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For any given set of spiritual practices, there are many possible approaches to (or ways of engaging with) those practices. This article describes ten such approaches. We tend to cycle through these ten approaches; this article describes that cycle, which I call the cycle of spiritual practice.
I’m also going to talk about four zones of spiritual practice; in different zones, different things are guiding our actions: reason versus intuition, and tradition versus creativity. I’ll talk about the benefits of each of these four zones and the problems that can arise when we don’t have access to each of these zones. I’ll also talk about how the traditional and creative zones of spiritual practice are related to power and exploitation in spiritual groups.
I’m hoping that by the end of this article, you’ll understand the cycle of spiritual practice; you’ll understand the ten different approaches within that cycle; you’ll understand the four zones of spiritual practice; and you’ll start to recognize your edges for growth (you’ll recognize which approaches and zones you’re comfortable in and which approaches and zones seem less familiar). I’m also hoping that by the end of the article, you’ll get a little better at recognizing oppression and exploitation in spiritual groups.
Ten Approaches to Spiritual Practice
To start with, I want to give a quick overview of the cycle of spiritual practice. I’ll describe ten possible approaches to any given set of spiritual practices: yearning for practices, gravitating toward practices, studying practices, learning practices, adapting practices, grokking practices, mastering practices, experimenting with practices, jamming with practices, and, finally, teaching practices. Let’s explore these approaches in more detail.
Yearning for Practices
The first approach is yearning for practices. When we’re in this part of the cycle of spiritual practice, we know we want something, but we don’t really know what it is. We feel that lack. We’re yearning for something that we don’t have, but we can’t define it. If we could define it, if we knew what it was, then we could just go get it; but we’re not there yet. We’re just yearning for something, and we don’t know what it is yet. In a way, this is like a feeling of loneliness. But instead of lacking contact with people, what we’re lacking here is meaning.
We’re kind of vulnerable when we’re yearning for practices because we don’t really have anything to hold onto—except that maybe we have some faith that there’s something out there that might meet this need for meaning. But our faith is also easily squashed at this point. Basically, we’re yearning for the extraordinary, but we haven’t found a way to access the extraordinary yet. There are those who are invested in the ordinary, invested in ordinary ways of approaching life and the world and the universe. There are those who will tell us, “There’s really nothing extraordinary. All phenomenon are ordinary, all phenomena fit neatly into our existing boxes and can be explained by our existing models.”
At a certain point, when I was in this stage of yearning for practices, one of the things that that I ran into was neuroscience and neuroscientific explanations of consciousness and awareness. Neuroscientists have sometimes tended to reduce awareness and subjective experience to neurons—equating awareness with neurons and neuronal activity. That was kind of depressing for me when I was looking for something a little bit beyond the ordinary material world. I had a sense that there was something more than that, but I didn’t know what it was yet, so, that was kind of depressing for me to read those neuro-scientific explanations.
Gravitating Toward Practices
The second approach to spiritual practice is gravitating towards practices. This is what happens when we’ve encountered a spiritual approach or a practice, or we’ve encountered someone who’s done that practice, and we start to think that maybe that practice could actually fulfill our yearning. We start feeling drawn toward that practice. And often we don’t really know why. Sometimes yearning doesn’t arise until we actually encounter a person or a spiritual practice that resonates with us; then yearning and gravitating can happen at the same time.
I experienced this gravitating toward practices thing with the Nonviolent Communication community. When I first encountered Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, I heard an interview with him and I immediately started feeling drawn toward learning more. A similar thing happened to me with meditation. I started feeling drawn toward meditation at a certain point, and the more I learned about it, the more I knew that this was something that I had to learn more about. As I started exploring spiritual groups promoting different kinds of meditative practices, I eventually started gravitating toward Tibetan Buddhism. There was something about Tibetan Buddhism that really resonated with me. I was kind of zeroing in on something over time through this experience of gravitating toward practices.
After we’ve gravitated toward practices, what happens next? When we have zeroed in on some practices that resonate with us, we may start studying those practices. We may find specific practices that we want to learn more about. So, at this third stage of the cycle of spiritual practice, we start studying. We start learning practices, and we start learning the conceptual views or frameworks that go with those practices. This may involve reading, attending lectures, or listening to podcasts and online trainings. There’s a lot of hearing about practices, but not necessarily a lot of doing practices. At this point, we’re using concepts to understand and make sense of practices. We may start imagining what it would be like to do the practices, but we’re not necessarily doing them yet.
There was a time when I knew I was looking for some specific meditative tradition, but I didn’t know which one I wanted yet. So, I was exploring them; I was looking around, following leads, doing research on the internet, and exploring various meditation traditions. When I encountered a new tradition or teacher, I’d do some reading to get to know that tradition a little better. At one point, I started doing a lot of reading of Hindu and Buddhist texts. This was hard work because I found them pretty esoteric, kind of hard to understand, with a lot of jargon and a lot of translation from other languages.
Studying practices can also happen when you start immersing yourself in the work of a particular teacher or tradition. That happened with me with Ken Wilber and his Integral theory. I’d kind of zeroed in on him and wanted to really understand his approach to things, so I did a lot of reading. I read a lot of his books. He had a website where he posted talks with other people and interviews, so I immersed myself in his work and was doing a lot of reading and listening.
Later, I did the same thing with the work of a spiritual teacher named Ken McCleod. He had a lot of Dharma talks posted online, and I think he still does. I listened to a lot of them, and I decided to learn as much as I could about his approach.
Let’s talk about the fourth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice: learning practices. This is when you actually start practicing and engaging with a set of practices or a tradition. This approach may overlap with the previous approach of studying; you can study a set of practices and you can actually start learning how to do them at the same time. When you’re learning practices, you’re focused on following directions; you’re trying to repeat what others have done to try to get some similar results. When we start learning practices, we start gaining experience with the actual sensations of practicing.
