The following is a work-in-progress version of The Spiritual Path by Dan Joseph. This book is a collection of past Quiet Mind newsletter articles, along with accompanying questions and answers. The current edit was completed in July 2021.
You are welcome to submit questions of your own to Dan at email@example.com.
The Spiritual Path:
Reflections on the Journey
Shortly after my book Inner Healing was published, I began to send out a newsletter with articles on spirituality, psychology, and personal growth.
In this book, I've collected ten of the most popular articles from that newsletter. Included with each article is a set of questions and answers based on conversations I've had about these subjects with readers, clients, and friends of mine.
You're welcome to skip around in this book. The chapters can be read in any order; none require you to read what came before. There are common themes that run throughout the book, but you can pick up wherever you like.
I do want to clarify one point of language. Although I refer to a spiritual "path" and a "journey," I believe that the real spiritual journey is a process of awakening to the spiritual light within us. This inner light restores peace to our minds, love to our hearts, and inspires actions that benefit everyone. The journey to the light is simply a process of opening to what is already there.
My goal in this book is to help clear a path for that light to shine brighter into awareness. As we allow that to happen, we naturally bring healing and comfort to the world.
I recently began rock climbing. Not only is the climbing enjoyable, it's opening some new metaphors for the spiritual journey.
There are times, when rock climbing, that you find yourself wedged between two parallel rock walls. Sort of like Santa Claus stuck in a chimney.
To climb up, you use a technique called "chimneying" – you put one leg on one wall, and the other leg on the opposite wall. You inch up your right leg, then your left, right, left, right, left, slowly moving up between the walls.
In this technique, you need both walls – and you need to use both legs. It takes both sides to climb.
The Spiritual Climb
Let me share how this ties into the spiritual journey. When I began my spiritual practice, I thought that the inner work was all that mattered.
For thousands of years, people had been sitting around in caves, meditating their way into enlightenment. No problem, I thought. I figured that spirituality was like training for a sport: you did your inner work, and you achieved your goal. The more effort you put in, the more successful you were.
So I started doing the work.
I learned to meditate, eventually working up to a point where I could meditate for hours a day. I read countless spiritual texts until I was able to quote sections from memory. I combined spiritual and psychological techniques into new exercises, and ran through those exercises over and over.
This was all very good. In fact, it produced some positive results. But the results were maddeningly temporary.
I'd do my inner work, and find some peace – but then, within an hour or so, it would be gone. I'd slip back into a state of unhappiness.
I'd work at opening my heart, and feel some love flowing – but then I'd slide back into frustration and conflict. I couldn't seem to hold any of the results. What was I doing wrong? For years, I was baffled.
Then, one day, I saw part of the problem. I was only using half of the chimney. The inner work that I was doing was important – even essential. But it was only half of the process. The other half involved relationships.
As I see it now, studying spiritual ideas is helpful. Releasing blocks is great. That type of inner work is empowering. But that work is just a prep for the next step. Having done some inner work, we're immediately able to enter into deeper, more loving relationships with each other – and that is what keeps the momentum going.
Relationships were the half of the chimney that I was missing. I didn't realize that other people had anything to do with my spiritual work. It seemed to be a personal process. But I was missing an important point. The only way to really transcend our limited, separate sense of selves is to join deeply with each other.
Stay Out of the Cave
Let me share an often-quoted spiritual story that sheds some light on this process:
In this story, there's a spiritual seeker who meditates in a cave for a long time. Finally, after many years, he attains a transcendent level of peace. He walks out of the cave in a state of great joy.
The man wanders down into the town. As he walks into town, through a crowd of people, someone accidentally bumps into him – and suddenly, the man's joy is replaced with a flash of anger. He immediately realizes how flimsy his "enlightenment" was. So he takes a deep breath, and walks back into the cave to start meditating again.
No, Mr. Seeker! I want to say. That's a trap. Don't walk back into the cave – instead, turn to that person who bumped into you, and strike up a conversation. Connect with him or her. That person who bumped you is the gateway to real enlightenment. You've done some good inner work; now connect with that person and take the journey together.
That was the message I was missing. For a long time, I thought that I first had to do my inner work, and then I could have positive relationships.
Now I see that we do these in parallel. We can use every bit of inner work as an opportunity to improve our interpersonal connections. As we release some inner blocks, we're able to extend greater amounts of kindness and love. That, in turn, inspires us to release more blocks, which frees more love to flow. The momentum continues.
The spiritual chimneying technique builds on this idea. It's like a two-step spiritual dance.
In the chimneying process, we release some inner blocks – some unloving thoughts toward ourselves or others. Then we use that opening to immediately join more deeply with the people around us.
We inch up the chimney: releasing a few blocks, extending some loving thoughts. We release more blocks, extend more love, release, extend, release, extend. This works both sides of the chimney, and keeps us rising up.
Again, my tendency was to do my inner work by myself, and then go do some more inner work by myself. I'd work in isolation, and wonder why I felt so separate and alone. I didn't realize what was going on. I didn't understand that I was missing the real goal – the experience of spiritual connection.
To make this practical, let me share a simple way that you can try the chimneying process.
Let's say that you're in a restaurant, and your server comes over to you. You suddenly have an opportunity to chimney up to some spiritual heights.
You can begin by noting any unpeaceful thoughts that are present in your mind. Thoughts like, "The prices are so high here," or, "This server probably doesn't like me," or, "I have to watch what I eat so I don't gain weight."
Try to release those types of thoughts, even if just for a moment. Try to allow a greater sense of peace to flow into your mind.
Then, having done that inner work, immediately extend some of your peace to the server. Use the inner opening to outflow some kindness. You may simply smile at him, or ask him how his day is going, or let him know that there's no rush to take your order.
It's quite likely that he'll appreciate your warmth – but even if he doesn't, you've just strengthened your spiritual climb. You'll feel the warmth of your own kind thoughts. You'll feel the strength of your increased sense of connection.
You can then drop another set of inhibiting thoughts, and extend some more warmth and kindness. That will strengthen your ability to drop more blocks, and share more peace. By doing this, you clear the way for an experience of deep interpersonal connection.
When I've tried this while dining out, I've ended up leaving the restaurant feeling quite uplifted. I imagine that the server felt uplifted, as well. By combining our inner work with interpersonal joining, we chimney – together – on up to higher ground.
Q: Human interactions exhaust me. I usually just want to be free of the drama. Is there a way to make the interpersonal stuff easier?
A: There certainly isn't any pressure to interact with more people than you feel comfortable with. Some of us are more introverted, and some are more extraverted. The world needs all types!
However, you may find it helpful to look at what contributes to your sense of exhaustion. If your human interactions feel draining, you might want to shift your approach.
In the chimneying process, we begin by releasing any inhibiting thoughts within our minds, and create a space for the inflow of kind, appreciative thoughts. Then we share those new thoughts with the people we cross paths with.
We release any blocks to a sense of warmth, extend that warmth to others, release more blocks, extend more warmth.
That "extending" process can be simple and easy; there are limitless ways to do it. You might, for example, smile at someone. Or offer a compliment. Or you may simply feel inspired to think of someone you know, and enfold them in a sense of appreciation.
You can do this regardless of the mindset of the other person. He may be in a high-conflict "drama" state, or not. She may be close to you, or a stranger.
If an interaction feels fatiguing, you're free to simply offer a kind thought to the other person and then go about your day. There's no specific form that your extension needs to take.
Ideally, you allow your inner light to flow out in a way that is enjoyable to you. The goal in this process is to increase your own sense of peace and happiness.
Q: For years, I've been trying to find someone who is interested in a spiritual relationship with me. How do you find a spiritual partner to do the "chimneying" process with you?
A: Speaking personally, one of the traps I fell in for many years was pre-defining what a "spiritual relationship" should look like.
I spent years seeking a tightly-defined "spiritual form" of a relationship – all the while passing by opportunities to connect with people who didn't match that form. Unsurprisingly, my search for the "right form" never produced the results I was seeking. I often felt very alone.
In the chimneying process, we take a different approach. We access our inner light, and extend that to whomever is in front of us: a friend, a stranger, a coworker, a family member. The person to whom we extend the light can be anyone. There are no restrictions or qualifications.
We don't pre-define who the recipient should be. We don't hold onto any thoughts about whether they will reciprocate, or whether they will appreciate what we offer. We simply extend the light to them.
As we do this, we are forming spiritual connections with everyone we cross paths with. Some of these connections will be brief. Others may blossom into lifelong relationships. By focusing on the extension in the moment, we keep the flow going.
Our inner light is like a lamp that shines without limit in all directions. As we allow this light to extend, the spiritual bonds we share with everyone are revealed. Eventually we realize that we don't need to search for spiritual partnerships at all; we simply need to open to the connections that already surround us.
Q: I believe that I have everything within me to be happy. Are you saying that our happiness is dependent on other people?
A: Not dependent in the traditional sense. The classic dependency trap is the belief that if another person acts the way you want, you'll be happy. If he or she acts a different way, you'll be unhappy.
In this view, you're dependent on the other person's behavior for your emotional state. That dependency trap, of course, leads to endless amounts of conflict, arguments, disappointment, and suffering.
My problem, as I mentioned above, is that I went in the opposite direction. I believed that I was independent of everyone and everything. I believed that happiness was found after a solitary journey of exploration and discovery. Although I made some progress, it was transitory. Learning to extend kindness and helpfulness to others was an important step for me.
To answer your question: I don't believe that your happiness is dependent on another person's behavior. Your inner light, and all its endless gifts, are available to you at every moment regardless of what the people around you are doing. No one can diminish or put out your light.
However, your happiness is dependent on the sharing of that light. The spiritual light within you is joined with the same light in me, and him, and her. The revealing of our commonly-held light is what we're really seeking.
We are, you might say, spiritually intertwined. We are fundamentally joined. We are not really ever alone or apart. What seem to be separate goals and disconnected lives are like surface waves atop a stable sea.
Happiness comes from the awareness of this deeper connection. So in a way, we are indeed "dependent" on each other. But it is a safe dependence, arising from the light we all possess. In the chimneying process, we allow that shared inner light to be revealed.
