The Spiritual Path is a book that features essays from the Quiet Mind newsletter, along with accompanying questions and answers.
The full text of the book is below. In addition, Amazon Paperback and Kindle Editions are available at the following links:
The Spiritual Path:
Reflections on the Journey
For the past twenty years I have published a newsletter with writings on spirituality and psychology. In this book, I've collected ten of the most popular essays from that newsletter and added a set of questions and answers to each. The Q&A's are inspired by conversations I've had with readers, clients, and friends.
You're welcome to read the chapters of this book in any order. None require you to read what came before. Although there are common themes that run throughout the book, you can pick up wherever you'd like.
Let me share a note about language. Although I write about a "path" and a "journey," I believe that the real spiritual journey is simply a process of awakening to a light within us. This spiritual light brings peace to our minds, compassion to our hearts, and wisdom to our actions.
My goal in this book is to help clear a space for that inner light to shine into awareness. As we allow that to happen, we naturally bring healing and comfort to a world that needs it.
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 a 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. Then we moved on to Utah, and took moonlit hikes among the rock spires of Bryce Canyon. 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 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 after more dramatic scenery, looking for a 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 – new mountains, new fields – but I just couldn't do it. Things began to feel flat. Then disappointing. Shortly thereafter, we ended the trip and I went back to my city life.
It took me years to understand what had happened.
Getting What You Give
On that trip, I fell into a common trap. I believed that I was getting my sense of inspiration from something external: the mountains, the streams. Thus 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 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 give 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 giving. We can choose – at any time, with any thing – to extend copious amounts of 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 freedom 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 appreciation – and thus been lifted up.
Discovering this power is a turning point on the spiritual path. We don't need to search for 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 around me. 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. I find that this practice always produces positive results.
The realization that we experience the thoughts and feelings that we give is a freeing one. Instead of spending our time chasing externals, we can spend our time giving internals – and thus strengthening 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 you should give without expecting anything in return. But it seems like you think giving to get is a good thing. Is that right?
A: The doubling-up practice is based on a basic law of psychology: we always experience the thoughts and feelings that we offer to others. So you could say that on a deep level, there's no way to avoid "giving to get."
To illustrate this, imagine a pipe. When water flows out through a pipe, the 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 love and appreciation first touch our own minds. Perhaps the thoughts multiply as they reach other people. Perhaps they don't, if other people don't choose to share them. That's beyond our control.
However, our thoughts always impact us. They always touch us first. We are the ones who are most affected by what we give.
If we fully realized this, we would immediately commit to flowing forth kind, loving, peaceful thoughts into the world. We would see that this flow benefits us, first and foremost, always.
We would also see that critical, judgmental, hurtful thoughts – regardless of whom they're directed toward – 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 certainly not helpful.
But the deeper giving-to-get principle states that we do "get" the thoughts and feelings that we give. We are the first recipients of our giving. We experience what we extend.
Q: I give to a lot of 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, it's important to begin by drawing upon your spiritual gifts. You first touch into a sense of appreciation, comfort, peace, or any other facet of what I call your inner light. As you make contact with those gifts, you then extend them forth.
If you do this correctly, you'll find the "touching in" process to be restorative. Then, the giving process increases the treasures you've accessed.
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 you let your inner light guide you, you may be inspired to flow forth some loving thoughts, or a kind word, or a smile.
There may or may not be an elaborate "doing" aspect of your giving. You can follow your inner wisdom when it comes to the outflow.
Above all, it is important to allow yourself to be lifted up and inspired 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.
Making contact with an inner sense of peace, love, and comfort – and then letting those gifts flow out in a way that strengthens the experience for you – is the essence of this practice.
Q: I find that spending time in nature does help me feel peaceful. Isn't it OK to draw on 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 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 joy. However, you can give boundless amounts of appreciation to a single fallen leaf, or the sound of a cricket, or a little breeze. The power to give is yours.
Even a city street can be seen 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 practice, that a little pebble is as wonderful of a mirror for your appreciation as any giant mountain.
Q: Let's say that someone hurt my feelings and I want to feel better. How do I "give" something positive when I'm feeling hurt?
A: In this situation, you can begin the doubling-up process by identifying the inner experience that you want to strengthen.
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 begin to extend comforting thoughts to anyone who comes to mind. As you extend thoughts of comfort, you will experience them.
In this process, you don't need to start by extending the 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 giving, regardless of whom you're giving 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 wonderful. But really, just building a momentum is all that is necessary. Always feel free to start with the easy people.
Q: Your search for better scenery sounds like a search for a "better" romantic partner. Is it similar?
A: Yes, I think there is a parallel. There have been countless 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, each new partner seems to provide an emotional boost.
However, when we look very closely, we often find that much of the happiness we experience in a relationship comes from what we are giving to the relationship – including the love we are giving to our partner. The emotional boost comes largely from our own offering.
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 what we give. The power is ours.
This awareness is the great pivot in many relationships from conflict to joy.
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 an angel? As someone famous?
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. She 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, it's similar to what happens in the world.
Each of us comes into the world without a stable 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 psychotherapist, 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 therapist needs clients to help.
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 an 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 very 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 looks like your nemesis. She seems like a threat. He appears to 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 frivolous. 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.
Our choice of perception is powerful; 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.
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 covers, and find a light beginning to shine forth, the process becomes like stepping from a room of shadows into the light.
Q: I would like to look beyond the roles in people. But how do you actually do it?
A: One approach is to first identify the old, role-oriented ways you are seeing. Then you can express your willingness to release each of those perceptions and open to a vision 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, name 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 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 naming each of those perceptions, you can say:
I am seeing the roles in these people.
But the roles are not who these people are.
I am willing to let my old way of seeing go.
I am willing to open to a glimpse of light in these people behind their roles.
Then rest in a willingness to release your old way of seeing, and open to a beauty-behind-the-roles in each of these people. As each person walks by, express your desire and willingness to receive a new vision.
As you do that, you will likely begin to feel an increased 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 to see them differently. As you see glimmers of the light emerge in them, you will simultaneously be strengthening your awareness of that same light in yourself.
Q: I have a friend who rejects all worldly roles. She seems aimless, and just hangs around all day not doing much. How does this square with what you're saying?
A: When we access the inner light behind our roles, we are infused with a sense of joy, enthusiasm, and a compelling desire to comfort and help those around us. The experience is anything but aimless.
If your friend has rejected conventional roles, but hasn't yet accessed her spiritual light to a significant degree, she may indeed feel aimless for a while. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It might be a transition phase. Your friend may have let go of the world of roles. Soon, hopefully, she will open to 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.
As you clear a path for your own spiritual light to emerge, and express that light in whatever way you feel inspired, your friend may see a spark in you. She may be intrigued by your increasing sense of purpose. She may appreciate the gifts you are flowing into the world.
She may begin to question whether there might be a set of gifts within herself that can be expressed as well. Your willingness to extend your own light is all that is needed. It is one of the greatest acts of support that you can give to her.
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 views of us. However, in order to clear a path for the expression of our light, it's essential for us to release all limited views of ourselves – whether they come from us or others.
Some people will indeed see you as just a worldly role. Those people may believe that a role is all there is to you. You can practice releasing those types of perceptions, and firmly reminding 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 light behind all roles, you can then allow that light to express itself through you. As that outflow happens, many people around you will likely perceive a shift in you – a greater altruism, peace, patience, or some other facet of the light.
This may help them to see a glimmer behind the role. However, that is up to them and their own readiness. 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, the ways we see ourselves are not always benevolent. This can significantly impact how we act in the world.
For example, if you see yourself as a "failure" in a worldly role (in a job or a marriage, for example), that perception of yourself may generate feelings of shame, insecurity, or hopelessness. Your actions will then be inhibited. The view of yourself as a failure can deepen.
That type of downward spiral – negative view of yourself, painful emotions, inhibited actions – can go on for a very long time. It is a common dynamic that we therapists deal with.
One way out of this spiral is to remind yourself that you are not a role. You are not 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, empowered actor behind all forms and roles.
As you hold that kinder vision of yourself in mind, you may find that a sense of inspiration, enthusiasm, and freedom begins to rise in your awareness. Those facets of your inner light will then inspire new actions, which will in turn reinforce the awareness of your gifts. A new, upward spiral can form.
Inspired by your spiritual self, your worldly actions can be quite powerful. Your actions can bring healing, peace, and comfort to a world that is in need of those things. As you offer the gifts that arise from your inner light, both you and others will be lifted up by them.
However, in order to access those gifts, it's essential to remember that your light is undimmed by the roles you play. A scientist has no more or less light than a poet. A millionaire has no more or less light 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, regardless of any worldly role we are playing.
Our light – and our true selves, infused with this light – are unaffected by our roles. Keeping this in mind allows the upward spiral to unfold.
Q: You talk about our spiritual selves. What is this spiritual self?
A: This is perhaps the most important question of all. It's a question that is really only answered with an experience.
My recommendation is to directly seek the experience of your spiritual self 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 that can help to facilitate this process, including a "spiritual toolbox" at the end of this book. But the actual reveal – the awareness of your light, the connection with your true self – is a unique and personal experience that transcends words.
I recently began rock climbing. Not only is the climbing enjoyable, it's opening up new metaphors for the spiritual journey.
As an example, there are times when 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 first became interested in spirituality, 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 the spiritual journey 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 at a time. I read 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 good. 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 resentment 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. But it was only half of the process. The other half involved relationships.
As I see it now, studying spiritual ideas is helpful. Releasing psychological blocks is great. That type of inner work is essential. But that work is 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 progress. It seemed to be a personal process.
But I was missing a crucial point. The only way to really transcend a limited, separate sense of self 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.
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 his cave in a state of great joy.
The man wanders down into the nearest town. As he walks 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 complete 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 connection with others. 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.
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 kindness. We release more blocks, extend more kindness, release, extend, release, extend. This works both sides of the chimney, and keeps us rising up.
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 offering – but even if he doesn't, you've just boosted 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 unpeaceful 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 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: You talk about doing this with a server at a restaurant. But what about hostile people? How do you use this chimneying process with them?
A: Before answering this, I want to encourage you to not tolerate abusive behavior. If someone's hostility becomes abusive or threatening to you, please exit the situation and seek help. Spirituality includes self-care and self-compassion.
Having said that, let me answer this in the context of forgiveness, which is a central practice in many spiritual paths.
In the traditional forgiveness approach, we respond to hostile people with kindness, patience, and tolerance.
While this is an admirable goal, it often leaves a great deal of hurt feelings in the mix. I myself spent years trying to figure out how to be kind toward hostile people while dealing with the emotional pain that their hostility triggered in me. I didn't make much headway, in part because I was trying to squeeze out kindness using an act of will.
