Recently one of this blog's readers asked me to share how I embarked on my spiritual journey. What a great question! Although I feel I had always been looking for it, I didn't really commit to living a spiritual life until December 30th, 2015.
I remember the moment very well because it was my last day at a job I quit with no plans for the future. You see, until that very moment, I had always planned everything. Even when I couldn't plan, I was always stressing out and waiting for the time when I could make something happen.
Exactly. The way. I wanted.
So here's how I embarked on my spiritual journey. I broke it down to 9 steps, so you too can start exploring your own connection to something deeper. Just remember, there are many different paths...trust your inner guidance as you take your first step in your spiritual journey.
By the end of 2015 I was seriously burned out, physycally and emotionally depleted. I had put on over 25 pounds in the past few years, felt more sick than ever before, and was exhausted. No matter how hard I tried to control things, something was always escaping my grasp.
For years I had followed the type of coaching advice that says Reasons or Results! You commit to it, you do it! There is no reality, you choose your reality! You can get anything you want! Pick a goal and STICK with it!
You get the idea.
That stuff is poison. It works well in the short or medium run, and when things go the way you want them to go. But the moment something outside of your control hits you, the moment you are faced with profound hurt and suffering, the moment you make a mistake, the moment tragedy strikes, the moment your trauma is triggered, you are toast.
I had become really good at making money and really crappy at being good to myself and at feeling my own heart. I had started to lose my connection to my Soul.
2015 was the year I read The Surrender Experiment. I actually listened to it as an audiobook and I just couldn't put it down. I finished it, and then I listened to it again. That book spoke to me. Michael Singer was saying out loud what I craved: surrender. I didn't want to control, I wanted to let go. I wanted to trust that Life would include me and take care of me as I was, not only after I became more ... (intelligent, successful, committed, enlightened, etc). I wanted to feel I was OK now.
I had been looking for this all my life and somehow always ended up defaulting to the fake empowerment of self-help, goal setting, and making money out of survival. Michael Singer didn't just share abstract concepts in his autobiography, he wrote about what it was like to surrender. I wanted that. So I chose to surrender. And that was the start of my spiritual journey and of the rest of my life.
Tip: You cannot control your surrender experience. So keep your wits about you, but understand that if you want to truly experience surrendering to Life, you have at some point to just take the leap. There is no way to know how it will all turn out - and that's the point.
2. Find a practice that works for you
On December 30th, 2015 I got really serious about this surrendering business and looked online for a place where I could meditate. I decided I was going to pull a "Mickey Singer" and go with the flow!
Now, you have to remember that this was me saying I wanted to surrender while still way deep in my habit of wanting to control everything. So I decided I had to find a place where I could learn meditation, but not just any type of meditation... it had to be Buddhist, but not just any type of Buddhist meditation...it had to be Tibetan, but not just any type of Tibetan meditation, it had to be traditional Buddhist Tibetan meditation, it could not be Zen, nor New Age, nor ... It had to be exactly what I wanted. And of course near my place for convenience, so I could easily attend.
Needless to say, I just couldn't find such a place 😀
At my wits' end, I asked my upstairs neighbor, who had been living in the area for over 30 years, where I could meditate. After listening to my list of requirements, she suggested we go meditate together the next day, for New Year's Eve, with a group of Sikhs. They were hosting a free meditation nearby and she often went to meditate with them as part of her spiritual journey.
Of course my first reaction was a resounding No! It was not Tibetan, it was not traditional Buddhist meditation, it was not what I wanted! She laughed and reminded me that I had just declared I was going to go with the flow. Seeing her point, I gave up and agreed to go meditating with a group of strangers practicing a religion I knew nothing about.
When we arrived, everyone was dressed in white and two women were harmonizing and chanting the most beautiful melody. I hadn't expected music. When I sat down to meditate to their kirtan, I suddenly found that I was able to enter a state of meditation that I had never been able to experience when I had tried silent meditation in the past.
It felt like I was meant to be there, like I had just stepped into the Flow. And so I had.
When we hold on too tight to control, when we think we need to choose, plan every detail, know how things will end, be 100% sure of what will happen before we take action, we close ourselves to the magic of life. And Life has its own way of delivering delightful surprises.
After that night, I wanted more. I felt so much better, the music, the energy ... I started to go chanting with a small group of Sikhs every week. The effect of the chanting on my mind was deep. What was it?