Q: You talked about being nice to a server at a restaurant. But what about hostile people? How do you use this chimneying process with them?
A: Let me answer this in the context of forgiveness.
In the conventional view of forgiveness, we try to be kind to hostile people. Or at least, we don't act hostile back to them. We try to be "the better person."
While this is an admirable goal, it often leaves a great deal of hurt feelings in the mix. I personally spent years trying to figure out how to be kind, loving, and forgiving to hostile people while dealing with the emotional pain from their actions. I didn't make much headway, in part because I was trying to squeeze out kindness using my own personal efforts.
When we use the chimneying approach, we take a different approach. Let me share how this might look.
Imagine that a coworker of yours makes a hostile comment about your work. Your feelings are hurt. You feel an impulse to argue with him – perhaps tell him what you think of his junky work. But you instead decide to take a walk and try a different approach.
As you're walking, your mind is filled with feelings of hurt, anger, insecurity, and other forms of distress.
Here's how it might look like to use the chimneying process:
To begin, you start with the inner side of the chimney. You identify your current thoughts and feelings, and take ownership of them. You say, for example:
I believe that this guy at work is a rude and entitled jerk.
I want to "get back" at him by telling him off.
I feel hurt by what he said to me.
I'm worried that if I don't push back, he'll keep making those comments.
You then express your willingness to release those thoughts, and open to an experience of your inner light: an experience of inner comfort, peace, and wisdom.
You practice allowing your current thoughts and feelings to flow past your awareness like leaves on a stream. You watch them float by, and invite them to be replaced by a sense of peace and comfort. As you do this, your perspective shifts.
You remember that your coworker is dealing with some family and financial challenges. A sense of patience arises in you – not because of your personal efforts to "ramp it up," but because you created a space for that patience to enter your awareness. You feel a bit less hurt by his attacks. You wonder if perhaps his comment came from a sense of stress related to his personal life.
That's the activity of the first side of the chimney.
You then return to the office and approach your co-worker. You say, "Hey – your criticism of my work was painful. But perhaps you didn't mean it to come out that way. I'm happy to discuss the details of the work with you if you'd like."
He seems surprised that you're not attacking him. "No – I didn't mean it to sound critical," he says. "I just would have done that project another way. But I probably should have said that differently."
That's the activity of the second side of the chimney.
You keep inching up: exchanging your painful thoughts for an experience of peace; extending that peace to the other person; more inner exchange; more extension. All the while, you are drawing on your inner light: an inner reservoir of peace, strength, and warmth that lies just behind the hurt.
Are you "forgiving" the person in the conventional sense? Not exactly. Instead, you're allowing an inner sense of comfort to replace your painful thoughts and feelings. You're accepting an inner healing. Then, as that comfort and peace arises in your awareness, you're extending it to the other person – and thus strengthening it for yourself. You might call this a type of "spiritual forgiveness," or spiritual healing.
I have found that this type of approach can sometime produce extraordinary results, shifting hostile relationship dynamics into beautiful new dynamics.
Of course, there's no guarantee that the other person will respond constructively. If he continues to be hostile, you don't need to continue to engage with him.
But by practicing this chimneying process, you have accessed your inner light and strengthened it in your awareness by sharing it. You will be lifted up by your efforts, regardless of the other person's response.
The Masquerade Ball
Imagine that you are invited to a masquerade ball. You spend weeks choosing a costume for the event. Should you dress up as royalty? As a villain? As someone famous? As an angel?
You eventually settle on a costume, and go to the ball. There you find hundreds of other people, dressed in the widest variety of outfits. The party is all in good fun, and you play through the night in your chosen role.
Then, around midnight, a strange thing happens. Everyone in the costume ball suddenly falls asleep. When they awake, their memories have vanished. "Where am I?" everyone asks. And silently, they wonder: Who am I?
People look around the room, and begin to sort out the situation. Over there is someone dressed in gold finery, with a crown. That must be the queen of this place. And look at him over there – he has a sword. He must be dangerous. And look at that one: she looks like some sort of animal. Maybe she's crazy.
There's a scramble. People flock to the "good" people, away from the "bad" people. Some of the good ones bravely begin to round up the bad ones, using the weapons at their disposal. For a while there's a chaotic melee. Eventually, after a struggle, things settle down. The bad people are subdued, and they sit – tied together – in the middle of the room.
Then, abruptly, part of a man's costume falls away, and a woman cries out. "Wait," she says, "I remember now. That pirate – he's my husband. He isn't really a pirate." The memories begin to return. "She isn't a queen – she's just dressed that way. And he's no monk, I'll tell you that."
As the costumes come off, people begin to remember their true relationships. "I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you," they say as they untie their friends and family. "Please forgive me – I forgot who you were." "I don't know what came over me."
The party-goers shake their heads at the strange turn of events. They toss away their costumes as they walk out of the party, concerned that they might forget again.
"How easily we are fooled," remarks a man as he drops a mask. "A little cardboard, a little paint, and our loved ones are gone."
As strange as this story sounds, I find that it's what happens in this world.
Each of us comes into the world without a stable human persona. Then, as we "mature," we work to "find ourselves." This usually means that we try out a variety of worldly roles, until we find one that feels comfortable.
The problem is that these roles are as flimsy as costumes at a ball. If we were to recognize this, we could have a bit of fun. But like the partygoers who fell asleep and confused themselves with their roles, we tend to forget who we really are.
Let me give a personal example of this. When I was in college, I considered myself a student. After that I saw myself as a spiritual seeker, and a writer. Then a businessman, a writer again, a counselor, and so on.
The problem is that a student has to study – otherwise, his identity begins to fall apart. A seeker needs to seek. A writer needs to write. A businessman needs to make money; a counselor needs clients.
So there was a great deal of pressure that arose from these roles. When I was twenty-one years old, and my time in college ran out, I fell into a panic. I was a student! And there were no more classes! What would happen to my identity? It was quite terrifying.
Almost immediately, I made the shift to writing. But what happened when a writing project was done? I couldn't exactly be a writer unless I was writing, right? I became almost manic in my pursuit of new writing projects.
And so on. The deeper I identified with my worldly roles, the more pressure I felt to strengthen them. It was like being at the masquerade ball, and finding that my costume was continually falling away. I had to be constantly vigilant to keep it all together – constantly reinforcing the stitching and the buttons. What a horror to lose one's costume!
The other problem with this dynamic was that everyone became distanced from me. I was a student, after all; but he was a corporate executive. We couldn't possibly have much in common. I was a spiritual seeker; she had no interest in spiritual things. Might as well not talk. I was a writer; they barely read anything at all. What a waste of time, trying to connect.
The roles were all that mattered. The costumes were the thing. As I slipped into this confusion, I became very isolated. There came a time when I felt all alone in the world.
What I didn't realize was that I was being fooled by the masquerade. The student, the spiritual seeker, the writer – these were nothing but roles. They were not who I was. The executive, the agnostic, the non-reader – these were costumes as well. Regardless of how strongly people identified with them, they were merely thin coverings, ready to fall away.
Until I began to consider this, I never thought to look deeper.
What Lies Beneath
Imagine that you have a young child. He invites you to attend his school play. You sit in the audience, watching the play unfold, until – there, dressed up as a ferocious lion, is your child.
You grin widely, delighted to see him up on stage. As he plays out his role, you see him for what he is – not a lion, but your beloved son. He's dressed as a lion, of course – and he growls and prances around like one. But you're not fooled for a minute. What your eyes show you doesn't deceive your heart.
This is what happens as we begin to look past our worldly costumes and roles. He may look like your political nemesis. She may seem like a threat. He may be your ticket to happiness. She seems powerful and bold.
But this is all just a play of roles. Beneath the costumes is a light that transcends them all. As we begin to treat the surface wrappings like the flimsy coverings that they are, we begin to catch a glimpse of what lies beneath.
For a moment, our hearts are touched by a flash of beauty – perhaps we see it in a friend or family member; perhaps a stranger. For a moment, we find a glimmer of something that we hadn't known was there.
For a moment, there's a shimmering of glory that makes the costume seem ridiculous. It might be gone an instant later, but we saw it. And we can see it again. As we let our vision be led past the outer trappings, the light within begins to emerge.
We will see what we want to see. Either a costume, or the actor. A role, or reality. Our vision will align with our desires. And whatever we choose to focus on in another person, we will see more clearly in ourselves.
By seeking the truth that lies beneath the costumes, we will increasingly find it. This may, of course, take practice. We may need to frequently remind ourselves that we're being fooled by a costume.
But as we peer beneath the cover, and find the luminosity of the spirit beginning to shine forth, the process becomes like stepping from a room of shadows into the light.
Q: How exactly do you "look beyond the roles" in people? Is there a technique to use?
A: One approach you can try is to first identify the old, role-oriented ways you are seeing. Then, you can express your willingness to release those old perceptions and open to an experience of the deeper truth.
Let me give an example of this.
Imagine that you are sitting on a park bench, watching people walk by.
As each person strolls by your field of vision, you note your role-oriented view of each of them. The process might look like this:
"He seems like a friendly young man. It looks like he's a skateboarder. He probably should tie his shoes better."
"She seems worried about something. Probably something about work, given that she's studying her phone and wearing a suit. She's probably under pressure to get things done."
"He looks like he's had a few drinks. Maybe he just came from a bar. Strange, given that it's mid-day."
And so on. Then, after each of those, you say:
I am only seeing elements of the roles.
This is not who these people are.
I am willing to let these ways of seeing go.
I am willing to see a spark of light in these people.
Then express your willingness to release the old ways of seeing and open to a beauty-behind-the-roles in each of these people. As the people walk by, rest in a sense of willingness to release the old perspectives and receive a new vision.
As you do this, you may begin to feel a sense of connection to each of these people – a sense that you are members of the same family. Feelings of tenderness may arise in you toward each of them. You may feel a desire for their wellbeing and happiness. Any number of experiences may emerge.
These people are not their roles; they are the illuminated actors behind the roles. You are opening to that awareness with your willingness. As you see glimmers of the light emerge in them, you will simultaneously strengthen your awareness of that same light in yourself.