When we use the chimneying approach, we take a different approach. Let me share how it might look.
Imagine that a coworker of yours makes a critical, rude comment to you about your work. Your feelings are hurt. You feel an impulse to argue with him – perhaps tell him what you think of his own mediocre work.
But instead, you decide to pause and try the chimneying approach.
To begin, you start with the inner side of the chimney. You honestly identify your current thoughts and feelings.
You say, for example:
I believe that this guy is an insensitive 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 rude comments.
You then become willing to release those thoughts for a moment, and open to an experience of your inner light: an experience of comfort, peace, and wisdom.
You rest in a willingness to let your painful thoughts and feelings flow past your awareness like leaves on a stream, or clouds in the sky. You watch them float by, and invite each of them to be replaced by a sense of peace and comfort. As you do this, your perspective begins to shift.
You remember that your coworker is dealing with some difficult family 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 begin to 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 inner shift is the activity of the first side of the chimney.
You then turn to the second, interpersonal side of the chimney. You allow some of your newfound peace to flow into the relationship.
You approach your co-worker from your new mindset. You say to him, "Hey – your criticism of my work didn't feel good. But perhaps you didn't mean it to come out that way. I'm happy to discuss the details of my work with you if you'd like."
He seems surprised that you're not attacking him. "Sorry – I didn't mean to sound critical," he says. "I just would have done that project another way. But I probably should have said that differently."
That outreach is the activity of the second side of the chimney.
You keep inching up: exchanging your defensive thoughts for an experience of inner 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 comfort, strength, and warmth that lies just behind the hurt.
In this process, you're not "forgiving" the person through an act of personal will. Instead, you're allowing an inner sense of peace to replace your painful thoughts and feelings. Then, as that peace rises in your awareness, you're extending it to the other person. As you do that, you are strengthening it for yourself.
I have found that this type of approach can sometimes produce extraordinary results, shifting hostile relationship dynamics into harmonious new ones.
Of course, there's no guarantee that the other person will respond constructively. If your coworker continues to be hostile (and he might!), you certainly 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.
Q: For years, I've been trying to find someone who is interested in a spiritually-oriented relationship with me. However, I haven't had much success. How do you find a spiritual partner to chimney with you?
A: Let me answer this with a personal anecdote. One mistake I made in my life was predefining what a "spiritual partnership" should look like.
I spent years seeking a specific type of spiritual partnership – all the while passing by opportunities to connect with people who didn't match that form. Unsurprisingly, I ended up feeling quite alone.
In the chimneying process, we take a different approach. We touch into our inner light, and extend it 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 predefine who the recipient should be. We don't hold onto any concerns about whether they will reciprocate, or whether they will appreciate our efforts. We simply extend our 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 will very likely blossom into long-term relationships – including the type of intimate partnership that you are seeking. By focusing on the extension in the moment, we prepare the field for intimacy to blossom.
Let me share an example of this. Soon after I moved to Colorado, I went to a bar with a friend of mine. We were both single at the time and looking for dating partners.
I had no idea how to approach women at bars, so I decided to simply focus on spending time with my friend. I practiced being an attentive listener, and extending appreciation to him.
After about 30 minutes, two women walked by. One of them said to me, "You're looking at him so lovingly!"
I laughed, and we began to talk to these women. It turned out that the first woman was from my small hometown in New York; we actually knew many people in common. The second woman was a fan of a spiritual book that I myself had studied for years. I had great conversations with both of them (and went on several dates with the second one!)
That experience helped me to see the power of simply extending our light, without agendas or restriction. As we allow our light to shine, the spiritual bonds we share with everyone are revealed. Some of those bonds will take the form of brief connections. Others will take forms with deeper, more sustained intimacy.
By allowing the free outflow of our light, we create an environment for all of these forms to emerge.
Q: Social interactions tire me out. Is there a way to make the interpersonal dynamics you're describing easier?
A: There certainly isn't any pressure to engage with a large number of people. 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 fatigue. If your interpersonal interactions feel tiring, you might want to try a new approach.
In the chimneying process, we simply release any unloving thoughts within our minds, and create a space for the inflow of kind, compassionate thoughts. Then we share those new thoughts with the people we cross paths with.
That sharing 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 can simply think of someone you know, and enfold them in a sense of appreciation.
If the idea of interacting with someone 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.
The goal is to allow your inner light to express itself in a way that is enjoyable to you. The chimneying process is designed to multiply your own sense of peace and happiness.
As peace increases within you, you will have more of it to give – and as you give it, it will continue to grow. Each side of the chimney supports the other. You can make the climb in whatever way appeals to you.
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. "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 middle 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 defenses were set in the middle, 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 at the top 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. Although he was lonely, his basic 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 fairly 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. The traps were vicious, 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 the mind. Let me sketch them out:
thoughts and feelings
thoughts and feelings
thoughts and feelings
The bottom level is our natural state. It's not really a level, but a reality. On the deepest level, we exist in harmony. We were created as part of a connected family, and on the deepest level, this is how we remain.
However, at some point we decided to try something new. We began to construct a personal tower of the other two levels. First, we built a level designed to resist this experience of connection. Then we built a more tolerable layer on top of that.
Most people spend their days in that top layer. At the top, our time is spent trying to make the tower more comfortable, while simultaneously dealing with the vague sense of isolation, disconnection, and unfulfillment that it involves.
The spiritual journey generally begins when people get a sense – however dimly – that the top of the tower isn't very satisfying. No matter how comfortable we attempt to make it, it's a limited way to live. We weren't created to live in towers, by ourselves. Our real environment is outside, in connection.
And here is where things become challenging. Like the man in the tower, we may have a sense of where we need to go. But in order to exit the tower, we need to deal with the resistance.
The top level of the tower – the place where most people spend their time – isn't overly 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 empty.
The spiritual journey tends to dissolve this sense of 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 we journey through the middle layer of the mind, we may find self-condemning thoughts, fears of intimacy, worries about losing control. We may feel unstable, aimless, directionless at times. We may feel self-doubt. We may feel anger, or a sense of shame.
That is just some of what's inside the middle layer – a level that was likely subconscious before. We're now bringing this layer into conscious awareness. Mystics have described this process as facing the "dark night of the soul." Psychotherapists have their own names for it. It's not always an easy journey.
However, every time that we identify an element of the middle layer – and become willing to let it be released – 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 some point, however, he decided to take the journey out of the tower. As he moved forward, he first experienced intense doubt and fear – and after that, the glorious love for which he is known.
His journey could be called "messy." He experienced significant resistance to the experience of love. But in the end, he was so filled with joy that he preached to the birds, unable to contain what flowed through him.
That love 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 in the middle of the tower had rusted and fallen into disarray almost immediately. They were quite harmless. They had, in fact, never worked very well 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 my spiritual journey, my life became rather chaotic. Is that because I was uncovering the things in the middle layer?
A: Quite possibly. When we begin to touch into our inner light – through meditation and prayer, through spiritual practices, through the development of an intimate relationship, or through other means – we often experience resistance to the light.
The resistance was present within our minds the whole time. It is nothing new. However, our resistance was likely hidden from our awareness while we stayed in a "safe" zone.
Now, as we boldly move to access a greater sense of peace and love, the resistance rises up to be released. This can indeed feel a bit chaotic.
I've found that a similar dynamic to this often unfolds in therapy. Clients come to therapy in order to feel better. However, after a few sessions they may actually feel worse than when they began.
From the therapist's chair, it's 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 things are backfiring.
Our work as therapists is to support our clients' forward progress, affirm their courage, and help to contextualize the swirl of emotions that is occurring. Emotional resistance is often an indication that movement in the right direction is taking place.
In the same way, you can remind yourself that your attempts to access your inner light are worthy of celebration, support, and persistence – despite any resistance that arises. The resistance may be a sign of progress.
Let me share a personal anecdote about this. When I began doing my spiritual work in earnest, I began to have intense nightmares.
It was a strange dynamic. During the day, I was experiencing increasing amounts of peace. Then I would go to sleep at night and fall into violent dreamscapes: wars, persecutions, and so forth. I reached a point where I felt wary about sleeping, as the nightmares were intense.
Being somewhat scientifically minded, I decided to do some experiments and note what happened. On days that I set aside my spiritual practices, my dreams became calmer. On days of sincere spiritual practice, the nightmares became worse. My mind was like a wild horse that bucked during training, and then calmed down when left alone.
I chalked the whole thing up to my mind's resistance, and decided to gently and persistently move ahead (perhaps a bit slower than before). In time, the nightmares diminished. The resistant mind began to capitulate to the process.
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 usually just the mind's resistance – and they will diminish as we note our resistance, express our willingness to let it go, and open more fully to the light. That is the journey through the 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 of all, 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 reached a state of peace. So dealing with the middle layer is the essence of our spiritual work.
It's important to note that the journey through the middle layer of the tower is a cyclical process. We take the journey over and over as we clear away resistance from various areas of our minds. Even though the man in the story exited the tower in one fell swoop, the real process isn't a once-and-you're-done thing.
Thankfully, the journey through the tower becomes easier and more habitual with practice. Like any other habit, the process of releasing middle-layer resistance can become very fluid.
As a recap: in the middle layer of the tower are the various forms of resistance to our inner light. This is where our insecurities, resentments, worries, self-criticisms, shame-filled memories, and other unloving thoughts reside.
When we are at the top of the tower, we push these things out of our awareness. As we step into the middle layer, we begin to honestly confront them. Then, as we become willing to release that resistance, we exit the tower.
Let me share two suggestions that may help you to clear away 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 can pass by like clouds in the sky. No matter how fixed or intractable 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 mistakes in my own journey was to treat the middle-layer forms of resistance as Very Big Deals. I used to think that my resistant thoughts were solid blocks to be wrestled-with and overcome. Or failures that I had to atone for using some herculean effort.
That, of course, just made the middle layer seem more daunting and difficult. It was an error in perception.
It's a common error. When we feel the emotional intensity of our middle-layer resistance, it's understandable that we might interpret it as a sign of things gone wrong, or as an adversary to be battled with and overcome.
However, our resistant thoughts and feelings 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 comfort that lies just behind them.
That willingness to release 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 uncomfortable at times, is actually quite simple.
Q: I feel like 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 you do if the light feels inaccessible?
A: I encourage you to choose an "easy" area of your life, and begin by accessing your inner light in that one area. If you can touch into a sense of peace in that one realm, it will give you a template for working on areas where there may be more interference.
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.