I asked a few people to explain it to me, I wanted to understand, know, dissect. But they did me a huge favor by not getting sucked into intellectual explanations. One person told me that it was just about how I felt: "If you feel something deeper, keep coming," she said. "It doesn't matter what it means...if you don't get the feeling, if your being doesn't resonate with the chanting at the deepest level, intellectual explanations will not help."
There are many approaches to meditation, and to mindfulness. Not only they have a different effect on the practitioner, but each works better or worse (or not at all) depending on the person. Even when one practice works for you for a long time, you might find that you later benefit, crave, or are more easily able to engage with a different approach.
Before chanting, I had tried silent meditation many times, but apart from feeling relaxed, I had never been able to truly meditate. Now, after almost 5 years of chanting, I can also practice silent meditation. And I can choose which approach to engage with depending on how I feel or on what I am going through.
Tip: Experiment and try different approaches to meditation until you find one that works for you. It might be the first you try or you might need to explore a bit longer. Once you find an approach that works, stick with it and deepen your practice. After a few years, you might feel like exploring again, but this time from a much deeper level.
Here's a good book to get you started.
3. Learn from the Sangat and its teachers
The energy of the Sangat carried me. Sangat means fellowship, a group of travellers on the same journey, usually a spiritual journey.
When you experience meditating with a group of people, you understand why all religions have practices and rituals for practitioners to come together. The energy and devotion of the Sangat carries you further than you would have gone on your own. But how can you tell a healthy Sangat from a bad one? I know a lot of us might be concerned about joining a cult or being taken advantage of. Here's what to look for, based on my experience and observations.
- Healthy boundaries: you and others in the group are never pushed to do something against your will. There is no pressure to change, convert, give money, etc. Asking or inviting someone to engage or contribute is OK, but if you feel the ask is repeated too many times or makes you feel uncomfortable, consider it a red flag.
- An inclusive, forgiving, peaceful environment devoid of gossiping and judgement. While everyone is human and no one is perfect, you should feel that the members of the Sangat are generally at peace with each other and there is minimal or no conflict at all. People are kind, patient, and forgiving.
- A shared commitment to the practice (for example meditation) that gives the group a purpose, and also allows for everyone's differences. This goes with healthy boundaries: if you are there to meditate, what you do outside of the group or things such as your political opinions should not be cause for exclusion or judgement.
- Clear discernment: there is no tolerance for abuse, and people who report it are taken seriously. In general, in a good group with healthy boundaries, abusive behavior is very rare, caught early on, and there are appropriate consequences.
- You get to be yourself, you don't feel like you have to pretend to be more devoted, or successful, or anything that you are not. You feel welcomed and accepted, even when you mess up.
A Sangat is also a wonderful opportunity to meet spiritual teachers, people who might be a little or much further ahead in their practice, and who can help you on your spiritual journey. Whether they actually share teachings with you, or embody them in their presence and behavior, you will benefit from learning from others on the path.
Tip: Look for fellow travelers on the spiritual journey who have a positive and healthy approach to being together. Be open and relaxed, but also be aware of red flags. Toxic environments usually show signs of trouble early on. Do not fall for gurus, but be open to receiving teachings and inspiration from others, directly or indirectly. Many unassuming and humble people are very wise and can inspire you with their everyday generosity and kindness, without ever officially taking on the title of "spiritual teacher."
4. Be yourSelf
Faithful to Michael Singer's teachings, I stopped trying to control things to embark on my spiritual journey. And as I gave up having to decide everything, I discovered there was more room to be mySelf. I found I could do things because I felt like doing them, instead of because I had to, or because I was trying to make something happen in the future. I could live life with no expectations at all.
I don't think we realize how much we are conditioned to cover ourselves up in layers and layers of carefully chosen actions instead of genuine connection and being. I am still, almost 5 years later, shedding even more old conditioning. I continue to uncover the past teachings and present-day pressures I bought into that go completely against supporting my own humanity and that of others, that are against supporting life as it is. I now believe this is what wisdom traditions point to when they talk about Maya, or the illusion or evil of the material world vs. Spiritual Truth. It's the constant pretending, the feeling you are separate and have to grab, control, attack, defend, in order to survive.
Tip: Start shedding your conditioning now, because the layers to your true Self are many. Unlearn. Let go of "fitting in," notice when you fall into habitual ways of thinking or acting. Start living from your heart, do what you want to do just because, practice radical acceptance. Let your Self express its Truth through your words and deeds. Be joyful.