Q: I have a friend who rejects all worldly roles. This means that she just hangs around all day not doing much. She seems aimless. I think a role would be good for her. How does this square with what you're saying?
A: I find that when we access the light behind the roles – when we access our deeper spiritual selves – we are immediately filled with a sense of inspiration, enthusiasm, and a compelling desire to comfort and help those around us. The experience is anything but aimless.
If your friend rejects conventional worldly roles, but hasn't yet accessed her inner light to a significant degree, she may indeed feel aimless for a while. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing; it might a transition phase. Your friend may have let go of the world of roles. Soon, hopefully, she will embrace the gifts of her inner light.
As always, one of the best ways to help the people around you is simply to model the new approach. You can serve as an example of another way.
If you access your own inner light by clearing away the blocks that obscure it, your friend may see a spark in you. She may be intrigued by your increasing sense of purpose. She may be inspired by the gifts you are flowing into the world.
She may begin to question whether there may be some blocks that she herself can clear away – perhaps a sense of cynicism or resentment that is fueling her aimlessness. That is up to her to explore. Your willingness to access and extend your own inner light is all that is needed.
Q: What if other people insist on seeing me as just a role? How can I get them to stop doing that?
A: Those of us who are sensitive or empathetic tend to easily "take in" other people's perceptions of us. However, in order to access our inner light, we need to release other people's misperceptions of us, just as we release our misperceptions of ourselves.
Some people will indeed see you as just a worldly role. Those people may believe that roles are all there is. It is your job to step back from those types of perceptions, and firmly remind yourself that you – and they, too! – are the luminous actors behind the roles.
Do you need to argue, or convince other people that there is something more to you than a role? No, not at all. You can simply focus on holding your own peaceful vision of the deeper truth.
As you remind yourself that you are more than a role, and open your awareness to the spiritual beauty behind all roles, you can then allow that beauty to flow out from you. As that outflow happens, many of the people around you will likely perceive a shift in you – a greater wisdom, altruism, peace, patience, or some other facet of the light.
This may help them to see a glimmer behind the role. But that is up to them. Holding peacefully to the truth is all you need to do.
Q: Are you saying that our actions in the world have nothing to do with our true selves?
A: Our actions in the world tend to flow from how we see ourselves. However, our self-perceptions aren't always aligned with our true selves.
Many people become stuck in painful feedback loops. If you see yourself as a "failure" in a worldly role, this perception of yourself will drain your sense of empowerment and inspiration. This will then impact your actions, which will reinforce a limited self-concept. That type of spiral can go on for a very long time.
One way out of this spiral is to remind yourself that you are not your actions, your accomplishments, your achievements, or anything else associated with worldly roles. A "victory" in a role doesn't make you good; a "defeat" doesn't make you bad.
Instead, you are the gifted, beautiful actor behind any role that you find yourself in.
As you hold this new self-concept in mind, you may find that a sense of inspiration, empowerment, and clarity rises in your awareness. These facets of your inner light will then inspire new actions, which will in turn reinforce the awareness of your light. A new, upward spiral can form.
I believe that our worldly actions and roles can be quite helpful. Our actions can bring healing, peace, and comfort to a world that is great need of those things. As we offer the gifts that arise from our inner light, both we and others will be lifted-up by them.
But in order to access those gifts, it's essential for us to remember that our light is undimmed by the roles we play. A scientist has no more or less light than a poet. A millionaire has no more or less than a monk.
Scientist, poet, millionaire, monk – all of these are just the wrappings. All of these people, plus you and me and everyone else, have a limitless reservoir of gifts to draw upon and share.
Our light – and our true selves, infused with this light – are unaffected by our worldly roles. Keeping this in mind can be very helpful as we practice sharing the light.
Q: You talk about our spiritual selves. What is this spiritual self? Who are we, really?
A: This is perhaps the most important question of all. It's one that is best answered with an experience. My recommendation is to seek the experience directly by clearing away any interference to a sense of inner peace, innocence, freedom, and connection. As you practice this, you will find a beautiful, ever-expanding answer emerge.
I will share a number of practices in this book that can help to facilitate this experience. But the actual reveal – the awareness of the light, the connection with your true self – is an experience that exceeds words.
Years ago, I set off on a cross-country trip with a friend. Our plan was to camp and hike our way through the national parks of the western United States.
I had been living in an east coast city for the previous few years, and was starved for natural beauty. And so, as we drove into Yosemite to begin our tour, I was riveted. The mountains were breathtaking. The alpine fields were touching. I felt like a thirsty man who had stumbled into an oasis – there was beauty everywhere.
My friend and I backpacked for a few days along the waterfalls of Tuolumne Meadows. The landscape was magnificent. Then we moved on to Utah, and moonlit hikes among the spires of Bryce. We waded knee-deep in water up the canyons of Zion. We strolled through the tundra of the Colorado Rockies.
It was all stunning. Mountains, waterfalls, flowers – indescribable beauty. There were moments when I felt a sense of transcendence. And that, of course, was why I really went to those places – to feel that inspiration. To feel that transcendence.
But as the weeks passed, a curious thing happened. It began to be more difficult to get my "high." These mountains were great, of course – but they weren't much different than the ones from last week. That field was beautiful – but so were the others. I began to chase more dramatic scenery, looking for a spiritual lift.
Eventually I got to a point where I just couldn't make it happen. I did my best to extract a high from what I was seeing – the new mountains, the new fields – but I just couldn't do it. It was discouraging. Shortly thereafter, we ended the trip and I went back to my city life.
It took me years before I understood what had happened. In this article, I'd like to show how the lesson can be applied.
Getting What You Give
On that trip, I fell into a common trap. I believed that I was getting my spiritual inspiration from something external – the mountains, the streams. This began a cycle of chasing better mountains, better streams.
In fact, though, my "high" was coming not from what I was getting from the mountains, but from what I was giving to them. Let me explain what I mean.
On the first day of my trip, I looked out at those mountains and said – so quickly I didn't realize it – "You are so beautiful. I appreciate you so very much." I was then immediately swept up in the joy of that thought.
It seemed like the mountains were making me feel joyful. But it was really my love for the mountains that lifted me up.
If I had seen this, I could have kept the flow going. I could have entered each new park saying, "What wonderful things can I extend appreciation to today?"
But instead, I fell into the trap of trying to extract from externals. "I need better mountains," I thought, "bigger ones, something more dramatic." As I did that, the outflow of my appreciation was blocked – and thus, the sense of transcendence became harder and harder to reach.
I share this story because it illustrates the power of choice. We can choose – at any time, with any thing – to extend copious amounts of love and appreciation. And we will be instantly lifted up by our choice. We are in control of the outflow. There is nothing that prevents us from exercising our right to give.
I didn't realize this on my cross-country trip. I thought that I could only embrace the most dramatic, towering mountains. Or the most delicate, flower-sprinkled fields. But the fact is that I could have chosen a pebble on the path and enfolded it in waves of love and appreciation – and thus been lifted up.
Realizing that this power lies with us is a turning point on the spiritual path. We don't need to chase love, inspiration, peace, or anything else; instead, we can offer those things, and immediately experience them.
Along these lines, I sometimes engage in a practice that I call "doubling up." If I feel that I'm in need of something – kindness, for example – I decide how much of that thing I'd like. Then I try to give twice that amount to the people in my life. I try to double, in my giving, what I want to receive.
Of course, the "outflow" of kindness creates a simultaneous "inflow" of kindness – and sure enough, I begin to feel it. Although there may be some internal resistance at first, I find that this practice always produces positive results.
The realization that we experience the thoughts that we give is a freeing one. Instead of spending our time chasing externals, we can spend our time giving internals – and thus experiencing them. The power is in our hands, because we are always free to give.
Q: I was taught not to "give to get." I believe that we should give without expectation of anything in return. But it seems like you think "giving to get" is a good thing. Is that right?
A: The doubling-up practice draws on a basic law of psychology: we always experience the thoughts and feelings that we extend to others. So you could say that on a deep level, there's no way to avoid "giving to get."
I sometimes use the metaphor of a pipe. When water flows out through a pipe, that water touches the pipe first. Regardless of where the water eventually ends up, it first and foremost comes into contact with the pipe.
In the same way, our thoughts of kindness and appreciation first touch own minds. Perhaps the thoughts multiply as they reach other people. Perhaps they don't, if other people don't choose to accept or share them. That's beyond our control.
But our thoughts always impact us. They touch us first. We are the ones who are most immediately affected by them.
If we fully realized this, we would immediately commit to flowing-forth kind, loving, peaceful thoughts into the world. We would realize that this flow will benefit us, first and foremost, endlessly.
We would also see that critical, judgmental, hurtful thoughts – regardless of whom they're directed toward – will also first-and-foremost affect ourselves. Anyone who truly saw this would immediately commit to a lifetime of extending kindness and compassion. Anything else would be seen as unnecessary pain.
You're correct that the traditional idea of "giving to get" does involve a manipulative, quid-pro-quo type giving. And that type of giving is not helpful.
But the deeper "giving to get" principle states that we do "get" the thoughts and feelings that we give. We are always the first recipients of our giving. We experience what we share.
Q: Let's say that someone hurt my feelings and I want to feel better. How do I "give" something like that?
A: You can begin the doubling-up process by identifying the specific inner experience that you want to welcome.
If someone has hurt your feelings, perhaps you are now seeking an experience of comfort. Or a sense of feeling loved. Or perhaps you want to feel safe and secure.
Whatever experience that you choose, you can name that target. You can say, for example, "I want to feel comforted right now."
Then, you can begin to extend comforting thoughts to other people who come to mind. As you extend thoughts of comfort, you will experience them.
In this process, you don't need to start by extending these comforting thoughts to the person who hurt you. That might feel like too much of a leap. Instead, feel free to start with "easy" people – friends, family members, or even "neutral" folks.
Try to build a momentum by extending kind thoughts to those people. Let yourself be lifted up by the thoughts you're extending, regardless of who you're extending them to.