We can get overly focused on detail when we’re learning practices. For example, when I did some brief exploration in the Zen tradition, I was trying to learn how to do Zen walking meditation. I really wanted to get the form right. I had a friend who was a Zen priest and I remember asking him at one point, “When I start walking, am I supposed to start walking with my left foot or my right foot? Which foot do I start with?” He laughed, and I got the sense that it really didn’t matter too much to him. He said something like, “Well, I don’t really concern myself with that much detail with these things.” That was kind of an eye-opener. I realized that even though form was important, maybe there were other things that were more important.
The fifth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice is adapting practices. This is what happens when you’ve started learning some practices and you realize that some of them just aren’t really working so well for you because your mind or your body just can’t do certain aspects of the practice. So you have to adapt it to your own personal needs and constraints. Here are a couple of examples.
Sitting cross-legged is a big part of various meditative traditions that I’ve explored. I’m probably one of the stiffest people that I know; my legs are just not very flexible, and sitting cross-legged was really difficult for me. So, I had to find ways of adapting my body to the practice and also adapting the practice to my body. I never did long, long periods of sitting cross-legged; that was just too difficult for me. I would alternate sitting cross-legged with walking meditation, with just sitting in a chair, and with lying down as I meditated, and that worked pretty well for me. Later, I totally gave up sitting cross-legged because I found it was messing up my knees. I was starting to get random knee pain and eventually realized that this was related to sitting cross-legged on the floor, so I decided, “Enough of that!” I gave it up, and my knees have been a lot happier since. I find I can meditate just as well in other postures.
Another example of adapting practices has been my experience of Hatha Yoga. My wife used to teach yoga and when she would see me doing yoga, she would kind of cringe; she’d have to restrain herself from giving me advice on how I should be holding my body in different ways. Again, my body’s pretty stiff and I could not always do the postures exactly the way they were supposed to be done. So, I just found ways that worked for me. Recently I’ve given up yoga, as well. I’ve found that it’s just too easy for me to get injured doing yoga. I’m finding other practices like breathwork and ecstatic movement that are a little less demanding on my stiff body.
The sixth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice is grokking practices. This is when you start mindfully attending to the experience of the practices that you’re doing and you start accessing your inner teacher. You get a little less directed by other people’s ideas and you find that your mind and body actually know what to do. This happens after you’ve repeated a practice many times.
An example from my life is qigong. I studied a certain practice of qigong and started doing it regularly. At first, it took a lot of attention to just remember what the various movements were and to remember the sequence of movements. But after a while, I found that there was no longer any effort required to remember these things. I started focusing less on following instructions and more on how the practice felt to me, more on the inner sensations, the subjective experience of doing the practice. As I did, the subjective experience of the practice started informing how I actually do the practice.
The seventh approach is mastering practices. This is what happens when you’ve done a practice many times over a long period of time. When you’ve done that, you may develop a high level of skill in the practice. At this point, the practice is fully integrated into you and your being and no longer requires much thought. You don’t have to think about what to do, and the practice no longer requires much effort.
There’s not a whole lot that I have mastered in terms of spiritual practices. I tend to be more exploratory; I like to explore a lot of different things and I like a variety of practices. There is one thing that I think I have developed some mastery of, and that is social skills in emotionally intimate relationships. This was a long, hard road for me. I probably have some mild autism and consider myself an aspie. Because of that, learning social skills did not come easily for me. It actually required work. It wasn’t just a natural thing that happened all of a sudden, as it does for most people, in adolescence.
But I did care about relationships with other people and I wanted healthy relationships. I wanted good social skills. So I just kept working at it. And over the course of my young adult and adult years, with a lot of studying and practicing relating with people, I found that I started getting better at relating, better at social skills, and better at relationships, to the point where now I make my living as a psychotherapist. That’s all about relating with people, relating with my clients on an emotional level. I also really love facilitating other people’s relationships with each other in a group therapy context.
A big part of my learning about relationships and improving my social skills has been my relationship with my wife, Emilah. We’ve been together for ten years and I think we both really learned a lot about ourselves, each other, and relationships through our marriage.
Experimenting with Practices
Let’s talk about the eighth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice, which is experimenting with practices. When you’re experimenting with practices, you’re trying something new. There are two ways of doing this. You can alter practices or you can mix practices. An important point here is that even though I’m describing this as something that comes after mastering practices, you don’t actually have to master practices before you start experimenting with them. You can start experimenting with practices at any point.
Let’s talk about altering practices. When you’re altering practices, you may start to get curious about what happens if you try something a little different, and you start exploring. You start intentionally altering a practice. These alterations could be planned, or they could happen spontaneously, mid-practice. Eventually, as you start altering practices, you start discovering alterations and customizations that make the practice work better for you, that take you in new directions.
An example from my life is alterations that I did on a practice called liminal dreaming, which is something that I started learning recently from Jennifer Dumpert’s book, Liminal Dreaming: Exploring Consciousness at the Edges of Sleep, which I highly recommend. The idea with liminal dreaming is, you’re exploring the mental zone between waking and sleeping. In full-on liminal dreaming, as Jennifer Dumpert teaches it, you let yourself almost fall asleep, but not quite, and you stay in that middle zone between waking and sleeping and explore all the interesting psychedelic experiences that you can have in that zone. I’m just starting to learn how to do that.
Even though I certainly haven’t mastered that practice yet, I’ve already started experimenting with some alterations to it. I started wondering what would happen if, in my waking life, I let my consciousness shift slightly toward the dream state. I’m still awake; I’m still watching a movie or doing whatever I might be doing in waking life, but I just let my consciousness shift slightly toward dreaming. I found I really like doing that. It’s really relaxing and it gets me out of my intellectual, rational mind where I spend probably more time than I should, more time than I need to.
Another way of experimenting with practices is mixing practices. You could mix practices from the same tradition or you could mix practices across multiple traditions. An example from my life would be mixing breathwork and ecstatic movement or shaking. These are kind of two different practices from two different traditions that I was learning around the same time. I found that when I was doing long periods of breathwork, my body would start shaking a bit, and when I was doing my shaking practice, a big part of that was breathing and focusing on the breath; letting breathing happen. So I thought, “Why don’t I just do some breath work and some ecstatic movement at the same time?” I found that created a deeper experience for me.
