Spiritual practice can help us to show up in our lives, more whole-heartedly and courageously. Our hearts are what tells us what is important in life, so it makes sense to listen to them.
Our lives are a conversation with the Universe – we will ramble and explore and find meaning and laugh and experience beauty and boredom and sadness and freedom and inspiration. Like all good conversations it is a balance between receiving, listening and enjoying the world and contributing to the direction and content of our lives.
Meditation practice is vital to helping us slow down and come home to our bodies. My experience is that shared, engaged practice is equally vital to helping us wake up to our lives and become an embodied expression of our best selves.
I believe that spiritual practice needs to change. It feels like we are at a crisis point in the development of humanity and we need to learn how we can take care of each other better and harness the force of human ingenuity and compassion before we self-destruct.
We need to learn to play nicely together and spiritual practice feels like the perfect place to start. The power of a team of people who care and respect for each other is immense. We are far more able to focus on the things that matter and to harness people’s productivity in a worthwhile way when they feel seen, valued and welcomed. If spiritual practice is not actively helping us to do this, or is actually leading us to retreat further from a society that is suffering from a case of over-individualisation, then I believe that it is not worth doing.
When we form a group in which we are all connecting with our hearts, amazing and seemingly magical things can happen. We create a group collective conscious where we understand and see each other on a different level. We form a group that can travel on a journey together, understanding our selves and our challenges as a whole and harnessing everyone’s ingenuity to problem solve and come up with cool ideas and ways of looking at things. Our hearts are incredible prioritisers, so we naturally make space for what is most important to arise to the surface and put our minds to solving it as a group. It is also an inherently rewarding space to be. It is one of the most beautiful experiences you can have, so we learn to love the experience of just being.
Humans are sociable animals and belonging is the key to finding peace in the world. The only way to find peace in the world is to find a place in which we want to be and we are wanted. Part of this is changing how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, so we can be less needy, but a large part of this is actually just being surrounded by the people and places that we gel with and can be our true selves around. This is something that is severely lacking in our culture and one of the changes I would most like to see in the world is for people to find more belonging.
Peace and belonging is the felt-sense of coming home. Thinking about the times when you felt like you were at home – who you were around, where you were and what you were doing – will give you a good sense of where you will be able to feel at peace in the world or what conditions you need to create in order to find peace.
Belonging and peace is not something we can choose to embody, it is something we gift to each other by actively including, validating and encouraging each other to be our true selves. With this in mind, here are some shared practices that help us connect to each other in this way, gifting each other a sense of belonging within our practice.
Here are some suggestions for shared practices that will bring everyone into the fold, give them a sense of belonging and harness everyone’s unique gifts to contribute to the group.
Whenever a new group of people forms, it is vital to create a circle and for everyone to introduce themselves. This automatically relaxes us and allows our bodies and minds to drop into ‘friends-mode’ rather than high-alert ‘stranger-mode’. If we can share something about ourselves this helps even more.
Simply sitting in a circle and asking each person to share their experiences is vital to forming a group conscious. Modelling a degree of vulnerability, that it’s ok to talk about your feelings or challenges, is a fast-track to creating a really strong sense of belonging and forming a collective conscious.
You can also expand on this with joint inquiry exercises, where you take it in turns to share what is happening in your present moment with another person or in a small group.
Offering Eye Contact/ Body Contact
Simple exercises like spending 5 minutes to take it in turns to offer up a kind-loving presence, either in the form of eye contact or placing your hands on someone’s head/ feet/ other appropriate body part, has a profound impact on our ability to connect with each other. It can be really healing for people.
As the offerer, you don’t need to give anything just hold a space of kind non-judgement. As the receiver, you can have the freedom to decide how you engage with it.
Dream Circles/ Story Telling/ Singing/ Symbolism
Anything that is more creative, allows us to open into the mystery of life together. It can be quite magical the way in which our dreams and symbolism can resonate with each other in a way that more direct conversation can sometimes struggle to. It can be a simple sharing space with a focus on a topic, for example, sharing your dreams from the night before or an open invitation for people to share something creative that they would like to bring to the group, like a song or a story.