If you choose to put icing on the cake, and end the practice by extending a few kind thoughts to the person who hurt your feelings, that's great. But really, just building a momentum is all that is necessary.
Always feel free to start with the "easy" people.
Q: I give of myself to a great many people – and I don't always feel "lifted up." Instead, I often feel exhausted by all the giving that I do. How does this square with what you're saying?
A: In this doubling-up practice, we first draw upon our spiritual gifts. We first touch into a sense of inner peace, kindness, comfort, or any other facet of what I call our inner light. As we access those gifts, we then extend them forth.
If you do this correctly, you'll find the "touching in" process to be restorative. Then, the giving strengthens the core experience.
I find that most people who are exhausted by giving (and I've certainly been there myself!) are primarily focusing on behavioral forms of giving. But if we let our inner wisdom guide us, we may be inspired to simply flow-forth some loving thoughts, or a kind word, or a smile.
There may or may not be an elaborate "doing" or behavioral aspect of our giving. Sometimes there will be. But other times, there won't. We can simply follow our inspiration when it comes to the outflow.
Above all, it is important to allow yourself to be lifted up by what you extend. If you do this, giving will be a way to increase the awareness of your inner treasures rather than a chore or a "to do."
Making contact with an inner sense of peace, love, and comfort – and then letting it flow out in a way that feels enjoyable – is the key.
Q: I find that spending time in nature does help me feel peaceful. Isn't it OK to seek out natural beauty if that helps you to get in touch with a sense of peace?
A: Certainly! I love to be immersed in nature, and spend quite a lot of time taking walks outdoors.
However, as you enjoy your time in nature, you can keep in mind that it's your love for what you see – rather than the specific forms themselves – that fill you with a sense of joy. And you are not limited in any way by the outflow of your love and appreciation, regardless of form.
Dramatic scenery might easily evoke a sense of appreciation. But you can give boundless amounts of appreciation to a single fallen leaf, or the sound of a cricket, or a little breeze. The power is entirely yours.
Even a city street can be perceived through the lens of appreciation. There is beauty and wonderment to be perceived there as well. As you extend thoughts of appreciation to the cityscape, it will be reflected back to you in just the same way that a natural setting would.
Feel free to experiment with this: Choose a simple object, and allow yourself to enfold it with thoughts of gratitude and thankfulness. A pebble, a pen, or anything else will suffice. See how you feel as you extend appreciation to that thing.
You may find, as you do this, that a little pebble is as wonderful of a mirror for your appreciation as any giant mountain.
Q: Is your search for better scenery similar to the search for a better romantic partner?
A: Yes, I think there is a parallel. There have been countless psychology books written about chasing the high of romance, followed by the temptation to move on to a new relationship once the high wears off. In this pattern, a new person seems to provide an emotional high.
However, if we look very closely, we will likely find that the happiness we experience in a relationship largely comes from what we are giving to the relationship – not by what we're getting (or failing to get) from our partners. We are actually lifted up by our own input.
Becoming aware of this dynamic reorients us back into a state of empowerment. We can give what we want to experience – support, intimacy, kindness, appreciation – to the people in our lives, and we will benefit from our offering. This awareness is the great pivot in many relationships from disappointment to fulfillment.
Let me begin this chapter with a story.
Once there was a man who was dissatisfied with his life. Although he lived comfortably in a community of people, he felt that he deserved something better.
"The people here don't treat me properly," the man would often say to himself. "I'm smarter and more ambitious than most of them, and I deserve more respect than I'm getting. I don't fit in here. Perhaps I should just strike out on my own." He grumbled like this for years.
Then, one day, the man took a long walk. While walking, he stumbled on a lovely piece of land. It was miles away from the town.
"How perfect!" the man exclaimed. "You know, I can build a new home for myself here. I don't need all those people any more. I'll take care of all my needs, and no one will bother me."
The man then began the work of building a home. After considering a few designs, he decided to build a tall tower. He would live in the top section of the tower, with a garden on the roof. The bottom of the tower would contain all sorts of traps to keep away threats.
The man labored diligently on his tower for months. Eventually it was ready: The traps were set at the bottom, to protect him against those who tried to take over his tower. And he was safely ensconced in the top. He would grow his own food, catch rainwater, and so on. It was a perfect plan.
And for quite some time, it worked. The man passed his days in the comfort of his tower, safely distanced from the unappreciative townsfolk. He would sometimes feel lonely, but he was generally comfortable.
Then the years began to pass. Many days, the man would admit to himself how alone he felt – but he comforted himself with the thought that at least he was free from the disrespectful people of the town. And he was safe in the tower. Although he was lonely, his needs were met.
Finally, there came a day when the man looked down from his rooftop and saw a group of people approaching. These were the first people the man had seen since he left the town. They walked to a hillside near his tower and laid a blanket on the ground. It was a small family, out for a picnic lunch.
The man watched from a distance as the family ate their food and enjoyed the surrounding countryside. They seemed happy – and they barely noticed his tower. The man began to feel wistful. As he watched them pack up and walk away, he said, "Maybe people are nicer in that town now."
For the next week, the memory of the family haunted the man. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, building this tower," he thought. "I sure do miss talking to people. But on the other hand, I'm pretty comfortable here."
The man wrestled with these thoughts for days. Finally, he made a decision: He would journey back to the town and see how things had changed. Perhaps he could try harder to make a few friends. Maybe there were some people whose company he would enjoy.
The man was suddenly happy, thinking thoughts like this. He gathered a few things and began running down the spiral staircase in his tower. When he reached the bolted door, closed for so long, he unlocked it, threw it open – and froze in horror. Suddenly he remembered what he had done.
When the man began building the tower, he was worried that people from the town would try to take it over. So he constructed a series of elaborate traps designed to attack invaders. These traps were brutal, and the man felt bad about building them. But he felt that they were necessary. As a compromise, he had posted signs outside of the tower warning about the impending danger.
But now, years later, the man couldn't remember what he had built. Vague memories of the devices were all he had.
The man stood at the door for a long time, contemplating what he had done. After a while he slowly closed the door and walked back up the stairs of his tower.
"If I try to leave, I may die," he said. He looked around himself. "But I can't live in this tower any more. What should I do?"
I share this story in order to illustrate three levels of consciousness.
In the story, the man represents each of us. The tower is a map of the mind. In this map of the mind, there are three levels.
Let me sketch them out:
thoughts and feelings
thoughts and feelings
thoughts and feelings
The bottom level is our natural state. In fact, it's not really a "level," but a reality. On the deepest level, we are joined with each other in love. We bless and embrace each other as members of one spiritual family. We were created in a state of connection. On the deepest level, this is how we remain.
However, at some point we decided to try a new experience. We began to construct a personal tower of the other two levels. First, we built a level designed to erase this sense of connection. Then we built a more comfortable layer on top of that, in which to spend our days.
Most of us live in that top layer. We spend our time trying to make the top of the tower more comfortable, while simultaneously dealing with the sense of loneliness and disconnection that it involves.
The spiritual journey usually begins when people get a sense – however dimly – that the top of the tower isn't very satisfying. No matter how comfortable we make it, it's a prison. We weren't created to live in towers, by ourselves. Our real environment is outside, with others.
And here is where things become challenging. Like the man in the tower, we might have a sense of where we need to go. But in order to exit the tower, we need to deal with the middle layer.
The top level of the tower – the place where most people spend their days – isn't particularly threatening. When you're living on the top of the tower, you don't feel a great deal of love toward the people around you. However, you don't feel a great deal of anger or fear, either. You just feel "normal." It can feel stable, if a bit lonely.
The spiritual journey tends to dissolve this normalcy and stability. As we begin our journey out of the tower, we begin to realize how much "buried" negativity there is within our minds. That is the result of uncovering the middle layer.
As an example, we may find currents of resentment toward certain people in our lives; strains of self-condemning thoughts; fears of intimacy and connection; worries about losing control. We may feel unstable, aimless, directionless at times. We may feel self-doubt. We may feel more anger than usual.
This is just some of what's inside the middle layer – a level that may have been "subconscious" before. We're now bringing this layer into our conscious awareness. Mystics have described the process of facing this "dark night of the soul." Psychotherapists have their own names for it. It's not always an easy process.
However, every time that we identify an element of the middle layer – and become willing to let it be removed – we create a space for the love in the deepest layer to shine through.
The experience is like being inside a cave, and clearing the rubble away from the entrance. Each time we allow a piece of our middle layer to fall away, a stream of fresh air and sunlight shines forth.
I sometimes think of Saint Francis when considering these three levels. Saint Francis was born into a wealthy family, and lived a normal life. At one point, however, he decided to take the journey out of the tower. As he moved forward, he first experienced intense doubt and fear – and then the glorious love for which he is known.
His journey could be called "messy." There was often significant resistance to the experience of love. But in the end, he was so filled with divine joy that he preached to the birds, unable to contain what flowed through him.
That is the result of uncovering – and becoming willing to release – the second-level blocks.
Through the Tower
Let me share an epilogue to the story about the man and the tower.
Although he didn't know it, the man's traps at the bottom of the tower had rusted and fallen into disarray almost immediately. They were quite harmless. They had, in fact, never really worked at all.
The man didn't know this, of course. So he sat in the top of the tower until he couldn't stand it any longer. Then, trembling, he began to move through the middle layer. He anticipated violence at every step. But, in fits and starts, he moved forward.
He eventually exited his tower, breathed a sigh of relief, and moved back to the town with a newfound appreciation for the people there. His tower remained as a harmless reminder of what he had been through. Every so often, he'd pay it a visit and remember the journey – glad that he was free.
Q: When I started doing spiritual practices, I actually felt worse. Is that because I was uncovering the defenses in the middle layer?
A: Very likely. When we begin to touch into our inner light – through meditation and prayer, through a spiritually-oriented relationship, or through other means – we often experience some resistance to the light.
This resistance was present within our minds the whole time. It is not new. But it was likely hidden from our awareness while we stayed in a "safe" zone.
Now, as we boldly move to access our inner light, the defenses rise up to be released. This is a helpful part of the process, even though it can seem the opposite!