As you embark on your spiritual journey of being your Self, you will feel more light. Wisdom, love, and inner peace will well up inside of you. Set yourSelf free.
5. Release the past
At the same time that I surrendered to the Flow of life and grew into my chanting and meditation practice, I also began to learn how to release traumatic memories and impressions from my past. I grew up in an abusive environment, and although therapy helped a bit after I was able to get far away from it, psychologically the wounding ran very deep.
If you also experienced abuse and/or are suffering from trauma, you have to watch out for the forgiveness bypass and the spiritual bypass, which can delay your healing. They are very common in spiritual circles and self-help programs. As many seekers before me, I too at some point fell prey of these well intentioned, but damaging teachings.
There is a lot you can read on the topic, one author I recommend who is explicit in his criticism of the spiritual and forgiveness bypasses while still holding a spiritual view of life is Pete Walker. His books are amazing and he also offers guidelines for finding a therapist.
What are these bypasses I am talking about?
You know you are being peddled the forgiveness bypass when you are told that you will never be able to be ok until you forgive your abuser(s). Or if you are expected to forgive before properly processing what happened to you. Sometimes people who believe that go even further, refusing to let you call your abuse for what it was and insisting instead you "manifested it" because of your negative thinking, that "your soul wanted it," or similar bullshit that denies your pain or states you were complicit in your own suffering. Some spiritual teachers and self-help gurus might even make you call and apologize to your abusers as a condition to working with them.
People and organizations who further these ideas often mean well and are also very good at brainwashing people - so much so that in some cases your hope to receive true comfort and justice within the community might be crushed. The more you talk about your pain, loss, grief, and abuse, the more they see it as a sign you are not enlightened enough. The more they push back and refuse to hold space for your feelings and for you to find your own clarity and Truth, the more ashamed and triggered you get, even sometimes to the point of being retraumatized.
The spiritual bypass is another well-intentioned but damaging approach to healing that is very common in self-help and spiritual communities. It goes like this: if you pray, meditate, and connect with God, all your suffering will go away. No need for psychology!
You can recognize these places because they too do not hold space for people's suffering. Some of what I have personally seen is people sharing how someone was healed because of their faith, usually very quickly and without any psychological counseling, labeling any expression of anger, sadness, and blame as "bad," saying things like "good and evil are just things we human beings create, everything is neutral, there is no reality," etc. What you see happening in these environments is that they take some very deep teachings and use them as a way to avoid what is uncomfortable and confronting. This inability to be with difficult feelings and situations, the constant push to "fix" someone and deny the reality of their past, combined with their ignorance of how trauma works, hinder healing, instead of supporting it. In extreme cases, the refusal and inability to be with painful feelings can result in the denial of present-day abuse, and the failure to act to protect individuals within a group or organization.
The difference between someone who has found healing and support through spirituality vs. someone who is in the throes of the spiritual bypass is that the former can hold space for uncomfortable emotions, does not shy away from topics of injustice, and has proper boundaries and discernment - in other words, they can recognize abuse and act to protect a victim. They can hold space for the person who was hurt with no need to fix, judge, save, or comment on another's experience. They can simply be with them with compassion and presence.
On the other hand, someone who is into the spiritual bypass will appear to be in communion with the Divine and will talk a good talk, but will shy away from anything "negative," and might even lack proper discernment and boundaries, refusing for example to acknowledge a perpertrator's responsibility in the abuse by using the idea that we are all Divine Beings as a way to avoid facing who did what to whom.
Healthy spirituality helps you to experience Oneness and respect individual boundaries and rights at the same time. It doesn't mean sweeping uncomfortable things under the carpet.
Tip: If you have experienced abuse (especially child abuse) and trauma, I invite you to see dealing with the psychological and physiological effects of your past as an integral part of your spiritual journey. You cannot skip this. Your spirituality will help you have faith that you can indeed let the past go, as you learn to find within you a Source of inner wellbeing, your own direct connection to the Divine. This happens in its own time - your time - and it might feel like a back and forth: you feel great for a while, and then more suffering is uncovered, and you work through it, etc.
Educate yourself on what you experienced, deal with what happened psychologically as well as spiritually - understand that it is all part of your spiritual journey. Seek professional help from people who specialize in trauma work and do not expect all the hurt to go away in one weekend, but trust that it will get better and better as you continue on your spiritual journey, including working on your past psychologically.