Jamming with Practices
The ninth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice practices is jamming with practices. This might happen after you’ve done some mastering practices and you’ve done some experimenting with practices, and you start getting a sense of what really works for you. Then, you start doing some free-form shifting among practices that work for you, right in the middle of doing your practices. You’re basically jamming like you would if you were a musician; you’re spontaneously exploring different things, trying different things on the fly.
I do this sometimes when I’m meditating. There are many different meditative or contemplative practices you can do while you’re meditating, and I tend to shift between them on the fly based on where my mind feels like going. That can be a kind of a playful way of exploring various mental states.
The downside of jamming is that sometimes jamming is just a form of distraction; instead of getting distracted by things around you, you’re getting distracted by different practices and different ideas about how you might practice. Jamming can be a little unfocused sometimes, and that’s another thing to be aware of. Probably best not to jam all the time.
The tenth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice is teaching practices. As I’ve talked about in another article, there are many roles in which you can do spiritual teaching. You don’t have to be a teacher in the Buddhist sense. I talk about this in an article called Teachers and Teaching. I have a very, very wide definition of a spiritual teacher. I consider anyone who is helping people grow more empowered and more compassionate a spiritual teacher. Basically, in teaching, what you’re doing is, you’re just describing what you’ve discovered so others can try it, describing the practices you’ve discovered so others can try them, and possibly your guiding others so they can go where you’ve gone.
So, those are the ten approaches to spiritual practice in the cycle of spiritual practice. After you’ve been through all of them, what happens next? Well, in my experience, I generally return to a yearning for practices. Because, after you’ve spent a lot of time with any particular practice or any particular spiritual group, you may find that you’ve gotten what you need out of that practice, or you’ve gotten what you need out of that group. You may even notice some aversion arising toward the practice or the group. You start feeling ready to move on. This happened for me with Nonviolent Communication at one point, then later with Buddhism and Integral theory. Even though I was excited about these things when I first encountered them and I was gravitating toward them, eventually I found myself being repelled away from them because it was time for something new in my life. So I moved on to whatever was next. I moved back to yearning for practices, yearning for something new.
Zones of Spiritual Practice
I just described the cycle of spiritual practice and the ten approaches within that cycle. Now, let’s shift gears; I’d like to describe the four zones within that cycle. I’m going to take these zones two at a time.
The Rational Zone and the Intuitive Zone
The first two zones are the rational zone and the intuitive zone. Some approaches are more rationally guided (where your actions are being guided by some kind of conceptual framework with explicit directions and explicit goals) and other approaches are more intuitively guided (where your actions are being guided by non-conceptual experiences like your body sensations or your intuitive sense of what to do).
The rational zone is actually fairly small; it encompasses studying practices and learning practices; the intuitive zone involves all the other approaches in the cycle of spiritual practice. We start the cycle with yearning for practices and gravitating toward practices. When we’re gravitating toward practices, we’re being guided by our intuition and by the call of awakening. After we’ve gravitated toward practices, that’s when we enter the rational zone, and we start studying and learning practices. Then we go back into the intuitive zone when we’re adapting practices because adapting practices requires attending to your body and your mind, though it’s still mostly rational, because you’re still working with a conceptual framework; you’re just altering that framework when you need to. Grokking practices is really intuitive; intuition starts becoming your inner teacher. Mastering practices is also very intuitive because you can’t master practices without attending to your subjective experience and your intuition.
Experimenting with practices is also very intuitive. It can be playful; you’re no longer following directions. Experimenting with practices may actually take us out of the conceptual views or frameworks that we started with. In jamming with practices, you’re intuitively shifting between practices, mid practice, so it’s also very intuitively focused.
In teaching practices, you’re focused on creating instructions, not following instructions. Generally, this requires putting practices into words, unless you’re teaching completely by demonstration. Most teachers do put their practices into words in some way; most teachers are describing practices (and their related views or frameworks), they’re describing goals (the intended results of practices), and they’re communicating all of this with other people through writing, speaking or demonstrating. Creating instructions and putting practices into words requires both reason and intuition.
The Traditional Zone and the Creative Zone
Now I’m going to describe another distinction: between the traditional zone and the creative zone. Then, I’ll talk about how the traditional zone and the creative zone relate to empowerment, oppression, and exploitation in spiritual groups.
Let’s start with the traditional zone. The traditional zone involves studying practices, learning practices, adapting practices, grokking practices, mastering practices and teaching practices. All of these approaches deal with a particular tradition—with a particular set of practices. In the traditional zone, you’re staying within a traditional framework.
The traditional zone empowers you through mastering a particular practice tradition. When you master something, it generally empowers you in some way. Mastery may be threatening to people and institutions whose power depends on a scarcity of mastery. So, ironically, you may find that in a given spiritual group, those whose power depends on keeping mastery scarce may find ways to restrict access to mastery as a way of protecting their power. You may find that there are rules about secrecy—about keeping the more advanced practices or views secret. This creates an artificial scarcity of resources.
The effect of this secrecy can be either beneficial or exploitative. Scarcity can add a certain mystique to advanced practices. It can also increase the power and status of those who have access to those practices, and that can increase the demand for those advanced practices.
I encountered some level of secret secrecy both within Tibetan Buddhism and within a Hindu tradition that I explored. I don’t really like secrecy; I find it annoying. It goes against the values of science that I grew up with, where it’s all about sharing information and sharing knowledge so that we can improve our views and practices. So, secrecy rubs me the wrong way. I gravitated away from practices and traditions that involved a lot of secrecy. In the Tibetan tradition and the Hindu tradition that I explored, sometimes the advanced views and practices were not even written down; they were only offered in person or only offered in levels, where the advanced levels were kept secret.
This is changing these days, as there’s now more openness about practices and traditions. Some of the Tibetan Buddhist practices and views that had been secret in the past, you can find written down in books that you can just order off the internet. One of my favorite books based on the Tibetan tradition is Loch Kelly’s book, The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life. That book covers the core of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahamudra tradition that I’ve found very helpful.