In my therapy work, I've found that a parallel dynamic often unfolds. Clients come to therapy in order to feel better. However, after a few sessions they may find that they actually feel worse than when they began.
From the therapist's chair, it easy to see why: buried fears, self-judgments, and other forms of resistance are rising into conscious awareness, in order to be released or changed. This is part of the process. But for the client, it seems like something is backfiring.
My job as a therapist is to support their progress, validate their courage, and help to contextualize the swirl of emotions that is occurring. An emotional "backlash" is often an indication that forward movement is taking place.
In the same way, we can remind ourselves that our attempts to access our inner light are worthy of celebration, support, and persistence – despite any resistance that arises.
On a personal note, I will share that when I began doing my spiritual work in earnest I was suddenly plagued by nightmares.
It was a strange dynamic: during the day, I was experiencing increasing amounts of inner peace. Then I would go to sleep at night and fall into stunningly violent dreamscapes: wars, persecutions, terrors. I reached a point where I didn't want to sleep at all. The intensity of my nightmares was overwhelming.
Being somewhat scientifically-minded, I began to take mental notes on the dynamic. I found that on days that I abandoned my spiritual practices, my dreams were much calmer. On days of sincere practice and peace, the nightmares became worse.
I chalked the whole thing up to my mind's resistance, and decided to soldier on ahead. In time, the nightmares diminished. The resistant mind capitulated, slowly and gradually, to the journey.
I have since spoken to many people who have experienced similar dynamics. It's very common for things to seem intermittently darker as we make progress toward the light.
Thankfully, these "dark night of the soul" episodes are simply the mind's resistance – and they will diminish as we practice noting our resistance, expressing our willingness to let it go, and opening more fully to the light. This is the journey through that second layer of the tower.
Q: How can you make the journey through the middle layer easier?
A: This is one of the best questions to ask, and I'm not sure I can do it justice in a brief answer. However, let me try.
You could say that the entire spiritual journey takes place in the middle layer. At the top, we haven't yet begun the journey. At the bottom, we've arrived. So dealing with the middle layer is the essence of our spiritual "work."
It's important to understand that the journey through the tower is a cyclical, or spiral, process. We take the journey over and over as we clear away resistance from various areas of our minds. Despite my story, the process isn't a once-and-you're-done thing.
Thankfully, the work becomes easier and more habitual with practice. Like any other habit, it can become nearly effortless.
To recap: in the middle layer are the various forms of resistance to the inner light. This is where our insecurities, resentments, worries, self-criticisms, shame-filled memories, and other unloving thoughts reside.
At the top of the tower, we push these things out of our awareness. As we step into the middle layer, we honestly confront them. As we release them, we exit the tower.
There are two primary reminders that I have found helpful in facing the middle-layer blocks:
1. You can remind yourself that it's normal to feel emotional discomfort as you enter the middle of the tower. That's actually a sign that you're being honest. It doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong, or that the process isn't working. In fact, it can be a sign that you're bravely opening your awareness.
2. You can also remind yourself that you're simply dealing with thoughts and feelings – thoughts and feelings that (now uncovered) can pass through your awareness like clouds in the sky. No matter how "fixed" or "permanent" they feel, these thoughts and feelings are transient elements, like mist or fog. They cannot, and will not, put out your inner light – or really affect the light at all.
One of my primary mistakes in my own journey has been to treat the middle-layer forms of resistance as Big Deals. I used to think my forms of resistance were solid blocks to be wrestled-with and overcome. Or in some cases, poisonous failures that I had to somehow atone for (though I wasn't sure how!) using some herculean effort.
That, of course, just made the middle layer seem more daunting and difficult. It was an error in my perception.
It's a common error. I've met many other people who fell into the same perception. When we feel the emotional impact of our middle-layer thoughts, it's understandable that we might interpret them as signs of things gone wrong, or adversaries to be battled with and overcome.
But our resistant thoughts in the middle layer are simply clouds, fog, and mist before the light. If you hold this awareness, you might find it easier to take the next step: you can express your willingness to release these clouds in favor of the kindness, love, and gentleness (including gentleness toward yourself!) that lies just beyond them.
That willingness will lead you through the middle layer. The light will draw you forward. You don't need to recoil, battle, or even respond to the resistance with any approach other than the willingness to let it go and accept the sense of peace that fills its place.
The journey, while challenging at times, is actually quite simple.
Q: It seems to me that many people never leave the top level. Is that true?
A: I think that there is a great deal of pressure – both internal pressure and societal pressure – to stay on top of the tower. After all, who wants to abandon a place of relative stability for a dive into discomfort?
Only one type of person would make that journey: someone who believes that there is a place of far greater happiness at the end of the process. I'm not sure how many people believe that, but it certainly does seem like an ever-increasing number of people.
Anyone who has engaged in the process of therapy has been through this process. Anyone who has developed a meditation or prayer practice has been through this. You might even say that anyone who has held the course through an challenging personal relationship has done this practice.
In all cases, buried resistance is uncovered. The emotional discomfort of that resistance is felt. The mind struggles to process the feelings that arise, perhaps engaging for a while in avoidance or attack. Eventually the patterns of resistance are released in favor of the peace that lies beyond.
Every iteration of the journey – no matter what the context may be – makes the expansion to other areas easier.
Q: I've done some pretty awful things in my life. Are you saying that I can let those things go?
A: I believe that, regardless of your past history, both you and the world will benefit most if you can move through the middle layer of the tower and access your inner light.
In the light, you will be guided how to make amends for past mistakes. You will receive insights about how to be more loving to those you have hurt. You will be filled with gifts to give to others, even if you didn't offer those gifts before.
In this exit-the-tower process, you acknowledge your mistakes, become willing to accept a correction, and humbly allow a healing light to guide your thoughts and actions going forward. As you do that, you place yourself in a position to be a loving presence in the world.
Q: I've been stuck in that middle layer for years. I'm not even sure what it would feel like to be "in the light," as you put it. What can I do if the light feels inaccessible?
A: I always encourage people to choose an "easy" area of their lives, and begin by using the tools in that one area. If you can access a space of peace in that area, it will give you a template for working on areas where there may be more resistance.
As an example, you can choose a relationship of yours that already feels positive – perhaps a friend or family member whom you enjoy being with.
Identify any "middle layer" thoughts and feelings that you may have regarding that relationship: mild annoyances toward the person, resistances to a fuller sense of trust and intimacy, or anything else that interferes with a boundless sense of love.
Because your relationship with this person is already positive, you may find it fairly easy to acknowledge those lightly-held middle-layer thoughts and express your willingness to let them go. As you do this, you will gain access to an increasing sense of love, appreciation, and joy toward this person.
The increased love you feel for that person will lift your spirits. It will show you what awaits as you exit the tower in any area of your life. It will serve as both a contrast and a template for other areas where the mind is yet to be freed.
I encourage you to try this, and see what you find!
There is a spiritual practice that I'd like to share in this chapter. It is so simple that it may sound elementary (even trivial) when I describe it. But this practice can open entirely new experiences of the world.
The practice is as follows. When you are upset about anything, simply say to yourself:
"I don't know what to think about this."
At least, that's the first part of it.
I was first introduced to this practice decades ago. At first, I dismissed it as silly – even a bit insulting. I most certainly did have an idea what to think about things!
What I didn't realize is that the act of saying, "I don't know what to think about this," opens the door to an inflow of new, wisdom-filled thoughts. By releasing our old way of thinking, we clear the way for a spiritually-inspired replacement.
And that replacement is the second part of the practice. By saying, "I don't know what to think about this," we open a path for an experience of greater insight, illumination, and peace to enter our awareness.
Our job is simply to relinquish the old; to create an opening; to cease the interference of our old way of thinking. Once we do that, a higher perspective can arise in our awareness.
Let me share two illustrations of this practice.
To begin, think of someone in your life who causes you some annoyance. It may be a family member, a coworker, a neighbor, or a social acquaintance.
You may have tried to be tolerant toward this person. You may have acted patiently and kindly toward them. But despite your efforts, some degree of annoyance has lingered.
To use this practice with this person, simply hold them in mind and say:
"I don't know what to think about this person."
Become willing to relinquish all of your old thoughts about him or her. You might say:
I don't know how to interpret this person's actions.
I don't know what this person's motivations are.
I don't know how this person may impact me in the future.
I don't know how to respond to this person.
And so on.
In this practice, you aren't forcing yourself to "be kind" toward this person who causes you irritation. You are simply, honestly acknowledging that you have no idea what to think about him or her.
As you do that, you create a clearing for an inflow of new, peace-producing thoughts and perceptions of this person. You don't force these inner miracles to flow; you simply create space for them by relinquishing your old thoughts.
As you hold an open mind, a new, peaceful set of thoughts and feelings may enter your awareness. You may begin to feel a sense of kinship with this person. Perhaps a memory springs to mind of something he or she did that was thoughtful. You may begin to feel compassion and insight about this person's life situation.
Those are the miracle-minded, light-inspired gifts that flow in when you clear a space for them. They will flow on their own; they simply need an opening.
Let me share another illustration.
To begin, think of a situation in your life that feels challenging. You may not be sure how to problem-solve the challenge. It might be a work development, or a financial situation, or something else.
To use this practice, you simply say:
"I don't know what to think about this situation."
Become willing to relinquish your thoughts, perceptions, and ideas about the challenge. You may state, honestly, that:
I don't know how to address this challenge.
I don't know what the best course of action would be.
I don't know how to bring about a healing result.
I don't know how to think about this at all.
Having said that, now hold open your mind for a new, wisdom-inspired view of the situation. You might receive insights or ideas about possible courses of action to take. You might simply receive a sense of peace. You might feel a "nudge" to try something new.
That activity is the process of receiving "inner guidance" that many spiritual paths describe. We release our old thoughts and plans, and open to inner inspiration about how to think – and act.
Forgiveness, inner guidance, receiving miracles: all of these are different names for the same core experience. We release our old thoughts, and by doing so we clear a space for wisdom and inspiration to flow into our awareness.
A Continual Practice
Ultimately, this practice is something that we can do throughout our days.