Start by identifying any "middle layer" thoughts and feelings that you have toward that person: mild annoyances toward him or her, resistance 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 middle-layer thoughts, and express your willingness to let them go. As you practice that, you will access an increasing sense of love, appreciation, and joy toward this person.
The increased love you feel 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.
Q: It seems that many people never leave the top level. Is that true?
A: There does seem to be a great deal of pressure – both internal pressure and societal pressure – to stay on top of the tower. After all, who wants to leave a place of stability for a journey through discomfort?
Only one type of person would make that journey: someone who believes that there is far greater happiness at the end of the process. I'm not sure how many people believe that, but it does seem like an ever-increasing number.
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. Anyone who has held the course through a challenging personal relationship has done this practice.
In all cases, buried resistance in the mind is uncovered. The emotional discomfort is felt. The mind struggles to process the feelings that arise. Eventually the patterns of resistance are released in favor of the peace that lies beyond.
Every iteration of the journey – no matter what the form 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 if you can move through the middle layer 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 tower-exiting 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.
You deserve to return to an awareness of your inner light. The people around you will benefit from that light as you access it. This process will allow you to bring kindness and healing to the world, regardless of what you brought before.
Imagine that you are a traveler who finds yourself in a new part of the world. You have heard wonderful things about the natural beauty in this area, and decide to take a walk in order to see the sights.
While strolling through a forest, you hear a faraway sound. You strain your ears to hear. It sounds like a person calling out – but the sound is muffled and faint. You go in the direction of the voice.
Eventually you come across a remarkable sight. There is a deep hole before you, and at the bottom of the hole is a man. He's calling out for help.
"Hey down there!" you say to him. "Are you OK?"
"Can someone help me?" says the man. "Anybody? I can't believe how deep this hole is. I'm really stuck. Is anyone there? I could really use some help!"
"Yes!" you shout. "Yes, I can help you."
"Hello?" says the man. "I could use some help! Will somebody help me please?" The man doesn't seem to hear you. He continues to call out for help.
You look around and find some vines hanging on a nearby tree. You cut them down and study the hole that the man has fallen into. It won't be easy to free him, but you see a way to use the vines and the various features on the sides of the hole to get him out. You call out to him:
"Hey there! I can use these vines to help you. But you'll have to –"
"Is anyone there?" he says. "I could really use some help!"
"Yes," you yell. "I'm here. I can help you out. But you'll have to first reach –"
"Can anyone help?" he says. "Please, can someone help me?"
You step back and consider the situation. The man doesn't seem to hear you at all. But there's something else – you notice that he doesn't stop talking. Not ever. He simply doesn't pause at all. He can't hear you over the sound of his own voice.
"Hey!" you say. "Hey! Hey, stop for a second! Hey!"
"I could really use some help!" he says.
"Hey! Just listen for a second!" you say.
"Is anyone there? I could really use some help!"
Things go on like this for quite some time. Eventually you sit down in exasperation. You need the man's cooperation, but he won't pause long enough to listen to you.
While you're sitting, you hear another voice in the distance. You move toward it, and find something shocking. There's another hole in the ground – this one with a woman in it.
"Hello," she says, "Hello, is anyone there? I could use some help. Can anyone help me?"
What type of place is this? you think to yourself. People in holes who won't stop talking?
"Hey!" you say to her. "Hey! Hey there! Stop talking for a second!"
The woman pauses. "Hello? Was that someone up there?"
"Yes!" you say. "I can help you!"
"Hello? Can someone help me? I can't get out of this hole. I could really use some help." She returns to her stream of words.
You try talking to her for a few minutes, and occasionally catch her attention. But you can't seem to hold a conversation with her – much less give her instructions about how to use the vines to get out of the hole.
After a while, you leave her and walk around the area. To your surprise, you find more people at the bottom of holes. You try talking with them, but none will pause long enough to carry on a conversation. None, that is, until you find a deep hole with a very old man. He seems to be remarkably weary. And he is quiet.
"Hey," you say. "Can you hear me?"
"Hello?" he says. "Hello? Yes. I can hear you. Can you help me?"
"Yes," you say. "But I need you to listen to me. Can you do that? Can you stay focused on listening to me?
"Yes," he says. "I think I can."
You proceed to give him instructions about how to use the vines and how to find footholds, and together you work to bring him out of the hole. When he's free, he thanks you for your help.
"I've been in that hole for a long time," he says. "I would call out for help night and day. But no one came. Today I finally became exhausted and stopped calling out. A few minutes after that, I heard your voice. What a strange experience."
The he pauses and adds, "Who knows – perhaps there were always people trying to help me out. I never stopped calling out long enough to hear."
I share this story because we often fall into holes like these people. As we go through our lives, we find ourselves caught in various pitfalls. At times we call out for help. Other times we try to singlehandedly climb our way out of the holes ourselves.
Sometimes we succeed. But even then, we frequently fall right back into a new hole. It's an exhausting enterprise.
The good news is that we have an inner wisdom that is continually trying to assist us with the challenges we face. This wisdom never abandons us. It is offering us help all the time, with every issue in our lives.
However, like the people in the story, we often fail to hear the help that's being offered. We become distracted by our mind's chatter. Our inner wisdom cannot force its way over our own voices. In order to receive the assistance that is being offered, we need to become quiet and receptive. Only then can we access the insights that are available.
Let me offer an approach that I have found helpful in this practice. You can practice quieting and opening your mind for just one moment at a time. In these quiet moments, in which we allow our minds to pause and rest, inspired thoughts can quickly flow in.
You can practice these quieting moments throughout your day – perhaps once an hour, for just a few seconds at a time. No matter how busy you are, you may find that you can spare one pause each hour. This is sometimes all that is needed.
I encourage you to experiment with this type of practice, and see what you find. Even one instant of true open-mindedness can open the gates to a wealth of inspiration, wisdom, and inner guidance. One quiet, open, receptive moment is sometimes all we need.
Q: I relate – my mind is a chatterbox all the time. That's why I find meditation so hard. How exactly do you quiet down the chatterbox?
A: I have found that there are two major skills in the process of quieting the mind and accessing wisdom: (1) the ability to focus, and (2) the ability to open. Let me share a technique for each of these.
When we begin a meditation-style practice, most of us have minds that act like puppy dogs. Our minds race after one thing then another. They roll around, get tangled in distractions, break free, then race after another thing.
Accessing a sense of inner peace or inner wisdom is almost impossible if the mind is bouncing around like this. Therefore, it can be very helpful to train the mind to focus.
One simple way to develop the ability to focus is to choose a soothing phrase and allow it to become a centering-point for your attention. You can repeat your soothing phrase calmly, over and over, as you allow it to replace your normal thought patterns.
It really doesn't matter what phrase you choose; anything that calms and focuses your mind is fine.
For example, you can use a phrase like, "In this moment I can rest."
In this practice, you repeat that to yourself, slowly, over and over:
In this moment I can rest.
In this moment I can rest.
In this moment I can rest.
Inevitably, your mind will kick up some resistant counter-thoughts. As that happens, simply note them dispassionately, allow them to pass by, and return your focus to your centering phrase.
It might look like this:
In this moment I can rest.
In this moment I can rest.
In this moment I can rest.
I really have to get that project done at work!
In this moment I can rest.
My boss will be mad at me if I don't finish it.
I could get into a lot of trouble!
In this moment I can rest.
What am I going to make for dinner?
I think I have those leftovers.
Is the grocery store still open?
In this moment I can rest.
In this moment I can rest.
I wonder if that person I met last weekend likes me.
Should I have my friend ask him?
In this moment I can rest.
And so on. It's quite common to encounter a great deal of back-and-forth. You may have to return to your centering phrase hundreds of times. It might take many practice sessions before focusing becomes easier.
Let me now move on to the second core skill: the ability to open.
As your mind becomes more comfortable centering on your soothing phrase, you can allow yourself to lift off of that phrase into an experience of peace.
Focusing on the phrase has allowed you to taxi your aircraft in a straight line. Now you can take flight.
You continue to repeat your phrase:
In this moment I can rest.
In this moment I can rest.
In this moment I can rest.
And then, just for a moment, allow the phrase to fade away as you open your mind and heart to an experience of peace. The peace will flow in as soon as there is an opening. For just a moment, try to enter into a state of willingness to receive it.
This can be a challenging practice, as it entails relinquishing all resistance. But we're attempting this for just one moment at a time. We're aiming for just one moment in which we unbridle ourselves of our defenses, and become receptive to an inflow of peace.
To make this easier, you can note any resistance that arises: fears about losing a sense of control, wariness about welcoming a new experience, or any other forms of hesitancy. These are normal experiences.
As you uncover that resistance, you can soothe your mind by reminding it that you're simply opening to a sense of peace for just one moment at a time. Peace won't harm you. A moment of it is workable.
You may need to coax your mind to open by reminding it about the value of what you're attempting, much as a loving parent would reassure a wary child.
As you practice, you can rest in a place of willingness: willingness to receive an experience of peace, support, wisdom, and all the other facets of your inner light.
That light is our goal; it is the aim of our journey. It is where the spiritual path leads. And it is here, right in this moment, ready to be welcomed. Your ability to focus on it, and your willingness to receive it, open the door for it to enter.
Q: Why do you say that one moment is all we need? It seems like one moment of peace won't accomplish very much.
A: I have found that one of the most important factors in change of any type is motivation.
As an example, I've had a handful of therapy clients over the years who had an unusually high motivation to change. In my work with them, I barely needed to do more than offer a few words of support and some helpful tools. Their motivation quickly propelled them into new places.
Other clients of mine had very low motivation to change. No matter how many approaches, techniques, or efforts I offered, very little change happened.
And of course, most of my clients – like most of us – were somewhere in the middle: wanting change, but dealing with motivation that ebbed and flowed.
For years, I wondered: How can I help to increase motivation in my clients? What can I do to spark a motivational boost? In the end, I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do was to help my clients experience a taste of something new – even for just a moment.
A moment of freedom from anxiety. A moment of hope. A moment of connection. Those moments serve as a contrast to "ordinary" life. The contrast creates a constructive dissonance, and leads toward a stronger desire for change.
That is the principle you're building on when you aim for just one moment in which you experience your inner light. Perhaps it seems as though you are stumbling around in a dark cave. But then – for a moment – there is a flash of light. You can see clearly.
Even if the shadows return a moment later, you have experienced a contrast. You know that there is another way. The memory of that contrast will remain with you, inviting you to access it again.
Each new moment of contrast will strengthen your desire for the light. Each moment will show you the new way. As you gather these moments, you will be increasing your motivation to move forward.