Here's a little about how it worked for me. As I deepened my practice of meditation, after about a year and a half or two years of practice, I started to have deep experiences of emotional memories resurface. Once, during one of my weekly meditation gatherings with my Sangat, I felt for the first time the anger I had repressed since I was a teenager towards my father. My father had a very tragic life, and he also profoundly hurt me. My compassion for him, and my desire of saving him, made me repress my own anger at the way he failed me as a father. Suddenly, these feelings of hurt and anger hit me during the chanting: I had opened my heart enough, I had found enough of my connection with the Divine, enough of my connection to my Self, that my deepest knowing could allow me to finally release this deep, deep hurt. I started crying and had to leave the room because I just couldn't stop the tears - it was like all the pain from years and years of hurt came rushing through me. After that, I felt more whole, I started to be able to better feel all the feelings related to my dad: the pain of losing him, the anger at his betrayal as a father, the compassion for a man who suffered greatly and did not or could not receive the help he needed, the surrender to the mystery of life, to not knowing why some of us have tragic lives and suffer, while others are blessed with love and support.
Then I spent several days working on inner parenting, feeling and releasing my feelings, soothing my triggered self, all things I had learned by studying the work of therapists such as Pete Walker.
I did not have to push myself to forgive or not forgive, to do or not do.
As I deepened my spiritual practice, and learned more about how to deal with my own trauma psychologically, my capacity to be with what was unknowable, hurtful, compassionate, loving, deep, complex kept expanding.
6. Slow down
Once my heart started to break open, the need to slow down increased. And along with it I found myself more and more sensititive to the emotions around me, both from people I interacted with, the energies present in the wider collective, or the feelings elicited by movies, music, the media.
In order to live in the world as we have been taught to do our entire lives, and in order to function in a culture that often puts profit above people, while operating in terms of power and dominance, all of us (and I really mean all of us) have had to learn to dissociate somewhat so we don't have to truly feel all that's going on. The act of slowing down and feeling yourself and others are two of the most revolutionary acts you can commit yourself to on your spiritual path.
Slowing down takes a lot of different forms: it might mean giving your full attention to washing dishes, enjoying every bite of food during a meal, prioritizing meditation and long walks, or choosing a career that allows you to take time off, be with those you love, take a vacation. A big part of slowing down is about giving yourself the time and space to feel your Self, your feelings, your body, your needs. As you deepen this practice, you'll find that with time, you can feel others a lot more.
And then you also become more aware of the incredible amount of noise we are constantly creating to cover up this sensitivity. Social media, movies, music, so much of this stuff generates a sort of psychological and emotional pollution that you will want to cleanse from your system.
Here's where you again have to watch for the spiritual bypass: when people refuse to know what is going on because they don't want "negative" energy - that's a form of bypass. A spiritual person does not look away from injustice. She might not be able to do anything about it, she might be careful about how much or through which media she gets her information, but she doesn't create a bubble so she can insulate herself from other people's suffering pretending it's not happening, or that it's all their fault, etc. She finds a way to take care of her needs, holds space when she can, is aware, and acts as she feels called to. Action takes a lot of forms, from activism, to raising children with love, to doing no harm, etc.
Spacing out and refusing to know about things, or buying into philosophies that blame victims for their suffering are forms of spiritual bypass and can do more harm than good.
Tip: Practice slowing down, even just a few minutes a day. As you become more present, your sensitivity to your Self and others will increase. As you begin to feel more, notice which content affects you and reserve your attention for what matters.
Avoid unnecessary stuff that simply revs you up. Tune in and observe the effect that the removal of this added noise has on your psyche. Once I stopped consuming media as much as before, my capacity for inner peace and meditation greatly increased.
7. Practice radical acceptance
It's relatively easy to go with the Flow when things are good, and it's a whole other experience when we are faced with tough times, suffering, and loss. The survival mind does not want to accept what is: it will spend more and more time ruminating on what is wrong, criticizing outside forces and even worse, attacking you from the inside. The inner critic can really dig into your most painful insecurities, adding pain, blame, and shame to your suffering. Resistance never helps.
Key to moving forward and healing when things are painful is to practice radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is not the same as resignation: it is a practice that invites us to be with things as they are, without blaming ourselves or obsessing over others. When you are able to be with your experiences, feel your feelings, stay open, and let it all pass through you, self love, compassion, healing, and a call to action naturally occur as needed. This means letting yourself be sad if your heart is being broken, or holding your heart compassionately when faced with a shattered dream or regret.