You may wake up to a weather forecast you don't like. But then you say, "I don't know what to think about the weather today."
There may be a long line at the coffee shop on the way to work. You say, "I don't know what to think about this line."
You may encounter traffic on the highway, and say, "I don't know what to think about these cars."
Throughout your day, you say:
"I don't know how to respond to this."
"I don't know what this means."
"I don't know what course of action here will bring me happiness."
"I don't know what to think."
You say this, and then you open to a place of peace within you that does know. This place – your wise mind – has endless insights about the situations you face. This place can inspire a new experience of the weather, the lines, the traffic, and everything else that crosses your path.
Saying, "I don't know what to think about this" is a powerful practice. It is, you might say, all that is really required of us.
We simply admit that we do not know, and then we open to the light within us that does know. As we do this, we clear a space for illumination.
Q: I tried this a few times. I said, "I don't know what to think about this situation." But I didn't get any insights after that. My mind just sort of went blank – like a nothingness. How do you go from there to getting inner wisdom?
A: Practically speaking, you might need to repeatedly practice clearing an opening before inspiration freely flows in.
Engaging in this practice is much like soothing an agitated child. The mind is often filled with anxious, conflicting thought patterns. As you practice centering on the idea that, "I don't know what to think," you're quieting those patterns. But just as it takes time to calm an agitated child, so it may take practice to calm the mind.
My suggestion would be to aim for a sense of peace as your primary goal. The wisdom, insights, and inspiration will follow that peace.
Feel the sense of relief that comes from admitting that you don't know how to think about this situation. Relax into the awareness that you don't need to figure it out. Let that relief calm you. Allow the sense of pressure to fade away. Focus on welcoming a sense of peace.
As you do that, you will be creating a peaceful channel for all else to flow in.
Of course, peace itself is its own reward. Perhaps there are no specific new thoughts or insights that you need right now. Perhaps peace is all that is needed. Good things will arise from that peace if you stay with it.
Q: I have a ton of responsibilities at work. If I were to go into la-la land and say, "I don't know how to respond to this," my business would fall apart within a day. I do know how to respond to most situations. Why should I toss all of that?
A: If you're running your business in a peaceful way, you're likely already tapping into your inner wisdom and inspiration. If so, keep up the good work!
However, if there is an aspect of your business that is not flowing in a peaceful way, you might want to try bridging from your current way of thinking to a new way.
Saying, "I don't know what to think about [this aspect of my business]" doesn't lead you into la-la land. It opens a bridge so that you can move from your current way of thinking into a new, inspired vision.
This can take place within a few seconds. You can practice with individual situations and see how they go. You can say, for example:
"I don't know how to respond to this purchase order."
"I don't know how to soothe this frustrated customer."
"I don't know how to help this confused employee."
"I don't know which of these two ads I should run."
Having admitted that, you can then hold open your mind to a peacefully inspired solution in each of these situations. This process can take place quickly, fluidly, throughout the day.
To reiterate: the goal of this practice is not to leave you in a place of passivity or inaction. The goal is to clear a space for peace, wisdom, and inspiration to flow into your awareness. It's very likely that you will receive quite a number of practical, action-oriented ideas as part of this process.
Q: I'm tired of all the anti-intellectualism in spiritual circles. I believe that the intellect is a good thing. Why abandon the intellect by saying that you don't know what to think?
A: When we use this clearing practice, we aren't rejecting the intellect or any other aspect of the mind. Instead, we're opening our awareness to a greater intelligence. The process is an expansion, not an abandonment.
When I write about accessing our "inner light," I am referring to a mindset that is filled with wisdom and intelligence. In my psychotherapeutic work, I sometimes refer to this place as "the wise mind." Accessing this peaceful inner wisdom, this transcendent intelligence, is the goal of our practice.
Our conventional mindset compared to spiritual consciousness is like a drop of water in an ocean, or a spark before the sun. The drop of water is still a part of the ocean; the spark still gives forth light. They are wonderful. But we can access something much greater than them.
I have had conversations with many people who possess formidable intellects. I have enjoyed my interactions with them. But I maintain, even after talking to these people, that the intelligence and wisdom of our inner light dwarfs even the greatest human intellect. The difference in magnitude is profound.
Now, having said that, we need all types to become channels for healing. Folks with sophisticated intellects can place their intellectual gifts in service to the light, and can become great teachers and explainers. This is needed.
There doesn't need to be any conflict between the intellect and a higher intelligence; one can be of service to the other. Saying, "I don't know what to think about this" simply clears and opens the mind to that intelligence. It places things in proper alignment.
Q: I try to clear my mind and receive inner guidance on my actions. But I never know if I'm "hearing" things correctly. How do you know if you're in touch with your "wise mind"?
A: I find that spiritual consciousness, or the wise mind, has the following qualities:
1. It is peaceful.
2. It is kind and helpful to everyone.
If you clear a space in your mind by saying, "I don't know what to think of this," and then receive a new idea that feels inspired, you can check it against these criteria.
Does the new idea produce a sense of peace? Does it seem to be kind and helpful to everyone it affects?
If not, you might try clearing the mind again and opening to an even more peaceful, blessing consciousness. There is always more opening to be done.
Our inner light is wise. It is compassionate. It brings healing. It offers inspired solutions. And it extends peace to everyone it touches.
Insights that emanate from this place will share those qualities. Seek that peace, along with that kindness and helpfulness, and you will surely find the wise mind.
Once there was a group of people who lived in a dry desert land.
Life was challenging for these people. There was little food or water; in fact, the community only survived by clustering around a stream that ran though the land. Although it was meager, the stream offered water to drink and irrigate a few crops. The people who lived by the stream managed to survive.
However, one year the stream began to run weaker than it had before. The following year, the water levels dropped even further. The people began to panic – after all, this was their only source of sustenance.
One evening, an argument broke out as one person accused his neighbor of siphoning off extra water. A few weeks later, there was another argument. The people began to live in fear of one another. Was that person stealing? The sense of suspicion grew as the water continued to drop.
The community experienced great strain; neighbors eyed each other warily. When people drew water from the stream to drink, they did so surreptitiously. The townspeople barely spoke to each other, worried about sparking a conflict.
Finally, the stream dropped to a trickle. There was no longer enough water to sustain the community. A few people became belligerent, and accused others of causing the decline. Hostilities flared. Someone was injured in a conflict; this sparked a violent retribution. Soon thereafter, the community collapsed and disappeared.
Many years later, a new group of people stumbled upon the site of the old town.
"Curious," one of them said, looking at the remains of buildings. "I wonder why these people left."
"Look," said another, "there's no well anywhere. Perhaps these people never realized they were sitting over an aquifer. All they had to do was dig ten feet down, and they could have found enough water to last for lifetimes. It looks like they never realized how much they had."
I share this story to illustrate an idea about scarcity and abundance. Where there is scarcity, there is fear. People tend to become intensely self-interested and competitive as they fight for the last scraps of a scarce resource. History is filled with examples of this.
However, a theme of many spiritual teachings is that abundance is the natural state of our spirit. Like the aquifer that quietly rested beneath the desert community, a spiritual aquifer resides within each of us. This aquifer contains limitless gifts of the spirit – peace, wisdom, fulfillment, and above all love. We simply need to tap it.
As we do, our old sense of scarcity is replaced with a deep sense of abundance.
The Getting Game
Like the desert community, many people tend to seek sustenance almost exclusively from external sources. Life becomes a "getting" game, in which people acquire the things that seem to give them happiness: romantic partners, big bank accounts, status symbols of various types.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with enjoying these things. However, the problem is that as we try to draw sustenance from limited externals, we completely lose sight of the abundance within.
The community in the desert sustained itself for a while by drawing on the stream. However, the whole time they missed out on what lay beneath them. When the stream dried up, they descended into competition and fear.
Similarly, we often miss out on what lies within us. Within each of us is an abundance of spiritual gifts – a limitless abundance waiting to be accessed. As we tap this abundance, and allow it to flow into the world, we find great joy.
There's no end to the wisdom and peace within each of us. There's no end to the love that we can draw forth. Tapping this abundance, and sharing it, is our true calling here. We can bring endless amounts of water to a dry and dusty world.
One spiritual teaching that I have found quite helpful is the idea that on the level of thoughts and feelings:
What we give, we keep.
What we share, we strengthen.
When we draw on the love within our spiritual aquifer – and share that love with others – the sense of love becomes stronger within us.
When we draw on a sense of peace – and share that peace with others – it stays with us and grows. The more of it we give, the more of it we have.
Now, this "giving" is difficult if we believe that there is only a little bit of love and peace to go around. Giving from scarcity would be like asking the faltering community to give away their small amount of stream water.
Thankfully, that's not what we're being asked to do. Instead, we're asked to access the abundance within, and then share from that endless aquifer. This is a very different type of giving.
So how is this done? How do we give of our inner abundance?
We can take moments throughout the day to reach down into that inner aquifer of the spirit. We can drink deeply from it. Then, having accessed the abundance within, we can share it with those around us.
When we have a free moment, we can once again reconnect with the abundance. Then, when we're ready, we can share it again. Through this process, we become conduits for divine love, peace, and wisdom.
We, of course, aren't doing a whole lot of work in this process. We're simply reaching down to the abundance within, and allowing that abundance to flow through us. It's one of the most fulfilling – and most needed – activities in the world.
Q: How do we share abundance without self-sacrificing? I sometimes over-give to people and end up feeling depleted, not abundant.
A: I find that the best approach is to let our inner wisdom guide us about all aspects of our giving: the form, the amount, and the direction. The goal in this type of giving is to increase our sense of abundance, and help others to feel the same.
Any type of giving that leads to a sense of depletion isn't serving this goal. Speaking personally, I have engaged in a lot of depletion-oriented giving over the years. That behavior generally came from a place of self-pressure, over-responsibility, or some other form of egocentricity – not from abundance.
In this practice, we always begin by tapping into our inner aquifer, our inner light. As we contact the acquirer, we then share of what we received. We aren't forcing-out anything; we're allowing the abundance to flow on its own.