That was the traditional zone; now, let’s talk about the creative zone. In a previous article, Awakening as a Creative Process, I gave a high-level view of how we can engage creatively with technologies, teachers and groups. Here, I’m talking about a lower-level view of approaches that we can take to engage with any given set of spiritual practices, not only as practitioners but also as creators. Three creative approaches that we’ve talked about are experimenting with practices, jamming with practices, and teaching practices. This is the creative zone, as opposed to the traditional zone. In the creative zone, we are moving outside of a given practice framework and we’re creating new frameworks.
The creative zone empowers you through creativity—not mastery. The traditional zone empowers you through mastery of a given tradition; the creative zone empowers you through creativity. So, who is threatened by the creative zone? The creative zone may be threatening to people whose power depends on tradition; so, entry into the creative zone may be ignored, discouraged, or restricted by people whose power depends on tradition.
If you wanted to discourage people from entering the creative zone, how could you do it? You could do it through group norms. Within a given spiritual group, group norms are ideas about what’s good or appropriate and what’s bad or inappropriate. If you have group norms that make it bad to experiment, jam or teach, then you can use the power of the group to keep people from doing those things.
Within a given institution, another way to restrict entry into the creative zone is through restrictive contracts. I experienced this in the Nonviolent Communication community. When I was a certified trainer, there was a long contract you had to sign in order to get that credential, and there were aspects within that contract that restricted what you could teach and how you could teach it (if you wanted to call it Nonviolent Communication). I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is it was restrictive in certain ways, and again, this can be either protective or exploitive.
Restricting access to the creative zone can protect the integrity of a given tradition. Creativity can be disruptive, and if you want to protect the integrity of a tradition, you can’t just have people changing it all over the place—but that protection of the integrity of a tradition comes at the expense of freedom and innovation within that tradition. If there’s too much restriction on access to the creative zone, a given tradition can stagnate because it’s not adapting and changing.
Balance in Spiritual Practice
Now, let’s talk about some questions to consider about all four of the zones that I’ve described so far. Within the cycle of spiritual practice, I’ve described the rational zone versus the intuitive zone and the traditional zone versus the creative zone. Which of these zones do you tend to hang out in, and which of them are unfamiliar to you? Which of these zones do you find distasteful, which of them are you afraid of, and which zones seem off-limits to you? My suggestion is that you consider exploring those zones that you haven’t spent much time in so you can discover their benefits.
For instance, maybe you’re comfortable in the rational zone but not the intuitive zone; then you might try getting in touch with your intuition, getting in touch with your inner teacher. Following directions will only get you so far; you need to get access to your intuition to go beyond that point.
Let’s say that you’re comfortable in the intuitive zone, but not the rational zone. Well, you might ask yourself, are you able to set goals and stick to them? Are you able to follow directions if you want to? Learning to set goals, focus, and follow directions could help you because by doing that, you can benefit from what others have learned. You don’t have to intuit everything yourself.
If you’re interested in teaching and you’re comfortable in the intuitive zone but not the rational zone, you might consider whether learning to express yourself more clearly using reason and the intellect could help you teach more effectively. There are a lot of spiritual teachers out there who just don’t really express themselves very clearly, and clarity is something I have found really helpful both in the student and teacher roles.
Let’s say you’re comfortable in the traditional zone but not the creative zone. You might want to consider loosening up a little bit and having some fun with your spiritual practices. You might want to consider doing some exploring and maybe even sharing what you’ve learned with other people.
If you’re comfortable in the creative zone but not the traditional zone, recognize that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and create everything from scratch. Consider what you could learn from other people, and consider the benefits of going deep, going the distance, going a long way down a path that others have gone.
If you’re involved in a spiritual group, ask yourself whether access to mastery or access to the creative zone is being restricted by your group’s norms or by contracts. If so, ask yourself to what extent this is helpful and appropriate and to what extent this is exploitative or oppressive? If it’s exploitative or oppressive, ask yourself how you want to respond to this. You could respond by choosing to follow group norms, or not; choosing to agree to contracts, or not; or, advocating for changes to those norms and contracts. You can also respond by choosing which groups to be involved in; if your group is exploitative or oppressive in some ways, maybe it’s time to move on.
Let’s review where we’ve been. For any given set of spiritual practices, there are many possible approaches or ways of engaging with them. I’ve described ten such approaches. We tend to cycle through these ten approaches, and I call this the cycle of spiritual practice. Within that cycle, I’ve identified four zones of practice defined by what’s guiding our actions: reason or intuition, tradition or creativity. I described the benefits of each of these four zones and the problems that can arise when we can’t access these zones. I also talked about how the traditional and creative zones are related to power and exploitation.
Yesterday, I heard a podcast episode that really caught my attention. It was on Michael Taft’s podcast, Deconstructing Yourself. The episode was called “Loch Kelly on Awareness, Freedom, and Effortless Mindfulness.”
This was the first time I’d heard Loch Kelly or experienced any of his work, and I was pretty impressed and excited about it. He’s a psychotherapist and he has done a lot of work exploring various meditative traditions and contemplative technologies. He’s studied with some of the same Tibetan Buddhist teachers that have inspired me. He also has experience with Theravadan Buddhism and is familiar with neuroscience research, and he integrates all of that into his work—which I think is really cool. It looks like he’s been able to describe some practices clearly and concisely, well-targeted for our culture, in an egalitarian way, with a lot of humility and a minimum of hierarchy. Really pretty well aligned with my values and my interests.
Ever since I heard that, yesterday afternoon, I’ve been pretty excited about learning more about his work. I bought his most recent book, which is called The Way of Effortless Mindfulness, and I just started reading it this morning. I’ve pretty impressed. I’m looking forward to experimenting with some of the practices he talks about, which are quite similar to some of the practices that I learned in my study of Tibetan Buddhism. I’m looking forward to exploring his take on those practices, seeing how it relates to what I’ve experienced, and seeing what I can learn from it and how I might be able to grow. I have a feeling this is going to impact Spiritual Awakening for Geeks and impact how I think about—and how I teach—meditation and awakening. I’m looking forward to seeing how all that goes and evolves.
