Reimagining Spiritual Practice
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 still on a cushion, with no particular clear purpose behind it. I believe that we need to be a bit more focused with why we are practising and what we hope the intended outcome to be.
We don’t necessarily need to set goals and targets, spirituality is no-doubt mysterious and it is important to respect that mystery, but we can still be a lot clearer about our intentions and the impact that our practice has on our wider life.
A big question that feels deeply important to at least ask is, why do we 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.
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 aren’t willing to spend time considering what the outcome of the way you are teaching is on the people that you are teaching is, you should really consider whether you actually want to be a teacher.
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 we give spiritual leaders 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 a lot less than the teachers.
Spirituality should support people to explore and embody their own experience. While the traditional model can be useful for sharing some basic information and laying some fundamental groundwork, it isn’t particularly effective at helping people really get in touch with their own experience.
When we loosen the hierarchy, we 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.
The most important step towards less hierarchy and more clarity in our spiritual practice is for everyone to think about what their intentions and values are. These can be our guiding force for how we teach, learn, practice and live. If we can understand them clearly we can communicate them to other people, which helps us all make informed decisions about who we want to practice with and why.
Spiritual practice is all about change – changing the way we perceive ourselves and our experience and changing our relationship to the world and each other.
I would hope that everyone wants that change to be meaningful. In order for this to happen we need to connect with our inner compass – the values that feel most important and that can guide us to move from the heart. Both as practitioners and teachers.
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 us shape our teachings and be a way to hold ourselves to account. When we have a clear set of values as our guiding force, we don’t need to rely on hierarchies or traditions so much.
Values don’t require us to be in a certain role for us to be embodying them. Our values can carry across when we are learning, teaching, working, having fun or just being. They increase a sense of fluidity in the way we approach life and practice because we can see that all of these roles give us an opportunity to express and fulfil our values. Once we can see this, we get less het up about trying to get something out of people or achieve a certain level of status.
We are guided by expressing our values in the world, rather than feeling like we have fixed ideas that we want other people to adopt.
This buys us space to all explore the 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 crushes personal empowerment, freedom and truth. It turns people into blind followers who need to be told what to do and think.
Practice 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. This is the most spiritual practice there is.
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 our values for – our intentions, our approach to life and our 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:
If we can get clear on our intentions, it gives us a fundamental place to move from. We will know the things in life that we find fulfilling and we can embody this through all our expressions in the world. It is deeply rewarding to be able to express our 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:
Clarity on our approach can buy us 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. We 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:
Getting clear on our desired outcomes helps us to focus on what we are here to do – make an impact on the world and people’s lives, rather than get caught up worrying about our status or how we’re perceived. It also allows us to evaluate if we are being effective.
If we can see that we’re making an impact on people in the way that we hoped, then we know we’re doing a good job. If not, we can change the way we 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.
Creativity is fundamental to my joy in life. I enjoy writing and photography and my favourite type of practice is imaginal practice or shamanic journeying.
I believe that harnessing people’s creativity is a much more effective way of teaching people than lecturing them. Changing becomes fun and interesting when it is done through creative means.
Creativity also gives us access to the parts of ourselves that are normally unacceptable to us and others; it offers a unique opportunity to connect with the darkness in ourselves and in the world.
It also opens us to the richness of our subconscious and the collective conscious. Waking these elements of ourselves up is deeply transformational – it can fundamentally change how we experience being in the world and open up new depths of joy and compassion in us.
I see life as one big adventure. My idea of a relaxing holiday is booking a flight, packing a bag and heading off into the distance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.