Of course, miraculous things can happen in those single moments of light. Each moment is its own reward, in addition to serving as a contrast.
In a single flash of light, you may receive inner guidance about a challenge in your life. You may find that a perspective shifts. An old hurt may heal. A confusion may be replaced with clarity.
Those shifts can stay with you, even after the moment has faded. They are treasures that you will keep with you as you move forward.
Q: I have never experienced even one second of what you're talking about. My mind never quiets down. I have never had any peace at any point in my life. Is there a good way to get started for people like me?
A: You might want to begin by recalling a time in your life when you felt just a slight bit more peaceful than usual.
Perhaps it was a moment when you were with a friend or family member. Perhaps you were with a beloved pet. Perhaps you were taking a quiet walk in nature.
Even if you didn't feel a deep sense of peace, try to recall that moment when you felt just slightly more peaceful. Think of the person, pet, or nature environment – whatever setting helped you to feel a little more peaceful than normal.
Try now to "touch in" to what you felt in that setting. Perhaps you felt a slight increase in emotional warmth, comfort, or calmness. As you recall the feeling (or at least the memory of the feeling), try to access that same feeling right now and allow it to grow.
Imagine that before you is a very tiny fire on a cold night. That fire is the slight sense of warmth you once felt. Invite the warmth of that tiny fire to grow in your awareness. Recall the sense of warmth, and try to release any of the mind's resistance. Focus on the warmth. Give it permission to grow in your awareness.
If you are able to even slightly – just slightly – access a hint of peace or warmth through this type of exercise, you have succeeded. The goal is to take just one small step in the right direction. We're aiming to increase the baseline just a bit.
Return to your memory of that slightly-better-than-normal moment whenever you can. Recall the feelings that you felt. Invite those feelings to return to you in this moment. Give them permission to grow.
Repeat that practice, over and over, as you are able. If you'd like a "boost," invite another person to do this with you – a friend, a counselor, a sponsor, or whomever. Two minds working in concert can accelerate the process.
You deserve a limitless, boundless sense of peace, regardless of what you've experienced in the past. Each small step in the right direction is worth the effort.
Q: I have experienced that inner wisdom that flows in when I quiet my mind. However, there are places in my life that seem really blocked. Is there anything I can do to let the wisdom expand to those areas?
A: If an area in your life seems perpetually blocked (and most of us have those areas!), you might try looking for any hidden beliefs that may be lurking in that region.
Beliefs are "frozen thoughts" that cycle unnoticed in the background of our awareness. Like any other chatterbox thought pattern, beliefs can inhibit our awareness of the wisdom that waits just behind them.
In my therapy work, I've spent a great deal of time working with clients to uncover limiting beliefs that obscure their inner wisdom and peace. Beliefs like:
I have to figure this problem out all by myself.
This is a hopeless situation.
I probably deserve this.
It's pointless to expect anything to change.
If this area improves, some other area in my life will probably get worse.
And so on.
You don't have to aggressively "dig around" for those beliefs. You can simply note what arises as you invite a sense of peace to enfold those areas of your life. Honesty in this process is key.
As you find a peace-limiting belief, you can question it. You can ask:
Might this belief not be completely true, all the time?
Might there be a "softer" belief that I can substitute for it?
Might there be a more self-supportive belief that I can try on for size, to see how it fits?
Then work with your mind, shifting your beliefs toward a more open-minded place.
You can make slight changes to your beliefs in stages.
"I probably deserve this,"
"Perhaps I've suffered enough,"
which changes to...
"Maybe that inner wisdom really does want to flow in,"
"I am willing to open up to that wisdom for a moment."
"If this area improves, some other area in my life will probably get worse,"
"I am afraid of things getting worse; however, I'm not sure that will happen,"
which changes to...
"It feels scary to allow a sense of peace to enfold this area, but I'm willing to experiment for a moment at a time."
And so on.
Finding the interfering beliefs, easing those beliefs toward open-mindedness, and then opening – even for a moment – to an experience of peace, insight, and wisdom is an effective way to move forward.
In the next chapter, I'll share another technique that can be helpful as well.
There is a simple practice I'd like to discuss in this chapter. It is so simple that it may sound ridiculous when I describe it. But this practice, as simple as it is, can open up entirely new experiences of the world.
The practice is as follows. When you are upset about anything, simply say to yourself:
"I have no idea what to think about this."
(At least, that's the first part of it.)
I was first introduced to this practice years ago. At first, I dismissed it as silly – even 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 have no idea 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 an inspired replacement.
That replacement is the second part of the practice. By saying, "I have no idea what to think about this," we open a path for greater insight, illumination, and intelligence 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 annoyance. It could be a family member, a coworker, a neighbor, or an acquaintance.
You may have tried to be tolerant toward this person. You may have acted patiently toward them. But despite your efforts, you still feel somewhat annoyed when you think of them.
To use the clearing practice with this person, simply hold them in mind and say:
"I have no idea what to think about this person."
Become willing to relinquish all of your old thoughts about him or her. You might say:
I have no idea how to interpret this person's actions.
I have no idea what this person's motivations are.
I have no idea how this person may impact me in the future.
I have no idea 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 annoyance. You are simply stating that you have no idea what to think about him or her.
As you do that, you create an opening for an inflow of new, peace-producing thoughts and perceptions of this person. You don't force these new experiences to flow; you simply create space for them by relinquishing your old thoughts.
As you hold an open mind, a more gentle set of thoughts and feelings can 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.
There are endless illuminated perspectives that can flow in when you clear a space for them. They will enter 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 be unsure how to problem-solve the challenge. It might be a work development, a financial situation, or something else.
To use this practice, simply say:
"I have no idea what to think about this situation."
Become willing to relinquish your current thoughts, perceptions, and ideas about the challenge. You can state, honestly, that:
I have no idea how to address this challenge.
I have no idea what the best course of action would be.
I have no idea how to bring about a healing result.
I have no idea how to think about this at all.
Having said that, then hold open your mind for a new, wisdom-inspired view of the situation. You might receive insights about possible courses of action to take. You might feel a "nudge" to try something new.
That activity is the process of receiving "inner guidance" that many spiritual paths describe. You release your old ideas and plans, and open to inner inspiration about how to think – and act.
As you release your old thoughts, you clear a space for wisdom and inspiration to flow into your awareness.
A Continual Practice
Ultimately, this practice is something that you can do throughout your day.
You wake up to a weather forecast you don't like. But then you say, "I have no idea what to think about the weather today."
There is a long line at the coffee shop on the way to work. You say, "I have no idea what to think about this line."
You encounter traffic on the highway. You say, "I have no idea what to think about these cars."
Throughout your day, you say:
"I have no idea how to respond to this."
"I have no idea what this means."
"I have no idea what course of action here will bring me happiness."
"I have no idea 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," as I call it in my therapy practice – 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 have no idea 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 a new experience of the world.
Q: I have a ton of responsibilities at work. If I were to go into la-la land and say, "I have no idea how to respond to this," my business would fall apart. I do know how to respond to most situations. Why should I toss away all my knowledge?
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 have no idea 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 have no idea how to respond to this purchase order."
"I have no idea how to soothe this frustrated customer."
"I have no idea how to help this confused employee."
"I have no idea 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 tried this a few times. I said, "I have no idea 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: It sounds as though you successfully cleared the mind of its old thought patterns. That's a great accomplishment. You have created a blank canvas. You have emptied the stage. Now you can focus on the second phase: opening to an inflow of inspiration.
My suggestion is to aim for a sense of peace as your primary goal. Wisdom and insights will follow that peace. Express your willingness to let a sense of deep peace flow into your awareness.
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 awareness 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: insights, wisdom, inner guidance, and more.
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 dislike all the anti-intellectualism in spiritual circles. I believe that the intellect is a good thing. Why abandon the intellect by saying that you have no idea 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 to a broader 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 counseling work, I refer to this place as "the wise mind." Accessing this inner wisdom, this higher intelligence, is the goal of our practice.
I find that the intellect compared to the wise mind is like a drop of water in an ocean, or a spark before the sun. The drop of water is still part of the ocean; the spark still gives forth light. They are wonderful. However, we can access something far greater than them.
Over the course of my life, I have interacted with many people who possess formidable intellects. I have enjoyed my conversations 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.
Now, having said that, the intellect can be a wonderful tool. We can place our intellects in service to the light, and use them for teaching, healing, and other supportive activities.
Ultimately, 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 have no idea what to think about this" simply opens our minds to that higher intelligence. It places the intellect 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 true inner wisdom?
A: I find that spiritual consciousness, or inner wisdom, always 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 have no idea what to think of this," and then you 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.
The mind illuminated by the inner light 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. If you seek a sense of peace, and aim for a place of kindness and helpfulness, you will naturally align yourself with your inner wisdom.
Q: You keep talking about finding a sense of peace. But what about passion and emotion? Peace sounds kind of boring to me.
A: When I use the word "peace," I'm describing an experience of harmony and fulfillment – not a place of emotional flatness.
Our inner light is like a diamond with numerous facets. Inner peace is one facet of that light. Joy is another. Love is a facet. So is delight.
A sense of aliveness is a facet of your inner light. A feeling of abundance is another. A desire to help the world is another. And yes – passion, intensity, and all the other elements of energy are also facets of your inner light.
Peace, however, is a great starting point to aim for. A peaceful sense of harmony and fulfillment clears the way for all the other facets to emerge in startling clarity. In a state of peace, conflict fades and the light has a clear pathway to shine without interference.
The Raft, the Paddle, and the Sail
Imagine that you are piloting a boat in the ocean when a storm suddenly blows in.
The storm is intense. Waves crash against your vessel for hours. Finally the unthinkable happens – your boat shatters, throwing you into the sea.
You climb upon a piece of wood, which is all that remains of your ship. The storm passes, but you are left floating helplessly on a small raft.
You seem to be at the mercy of the sea. Where are you drifting? Will the tides bring you to land? Is there anyone else out there?
For hours, you feel powerless and frightened. Then, as the sun is setting, you spot a paddle floating 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 fatigued, you have a sense of purpose and direction.
As the sun rises, you notice some debris around you in the water – including, to your surprise, a piece of cloth.
You find a way to tie the cloth 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 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 a place of safety and new adventures.
The Three Phases
The raft, the paddle, and the sail represent three phases of consciousness that we move through in this world.
When we are confronted with a difficult challenge, it's common to feel powerless at first. We may feel as though we are floating aimlessly in a giant 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 best 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 rely on our own individual effort. The work is tiring. But at least we don't feel completely helpless. Even if we don't improve our situation very much, we gain a sense of empowerment from our efforts. There is some hope.