Also, as a psychotherapist, I was really interested and I’m excited to hear about him talk about how he has applied awakening-related practices—nondual practices—in his psychotherapy work with a lot of success with his clients and patients who have experienced a lot of trauma. I’m looking forward to learning how I might integrate that into my psychotherapy work, as well.
"Loch Kelly on Awareness, Freedom, and Effortless Mindfulness" on Michael Taft’s podcast Deconstructing Yourself.
If you want to awaken, how do you know what to do? Where can you turn for guidance? In previous episodes, we’ve explored a number of options: you could turn to technology for awakening, you could turn to a spiritual teacher, or you could turn to a spiritual or religious group. I’m sure there are many other options, as well.
But, knowing you have options still leaves you with a problem: how do you know which option to choose? How do you know when to seek the guidance of a spiritual group or teacher, how do you know which group or teacher to choose, and how do you know when it’s time to leave that group or teacher and move on? If you’re not following a group or teacher (and you’re not drawn to do so), how do you know what to do on your own to support your awakening?
The Creative Process
In many ways, this problem is similar to the problem faced by an artist, an engineer, or an entrepreneur. On a regular basis, artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs face the task of creating something out of nothing. An artist faces the task of creating a work of art, an engineer faces the task of creating technology, an entrepreneur faces the task of creating a business—and if you want to awaken, you’re faced with the task of creating a spiritual path for yourself.
If you’ve done any creative work, you know how the creative process goes. You might start with some idea of what it is you want to create, and you must work within certain limitations. Within the constraints of those limitations, you use your knowledge, experience, and intuition to do something. You take one step toward creating something out of nothing. There’s no guarantee that the step you take will be effective; you can’t know for certain, in advance. But, you take that step anyway.
Then you evaluate where you’re at. If you’re an artist, you look at how the artwork is coming together. If you’re an engineer, you test your partially-completed technology. If you’re an entrepreneur, you look at the feedback the market is providing. And, if you want to awaken, you evaluate your own evolution, comparing where you’re at now to where you were at before.
Now that you’ve taken this step, the problem has changed. You now have new capacities and new constraints. You now repeat these same steps. Over and over, you use your knowledge, experience, and intuition to take a creative step forward and then to evaluate the results. As a result of this process, if you’re an artist, your artwork evolves; if you’re an engineer, your technology evolves; if you’re an entrepreneur, your venture evolves; and, if you’re a mystic, you evolve.
Mystics as Spiritual Creatives
I use the term mystics to refer to people like me, and perhaps people like you, as well—people who take responsibility for their own evolution by creatively defining their own spiritual path. The path that a mystic takes may, at times, coincide with paths that have been defined by various groups and teachers; however, mystics are spiritually independent. For us mystics, awakening is a creative process of navigating our spiritual path, one step at a time. It’s an internally-guided journey without a clearly-defined destination—not a problem that can be solved by engaging with any particular spiritual group, teacher, or technology, or by attaining any particular state of mind or stage of development.
Skillful artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs don’t try to create everything from scratch. They have various tools, supplies, and technologies available to do their work with. They’re aware of what others have done before and they make use of existing ideas and technologies to do their work more efficiently and effectively. Similarly, skillful mystics make themselves aware of what others have done before to support their awakening. A skillful mystic isn’t afraid to engage with existing technologies, teachers, and groups; however, mystics engage with these resources in a different way than non-mystics, in that we don’t allow ourselves to become subservient to these resources. We have our own, internal guidance system.
An important part of that guidance system is the call of awakening—a compelling feeling that calls us on a journey toward growth, healing, and self-transcendence. (I describe the call of awakening in a previous episode which you can access at jacobgotwals.com/the-call-of-awakening.) It’s the call of awakening that lets us mystics know when and how to engage with various technologies, teachers, and groups—and it’s the call of awakening that lets us know when it’s time to move on.
Mystics as Spiritual Pioneers
What do mystics do when the call of awakening calls them in a direction where there are no technologies, teachers, or groups to provide guidance? They do what all explorers do when they reach the edge of civilization, where roads and paths peter out: they start bushwhacking! Mystics are willing to work with technologies, teachers, and groups when those resources exist and are helpful; however, when the existing technologies, teachers, and groups don’t cut it, mystics set out on their own. They go exploring, guided by the call of awakening.
They sense, pursue, and integrate the extraordinary—in the wild, on their own. When they return to society, they may define new spiritual paths—new groups and new technologies—to help others more easily go where they have gone. Or, they may modify and improve existing paths and technologies.
These mystics are our spiritual pioneers. The founders of many of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions could be viewed in these terms; however, you don’t have to be the founder of a religion to do some spiritual bushwhacking. You just have to be willing to follow the call of awakening wherever it’s leading you—even if it takes you off the beaten track. See what you discover there—and if it seems worthwhile, share it with others when you return.
I’m Jacob Gotwals, and this is Spiritual Awakening for Geeks, a show for independent spiritual explorers who seek peace of mind, better relationships, and a more meaningful life. I call this episode "Awakening to the Extraordinary." In this episode, I’m going to be talking about the relationship between the spiritual, the religious, the sacred, and the extraordinary; I’m going to describe spiritual awakening as a cycle of sensing, pursuing and integrating the extraordinary; and I’m going to be talking about what kinds of problems can arise that interfere with this cycle and what we can do to avoid those problems.
This is going to be another take on something that I wrote about (and talked about) in the very first episode of this podcast; that first episode was called "The Call of Awakening," and you can find it at jacobgotwals.com/the-call-of-awakening. In that episode, I talked about awakening as a journey that changes our life patterns; I talked about the cycle of awakening in terms of our life patterns, and how awakening affects our patterns of living. This is going to be another take on that cycle of awakening; instead of talking about how awakening affects our life patterns, I’ll be talking about how awakening relates to the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The Ordinary and the Extraordinary
The way that I got thinking about this was, I read a chapter in a book by a religious studies professor named Ann Taves. She talked about what the religious, the spiritual, the sacred and everything like that, what all those things have in common. This is something that I’d been thinking about for a while. It’s clear that religion and spirituality, the sacred—they all have something in common—but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that is. She did a pretty good job of that, in my opinion. She said that what they all have in common is a focus on what she would call the special or special-ness. There’s something special, something unusual that we turn our attention toward when we’re involved with the religious, the spiritual, or the sacred.
