner compass can help you shape your teachings and be a way to hold yourself to account. When you have a clear set of values as your guiding force, you don’t need to rely on hierarchies or traditions so much.
Values also don’t require you to be in a certain role for you to be embodying them. Your values can carry across when you are learning, teaching, working, having fun or just being. They increase a sense of fluidity in the way you approach life and practice because you can see that all of these roles give you an opportunity to express and fulfil your values. Once you can see this, you get less het up about trying to get something out of people or achieve a certain level of status.
You are guided by expressing your values in the world, rather than feeling like you have fixed ideas that you want other people to adopt.
This buys the space for everyone to explore ideas together, rather than have one person dictating a concept or a way of doing things to everyone else.
Spirituality really needs to change. It is depressing that it has become synonymous with ancient hierarchical religions and practices of trying to empty our minds for hours on end with no clear purpose.
In order to manifest the discovery of truth, meaning and freedom that a lot of spirituality talks about we need to be able to empower people to show up to their practice so that they can discover what this means for them.
Hierarchy can crush personal empowerment, freedom and truth. It can turn people into blind followers who need to be told what to do and think.
For practice to be empowering, it needs to facilitate people to make meaningful and lasting change to their own perspectives and lives. This is ultimately what it’s all about and if it’s not achieving this then something is not working.
If we want students to be able to do this, we need to be able to do this as leaders; to be able to model this behaviour to people. You need to have some passion about the things that drive you and the difference you want to make in the world. You need to empower learners to take responsibility for how they personally understand and embody things and give them space to do this, including questioning your ideas. People can hold different viewpoints and still be working harmoniously together.
Ultimately, everyone needs to be clear on their values so they know what meaningful change actually looks like and we can hold each other to account on it. If everyone had crystal clear values and had the capacity to show up and live their lives by them, we would live in an entirely different world. The change would be unimaginable.
There is nothing more fulfilling than finding a place in the world to express your deepest held values. When we are driven by this motivation, rather than how much we earn or what people think about us, we learn what the word enough means. We stop striving for more and more attention, resources, power or money, because we are inherently doing the things that are meaningful for us. We can move from the deepest place within us and hopefully make a difference in the world in a way that we find satisfying.
Exercise for Getting Clear on Values
This is an exercise for getting clear on your values as a teacher. But it could also be used for your wider life, or as a practitioner.
The best way to discover your values is to first expand – exploring and unpacking all the things that feel important to you – and then to simplify and focus. It’s my experience that it’s best to keep values really simple – boiled down to single words, if possible.
I have identified three areas that it is important to understand your values for:
- Your intentions
- Your approach to life
- Your desired outcomes
For each of these areas, there are some questions below to explore. Answer with specific examples and real scenarios from your life. Include lots of detail.
Then for each of the areas (intentions, approach, outcomes) choose two values that summarise what you have written. I have included some cards and words that may help with this below.
I have also shared my values as an appendix, to give an example of how this can be done and applied to a real-life situation.
Your intentions are the values that inspire you as a person – the core values that you live for. We can access these by exploring the questions, why do you practice and why do you teach?
Some questions to help you explore this:
- Remember a couple of times when you were really enjoying your practice and your life. What were you enjoying about it?
- What type of practice or activities do you feel most inspired by or drawn to? What is it about them that you love?
- What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning?
- If you could get paid to do anything, what would it be? What would the specifics of it look like?
- Who do you admire? What is it about them that you admire?
- When you are teaching or working, in what ways do you like to go above and beyond, even if no-one else would notice?
If you can get clear on your intentions, it gives you a fundamental place to move from. You will know the things in life that you find fulfilling and you can embody this through all your expressions in the world. It should feel deeply rewarding to be expressing your core values and intentions out in the world.
It will create a much richer experience for students if teachers really give a shit in this way and if their motivation is coming from their own personal passion, rather than an exterior motive. Students are much more likely to learn quickly and make lasting change if they are moving from their deepest intentions.
Your approach is about how you most naturally go about doing things; you want to get clear on the way you interact with people and the world.
This can be really useful for helping you find your tribe – the people that you gel well with and who have complementary approaches to yours.
Some questions to help you get clear on your approach:
- Describe a time when you really enjoyed working on something either in a team or on your own. What was it about it that you enjoyed?
- Think of a time when someone has really brought out the best in you, how did they do it?
- If you are at a party or dinner party, how do you most like to interact with people? What qualities in a person would make you really click with them?
- When you’ve felt like you were in a leadership position and nailing it, how would you describe your style?