Tip: Start practicing radical acceptance when things are easy. Notice any resistance to what is, and then relax and open up to your experience. Feel what comes up, but don't get obsessed or identify with it. Notice the urge to criticize yourself or others and turn to compassion and loving kindness instead. As you let go of your resistance, space opens up inside and what you are called to do next emerges. This can include taking action against the conditions that created your suffering in the first place, but instead of trapping you more and more, your action will now come from a commitment to a higher purpose, from your own innate wisdom. Acting from that place will feel a lot better, and you will be much more effective.
8. Embrace spiritual growth
The most helpful of all these steps has been for me the practice of seeing everything that happens as part of my spiritual journey, not as an obstacle to it.
I grew up in an environment of incessant criticism, catastrophizing, and "never enough-ness." It's really incredible looking back at the extent to which my childhood home lacked gratitude, empathy, and a positive outlook about the future. The good news is that we all have a place within us, what I call Source, that is an eternally flowing spring of wellness, joy, connectedness, peace, and wellbeing. Unfortunately, unhealthy ways of thinking can disconnect us from Source, and our task is letting go of those thoughts, so we can again connect with Source.
Even as a child I knew something was really wrong at home, but having no other experience, I could not help but absorb some damaging ways of dealing with life. This for me meant that whenever I was faced with something hurtful and outside of my control, my inner critic got extremely loud and mean, and catastrophizing shot to the roof. I started to heal when I began to see that every moment, no matter how painful, is part of my spiritual journey.
Now, when faced with hard times, I tune in and ask myself: what is the spiritual lesson I am meant to learn in this moment? What am I being asked to let go of, expand into, or embrace within myself? How can this moment help me open my heart wider instead of closing it down? Is there a deeper call for action?
Tip: Whether you picked it up from your family of origin, or from the wider culture, watch out for your tendency to see what you don't like as a problem, an obstacle, a reason why you cannot be happy. It will only get you stuck. Key to the spiritual journey is to see everything as part of your path and to lean into each moment as an invitation to grow. Growth here is spiritual growth: it might be painful, you might lose everything, you might find yourself in a dark night of the soul...but if you let it, your heart, your Spirit will be able to find peace and a deep sense of compassion through it all, no matter what happens.
9. Open to the Truth
And here's the last step to embark on your spiritual journey, and one I have come to after years of atheism and relative moralism: there is a deeper Truth, with a capital "T," and if you are serious about your spiritual journey, I invite you to deepen your pursuit of it.
Let's first look at what this is not: Truth is not dogma. A big red flag should immediately go up when in the presence of people who claim there is only one True religion (their own), who claim to know what is true for you (they don't), and/or who claim to know the Truth and yet are always negative, sad, upset, or complaining.
Here's how I define the Truth: it is something that informs and pervades everything. It is synonym with God, but not a God up in the sky that is concerned with how many lovers you have. It's a God that is One with Creation and also trascends it. It is a Truth that can be glimpsed, but never fully held in its entirety by our human mind.
It is Truth that needs to be practiced, lived into.
You can glimpse it in nature - in the vastness of the ladscape, or in the beauty of dew drops caught on a spiderweb in the morning. You can feel it emerging from conversations that invite complexity, diversity and oneness all at the same time, as if a prism reflecting one ray of light, your consciousness aware of each refraction and its origin. You can glimpse it when in deep meditation or in the flow of the moment, when you are more yourSelf than ever before, and yet your self is nowhere to be found. You can glimpse it when you feel the absolute pain of what happened to you and yet you know underneath it all there is Love and it is the most healing force there is. You glimpse it when you recognise that behind all the different ways It expresses itself, the Divine is present in everything, every person, animal, plant, everything we can see and feel, and for a moment you have an indescribable feeling of Oneness.
Tip: The spiritual journey is not about chasing highs, avoiding pain, or checking out of life - the spiritual path is one of heightened awareness and sensitivity, unbridled joy, openness to Truth, and learning to be with complex, paradoxical experiences, with not knowing, at oneness with everything, including yourSelf. It is not a goal or a place to get to, it's a way of living. The spiritual path is one that goes through inner peace, turmoil, sometimes great suffering, but always deeper presence. The journey is the destination. Cherish it.