That something special, I like to think of it as the extraordinary (versus the ordinary). It’s not just ordinary, it’s special or extraordinary. And there are other words that get used that have similar meanings—like the perfect (versus the flawed), the great (versus just okay), truth (versus illusion), clarity (versus confusion), or the ultimate (versus the relative). All these words point us toward something special, something extraordinary that we’re turning our attention toward when we get involved in religion, spirituality, or the sacred.
Here’s an example from Tibetan Buddhism. One of the ideas in Tibetan Buddhism is Dzogchen—the great perfection. This is one name for something extraordinary. Notice that it’s not just okay—it’s great! And it’s not just pretty good—it’s perfect! It’s the great perfection. These words are pointing toward something that is special, something that’s extraordinary; something that’s set apart from ordinary life, from the ordinary things that we normally attend to. I’d like to suggest that everything religious, spiritual, or sacred is based on something set apart as special or extraordinary.
So then, what is spiritual awakening? I like to think of spiritual awakening as a cycle having three parts. In the first part of the cycle, we sense the extraordinary; in the second part, we pursue the extraordinary; and in the third part, we integrate the extraordinary. I’ll be going into more detail about each of those three parts.
Sensing the Extraordinary
Let’s start with the first part of that cycle, sensing the extraordinary. This is where we sense that there’s something unusual, something extraordinary, something special that we want to turn our attention toward. We orient ourselves toward that extraordinary thing. We turn our attention toward it. We don’t necessarily know what it is yet. We can’t necessarily make sense of it yet, but we just start turning our attention toward it. We sense it and turn our attention toward it.
In that first episode of this podcast which I mentioned earlier, I talk about the call of awakening and I define that as a compelling feeling that invites us to leave our familiar life patterns, to explore the unknown and the unfamiliar. In terms of the extraordinary, the call of awakening is a feeling that we may get when we’re in the presence of the extraordinary. The extraordinary calls us to attend to it, to explore it. It orients us away from the ordinary and the mundane toward the extraordinary.
In this first stage, in this first part of the cycle of awakening, the extraordinary doesn’t necessarily make sense. In fact, it, it probably won’t make sense in the context of your normal worldview. You can’t make sense of it intellectually—at least at this stage. If you could make sense of the extraordinary at this stage, it wouldn’t be extraordinary! It would just be ordinary. You’d be able to understand it. You’d think, "Oh well, that’s what that is. It’s that thing." The fact that you can’t do that is part of what makes it extraordinary. Because of this, the extraordinary must be sensed intuitively. We can’t think our way into it.
This is why meditation is such a common route to connecting with the extraordinary. Meditation de-emphasizes thinking. It takes us out of our patterns of thinking and opens us to more of an intuitive sense of things. It helps us get in touch with our sensations and our intuition. And that helps us get in touch with this intuitive sense of the extraordinary.
In my own life, here are a few examples of times when I’ve sensed something that seemed extraordinary to me. These were experiences that felt magical and awe-inspiring.
As a child, I loved thunderstorms. I found them really beautiful and majestic, and there was something for me that was extraordinary about them. I couldn’t really explain what that was. But definitely—they caught my attention. That sense of the extraordinary in thunderstorms helped me turn my attention toward thunderstorms and storm chasing. As an adult, I don’t really do that so much anymore, but I still love storms. I just don’t chase them anymore.
As an adolescent, I can remember being in art history class and looking at pictures of gothic cathedrals, and there was something special, something extraordinary that I noticed. Again, I couldn’t explain exactly what it was. Those cathedrals, I’m sure, were designed to to be inspiring, to be awe-inspiring; to point our attention towards the extraordinary. And they did that for me. That helped me turn my attention toward religion and spirituality—at least a little bit—as an adolescent. I grew up in a family that was not focused on religion or spirituality. Well, I guess maybe a little bit focused on religion. My mother was a Unitarian Universalist and so there was a little bit of religion in my life growing up; but not much.
As an adolescent, I started listening to music. Certain pieces of music were inspiring to me, really caught my attention, and almost transported me to another mental realm. So, I found certain pieces of music to awaken something extraordinary in me, and that helped me turn my attention toward songwriting late in adolescence.
As a young adult, there was a book that my grandfather gave me called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas R. Hofstadter. That was quite a book. It really awakened something in me, turning my attention toward consciousness, awareness and artificial intelligence as a young adult.
Later on, as an adult, when I heard Marshall Rosenberg’s vision of a world with more compassion and less violence, there was something special about that for me, something extraordinary in his way of thinking. That turned my attention toward his self-help practice, Nonviolent Communication.
Later on, when I was reading Ken Wilber’s descriptions of spiritual states and stages in some of his books, that was pretty inspiring for me, too. I was aware of something extraordinary that he was pointing toward. And again, I couldn’t explain it. I had not experienced it, necessarily, although I could intuitively sense that there was something there that was important for me to explore. That helped me turn my attention toward spiritual groups and spiritual practice soon after that.
So again, we’re talking about this first part of the cycle of awakening, sensing the extraordinary and orienting ourselves toward it—turning toward the extraordinary. Those are some examples from my life of where I sensed the extraordinary and started turning my attention toward it.
Let’s look at some problems that can happen around this stage. What happens if we fail to sense the extraordinary? Well, if we don’t sense the extraordinary, we never even make it into this first part of the cycle of awakening. Our life gets stuck in a state of perpetual ordinariness, and life may seem dull, uninspiring, or meaningless. I know there have been times in my life where that’s how life felt—dull, uninspiring, meaningless—and those were difficult times. I think we need some sense of inspiration, some spark of something extraordinary to make life exciting, interesting, and meaningful.