Many people spend their lives in 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. Things like:
"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 slow to produce results. Is it possible to paddle a raft across an ocean? Certainty it is. But there is an easier way to travel.
The sail phase is our goal. In the sail phase, we work with focus like 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 self-directed efforts for a moment, and quieting our minds. In this quiet space, we turn to an inner place of wisdom. This wisdom then directs our course.
In the sail phase, we recognize 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 wise new direction.
Holding our minds open to receive inner 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 almost effortless.
Floating helplessly on a raft, at the mercy of the waves and the tides, is a 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 tiring. Though we may make many mistakes, we are at least drawing on the power of our intention.
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 inspiration, and are lifted up by its support.
So how do we sail with the wind? 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 wind of grace blow. We don't have to even ask for it. Inspiration, insight, and wisdom are facets of our inner light, and are offered to us endlessly. We simply need to open our minds to receive the flow of these gifts.
To begin the practice of raising a sail, you can begin by clearing your mind of any interfering thoughts. You can say:
I do not know what the best course of action is right now.
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 sit quietly, receptively, and openly in a state of willingness to be helped.
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 inspiration 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 assurance that you are not alone; that you are loved and safe; that you are cared for.
That core experience is the primary goal. Beautiful echoes can emanate from that experience – inspired insights and ideas about specific problems. But our job is simply to welcome the wind: the core experience of feeling loved, supported, and cared for. As our minds are lifted by that experience, endless other gifts will flow in.
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 you supposed to find time to "raise 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 a speed that is unparalleled in history. It's remarkable 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 for busy people that I've found helpful: Whenever you have a spare minute, stop and do a quick one-minute "alignment" practice. This may be when you've parked your car, and are preparing to go into a store. Or while you're waiting for some food to heat up. Or in between phone calls.
For just a minute – or 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 just three of these minutes. The next day, you may have five. As you practice, you will create a new alignment pattern for the mind.
Extended practice periods can be great. But sometimes, a bunch of "little ones" – little one-minute breaks to rest and access the flow of grace – can be even more helpful.
Q: I get what you're saying about learning to flow with the wind rather than trying to "push" things all the time. 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 a helpful thing, especially when you're creating a path for new experiences. That can sometimes feel like a push ahead.
However, it's essential to not get into a "battle" mode when you're engaged in that focused effort. Think of the person in the story who is raising the sail: she positions the sail with determination. She uses her efforts to align the sail with the wind. But she isn't engaged in a battle.
So to return to your question: when do we apply this focused effort? Primarily when we're drifting away from the natural flow of peace. At those times, we actively re-angle 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 a sense of 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. Even though my goal was to open to an experience of peace, my thought patterns were filled with distractions, worries, frustrations, and so forth.
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.
Nevertheless, I continued to practice. As the practice sessions stacked up, my mind became more comfortable with the new alignment. It became easier to sit down and simply open to the flow of the peaceful breeze. However, to get to that point, it took a great deal of re-orienting practice.
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.
Q: I believe that we're free to steer our lives in any direction that we wish. But it sounds like you believe that there's a "fate" that steers us. Is that true?
A: Sailing with the wind is a voluntary experience. We retain complete free will throughout the entire process.
The wind of grace – of inner peace, inner wisdom, and all other aspects – waits for us to align our minds with it. Nothing is forced. The wind simply invites us to receive its help.
As we begin to 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. 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 impact of the wind if we direct our minds down hurtful or destructive paths? Yes, temporarily. But whenever we're ready, we can re-angle the sail, and return to more beneficent pathways.
Having said that, I do believe that there will come a time when we develop 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; it's the activity of our own inner light. It is the pathway to our happiness. We will see no reason to oppose it.
At that point, peace can flow without interference. But until then, we're free to work with the breeze in whatever way, to whatever degree, in whatever direction we feel comfortable. We always retain our free will.
Q: I find that being "in the flow" is an active type of experience. It's very high energy and creative. Do you agree?
A: I believe that the flow of grace takes whatever form we most need at the time.
For someone who feels exhausted, aligning with the wind may feel like a restful sense of comfort. That person may experience the flow of grace as a sense of calm 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 gifts.
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 meet us where we are.
Q: The more I touch into 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 might say that we are always in a "transition phase" as we learn to trust the wisdom of the wind. There will likely be many missteps made in this transition; therefore, it's best to stay humble, open, and self-accepting.
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 three suggestions that may be helpful during the transition process.
First, you can remind yourself that the wind of grace blesses 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.
Second, 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 an expanding evolution of the process as you go forward. Keeping the mind open to new directions and insights is essential.
Third, 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 control, and so on.
It's normal to feel these fears! However, you can note them when they arise in your awareness, and express your willingness to let them go – at least for a moment. You release, and into that open space the wind flows.
Staying honest with yourself about your resistance is helpful. As you honestly acknowledge any blocks that arise, you can adopt a willingness to release them. In that way, you keep the channel clear.
Let me begin this chapter with a story.
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.
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 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 twenty 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-centered 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 – peace, wisdom, fulfillment, and love. We simply need to tap it.
As we do, our old sense of scarcity is replaced with a deep, endless sense of abundance.
The Getting Game
Like the desert community, many people in the world tend to seek sustenance from external sources. Life seems to be 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 when we focus on drawing sustenance from limited externals, we tend to 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.
To help keep that in mind, we can remind ourselves that:
The thoughts we give, we keep.
The feelings 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 people around us – 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 draw upon 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 love, peace, and wisdom.
We, of course, aren't doing a whole lot of work in this process. We're simply drawing on our reservoirs of abundance, and allowing that abundance to flow through us. It's one of the most fulfilling – and needed – activities in the world.
Q: I feel a lot of inner peace and happiness, but I constantly struggle to make money and pay my bills. What should you do if your outer life doesn't match up with that inner abundance?
A: Almost all of us have areas of our lives where we feel a sense of scarcity – areas that don't click or flow, even if other parts of our lives feel abundant. So you're certainly not alone in your experience.
When you're working with a place like that in your life, you can begin by reminding yourself 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 your life. Wisdom can still guide you in those realms. Your spiritual light still shines, even if it isn't apparent in those places. Keeping that in mind – even just as a concept, or a reminder – can be helpful.
Of course, our goal isn't just concepts; our goal is a full experience of abundance and freedom. 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 inner experience like a landscape that you will travel through. Those thoughts and feelings are what you are currently facing. But on the other side of that inner landscape is a place where you will feel supported, guided, and cared-for. That is your 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, try to travel into a different state of mind.
You may certainly need more money. However, try for a few minutes to set that concern aside and open to an inner 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 to illustrate. I spent most of my early adulthood looking for a community to live in. I lived on 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 for years, without finding a place that felt right. I began to feel exhausted, and even somewhat despairing.
Finally one day I paused, expressed my strong desire to find a lifelong home, and tried to access a sense of peaceful inner guidance on the issue. I tried to move into a trusting, receptive mindset.
Within a few seconds, an idea came: Colorado. That answer just felt right. So I packed up my things, moved to Colorado, and have felt deeply at home here every day for over fifteen years.
I doubt I would have received that answer if I hadn't bridged into a different mindset. A minute or less was enough to receive a new thought. But it took a decade 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 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: How do you share your abundance without self-sacrificing? I sometimes over-give to people and end up feeling depleted, not abundant.
A: The best approach is to let your inner wisdom guide you about all aspects of your giving: the form, the amount, and the direction. The goal in this type of giving is to increase your sense of abundance, and help others to feel their inner abundance as well.
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 our practice, we always begin by tapping into our inner aquifer, our inner light. As we contact the aquifer, we then share what we received. We aren't forcing out anything; we're allowing the abundance to flow on its own.
Let me share a practice that can be helpful. I sometimes 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 about 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, 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. It reveals the reservoirs of gifts we have within.
Q: I have a few friends 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 tried to help a number of people, I believe that one of the best things you can do for others is to tap into your own spiritual gifts.
As you touch into your own spiritual abundance – your inner light, your inner wisdom – it will flow out to the people around you in numerous ways. You will be very likely 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 your own inner abundance. That is the foundation for a sustainable, inspired type of giving.
When I opened my psychotherapy practice, I would frequently lose contact with my inner light while plunging into the trenches in an attempt to help. I would book seven hours straight of therapy sessions without a break; or allow myself to become consumed with worry about my clients' choices. 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, we all simply stumble about in the shadows.
If you want to help your friends, 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 who are struggling have the same light within them, in limitless supply. Seek that light in them; hold the awareness that they have access to endless insight, peace, and wisdom.
Keep that light in your awareness. Let it guide your actions. Refuse to exchange it for clouds of worry or self-pressure. As you do this, you will be inspired to help in unique and possibly unexpected ways.
Q: I try incredibly hard to access that inner peace you're describing, but it just doesn't stick with me. I get a little hit, and then it's gone despite how hard I try. 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.
Instead, you can calmly note any thoughts that interfere with a sense of peace, and then rest in a willingness to let those thoughts go. Peace will then arise on its own.
You can watch your interfering thoughts – your worries, your resentments, even 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 inviting 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, you might find it helpful to use a refocusing step.
If your mind tends to drift into agitation, distraction, or other unhelpful pathways, you can choose a focus point. This can be a sight, a sound, a phrase, or anything else. Feel free to choose anything. This is just an intermediate step; the focus point itself doesn't much matter.
Choose something, and then 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 your awareness. Allow it to replace whatever you were focusing on before. When you find yourself distracted by stressful 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 the word to yourself in a calm, peaceful manner. Center your attention on that word. Release any distractions and refocus on the word. Repeat it calmly and 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 stressful thoughts return to your awareness, return to your focus-point. And 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.
When I was a young adult, I lived in an area with many forests and ponds. I often spent my lunchtimes talking walks in nature.
One day I went for a stroll around a small lake. When I circled back to where I had parked, I found that a bird was attacking my car. Or to be more precise, the bird was attacking my passenger-side mirror.
Apparently, the bird was threatened by its own reflection. In the mirror it saw another bird aggressively trying to attack it.
It dive-bombed the mirror again and again. I chased the bird off and took another walk around the lake.
When I returned twenty minutes later, the bird was back, fighting itself again. I thought to myself: How long would this go on? If I left my car there, would the bird fight itself for hours? Days? Would it fight its reflection to the death?
Realizing that the bird wasn't giving up, I decided to drive away. As I sat down and started up my engine, I saw the famous line printed below the bird's reflection:
"Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."
Yes, I thought. Objects in the mirror are closer indeed!