Clarity on our approach can buy everyone a lot of freedom. There are lots of different ways to be a leader and none of them is inherently better or worse, it’s just different.
You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done and it’s actually a lot better to teach or learn in a way that suits you. If you can be explicit about what this entails then you are likely to attract people who will appreciate that and you’ll be able to bring out the best in them, too.
Your desired outcomes are about identifying what impact you would like to make on the world. Specifically with spirituality it’s about the outcome of your practice and your students’ practice.
Here are some questions to help you explore your desired outcomes:
- What do you feel is a really great benefit that you’ve got from your practice?
- What have been your biggest and best breakthroughs? What was the difference they made to your life?
- What feedback would you love to hear from your students or colleagues about the impact that your work or teachings have had on them?
- In what ways would you love the world to be different?
- What makes you feel really proud when you see it in a student?
Getting clear on your desired outcomes helps you to focus on what you are here to do – make an impact on the world and people’s lives, rather than getting overly caught up worrying about status or how you’re perceived. It also allows you to evaluate if you are being effective.
If you can see that we’re making an impact on people in the way that you hoped, then we know you’re doing a good job. If not, you can change the way you do things.
These are the cards I designed for running workshops with people about discovering and clarifying their values. You can also use this list of intention words, or you can choose your own words.
For each section – intentions, approach, desired outcomes – choose two words that you feel summarise what you have written down in answer to the questions.
To give you an example of this exercise in the real word, these are my values as a person and a teacher.
I have a specific version of this exercise that I take people through and in this version each of the three sections (intentions, approach and outcomes) has an introverted element and an extraverted element, which I have included.
Introverted Element – Creative
Creativity is fundamental to my own joy in life – I am always working on creative projects and my main practice was imaginal and shamanic.
I believe that harnessing people’s creativity is a much more effective way of teaching people than lecturing them. Change becomes fun and interesting when it is done through creative means.
Creativity also creates freedom in how people relate to themselves and offers a unique opportunity to connect with the darkness.
It can open people to the richness of their subconscious and the collective conscious. Waking these elements up is deeply transformational – it can fundamentally change how you experience being in the world and open up new depths of joy, compassion and wisdom.
Extraverted Element – Adventurous
In my practice this has presented as being very motivated to push the boundaries, make new discoveries and go out of my comfort zone.
We only learn if we go out of our comfort zone. Supporting people to grow by doing this is what I really care about.
Introverted Element – Fun
This is an introverted element for me; my idea of fun is having a very deep and involved conversation with one or two people or creating something together with people. Although I do like a good joke and I laugh a lot.
I use this approach by trying to make as much of work and life a pleasure as possible. Designing this exercise was originally a way to turn long boring work meetings into an interesting and enjoyable process for people.
If you can make something fun, people become less rigid. For people to be able to make changes in their life, they need to be a lot less concerned with what everyone else thinks and more connected to their experience. I have found that spiritual practice that is a pleasure to take part in, even when it is hard, is the best way to do this.
Extraverted Element – Collaborative
This is my extraverted element for how I work with others. I am a collaborative working expert and fundamentally, this is about working in ways with as little hierarchy as possible – where everyone involved in a project feels empowered to show up fully.
For spiritual practice to be effective it is vital that people feel empowered to share their experiences and that their own experiences are validated. Without this, everyone will be stuck pretending that they are something they are not or trying to emulate something that is not true for them.
I work with people in a non-hierarchical way that is about supporting people to step into their own power.
Introverted Element – Focused
As a project manager, I saw how easy it was for projects to get swamped in external requirements and objectives that stopped people from achieving anything worthwhile.
This also applies to life in general – things are much more meaningful, rewarding and effective when we focus on the one or two things that matter to us.
In my personal life this manifests as me being a bit of a minimalist, I’m also not a very busy person and I only have time for things that I want to focus on.
As a teacher I facilitate people getting in touch with their deepest intentions and burning through all the crap that is not those things.
If everyone could focus on the things that really matter to them, the world would be a different place. It would take the wind out of the sails of capitalism and people would be focusing on the things that are inherently rewarding and helpful.
Extraverted Element – Authentic
It’s really important to me that I’m sincere with people and that people feel they are able to be honest around me. One of my favourite things is conversations where people relax into who they really are and stop feeling like they need to have any formality or pretence.
Practice for me is all about discovering your true self, becoming an authentic expression of it and connecting meaningfully with the world and people around you. We can only create a better world and lives if we know ourselves well enough to understand what gives us joy and how we want to show up in the world.
I take people on deep dives into their inner worlds so that they can understand themselves better, get rid of any crap that has been put inside them through their conditioning and know what they are here to do and why.