What is it that can stop us from sensing the extraordinary? One thing would be too much focus on the ordinary. When we have too much work to do. Our work, at least the kind of work that most of us do, is, by nature, ordinary. We get good at something, we study it deeply, we practice it, we get to the point where we fully understand it, we get pretty good at it, and that becomes our livelihood—and that’s fine. But if we spend all our attention on things that we understand almost completely, there’s not much time left over for things we don’t fully understand. I think it’s important for those of us who are interested in awakening—who feel drawn to awakening—to try to organize our lives so that we have some spare time, some time left over for pursuing whatever it is that we want to pursue, without having to worry about how it’s going to earn us income.
Another thing that can stop us from sensing the extraordinary is when we have too much stress or interpersonal conflict in our lives. Interpersonal conflict and stress can be exhausting and all-consuming. We have to be at least a little bit relaxed and open in order to sense the extraordinary. We can’t do that when we’re too stressed out. We need some free time—some relaxed time—in order to be able to do that.
So in summary, this first part of the cycle of awakening involves sensing the presence of the extraordinary and turning toward it.
Pursuing the Extraordinary
In the second part of the cycle of awakening, we start navigating toward the extraordinary and we learn to recognize it. Usually, this is through spiritual study, spiritual practices, and spiritual groups. I call this second part of the cycle of awakening pursuing. The first part was sensing the extraordinary; now we’re pursuing the extraordinary.
Remember, in the first part of the cycle (where we’re just sensing the extraordinary), that part is almost completely intuitive. We’re simply sensing the extraordinary and orienting ourselves toward it. We can’t really use our intellect to help us do that because the extraordinary doesn’t fit in our familiar worldview.
In the second part of the cycle of awakening, the intellect starts to play a role, because to be able to recognize the extraordinary, it must be named; we have to have some kind of name for it. That name helps us direct our attention toward it. It puts the extraordinary in some kind of a conceptual framework or map that helps us find our way toward it.
Usually, we use maps created by others—maps that might be handed down through spiritual traditions. But we can also create our own maps if we don’t have a spiritual tradition to help us out. We pursue the extraordinary through spiritual study, and that means basically studying some kind of map that helps us pursue the extraordinary, helps us navigate toward it. Also, through spiritual practice, we use those maps to navigate to the extraordinary and recognize it.
Spiritual groups can provide a social context for this kind of spiritual study and practice. They can be very helpful and important as we’re pursuing the extraordinary.
Here are some examples from my life. In my mid-thirties, I pursued the extraordinary through Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices; I was involved in a Tibetan Buddhist sangha and did a lot of study and practice in that tradition for a while. That helped me navigate toward the extraordinary, toward the particular form of the extraordinary that I was after, and eventually helped me learn to recognize some extraordinary qualities of subjective experience and the extraordinary absence of an experiencing subject. If you’ve practiced in that tradition, or a similar tradition, you may know what I’m talking about.
In this part of the cycle of awakening, where we’re pursuing the extraordinary, what are some problems that that might arise? Well, what happens if we fail to navigate toward the extraordinary? Then we never make it into this part of the cycle of awakening and we may get stuck in just sensing the extraordinary. That could be okay. I think that sensing the extraordinary is better than not sensing it. It’s a step toward awakening, and it could provide some kind of inspiration or meaning. But it can leave us feeling like there’s further to go, like there is more work we could do. We could get closer to to the extraordinary—and the way to get closer to the extraordinary is through the second part of the cycle of awakening, where we actually start pursuing it.
What if we never recognize the extraordinary? We may start navigating toward it in spiritual groups or using spiritual practices, but what if we never quite recognize the extraordinary? Then we get stuck in what I would call perpetual following. We may be perpetually following a teacher or a tradition, where the extraordinary is somehow embedded in that teacher or embedded in the tradition. If we never learn to actually recognize it for ourselves, we end up perpetually following others. That leaves the extraordinary perpetually external to us.
To summarize where we’re at, the first part of the cycle of awakening was sensing the presence of the extraordinary and turning it; then we’ve been talking about the second part of the cycle of awakening, where we start pursuing the extraordinary—navigating toward it and learning to recognize it.
Integrating the Extraordinary
After we’ve had some experience navigating toward the extraordinary and learning to recognize it, we can enter the third part of the cycle of awakening, which is integrating the extraordinary.
There are a few kinds of integration that we might do here. We can do a personal integration of the extraordinary; that means just making the extraordinary your own—coming to your own understanding, your own internal sense of the extraordinary.
Then there’s a social integration we can do, as well, where we return to ordinary life, bring the extraordinary with us, and start sharing it with others. As we integrate the extraordinary into ordinary life, the extraordinary becomes a little more ordinary—then we’re primed to start the cycle of awakening over again, sensing a new form of the extraordinary.
This sense of returning to the ordinary and bringing the extraordinary with us—integrating it into the ordinary—is reflected in a traditional series of paintings called The 10 Bulls or The 10 Ox-Herding Pictures in Zen Buddhism. The 10th picture is called Return to Society, where we take something extraordinary that we’ve realized, bring it back to society, and share the gift of that with others.
A couple of examples from my life, of this integration part of the cycle of awakening. After I’d participated in Buddhism for a while, I eventually had a sense that I’d gotten what I was after. I’d been looking for something, and I’d found it. So, I started moving off in my own directions, and I stopped calling myself a Buddhist.
A decade after I left Buddhism, I started this Spiritual Awakening for Geeks project. I started writing articles on meditation and spiritual practice, I collected those articles into a book on meditation, and I started this podcast. All of this writing and speaking is part of my own process of personal and social integration of the extraordinary.
I’ve been sharing my perspective on awakening. This is not just a repetition of maps that I learned earlier—although, certainly, I’m grateful for all the maps that I learned in my spiritual study and practice, in Tibetan Buddhism and in other traditions. But, in this project, in Spiritual Awakening for Geeks, I’m presenting my view. I’m not positioning myself as a spiritual teacher in any particular tradition; I’m just giving my take on things. That’s not to say this is the best way or the only way to do this, but this is how I’m doing it. It’s my way of integrating the extraordinary into ordinary life and sharing it with others. And that’s meaningful; it’s fun, it’s one of the most challenging and exciting things that I do in my life these days. So, thanks for listening.