I find the bird and the mirror to be a great symbol of interpersonal conflict. A common theme in many schools of psychology is that when we have a negative reaction to a person, we're not reacting negatively to that person directly. Instead, we're reacting negatively to our own perceptions of that person.
This idea may sound strange, and many people feel a bit insulted when they encounter it. However, it opens the potential for a powerful inner shift. Let me illustrate how the idea works.
Let's say that you're walking down the street and someone bumps into you. He's talking on his phone, and doesn't apologize. "How rude," you think. "I mean, what a jerk. These people on their phones don't care about anyone. They're so insensitive. I should give this guy a piece of my mind."
Suddenly the man turns around and says to you, "I'm so sorry. My daughter is home alone, and she's feeling scared. I'm on the phone with her, and I didn't see you." Suddenly your whole attitude changes. What a wonderfully caring father! How kind! You smile at the man and walk on.
Who were you reacting to the first time? Not the man himself – but rather, your internal perception of him. The picture of that rude, insensitive man was a creation in your mind – an object "closer than it appeared."
And who were you reacting to the second time? Again, your own perception. The picture of the kind, caring father was again in your mind.
Now, this may seem like a silly psychological concept. But it can be used as a gateway to spiritual vision. Let me explain what I mean.
We often walk through the world like the bird, reacting to images within our minds. The bird didn't understand the larger picture; it didn't understand how mirrors or reflections worked. It simply saw a rival trying to attack it.
In the same way, we often walk through our lives reacting to a limited series of perceptions. We're continually reacting to images in our minds shaped by our own past experiences.
Realizing this opens a door for a new perception. If the things we see are "closer than they appear," then we can release our old perceptions and open to a new vision – a vision of the spiritual light that exists in the very same space.
As the poet William Blake said so eloquently:
If the doors of perception were cleansed
every thing would appear to man as it is,
Beyond our normal, everyday perceptions is a world of beauty and connection. Poets like William Blake caught sight of this world – the "infinite," a world infused by a spiritual light.
Let me share another quote from the mystic Meister Eckhart:
Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar –
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.
This vision of light, of the infinite and the divine, is awaiting us if we "cleanse the doors of perception."
Clearing the Lens
Thankfully, accessing this vision isn't just for the poets and mystics. Our minds can be cleared for this vision to emerge in a moment. All we need do is realize the perceptual blocks that we're creating, and become willing to release them.
Let me give an example. Outside my window is a tree. It is a tall maple, bare of leaves in the early spring.
How do I see that tree?
On first glance, it seems ordinary. It is simply one of many objects in the background of my view. There is nothing special about it. If anything, I worry that perhaps it will lose a few more branches this year, given the struggle it had the past few years.
But those are perceptions that can be released. "Ordinary," "nothing special," "struggling." Those are my own views that are obscuring spiritual vision. There is another way to see the tree.
I can open my vision to the beauty in the tree. The way its branches vault upward into the sky. The way it protects the birds that come to rest in it. The loveliness of the buds that are starting to emerge. The elegance of it all.
If I spent an hour with a truly open mind, I would see endlessly beautiful things reflected in that maple tree. All that is required is to release my old, limited perceptions and open to a new vision.
Trees, people, everyday situations – we can open to the beauty in all of these. The doors of perception can be cleansed. We can release our old ways of seeing, and open to a vision of light.
Returning to my bird by the lake: where was the rival that seemed to be attacking it? The rival was in the bird's mind, closer than it appeared.
And where is the spiritual light that we can see? That too is closer than it appears, so close that we need but open the doors of perception and allow it to enfold us.
Q: I have an artistic friend who sees a lot of things as beautiful. However, it feels like she's in la-la land at times. I'd rather be a realist. Are you saying that I should try to be like her?
A: You don't need to see things like your friend (or anyone else) does. However, if you release your old way of seeing, and perceive the world around you with an open mind, you might find that your vision shifts in its own unique way.
You may suddenly see solutions to problems. You may experience a sense of kinship between yourself and others. You may see hope, or synergies, or newfound meaning. Or you may indeed see beauty, like your friend.
As you cleanse the doors of your old perceptions, you allow in the light. This spiritual light can be reflected in limitless ways; it has many facets. Beauty, yes – but so many other facets as well. You might be filled with a sense of compassion. Or a desire to help. Or a sense of appreciation. Or wisdom.
You will see the world in that new light. As your vision shifts, your mind will be illuminated in its own unique way.
And how do you facilitate this shift? You can simply note your old ways of seeing, and then express your willingness to exchange those perceptions for a new, spiritual vision.
For example, you might say:
"I have been seeing that neighbor of mine as an annoyance, but I'm willing to see him in a new light."
"I have been seeing my work as burdensome, but I'm willing to see it in a new light."
"I have been seeing my body as flawed, but I'm willing to see it in a new light."
And so on. You name your old way of seeing, and then express your willingness to exchange the old perceptions for a new, illuminated vision.
This can be a powerful practice. I encourage you to experiment with it.
Q: When someone is being hostile to me, I'm not just fighting with a reflection like the bird. Other people are genuinely rude and mean at times. That's not a perception, it's what's going on. How do you square these?
A: There is no question that people can act rude, hostile, and at times violent. I've certainly encountered my share of this.
The question we can ask ourselves in these situations is: How do I want to perceive this person who is acting in a hostile way?
You might ask yourself, for example, "Do I want to see this hostile person as an enemy? As an annoyance? As someone who is needing compassion? As someone who is crying out for help?"
There are limitless ways to perceive the hostile people in our lives, and we will react most immediately to the way we choose to see these people. Our choice of perception is very powerful.
Now, as I stated earlier, I do not believe that you or anyone else should tolerate abuse from the people in your life. I have spent countless hours in therapy sessions helping clients of mine to act in self-respectful, self-protective ways – including taking themselves out of abusive situations. Please do protect yourself.
But even as you protect yourself behaviorally, you can note your choice of perceptions. Do you want to see this person as an enemy to be counter-attacked? Or as someone lost in pain, misery, and self-destructive behavior?
The world is in need of healing; there are countless people around us who feel disconnected from the light. We can become a healing presence for them, and offer help. In order to do so, though, we need to first re-align our perceptions.
As you allow your vision to be guided by your inner light, help will naturally flow from you. Your perceptions of people are the doors through which that helpfulness will extend from you to them.
Releasing your old ways of seeing will allow the light to stream forth in various forms. As you allow that to happen, you naturally become a healing presence in a world that needs it.
Q: Are perceptions like thoughts? They seem similar.
A: Yes, you could say that perceptions and thoughts are different facets of the same experience. As an example, you might perceive the day as beautiful. At the same time, you might have a thought, "This is a beautiful day!"
I sometimes use ice cream to describe perceptions and thoughts. Your favorite ice cream has a color. It also has a flavor. The color and the flavor are difference facets of the ice cream, existing simultaneously.
The same thing is true for perceptions and thoughts. They are related facets of an experience. Let me give a few more examples:
Perception: You see a barking dog as annoying.
Thought: "That dog is so annoying!"
Perception: You see yourself as alone.
Thought: "I'm all alone in the world."
Perception: You see a butterfly as beautiful.
Thought: "What a beautiful butterfly!"
And so on.
If you change your perception, the thought will shift. If you change your thought, the perception will shift. Perceptions and thoughts are flip sides of the same coin.
The takeaway message is that we can shift our perceptions in just the same way as we shift our thoughts. For example: just as I was writing this, a gust of wind blew a bunch of cottonwood seed fluff onto my computer, near my tea.
I could choose to perceive this in any number of ways. I could see it as an intrusion of stuff that might clog my computer or pollute my tea. Or I could see it as a magical moment, like something from a fairytale – fluffy summer snowflakes in a perfect breeze, swirling around me in a beautiful way.
There are limitless ways to perceive the world around us, just as there are limitless ways to think about the world. The choice of perception, like the choice of thoughts, is ours.
Q: How should we perceive suffering?
A: Speaking personally, when I encounter a form of suffering, I often ask myself: "How can I see this in a way that will allow me to be helpful?"
I then check my perceptions to see if they are inhibiting my helpfulness. If my perceptions are blocking the flow, I try to open my mind to a new vision. You can experiment with this as well.
For example, let's say that someone in your life is struggling with a challenge.
If there are helpfulness-inhibiting perceptions in your mind, you can express your willingness to release them. Then you can ask yourself, "How can I see this person and this situation in a way that will allow me to be helpful?"
As you do that, new perceptions may come to mind. You might experience a vision of the person as loveable, or capable, or not alone. Or a new angle on the situation might come to mind: a new perspective, which you may share with her.
You might see yourself and the other person as "in this together." You might see the person as filled with spiritual gifts. You might suddenly see a way for you to help the person in an active, behavioral way.
A new vision can come in limitless forms. Our job is simply to clear a space for the vision to arise.
So to return to your question: If you encounter a form of suffering, you may want to ask yourself, "How can I see this in way that allows me to be helpful?"
That one question, sincerely asked, will unlock a whole new way of perceiving – and very likely, acting as well. It will allow healing and help to flow forth from you. Opening to a new vision of the situation is the key first step.
Let me conclude this book with a final story.
Once there was a village deep in a forest. Trees surrounded this village in every direction – trees so thick that it was difficult to travel through them. The forest was also covered in a blanket of mist. It was difficult for the people there to grow much food. Their existence was rather meager.
Life went on for these people until there came a year with an unrelenting amount of rain. Food was hard enough to come by; now, the lack of warmth made it even scarcer. Despite rationing what little they had, the people struggled.
One night, a woman who lived in the village had a dream. In her dream, she saw a vision of a land with open, hilly fields and sparkling sun. Growing food in a place like that would be simple.
The land in her vision looked lovely. There were sparkling streams and lakes, and stretches of green grass. It was beautiful.
When the woman awoke, she had the sense that this was no idle dream. This land, she sensed, was real – and perhaps it wasn't far from where the forest ended.
She began to ask people in the village about a place like the one in her vision. Unfortunately, no one had seen anything like it. In fact, no one had ever found the far edge of the misty forest. Those who had tried reported that the trees seemed to go on forever.
The woman decided to search for the new land. She packed what little food she had, and set out walking through the forest. Soon she was crawling, slipping through thick vines and around fallen trees. It was an arduous journey. After a few days, hungry and cold, she began to lose her motivation. The forest here was as thick as ever. There was no sign of its end.
The woman stumbled on until she couldn't go on anymore. "This is hopeless," she said. "Perhaps this forest covers the world." She sat down and closed her eyes.