Let me give an example of this. I sometimes engage in practice where I do a "random act of kindness" each day. However, these acts aren't really random. I practice quieting my mind, touching into a state of abundance, and seeking inner wisdom on how to enjoyably give.
Buying a favorite chocolate bar for a friend; giving an extra-large tip for a tea; picking up flowers for a loved one – these types of ideas come to mind. I double-check: do these feel like enjoyable extensions of abundance? If not – if they feel like chores – I try to check in again. The goal, again, is to allow abundance to flow forth happily on its own.
Contacting our inner abundance and wisdom – and letting it guide our giving – is the key. Practiced this way, giving becomes an act of joy.
Q: I have a few friends and family members who are really stuck in negative places. It seems like they never feel that sense of inner abundance. How can I help them?
A: Speaking as a therapist who has spent a lot of time trying to help people, I believe that one of the best things you can do for others is to simply tap in to your own spiritual gifts.
As you touch into your own spiritual abundance – your inner light, your wise mind – it will flow out to the people around you in numerous ways. You will be inspired to offer them help in very unique forms. You will also serve as an example of a different way of living.
The key is to maintain contact with own inner abundance. This is the foundation for anything truly helpful that you do.
One of the biggest mistakes that I made in my therapy work was to lose contact with my inner light while plunging into the trenches. The forms this took were behaviors like booking a full day of therapy sessions without even a 30 second break; or allowing myself to become consumed with worry about the consequences of my clients' behaviors. This simply exhausted me, and limited my helpfulness.
In retrospect, I could have helped more effectively by accessing my own inner light, and maintaining that light in my awareness as a top priority. I really wasn't able to help others by drifting away from the light, even when I did so out of a genuine desire to be helpful. Without the light, both my clients and I were in the shadows.
If you want to help your friends and family members, you can prioritize keeping your spiritual abundance in awareness. Your inner light will guide you how to help these people in a peaceful, effective way.
You can also remind yourself that your friends and family members who are struggling have the same light within them, in limitless supply. Seek that light in them; hold the awareness that they have endless peace and wisdom within them.
Keep that light in your awareness. Let it guide your actions. Refuse to exchange it for cloud-patterns of worry or self-pressure. As you do this, you will be inspired to help in the most effective way possible.
Q: What should you do if your "outer" life doesn't line up with the abundance of your "inner" life? I feel a lot of inner peace and happiness, but I constantly struggle to make money and pay my bills.
A: Almost all of us have areas of our lives where we feel blocked – areas that don't "click" or "flow," even if other parts of our lives feel harmonious. So you're certainly not alone in your experience!
When I'm working with an area like that in my life, I try to begin by reminding myself that the aquifer still exists in that area. Even if it seems to be currently inaccessible, it is nonetheless there.
Peace is still available to flow into the challenging areas in our lives. Wisdom can still guide us in those realms. Our spiritual light still shines, even if it isn't apparent in those places. Keeping this in mind – even just as a concept, or a reminder – can be helpful.
Of course, our goal isn't just concepts; the goal is a full experience of abundance and help. Having set forth the reminder, you may want to try the following steps:
Begin by stepping back from the outer details of the situation, and name your current inner experience. For example, instead of saying, "I don't have enough money in my bank account," say, "I'm currently experiencing a sense of worry, threat, and confusion about how to resolve my financial issue."
Treat that experience like a landscape that you will travel through. That experience is what you are currently facing. But on the other side of that landscape is a place where you will feel supported, guided, and cared-for. That is our goal; that is the aquifer.
The key is to focus on the inner experience – not the outer details. This is, of course, very challenging when those details are pressing upon you. But at least for a minute or two, we want to try to move into a different state of mind. From there, new details can emerge.
You may certainly need more money. However, try for a few minutes to set that aside and open to a sense of abundance, peace, clarity; a sense of being loved, protected, and secure. As you access that – even if briefly – you are touching into your wise mind. It is from your wise mind that answers will come.
Let me share an example of this. I spent most of my 20s looking for a community to live in. I tried the east coast; then the west coast; then back to the east coast. Finally I ended up in the desert southwest. Each of those places was lovely in its own way, but none felt like my home.
I looked and looked, without finding a place that felt right. I began to feel exhausted, and even somewhat despairing.
Finally, one day I paused, expressed my extremely strong desire to find a lifelong "home," and opened my mind as wide as possible for inner guidance on the issue. Within a minute, the idea came: Colorado. That answer just felt right. So I packed up my things, moved to Colorado, and have indeed felt profoundly at home here every day for the past fifteen years.
I doubt I would have received that answer if I hadn't bridged into a different mindset. A minute was enough to receive a new thought. But it took over ten years of searching and moving, struggling to find a community and a home, before I quieted my mind and cleared a space for that answer to reach me. The wisdom was there; I simply needed to access it.
I believe that there is limitless wisdom within you that will help you resolve your financial challenges. You may receive insights about employment, or ideas about a business to set up, or you may be guided toward a relationship that will help with cost-sharing.
Moving through your current inner experience, into the aquifer of your wise mind, is the best way to access that wisdom and help.
Q: You make this sound so easy, but I try incredibly hard to access inner peace. It just doesn't come easy for me. I get a little hit, and then it's gone despite how much I practice. What should I do differently?
A: Trying hard to access a sense of peace can actually obscure that peace, if your efforts end up adding strain and stress to the mind. A better approach is to calmly note any thoughts that interfere with a sense of peace, and then rest in a willingness to let those thoughts go. The peace will then arise on its own.
You can watch your interfering thoughts – your worries, your resentments, or even your thoughts like "I have to find peace!" – float past your awareness like leaves on a stream, or clouds in the sky. Then simply relax into a willingness to allow peace to flow in. The aquifer will flow on its own; you only need to create a space for it.
As you can see, this is very different than straining and struggling to reach a sense of peace. In this process, you're allowing interference to clear, and then allowing peace to arise into the open space you've created in your awareness. There is no strain or struggle involved.
Now, having said that, there are indeed times when the mind may need a bit more structured help. In these times, I find it helpful to use a "refocusing step."
If your mind is cycling with agitation, distraction, or otherwise running down unhelpful pathways, you can begin by choosing a neutral focus point. This can be a sight, a sound, a phrase, or anything else. You can choose anything. This is just an intermediate step, and the focus point itself doesn't much matter.
Having chosen something, begin to center your full attention on that target. Allow it to enfold your awareness. Use it to refocus away from your previous thought patterns.
If you choose a tree, for example – look at that tree. Be with the tree fully in awareness. Allow it to replace whatever you were focusing on before. When you find yourself distracted by agitated thoughts, bring your focus back to that tree. Over and over, practice stepping aside from distractions and refocusing on the tree.
If you choose a word, simply repeat it to yourself in a calm, peaceful manner. Center your attention on that word. Release any distractions and refocus on the word. Repeat it calmly, slowly. When you find your attention drifting away from it, recenter back on the word. After a few minutes of this practice, you can then release the focus tool from your awareness in favor of a deep sense of peace. The centering-point – the tree, the word – was just a swap for your previous lines of thought. You can now let it go and open to the peace you seek.
If your agitated thoughts return to your awareness, you can return to your new focus-point. As you feel ready, you can then re-open to a sense of peace. There will likely be quite a bit of back-and-forth. Feel free to experiment, and see what you find.
The Raft, the Paddle, and the Sail
Imagine that you are in a small boat in the ocean when a storm suddenly blows in.
The storm is intense, and waves crash against your boat for hours. Finally the unthinkable happens – your boat shatters, throwing you into a stormy sea.
You climb upon a remnant of your boat, a section that forms a makeshift raft. The storm clears, but you are left floating helplessly on a square of wood.
You seem to be at the mercy of the sea. Where are you floating? Will the tides bring you to land? Is there anyone else out there?
For a day, you feel powerless and frightened. Then, as the sun is setting, you spot a paddle floating in the sea near you. You grab it, and begin to row your raft toward where you think land might be.
Whether or not you're rowing in the right direction, you begin to feel less afraid. You have a plan, along with the means for executing it. You don't feel quite as powerless.
You paddle all through the night. The work is exhausting, but you have hope. Even as you feel physically fatigued, you feel a strengthening sense of purpose and clarity.
As the sun rises, you notice debris around you in the water – including, to your surprise, what looks like a cloth sheet.
You find a way to lash the sheet to your raft, using your paddle as a mast. The wind catches your makeshift sail, and suddenly you are moving forward at a quick clip.
Keeping the sail engaged requires your full attention and cooperation; you continually make adjustments in order to align yourself with the wind. But although the work requires significant focus, it is much easier than paddling. In fact, you find it quite enjoyable.
Near the end of the second day, you find yourself in sight of land. It isn't the land you recognize – but the wind, with your cooperation, has brought you to safety and to a place of new adventures.
The Three Phases
The raft, the paddle, and the sail represent three phases of consciousness that we often move through in this world.
When we are confronted with unfamiliar challenges, it's common to initially feel overwhelmed and powerless. We may feel as if we were cast into a stormy sea. We seem to be at the mercy of forces greater than us. It is a frightening place to be.
However, there comes a day when we pick up a paddle and attempt to move toward more stable ground. We may not know how to move in the right direction. We may not even be sure which direction is the right one. But we are determined to try to improve our situation.
At this paddle phase, we are relying on our own personal efforts. The work is exhausting. But at least we don't feel completely helpless. Even if we fail to improve our situation, we gain a sense of satisfaction from the efforts we have put forth. There is at least some hope.
Many people never move past this paddle phase. In fact, if you look closely at many of our cultural messages (including those in self-improvement literature), you'll find many paddle messages. "You can do anything if you work hard enough!" "Don't let anyone stop you from chasing your dreams!" "Choose a goal and make it happen!"
The paddle level of consciousness is certainly a step above the raft phase. But it is tiring, and often filled with failure. Can one paddle on a raft across an ocean? Certainty it is possible. But there is a far easier way to travel.
The sail phase is our goal. In the sail phase, we work with as much focus as the paddlers – but our emphasis is on cooperating with the wind, rather than powering things by our own efforts.