Another way that I’ve been integrating the extraordinary into ordinary life is in my work as a psychotherapist. In that work, I don’t teach about mindfulness or insight or meditation or anything like that. I help people heal and grow in other ways. But, I’m sure that my psychotherapy work benefits from all the spiritual practice that I’ve done in the past. The things I’ve perceived as an extraordinary and the things that I’ve pursued, navigated toward, recognized, and integrated into my own being—all of those things show up in how I interact with my clients as a psychotherapist. I’m sure that my clients benefit from all of that work. They can benefit from it without having to understand or even sense or recognize what it is that I’ve done in terms of my own spiritual practices. I don’t talk about Spiritual Awakening for Geeks at work. Most of my clients and colleagues are completely unaware of this project and my spiritual life—and that’s fine.
In this third part of the cycle of awakening, where we’re integrating the extraordinary, what are some problems that can arise? Well, what happens if we fail to integrate the extraordinary—if we fail to integrate it personally into our worldview, into our personal perspective on things? Then we end up perpetually stuck in other people’s maps. We may end up perpetually repeating other people’s views on things—and that’s not such a bad thing, necessarily, but I think sometimes we can attach a little bit too much significance to particular maps. I think it’s important to remember that the spiritual maps, the conceptual frameworks that we use to navigate to the extraordinary, those maps aren’t special themselves; it’s not the maps that are extraordinary. The maps are just used to navigate towards something extraordinary. They just point to something special. If we give those maps too much importance, sometimes the maps can become frozen and they can stop evolving—and that can be problematic.
If we don’t personally integrate the extraordinary after we’ve learned to navigate toward it and recognize it, again, we can end up perpetually following others. We can put our teachers on a pedestal, just like the maps. It’s not the teachers themselves that are special or extraordinary; it’s something that we get through our relationship with our teachers. And if we don’t recognize that and personally integrate the extraordinary intro into our lives, we can fail to fully realize or integrate our own power; we can fail to become fully empowered, ourselves.
If we fail to socially integrate the extraordinary, others don’t get to benefit from the journey that we’ve taken. We might be awakening, but society and others around us don’t get to benefit from that.
If we fail to allow ourselves to return to the ordinary—if we fail to integrate the extraordinary into the ordinary—we can start holding ourselves as extraordinary. This can lead to a form of narcissism, where we start feeling like we are special—like we’re better than others. We hold ourselves separate from others, and we use the extraordinary to prop ourselves up, to make up for our own perceived deficiencies. This can support a false sense of superiority that separates us from others and damages our relationships with other people. Unfortunately, I think this shows up often in spiritual teachers. This is a common problem for spiritual teachers that I think I’ll be talking more about in the future. This is related to a tweet that I tweeted last week where I said, "it takes courage to be ordinary." It takes courage to stop riding on the extraordinary and just be an ordinary person, to just allow ourselves to be ordinary.
In summary, the first part of the cycle of awakening is sensing the presence of the extraordinary and turning toward it; the second part of the cycle is pursuing the extraordinary, navigating toward it and learning to recognize it; and the third part of the cycle is integrating the extraordinary, which involves personal integration, social integration, and returning to the ordinary.
The Cycle of Awakening Continues
After we’ve completed that cycle, what happens next? After you’ve been through all this once, what seemed extraordinary at first, now seems a little more ordinary. That’s not to say it’s not important; it may still seem important, but it’s been integrated into our worldview. It’s been integrated into ordinary life, and it becomes present in ordinary, everyday life.
So what happens next? Well, now you start to see more that’s extraordinary. You start to sense different extraordinary things. You sense that there’s more to explore. At least that’s been my experience. The cycle of awakening can start again. There’s not just one awakening; I think there’s many. You know, there’s this idea: "Do all spiritual paths lead to the same destination?" I don’t think so. I think many paths lead to similar destinations, but I think there are a lot of spiritual destinations. There are a lot of extraordinary things out there to pursue.
In my own life, there are plenty of extraordinary things that that feel just a bit out of reach for me. A few examples would be life energy, intuition, psychic abilities, magic abilities, the things you hear talked about in some of the spiritual traditions—about what happens to people once they start realizing some awakening. I’m not saying that I’m there, that I’m so far along in my own spiritual path—but I’ve made a little bit of progress. So there are things I can sense now that I had absolutely no sense of decades ago. I know if I put my attention on cultivating these things, I’d probably be able to pursue them and navigate toward them, just like I did with other extraordinary phenomena in the past. And I don’t think there’s ever an end to this. I have a feeling it just keeps going—more and more extraordinary things to pursue. And that’s kind of exciting, in a way.
Just because I’ve explored some aspects of the extraordinary, I don’t feel like that makes me special or better than anyone else. It’s just that there are certain paths I’ve taken, that I put energy into, and I’ve gotten certain results and gotten certain perspectives. I’m glad for that, and I want to share it with others.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of the extraordinary and how it relates to awakening. I guess that’s it for this episode of Spiritual Awakening for Geeks. Thank you for joining me in in my process of getting a little bit more competent in podcasting and sharing these things with you.
You can find show notes for this episode at jacobgotwals.com/awakening-to-the-extraordinary, where you can also post your comments. You can also subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date on what’s happening at Spiritual Awakening for Geeks; you can do that at jacobgotwals.com/newsletter—and, if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a free electronic copy of my book on meditation. If you’re enjoying this show, please rate it and review it on your favorite podcast directory; that helps the show rank higher so others can find it more easily.
Until next time, this is Jacob Gotwals, wishing you many encounters with the extraordinary, in all its forms.
Religious Studies professor Ann Taves suggests that what we have in mind when we think of the religious, the spiritual, the sacred, and so forth, is specialness. See: Robert A. Orsi. The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies (Cambridge Companions to Religion) (p. 58). Cambridge University Press.
I describe the call of awakening and a different take on the cycle of awakening in my article: "The Call of Awakening."
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
Ken Wilber’s descriptions of spiritual states/stages: see The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development.
The Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures in Zen Buddhism. See the tenth picture: Return to Society.
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