As she sat, the vision of the bright, open land came back to her. She could see it with such clarity. She smiled, feeling her strength returning. When she opened her eyes, there was a flicker of something strange.
Just for a moment, the forest was gone. Surrounding her was the land she envisioned. But then a moment later the trees were back. She shook her head in confusion. "A trick of the eyes," she said. And yet, the vision gave her hope.
With newfound strength, the woman picked herself up and began her journey anew. The moss-covered logs didn't feel as daunting as before. The vines weren't as constricting. She plunged ahead.
Yet in time, she began to tire. A few more days went by, and the woman once again found herself feeling hopeless. Was this a pointless journey? Was it just a foolish dream?
Eventually, exhausted, the woman collapsed and closed her eyes. Within a few minutes, the vision of the sunny land returned to her. In her vision, she could see the fields so clearly; she could study every sparkle on the ponds. It seemed so real. She spent a great deal of time immersed in her vision. When she opened her eyes, she wasn't overly surprised to find that it remained.
Here she was, on a hilltop. The forest was gone. The sun was shining. Her eyes were open. She looked around, turning her gaze slowly so as not to disturb the experience. It was beautiful. But then slowly the sky began to darken, and the mist and fog returned. In time, she was back in her forest.
"How strange," she said. "Perhaps this land is in a different direction altogether."
She sat down in the forest and made herself comfortable. Closing her eyes, she brought the vision of the bright land back into focus. Then, opening her eyes, she tried to maintain the experience.
She found that, with practice, she could remain in the sunny land longer and longer. She could walk the hills, and peer far into the distance. She could pick up blades of grass from the ground. Although the forest faded in and out, she was eventually able to stabilize the experience so that the darkness didn't return very much.
"It's closer than we thought," she said, taking a last look around. "We can learn how to live here." Then with a shift of focus, the woman brought back the familiar dark forest. Pushing aside a handful of vines, she began to retrace her steps back to the people in the village.
This story draws on a theme I've described throughout this book. The spiritual journey isn't a journey to a distant place; it's a journey to an experience. It might take some work to reach – and hold – that inner experience. But it is here for the finding.
One of the traps that makes the spiritual journey seem so long is the belief that we have to get somewhere. But as the woman in the story discovered, we can open – at any moment – to what it is we're seeking. We don't need to search the world for this experience. We can simply quiet our minds and allow it to emerge in our awareness.
Love, for example, doesn't come when we finally find the right person; it comes as soon as we open our hearts to it. Love rushes to us when we create a space for it.
A sense of security doesn't come when we put one last dollar in the bank; it comes when we open ourselves to an inner experience of security. We open our awareness to that facet of our inner light, and it enfolds us. It simply waits for an opening.
Peace, comfort, a sense of connection – these are experiences that we can open to at any moment. We don't have to travel the world to find them. The "journey" to them is really just a releasing of everything else that we've placed in the way.
What are the trees in the forest that surrounds us? They are our limited thoughts, our belief in scarcity, our faith in the shadows rather than the light. When we reach a state of exhaustion – or simple willingness – we begin to release them.
For a moment at a time, we let this interference go, and clear a space for the brightness to reach us. We practice this until the light becomes stable in our awareness.
It takes willingness and focus to open our awareness to the facets of our inner light. But we don't have to go anywhere to find these gifts. They are ours, right now, for the receiving.
Q: The inner experiences you talk about are all well and good, but we also need money and friends and other things in the world. Don't you think that those "worldly" things are important, too?
A: Certainly. However, many people find that a worldly form and the internal experience that they associated with that form do not always come together.
You probably know people in your life who are surrounded by friends, and yet feel lonely. Or people who have a significant amount of money but feel a sense of scarcity.
Those people have the forms they wanted, but not the inner experience. By contrast, you might also know people who spend time by themselves, and yet feel connected; or people who live simply, and yet feel a great sense of abundance.
It is the inner experience that we seek above all. The forms may also be important, but only as they support the desired experience.
The good news is that we can open directly to the inner experiences that we want, even if the forms aren't yet in alignment. We can open our awareness to a sense of security, abundance, love, or whatever else we desire – and then we can allow those new experiences to guide us about how to continue the flow.
In this way, we practice what I call "reversing the search." Instead of seeking external forms to trigger an inner experience, we reverse things. We seek the inner experience directly, and then allow our new mindset to guide us toward forms that will support the experience.
Q: I can access a sense of peace when I'm in a quiet environment, like at home. But when I'm in a busy place like work, I can't seem to hold that sense of peace. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Learning to access a sense of inner peace is the first phase of the spiritual journey. Allowing that peace to fill all the areas of our lives is the second phase. Needless to say, that second phase takes a lifetime.
Let me share an approach that I find helpful. Try to first access your sense of peace in an "easy" setting. Then practice bringing the peace into the more challenging environments in your life, one small step at a time.
For example: you might take a lunchtime break from your busy workplace, leave the work environment temporarily, and tap into your sense of peace as best as you can.
Then – almost like a game – see if you can bring the sense of peace back into the office for ten seconds, or a minute.
Take another restoration break later in the day. Then try once again to bring the peace into the office for a minute or so.
This can be treated as a fun challenge. You're allowing the sense of peace to spill into the new environment. It may take a number of practices, but you will likely find that your ability to extend peace into your work environment increases.
The key is to give yourself repeated restoration breaks, in which you touch into your inner light and then practice bringing that light back to a place where it's challenging to access. The more practice breaks, the better.
Q: You make this sound really easy. Like, just sit down and open to those experiences. But I find it very difficult to do that. The experiences I want don't just "flow in." What can I do to make things easier?
A: I agree that although this is a simple process in theory, it takes a good deal of practice.
To answer your question, let me conclude this book by sharing a "toolbox" of ten practical approaches that I’ve touched on throughout the preceding chapters.
Please use these practices in whatever way you see fit. You can try one of them, and then exchange it for another if it doesn’t seem to do the trick. Feel free to experiment.
Above all else, trust your inner wisdom to guide you about which approaches to use. Your light will illuminate your path.
The Spiritual Toolbox
As a therapist, one of my goals is to help my clients build a collection of tools and techniques that they can use when they have a need.
Along those lines, I've introduced a variety of practices throughout this book that can help you access your inner light. In this section, I'll summarize ten of these approaches.
Strictly speaking, structured tools and practices aren't required. You can simply rest, release any interference, and open to a sense of peace. But you may find, at times, that a tool or technique can help to speed your way to that experience.
Feel free to combine or modify these practices for yourself as your inner wisdom guides.
First Technique: Observe and Release
Note your unpeaceful thoughts, and express your willingness to let each one float by.
When you try to open to a sense of inner peace, you will undoubtedly encounter some resistant thoughts. These might span the gamut from frustrations to worries to regretful memories.
A helpful practice is to "step back" from each thought and simply observe it, as if from a distance. Name each thought, and then express your willingness to let it float by like a leaf on a stream, or a cloud in the sky.
You do not need to engage with any of your distracting thoughts as they arise. You can simply step back and observe them, as if you're watching items roll past on an assembly line.
You can say, for example:
There's a worry about my work project. I am willing to let that float by.
There's a hurt feeling about that conflict with my spouse. I am willing to let that float by.
There's a thought about getting my oil changed. I am willing to let that float by.
Name each form of distraction, express your willingness to release it, and envision it floating past your awareness.
Treat each one as a curiosity that you have no particular attachment to. These thoughts are like images on a movie screen, or light patterns on a wall. Interesting, perhaps, but not worth more than a moment of observation before allowing each to pass by.
After noting and naming each one, give yourself permission to open to a sense of the peace behind the thoughts. Allow yourself to dip into the flowing stream beneath the leaves, the blue sky behind the clouds. Your inner light lies just beyond these distractions. That light is our goal.
Second Technique: Centering
Use a centering-point to focus your attention.
Most of us experience a sense of joy or peace intermittently. It's here for a while, then it's gone. Then it's back, then gone again. We go through our days wanting to feel peace and joy; but the mind sometimes has trouble holding these experiences in sustained awareness.
Training the mind to hold focus can help enormously with this dynamic.
If you're able to access a sense of your inner light, but have trouble holding it for a stable amount of time, you might want to practice centering your mind on a single point. As you gain proficiency with holding focus, you'll be able to apply that skill toward maintaining your awareness of the light.
You can choose anything for a centering-point: a word, a phrase, a sight, a sound, your breath, or anything else that appeals to you.
For a minute (or longer, if possible), practice bringing your attention and focus to that centering-point. Repeat the word or phrase, refocus on the sight or sound, or bring your awareness back to your breath.
When distracting thoughts and feelings arise, simply note them, give them permission to pass by, and return to your centering-point.
As an example, let's say that you choose the phrase "I welcome peace" as your focusing point. Repeat that phrase as a way of centering your direction. When you're drawn off-track, simply recenter your attention back on the phrase.
It might look like this:
I welcome peace.
I welcome peace.
This is a silly phrase!
I welcome peace.
I should probably choose a different phrase.
Maybe something more interesting.
I welcome peace.
I'm not very good at this.
I don't feel peace at all.
I welcome peace.
I welcome peace.
How long should I do this?
I welcome peace.
I welcome peace.
I welcome peace.
Is this working?
I welcome peace.
I welcome peace.
Allow the mind to center on your phrase, despite any distracting thoughts that occur.
Even if you don't feel an increase in peace when practicing, you are nonetheless strengthening your ability to focus. That skill will help you in the long run to hold a sense of peace, joy, or whatever target experiences you seek. The effort to practice is worth it.
Third Technique: Giving to Receive
Choose someone in your life and imagine giving them the experience you seek.
As I've mentioned several times throughout this book, we strengthen the thoughts and feelings that we extend to the people around us. What we give to others increases in our awareness.
Because of that, you can allow your giving to lead you toward the experiences you seek. You will strengthen the thoughts and feelings you offer, no matter how the recipients of your offerings respond.
As a simple practice, close your eyes and envision someone in your life. It can be a friend, a family member, a coworker, or anyone else.
Envision yourself giving this person whatever thoughts and feelings you want to experience yourself. Would you like to feel a sense of peace? Extend peaceful thoughts and feelings to this person, in your mind.
Would you like to feel appreciated? Think of how much you appreciate this person. Would you like to feel a sense of love? Extend loving, kind thoughts and feelings to this person.
As you "give" those thoughts, you are multiplying them for yourself. Perhaps at the end of this exercise, you can envision yourself giving those same thoughts and feelings to yourself, and warmly receiving them. But even if you simply focus on giving to the other person, you are multiplying your treasures for yourself.
Let me share a simple exercise to illustrate how this practice might look.
