For the new seeker, the variety can be bewildering; to the skeptic, proof of frivolity. They can’t all possibly matter, and they can’t all be right at the same time now, can they?
Faced with all these choices, spirituality can be a daunting concept. What does it really mean to be spiritual? A hundred people will respond a hundred different ways, so I won’t pretend to have the universal answer. What I can tell you is what spirituality means to me. It comes down to four simple principles:
1) Be the best possible version of you.
From the day you’re born, your days on this planet are numbered. At this rate, I’m guessing I’ve got 22,000 more to go. The good news is that during this time, there’s nothing holding you back from striving for excellence in every endeavor you undertake. So give your best in your work and your friendships and infuse it all with love.
So you have this extraordinary opportunity to develop your talents in all kinds of spheres. Got a knack for cooking? Pick up a cookbook and start experimenting on your friends at dinner parties. Have an ear for music? Noodle on a guitar and learn some chords. Good at languages? Listen to some audio courses and say “get me a beer” in 24 tongues.
Some of these skills will be more fun and others will be more useful. Arguably, the most rewarding skills will be those that end up enriching the lives of those around you as well as your own. Which brings us to the second point.
2) Treat others exceptionally well.
The essence of spirituality is realizing that at the very bottom, all humans are much more similar than different. Therefore spirituality is not about trappings, conventions, rituals or adherence to doctrine. It’s simply about how well you treat others.
So if you think that those with a different creed or costume are not deserving of your compassion, then you’re not really spiritual, regardless of how much prayer or meditation you put in. But if you’re an atheist who’s a source of elevation and enrichment to all those around you – hate to break it to you, but you’re spiritual.
Spirituality manifests in action, so let go of dogma and ritual. Instead, resolve to treat people exceptionally well. That is the essence of compassion.
3) Practice enlightened self-interest
I’ve observed that when you act at all times with your long-term self-interest in mind, you usually ends up taking the most compassionate course of action. I call this the ‘long-now’ mindset; in fact, there’s a whole group of forward thinkers in San Francisco dedicated to this way of thinking, the Long Now Foundation.
Let me illustrate with an example. Let’s say you want to buy a car. You may think, “Well, I like big cars, so I’m gonna get me one of these bigass SUVs.” That’s super short-term thinking. Then you think, “Hmm, gas prices are only going to rise, so maybe I should get a smaller car.” That’s longer term. Then: “Y’know, if I’m going to have kids some day and don’t want their school to be under water, maybe I should do my part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I’ll get a hybrid.” By thinking about your self-interest a generation or two down the road, you end up doing the ‘compassionate’ thing.
Taoist thought is suspicious about taking actions because they’re good or noble – it’s all about practicality. That’s what I like about long-now thinking: it’s less about being nice than it is about being smart.
4) Think independently of circumstance
Newsflash: today, you are not just Homo sapiens, or thinking man. You are Homo sapiens sapiens, thinking thinking man (and woman).
What the anthropologists who named the human race had in mind originally I can’t fathom, but to me, it means that you, the crown jewel of all creation, able to peer into the depths of the universe that birthed you and fathom its origins, are capable of thought. But not just thought, but thought about thought.
You can be thinking one moment, “Aw man, that bastard just cut me off – I hate him!” And the next second you can think, “Well, that’s silly – he’s probably just late for work,” and proceed to chuckle about the incident and continue along your merry way.
What you did there was a skill unique to humans called metacognition, or thinking about thinking. In addition to your ability to have thoughts about thoughts, it’s also your general ability to redirect thought independently of circumstance.
If in delicate moments you’ve ever chosen to focus on baseball scores or George Clooney instead of the task at hand, congratulations – you have performed metacognition.
Ladies and gentlemen – this is kind of a big deal.
One could say that strengthening your metacognition muscle is the essence of all Eastern spiritual practice. To be the calm in the storm, to transmute hate into love, to choose the best action instead of reacting to circumstance unconsciously – these are all metacognitive skills and the goal of meditative practice.
As an added bonus, metacognitive skills may also be the foundation of lifelong success, as elaborated in this brilliant article by Jonah Lehrer in this week’s New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer). Young children who are able to suppress their urges for immediate gratification by redirecting their attention end up being much more successful as adults.
5) Practice gratitude.
If you’re reading this now, chances are you have a roof over your head, clean clothes on your body, and a decent internet connection – i.e., a lot to be grateful for.
So appreciate everything that you may have taken for granted – friends, family, food, shelter, health. Gratitude is its own reward – the more you practice it, the better you’ll feel. Make it a practice every morning to set aside a few minutes to jot down five things you're grateful for. After just a week, you'll be surprised by the list and learn a lot about what really matters to you.
So if you’re running around developing yourself while doing things you enjoy, making people feel great around you while keeping yourself in good stead over the long term, and controlling your thoughts so they create your happiness and success, you’re not just being spiritual – you’re winning at life. And you don’t need any trappings for that – just you will do.
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