By Holly Makimaa
While brief bursts of inspiration can reignite our commitment to our spiritual journeys, many of us are challenged to sustain the same level of enthusiasm over time. Why is this? I recently asked about 40 people in a journaling workshop I facilitated what barriers they have encountered in using writing as a spiritual practice. Their answers, while focused on writing, were identical to the types of challenges I commonly hear people in my interspiritual coaching practice express as challenges on their spiritual journeys: 1) self-judgments, 2) not having enough time for practice, and 3) lack of clear intention.
Do any of these resonate with you? I have experienced all three types of challenges in the course of my life, some more than others – but for me, self-judgment is the most insidious. Years ago, when I was taking a training from a spiritual healing teacher I deeply respected and admired, she confidentially shared with me that she used to get up at 3:30 a.m. to do her spiritual practices with another mother in her community, so she had enough time to care for her small children during the day. Her story has echoed in my mind – for better and worse – over the years. “Better” is when I can remember her words and say, “Wow, I am inspired; she has expressed who she is consistently and creatively, and I want to live at my highest version of my Self too.” “Worse” is when I remember her words, judge myself and, say, “I have to be willing to get up at 3:30 a.m. to be authentically spiritual or to be doing my part on the planet.” I don’t know of greater traps than self-judgment and its close cousin, shame. Both take the focus off what is really important, and make it about our egos and meeting some benchmark to be okay.
We seem to miss the point when we are doing our spiritual practices in order to get somewhere or to be someone who we think we should be. There is “nowhere to get,” says independent, Ann Arbor-based spiritual director Jonathan Ellis. “Spiritual journeys are different from other types of journeys. You are already at your destination. We still use the word journey because it is a process of becoming aware of where we are.”
Local Diamond Approach® teacher Lou Weir says he can relate to the trap of needing to get somewhere on the spiritual journey. The Diamond Approach as described by its founder, A.H. Almaas, is “a contemporary teaching that developed within the context of both ancient spiritual teachings and modern depth psychology theories.” It wisely incorporates a method to help practitioners deal with the inner critic and self-judgment. Years ago, Weir spent significant time in retreats over a four-year period meeting his self-judging “inner striver” head on. “My inner striver said that I should be able to understand something the first time it is presented, and I if cannot understand it, there is something wrong with me.” Weir says his judgments got so bad, he began to feel self-loathing and a desire to leave the retreats for fear of wasting other peoples’ time. In any genuine path, he says, “You uncover something in yourself that is uncomfortable, and for many people that is a point of no return – a road block. Each of us will reach a place of frustration or confusion when on a spiritual path, when the desire for something will be thwarted or maybe not even available to the part of us which wants it. The path needs enough teaching and support practices to keep you working with it and not simply finding a ‘better’ path or teacher – avoiding the block.” Fortunately for Weir, he stayed the path, worked with his teachers and the self-inquiry process embedded in the Diamond Approach and was eventually able to see through to the truth of his nature without the self-judgments. Ironically, however, he says the inner striver is what helped him keep making the time to go on retreats to work out the self-judgment!
What makes us carve out the time to focus on our spiritual practices is different for each of us. I had a pretty “enlightening” and funny experience happen almost fifteen years ago that helped me see spiritual “practice” time in a new way. Around 2005, I was studying the benefits of yoga and early morning meditation and had just gotten a new job with an earlier start time than I was used to. This was challenging for me, since I am not a “morning person.” I really wanted to do my whole yoga and meditation practice in the morning before I got to work, but I was struggling (and feeling guilty remembering my friend’s 3:30 a.m. meditation example – as I did not have kids, and work did not start that early). On the days I did not get up in time for my full practice, I knew I was not as centered as I normally would be after meditation. Because of this, all morning I was extra careful to attune my consciousness to the Divine with each decision I made. I also contemplated a spiritual reading or a short quote before I turned on the computer, and made a ritual of starting my day at work. I would then finally make the time to meditate at lunchtime or in the evening
Once I eventually got used to the new rhythm of my schedule, however, I was able to return to meditating in the morning before work, and I felt victorious. Much to my surprise, however, I started to miss all the practices I had created to compensate for missing my morning meditation, and to keep me aware of the Divine Source within. I had met my intention of resuming my spiritual practice before work, but why was I doing that in the first place? To be aware of and express Spirit, which I had been naturally doing in my previous default regimen! I had to laugh at myself, and have shared that story many times with others who are being hard on themselves for not being able to meditate first thing in the morning. Our intention is everything. Doing a practice just to do it won’t fulfill us over the long haul. What is the attunement of our hearts? Why are we doing a practice? It needs to speak to our purpose and have deep meaning for us. The best of both worlds, one might say, would be to enjoy my morning meditation practice and then to let it enhance my connection during the day. But even that is a judgment! Rules don’t make us spiritual; the nature of our hearts does.
I used to have a yoga teacher who said five minutes of breathing a day can change your life. I believe this to be true, and always encourage the people I work with to close out their practice –whatever it is – hungry for more, without judgment. Senior Teacher Samo (Joanna) Myers at Sun Shen, an Ann Arbor-based school for spiritual development and mysticism for the modern world, encourages her students to develop a fail-safe goal for their spiritual practices. “What can you do on your worst day? Set that as your benchmark and go from there,” says Myers, giving credit to Master Sang Kim, founder of Sun Shen, for the teaching. Often, what we find is if we lower our benchmark, the benchmark naturally rises with the joy and conviction of our practice.
I cannot say how many people I have worked with suffer needlessly and get stuck on the journey if they cannot always be the most compassionate, joyful, or consistent person they want to be. Worse yet is when this spirals into shame, and people withdraw from love and/or from community. I am sure we have all done that to one degree or another at some point in our lives. I used to really beat myself up for not feeling as consistently connected to God in the midst of big life transitions as I did at other times. During one such transition in my mid-twenties, I remember sheepishly sharing my feelings of disconnection with a rather radical-for-her day nun. She forever shifted my perspective by saying, “Holly, you will never be closer to God than you are at this moment. God is closer to you than your own breath.” It is only our judgments that separate us from the truth of who we are right now.
How healing it is when we can share our judgments and shatter shame through being the presence of compassion to each other! Resident Junior Priest at the Ann Arbor Zen Temple, Maum (Gloria Cox), stresses the importance of spiritual community as key to “what keeps us going.” Maum said the Buddha emphasized Dharma friendships as the “whole” of spiritual life.
“One of our Right Livelihood Guidelines,” Maum said, is to, “Cultivate compassion and loving kindness: a) notice where help is needed and be quick to help, b) consider others’ perspectives deeply, and c) work for peace at many levels.” I personally hope it is impossible to live on the planet right now – with all our environmental, political, and social needs – without asking what we can do to make it better.
Sustaining our spiritual journey takes continual cultivation. Facing our own self-judgments, struggles with time, and our need for clear intentions on the path takes dedication. Fortunately for us, we are hard-wired to seek the truth of our natures. If we close ourselves off from love in our seeking, however, we cannot be a force of light to ourselves or others. More than ever, we need to bathe ourselves in good spiritual company in the way we treat and talk to ourselves and to each other. To be on the spiritual journey for the long haul, we need to offer ourselves regular spaces and places of refuge and compassion as we learn to “walk each other home” – a phrase from renowned spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass, summing up the point of our existence.