To begin, chose what type of inner experience you would like to strengthen. For, example, a sense of peace, security, love, or abundance.
(Ex: I'd like to feel appreciated.)
Next, choose a person in your life – it could be anyone.
(Ex: My coworker Jenny.)
Now envision yourself giving your desired experiences to the person you chose.
The person in the example above might think of all the things she appreciates about Jenny. She might imagine herself telling Jenny how much she appreciates her. Further, she might envision active, practical ways that she can express her appreciation toward Jenny. As she does this, she will strengthen her sense of appreciation.
At the end of the exercise, you can enfold yourself in the same gifts you gave the other person. You have strengthened them in your awareness by giving them; now allow those gifts to enfold you as well.
Fourth Technique: A Spark in the Cave
Seek around for your target feeling as if it's a little spark in a dark cave.
For those who are emotionally sensitive, this technique can be helpful.
Imagine that you find yourself in a large cave. Somewhere within this cave is a spark of warmth and peace. Perhaps it seems close. Or perhaps it feels far away.
The cave is your awareness, and the spark is your inner light: a sense of warmth, peace, comfort, or any other facet.
That spark of light is within you, and you can feel your way toward it. Remember when you were a child and played hot-and-cold with your friends? Think of it like that game: search around for a hint of warmth in your awareness, and move toward it. Let your feelings guide you toward an ever-warmer place.
As you seek for and approach a feeling of warmth and peace – no matter how faint it might be – allow it to grow in your awareness. The shadows in the cave are simply distracting thoughts and feelings; don't allow them to stop you. Move toward the sense of light. Allow it to grow in your awareness as you approach it.
Your feelings can lead you to the experience you seek. The hint of warmth will become a great blaze of light as you move toward it and invite it to expand. Search your feelings for the light; approach it; allow it to expand and fill your awareness. Your feelings will lead your way.
Fifth Technique: Just a Moment
Aim for just one single moment of peace at a time.
In order to eliminate any sense of pressure, it can be helpful to remind your mind that you're simply aiming for a single moment of peace. You're not taking a lengthy journey. You're simply stopping by an oasis.
Framed this way, the mind can become more comfortable with a new experience. There's no commitment required. No big leaps need to be taken. You're simply opening to an increased sense of peace for a moment.
Even a slight increase of peace is enough. Just a slight increase, just for a moment. Ask your mind: What harm could there be in opening to that? Setting the goal modestly reduces a sense of resistance.
As an assistance to this practice, you might want to borrow a technique that I use in therapy: you can remind yourself that in this moment, everything is OK. Just for this moment, there's nothing that you need to do. Just for this single, present moment, you're free of any pressure or requirements.
Allow your mind to rest in that awareness, as best as it can, for just a moment. Then, if you wish, open to another moment of freedom. Then another.
In this practice, you're not aiming for an unbroken sense of peace or happiness; you're simply shifting your focus to a more peaceful place for one moment at a time.
Sixth Technique: Opening the Mind
Say to distractions, "I don't know what to think about this."
This is a powerful and simple way to clear the mind of resistance.
As you aim for an experience of peace, note any unpeaceful thoughts that arise in your awareness. Then simply say to each one, "I don't know what to think about this."
If a worried thought about work arises, say, "I don't know what to think about this work situation."
If a sense of insecurity about some aspect of yourself emerges, say, "I don't know what to think about this aspect of myself."
If a grievance toward a friend pops to mind, say, "I don't know what to think about this friend's behavior."
There is a wise, peaceful part of your mind that does know what to think about these things. In order to access that place, you're clearing away your old thought patterns.
You're adopting a humble, open-minded attitude. You're releasing your grasp on your old way of seeing. You're admitting that you don't know what to think, in order to clear room for a sense of peace to arise.
With peace comes wisdom, insight, and a higher intelligence. You're prioritizing that peace, and trusting that it will guide your responses to the various issues that you face.
Releasing your old thought patterns allows this peaceful wisdom to flow in.
Seventh Technique: Little Ones
Build a habit of practicing throughout the day.
As basic as this technique sounds, I consider it to be one of the most helpful approaches of all.
In order to "break up" patterns, you can pause at regular intervals throughout the day and take a moment to access a sense of peace. I find that this is extremely helpful for people who have busy, activity-filled lifestyles.
I personally have an alert on my phone that pops up every hour, reminding me to pause and allow my mind to rest. I ignore it at times. But other times when it rings I do set aside my activities and take a minute or two of restoration.
This practice might seem easy. However, if you commit to an hourly practice, you might find that a surprising amount of resistance arises. This is normal.
You might, for example, find thoughts like the following popping up:
"I have to get through this project! I don't have time to stop now!"
"If I take a break, I won't be able to start up again."
"So many people are relying on me; I have to just push through!"
Those self-pressuring thought patterns are like clouds that block the light. By pausing and resting every hour throughout the day, you're noting those patterns and choosing to redirect your path toward a wiser, more peaceful place.
I call these "little ones" – little one-minute breaks every hour or so, throughout the day. These little ones help to build a new direction for the mind.
You may find this type of practice easy. However, if you encounter resistance and find it challenging, know that you're not alone. As with all the other techniques in this book, it will become easier with practice.
Eighth Technique: Joining
Practice with another person.
When I first became a psychotherapist, I wrestled with a fundamental question: Was it truly helpful for people to meet with me? Why couldn't my clients simply read a self-help book, or download the worksheets on my website? Was there something special about in-person meetings in my office?
In time, I realized that active cooperation can be very strengthening. When I did cognitive-behavioral therapy exercises with my clients, they found it easier than when they did those exercises at home by themselves.
When I shared some of the pitfalls that I had fallen into, my clients felt less alone in their struggles. Many people got a laugh out of my poor handwriting and my many white board drawings. The direct interactions brought focus, support, and a bit of humor to the process.
Even though my goal was always to free my clients of the need for a therapist, I nonetheless gained an understanding of the value of cooperative support. I saw first-hand that two people joined in a common goal is a powerful thing. We can draw upon that same power in our spiritual work.
If you feel "stuck" in your search for peace, you may find it helpful to invite a friend, a counselor, a mentor, or anyone else you trust to join you in doing the practices in this book. Two minds in alignment can often find peace more easily than one mind alone.
If you don't have anyone who is available to practice with you, feel free to investigate the variety of support groups that populate many areas: meditation groups, spiritual study groups, 12-step groups, therapy groups, men's or women's groups.
Or you can simply envision someone you trust doing the spiritual practices with you. That can have a surprisingly strengthening effect, even if the other person isn't physically present.
Ninth Technique: Action Steps
Incorporate actions that support the experience.
Our actions can serve as a powerful support for the mindset we want to strengthen.
I remember a day many years ago when I felt stuck in an upset mood. I couldn't seem to shake my sense of upset, no matter how many spiritual exercises I tried.
Near the end of that day, I was walking into a post office and saw someone approaching from a distance. I decided to stand at the entrance for a minute and hold the door for her. To my great surprise, that simple act of kindness changed my mood for the day.
I remember how shocked I was at this. Up until that point, I was entirely focused on "inner work" – meditation, psychological exercises, and so forth. But the very small act of kindness on that day shifted my mindset more than anything else I had tried. It helped me to see how helpful action steps can be.
You can draw on this. Choose a person in your life, and ask yourself, "What kindness can I do for this person today?" It doesn't need to be anything big. It certainly shouldn't feel like a self-sacrifice. Choose something that you would enjoy doing.
Engage in the act of kindness, and note how you feel. If you feel uplifted, perhaps choose a second person and engage in a second kind act.
Do this enough times, and you might begin to feel like Santa Claus armed with a big bag of gifts to give the world. As you give, you are unveiling to yourself the abundance of treasures that you have within you. It is a beautiful way to awaken to your spiritual light.
Tenth Technique: Reversing the Search
Seek the inner experience directly, and let it guide your actions.
Many people spend their lives searching for a person, a job, or an environment that will keep them happy. Unfortunately, that search can go on for a very long time without producing the desired results.
In the "reversing the search" approach, we flip the typical search pattern. Instead of seeking an external form that will trigger an inner experience, we instead aim for the inner experience directly. Then we let that experience guide us toward forms that support it.
Let me share a simple exercise to show how this works.
To begin, please choose some worldly thing or situation that you'd like to have in your life.
(Ex: It would be great to have one of those new electric sports cars. I would love that!)
Next, try to identify the inner experience that you associate with that form. If you had that thing or situation, what might you be feeling and thinking?
(Ex: I would feel a sense of empowerment. I would feel wealthy. I would have a sense of fun driving it around. I would have an experience of the beauty of it.)
Next, remind yourself that you can open to those inner experiences right now, in this moment, regardless of whether that form is currently in place. You might want to express your openness to the experiences:
I am open to a sense of empowerment right now.
I am open to feelings of being wealthy right now.
I am open to a sense of fun right now.
I am open to an experience of beauty right now.
Then try to open your mind to the inflow of those feelings and thoughts. They are within you; you don't need to wait for the form to appear in order to experience them.
As you access those inner experiences, even if slightly, you can ask yourself: Are there any actions I can take in order to strengthen these experiences, and keep them in my awareness?
You might receive some unique thoughts. Perhaps you will receive insights about how to welcome the form that you originally envisioned. Or you might instead receive different perspectives. There may be a variety of ideas that come to mind.
The key is to directly access your desired inner experience, and then allow that new mindset to guide you about how to keep the experience flowing.
This reverses the search. Instead of seeking a form in order to have an experience, you're accessing the experience, and letting that experience guide you toward the forms that will support it.
In this book, I've shared a variety of perspectives on one central theme. It is this:
Within you is a spiritual light that has numerous facets. Your inner light will inspire a sense of peace in you, as well as joy, connection, fulfillment, and delight. Your light will give you access to wisdom, and will guide you about how to act in helpful and healing ways.
All you need do to experience this light is to release the interference that obscures it. This interference takes many forms: self-critical thoughts, grievances toward others, a sense of self-pressure, worries about the future. You can express your willingness to release those types of thoughts and feelings for a moment at time, and focus your attention on welcoming the light.
Your interfering thoughts are not things that you need to battle with. In fact, you don't really need to engage with them at all. They are like mists before the sun. You can simply note the various forms that they take, and give them permission to flow past your awareness like clouds in the sky, or leaves on a stream. Then you can welcome the sense of peace that rests just beyond.
Your inner light wants to enter your awareness; it simply needs an opening. Every step that you take to clear a path for it brings happiness to both you and the world. As your light enters your awareness ever more fully, you naturally become a healer and a help to us all.