Listening to Music Together
Music has a profound ability to connect people. When we meditate and listen to music together, it allows us to enter a deep meditative state while also retaining a shared-collective conscious. It can be a deeply powerful experience. Gong baths and guided meditations that have a poetic feel to them, like a yoga nidra, can also create the same effect.
It’s important to do some heart practices before embarking on this, as we are taking a journey into the sub-conscious. If we enter through the door of the heart it keeps things light and wholesome, if we go through the door of the mind things can present as quite dark and disturbing. A group heart-sharing before you start will form a collective conscious that can be carried through into the meditation. A sharing after will perhaps reveal some interesting insights into a shared group experience or sense of resonance.
Exploring the Heart States
Discovering how we manifest the heart’s states in our being is a really powerful experience. These questions allow us to journey through the different states and think about what they mean for us in our lives. They work best in pairs or very small groups. Your partner can ask you the questions and hold a space of kind non-judgement for you to respond in. Take a few minutes to explore each question.
- Friendliness: How would a kind friend describe you? How would they describe your essence?
- Compassion: Describe a challenge that you face in life. How does this make you feel?
- Joy: What brings you joy in life? What is something dark, absurd or painful that you can find joy in?
- Inclusion: Thank you for sharing that with me. Is there anything else that you feel is important to share or recognise about your life or your self right now?
It can also be deeply moving to ask someone else to answer these questions about you.
These are just a few ideas for shared practices. The most important thing is that everyone gets a chance to speak and share what feels important to them. Simple is good.
These practices will help people feel safer, increase a sense of belonging, engage everyone with the practice and give the teacher a good sense of where people are at. All of these things will increase the depth of the practice for everyone, make profound transformations much more likely and mean that the practice will be much easier for people to integrate into their daily lives.
Finding/ Being a Teacher
There is also space for people who embody the wisdom and teachings to share this with others in a shared spiritual practice space.
I am profoundly grateful that teachers throughout the centuries have been able to keep the heart of spiritual practice alive in all its different forms, through their passion and service to it.
If you are looking for a teacher, it is important to find one who’s voice and behaviour you feel you can trust. We want to be able to let our guard down around people, as spirituality and cynicism don’t mix very well.
It is helpful to think about the teachings they are bringing, rather than the teacher themselves. This helps us avoid falling into the trap of projecting our stuff onto people or putting people on ridiculous pedestals. Everyone is human, no-one is perfect.
You don’t need to be able to believe or agree with everything a teacher is saying but if you can leave your cynicism at the door during your practice time and show up with a sincere desire to listen and understand the meaning of what they are communicating and embodying, then transformation can happen really fast. Find someone who’s values and style you appreciate enough that you are willing to really try on their world-view for size and fit. Once you have a good felt-sense for what they are communicating, you can tweak it to suit you and your life.
If you are listening to guided meditations it is important to find something that resonates, rather than something that feels like a school teacher telling you what to do.
One of the strange things about the teachings is this. Hearts are only ever present in this moment, they have no concept of the past or the future. So when we speak from the heart (which all good dharma teachers will), we are only ever describing our current moment.
We normally overlay a layer of mental perception over the top, which is done more or less sub-consciously depending on how present we are with our hearts. For example, when we are speaking from the heart and describing a situation that we are struggling with or telling a story about the other day, we are actually using these as a vehicle for describing how we feel in the present moment.
Our minds are very tricky. Often when we think we are complaining about other people, we are actually talking about the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. Hand gestures tend to come from the heart and are a useful signpost for seeing who and what people are really talking about.
Once you notice this, the teachings take on a whole new layer of meaning. If you can find someone who’s teachings resonate and you can open your heart to listening at this level, it will have a deep and profound effect on you.
Bearing this in mind, it’s really important to find someone who isn’t just projecting all their shit out on to their students and the world. If you feel like a school kid who is always getting it wrong, this is a real danger sign.
When we go into lecture-mode, telling people what to do, we are actually talking about the parts of ourselves that we can’t accept or the ways in which we think we should behave differently. Whenever a teacher says ‘you…’ you can assume that most of the time, they mean ‘I….’.