Raising the sail involves setting aside our personal goals and efforts for a moment, and quieting our minds. In this quiet space, we turn within for divinely-inspired wisdom. This wisdom then directs our course.
We recognize, in the sail phase, that we – in and of ourselves – do not know the best course of action to take. We then hold open our willingness to receive inner guidance on a direction that blesses both us and others.
Holding our minds open, quietly, in a state of willingness to receive spiritual wisdom does require practice – but the work is like holding open a sail, not paddling a boat. And the practice can become easier and more comfortable with time, until it feels effortless.
Floating helplessly on a raft, at the mercy of the waves and the tides, is a terribly frightening place to be. We have all felt this powerlessness at various times in our lives.
Grabbing a paddle and beginning to row toward safer ground is far more empowering – even if it is exhausting. Though we may make many mistakes, we are at least drawing on the power of our minds.
Raising a sail, and allowing a benevolent wind to bring us into harbor, is the ultimate phase of living in this world. Here we are neither helpless, nor exhausted. We actively cooperate with the flow of grace, and are lifted up by the effort.
So how do we raise this sail? Let me outline a basic approach.
In this practice of raising a sail, our goal is to enter into a state of willing receptivity.
We don't have to "make" the divine wind blow. We don't have to even ask for it. Love, grace, and wisdom are offered to us endlessly. We simply need to open our minds to receive them.
To begin the practice of raising a sail, you may want to begin by clearing your mind of any interfering thoughts. You can say:
I do not know what the best course of action is.
I am willing to release any ideas about how to proceed.
My mind is open.
I do not know what to think.
And then, you can state your willingness to receive:
I am willing to receive a deeper sense of wisdom.
I am willing to be shown a course of action that will help me and others.
My mind is open.
My heart is open.
Then – and this is a practice that does take some focus – sit quietly, receptively, and openly in a state of willingness to receive.
When interfering thoughts or feelings arise to distract you from this state of willingness, name each one, and allow it to pass through your awareness. You can say:
I am willing to let this thought go.
My mind is open to receive inner wisdom.
Now, it's important to keep an open mind about the form that the wind of grace will take. You may or may not immediately receive a specific insight about a specific problem. But if you're doing this correctly, you will receive a sense of peaceful, calming assurance that you are not alone; that you are loved and safe; that you are cared for.
This core experience is our primary goal. Beautiful echoes can emanate from that experience – divinely-inspired insights and ideas about specific problems. But our job is to welcome the wind: the inner experience of feeling loved, supported, and held in a state of grace.
Q: I get what you're saying about not trying to "push the river" all the time, and learning to flow with it instead. However, it seems like there are times to push, and times to flow. How do you know which is which?
A: I believe that focused effort is an important thing, especially when we're moving through resistance and carving out a path for new experiences. I don't call this use of focused effort "pushing," but certainly there is some forward direction of energy involved.
Whether or not you call it a "push," it's essential to not get into a fighting mode when you're engaged in that forward motion. Think of the person in the story who is raising the sail: she holds and angles the sail with precision, determination, and focus. She uses her efforts to align the sail with the wind. But she isn't engaged in a battle.
In the same way, we can hold a new direction for our minds with focus and determination. We can firmly reorient the mind toward the peaceful new goal. Does this take effort? Certainly it does. But not in a fighting way. The effort can be applied with patience, calmness, and even peace.
So to return to your question: when do we apply this focused energy? Primarily when we're encountering resistance to the flow of grace. At those times, we practice actively angling the sail – the mind – until we catch the wind. If we lose our alignment, we re-angle as needed. Whenever we fall out of accord with peace, we expend some effort to restore the direction. This is a healthy use of effort.
Let me give an example of this. When I began a meditation practice, I would usually spend the first ten or twenty minutes of each practice session working with my mind's resistance. My goal was to open to an experience of peace, but my thought patterns were filled with counter-thoughts to that experience.
Over and over, I needed to bring the mind back to a place of alignment with the flow of peace. Sometimes I would give up after ten or twenty minutes of effort without much success at all.
However, I persisted, and as the practice sessions stacked up, the mind became more comfortable with the new alignment. It became easier to sit down and simply open to the flow of the beautiful peaceful breeze. To get to that point, however, it took a great deal of re-orienting practice.
Needless to say, whenever I fall into resistant thought patterns these days, I find that I have to re-expend some energy to realign things. But the work is easier and quicker than it used to be. This type of effort is well spent, and will only be required until our minds are back into alignment.
Q: I find that being "in the flow" can be an active type of experience. It's an energetic thing. Do you agree?
A: Certainly. Though I believe that the experience of grace takes whatever form we most need at the time.
For someone who feels exhausted, aligning with the flow of grace may feel like a restful sense of comfort. That person may experience the wind in the sail as a sense of freedom and relief. They may receive an inner assurance that they are cared-for and have permission to relax.
For someone else (or even the same person at a different time), the wind may feel like a boundless creative flow. They may feel energetically, joyfully inspired to express their gifts in a particular way. They may access a flow of insights and wisdom. They may have a sense of the limitlessness of their inner treasure.
The wind will adapt to our needs; it will blow us in the direction that supports our happiness. It may feel calming and peaceful at times, and inspiring and joyful at others. We can trust it to lead us along helpful paths.
Q: I have so much going on in my life – kids, work, chores, exercise – that I don't have any time left over. Trying to do this spiritual work on top of everything else feels exhausting. How are we supposed to find time to "align the sail" as you're saying?
A: Before I answer, I want to acknowledge that the pace of life, for many people, has increased to unparalleled speed. I marvel at how full many people's schedules are. I have no doubt that you're handling a remarkable amount of activity!
Let me share a technique that I've found helpful: Whenever you have a spare minute, you can stop and do a quick "alignment" practice. This may be when you've parked your car, and are preparing to go into a store. Or while waiting for some food to heat up. Or in between phone calls.
For just a minute – even less – state your intention to align your mind with the flow of grace. Envision a breeze that can lift your spirits and fill you with peace. For just a minute, try to release any interference to that breeze (including thoughts about all the things on your to-do list!)
Just for a minute, allow your awareness to touch that breeze. Let it comfort you. Let it give you a moment of rest.
Then go about your activities. When you have the chance, take another minute. Then, later, another.
I look at these like fenceposts, or markers, we're using to define a new path. Perhaps the first day you try this, you'll have three of these minutes. Perhaps the next day, you'll have five. As you practice, you're creating a new alignment for the mind.
Extended practice periods can be great. But sometimes, a bunch of "little one's" – little one-minute breaks to access the flow of grace – can be even more helpful.
Q: The more I touch in to that place of grace, the harder it feels to live life like normal. Rowing with the paddle just seems like unnecessary work. But on the other hand, I don't always find it easy to catch the wind in the sail. I feel like I'm caught in some weird place between the paddle and the sail. What should I do about this?
A: I'm guessing that everyone who embarks on the spiritual journey finds themselves in a similar dynamic at times. You're certainly not alone!
You might say that we are always in a "transition phase" as we learn to both access and trust the wisdom of the wind. There are inevitably many mistakes and mis-steps made in this transition; therefore, I find it crucial to stay humble, open, and self-forgiving.
Attempting to align the mind with the flow of grace is a remarkable undertaking. No one does it perfectly, and even if we've gained expertise in one area, we may still be beginners in other areas. It is an ongoing process
Now, having said that, let me share some practical suggestions that may be helpful during the transition process.
1. You can remind yourself that the wind of grace is beneficent to everyone.
The flow of grace is the flow of divine love; they are the same. Therefore, grace will bless everyone it touches. It will not hurt one person to help another. That is, in essence, what makes it so remarkable.
As you practice aligning your sail with the wind, you may want to ask yourself:
"What is the most loving action I can take toward all people involved in this situation?"
"What is the most kind and compassionate attitude I can adopt?"
"How can I see this in a way that brings blessings to everyone?"
Those type of questions will help to align your sail. They remind the mind that the goal is to bring comfort and blessings to all.
2. You can stay open to course-corrections.
There is no "end point" of grace. There is no point at which we say, "Well – that's it! I've tapped the breeze, and now it's done!" There is always more love and wisdom that can flow into our awareness.
Because of that, you can stay open to continual "course corrections" that steer you in an ever more inspired direction. Allowing grace to fill the sail is a continual process. There will be a fluid, ever-expanding evolution of the process as you go forward. Keeping the mind open to new directions and insights is essential.
3. You can be honest about any fears that arise.
Essentially, it is fear that keeps us from fully sailing with the wind – the fear of being misled, the fear of relinquishing our own egocentric control, and so on.
It's normal to feel these fears! However, we can note them when they arise in our awareness, and express our willingness to let them go – at least for a moment. We release, and into that open space the wind flows.
Staying honest with yourself about your resistance is helpful. As you honestly acknowledge any blocks to the wind that arise, you can then adopt a willingness to release them.
Q: I believe that life is a blank canvas, and it's up to us to decide what to paint on it. But it sounds like you believe that there's a "fate" that steers us. Is that true?
A: I believe that sailing with the wind is a cooperative, participatory experience. The wind of grace – of inner guidance, inner wisdom, and all other aspects – doesn't force itself upon us in a fatalistic way. It waits for us to align our minds with it. It also adapts to our decisions on a moment-to-moment basis.
As we cooperate with this wind of grace, we retain complete freedom to re-direct our minds in whatever way we wish. We can tilt the sail, lower the sail, or angle the sail as we wish. We can steer our path to explore this area, or that. We can turn around and go backwards, turn sharply, or anything else.
Will we lose the full impact of the wind if we direct our minds down hurtful or destructive paths? Yes, we will. But whenever we're ready, we can raise and angle the sail once again, and begin to travel down more loving pathways. We retain complete free will throughout the entire process.
Now, I do believe that there will come a time when each of us develops such trust in the wind that we wish only to fully cooperate with it. At that point, we will realize that grace isn't some alien force that wants to control us; it's the activity of our own inner light. It's in complete alignment with our happiness. We will see no reason to oppose it.
At that point, peace can flow perfectly. But until then, we're free to work with the breeze in whatever way, to whatever degree, in whatever direction we feel comfortable.