I avoid anyone who regularly goes on a ‘you should…’ rant or tells stories about other people who are getting it wrong. It can become quite comical when you realise that they are actually talking about themselves.
We all do this sometimes, it’s one of the weirdest quirks of being a human, but if this forms the main body of a teacher’s work I would recommend steering clear.
A good teacher will use language that is more clear. They will openly share things from their experience or talk more inclusively using ‘we’ or ‘there is’ language, rather than ‘you should’ or anything that feels like an us vs. them viewpoint.
If we engage with the world with an open-heart, it is possible to pick up on other people’s experience, much more than we realise. So teachers may be describing the experience of the group as a whole or of other individuals in the room. Hearts are the places where we are all connected, so if we are doing this we naturally use language like, ‘we struggle with….’ or ‘there can be a lot of anxiety that arises….’.
Stories are another beautiful way of communicating. They become the vehicle that we can attach the sentiment of the group on to and take them on a journey through their emotions and experience. Listening to the meaning of the story a teacher is telling can be really moving.
Another thing I appreciate in teachers is the ability to point out beauty, love, gratitude, meaningfulness, connection and all these other wonderful traits of the heart. Sharing things that we appreciate is a good way of helping other people notice them in their experience, too.
As a teacher one of your most important roles is to give your students your blessing. When we are in student mode, there can be a huge amount of anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and any way that you can make space for someone to be more present in their experience, whatever that is, and allow them to feel things is really beautiful.
Ultimately, a teacher’s role is to facilitate the growth and blooming of their students, not to dictate their world view on to them. As a student, if you feel like you are able to engage with the practice in a whole-hearted way and you have grown as a result, then that teacher is doing a good job.
As a teacher, it can be useful to reflect on how we communicate when we are in that role. Listening back to our talks can help us understand, not only how we interact with students, but also give us deep insight in to our inner worlds and experience.
It can be a deeply humbling experience to see ourselves and our inner worlds with such clarity and notice how we project that on to others. I believe that it is vital for people to do this. The role of a dharma teacher carries a huge amount of responsibility. People are trusting you to help them shape their experiences, perceptions and world-view. We don’t need to be perfect, but we do need to be communicating sincerely and honestly.
Reflecting on Your Practice
One of the biggest misunderstandings in spirituality is that we need to transcend our challenges. There are gross and subtle ways in which we incorporate this into our practices. Recognising that we would all really like it if this was possible, is a nice and human place to start.
Freedom doesn’t come from being detached or transcending our difficulties, it comes from making more space in our lives. If we can learn to receive the world with more friendliness towards ourselves, others and the situations we find ourselves in, we can move through life with a bit more ease and hopefully some more joy.
Spirituality is deeply important to me. I answered an intense spiritual calling that I believe manifested through me and my life experiences for the benefit of all beings. I have experienced things inside myself and out in the world that go far beyond our current agreed human reality and I am fascinated with the incredible capacity that humans have for making sense of the Universe in creative, beautiful and supportive ways. I am passionate about how we can use these to build a more equal, free and joyful world.
Spirituality doesn’t have to be as wild or intense as this. In my book, anything that helps us understand our internal experience better and connect better with the world around us is a spiritual practice. If it is accessible and relevant to people, it is far more likely to make an impact on their daily lives.
It is up to you to explore your reality and create an understanding of what spirituality means to you and how you want to practice it. I hope you are able to discover a belief system that gives you more access to being present, cultivating joy, finding a sense of purpose and being a good friend to humanity and the world. I also hope that you can find a space to practice in that feels welcoming and supportive.
With this in mind, here are some simple questions to help you reflect on whether your spiritual practice is helping you navigate through life. Take some time to consider these for all your practices, your time is precious and it makes sense to focus on the things that bring the biggest benefits.
- Do I feel a sense of belonging in the community?
- Do I know myself and my inner world better?
- Am I able to accept myself more wholeheartedly?
- Do I feel more connected and open with the people, places and world around me?
- Do I feel more joy at being an inextricable part of the Universe?
As a teacher it can be useful to reflect on whether you feel like you are helping your students realise this and even ask them these questions. It can help you shape your teachings.