Building A Spiritual Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been speaking recently about the importance of living a life by vows, either as lay Buddhists or especially for those of us that have taken monasticism as a life’s vocation.  Our monastic vows is a way of intentionally committing us to a social life of rigorous action honoring the Bodhisattva ideal above other competing personal responsibilities.   We are beginning to see in the West, however, a new secular teaching community arise that reflects, perhaps, a more realistic attitude to an ordained life within our communities beyond the walls of a monastery/temple.  In addition we are seeing monks that have decided to live outside of these “walls-of-practice”, but still adapt the monastic precepts as a guiding force for daily living.  No matter how we see our Buddhist practice developing, however, building the spiritual dimension to how we see the world around us is critical for having a well balanced life and worldview.  For after all, seeking the wonder of our Universe and spiritual wisdom to understand our role in it, is what it means for us to be human.  A spiritual life is both one of interior riches, and exterior displays of wisdom.  We must learn to balance these two aspects of practice in order to have a mature spiritual life.

I am reminded of the story of an elementary school teacher that gave her students a drawing assignment.  As she went around the room looking over the students work and giving encouragement and help, she was absorbed in the joy of the assignment as well.  As she approached Stephen totally entranced and furiously working on his picture, she was confused at what she saw on the paper.  When she ask him what he was drawing, he replied, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”  But she reminded him that no one knows what God looks like.  “They will in a minute!” exclaimed Stephen, as he returned to his work.  What Stephen is teaching us is a can-do, I’m on top of this, I know what I am doing spirit of the intrepid spiritual seeker.  He was lost “within himself”.  He is reflecting the “Buddha with-in”, or the natural nature of what is possible when committed to an ideal.   Then I suppose we grow up and loose the clear mind of the child.  Building a spiritual practice is like stepping back on the path we use to have before cultural influences cloud our minds.

When I am ask how to integrate a spiritual routine into one’s daily practice, I am reminded of the lessons I have learned over the years, first as a Christian monk and now in my Buddhist practice, that can act as a platform upon which to establish a spiritual life driven by an internal awareness; an awareness shared by many traditions, not just our Buddhist one.  This platform has several threads that, when woven together, creates a life of purpose based on an ideal.   First we need to establish a personal daily routine that includes a period of meditation and inspirational reading.  It is up to each of us to find material that promotes this spiritual exploration.  Secondly, we need to find a teacher and community (Sangha) that gets together on a regular basis and becomes an active part of this community-based practice.  In today’s technological savvy world we have options to finding a Buddhist group if one is not close by.  There are many on-line communities and teaching methods available to us today when we take the time to look.  It is most important to work with experienced people that can share wisdom based on their experience that we can adopt and mold into a meaningful image that drives our own purpose of seeking.  And finally, we need to engage Buddhism directly in practical ways that reflects the altruistic principle of what it means to be a Buddhist.    We need to also look for a charitable service that is both a personal interest, and one that offers the opportunity to inter-act with others to directly promote human flourishing.

There are many aspects to a well developed spiritual practice.  Others have given us their own methods to find a path to serenity based on their experiences.  Our book shelves are stacked with them.  But we must go beyond the words they offer to action, by establishing a routine of study and contemplation in order for us to be enriched by their wisdom.  In other words, it is not all about readying and thinking; it is about transformative implementation.  Implementation = intentional action.  We must open our minds up to the wonder of the world around is; the good around us.  We must develop effective filters that let us see beyond what is of useless attraction and others destructive actions.  In some ways this sounds like I am advocating putting blinders on.  I guess I am in a way.  There is so much negative violent behavior today that can act as emotional distractions to a state of spiritual well being.  Nevertheless, we need to put all this aside in order to discover the joy that is all around us when the clouds of misery are  lifted from our focus, and learn how to become aware of the good rather then be distracted by the bad.  Transformative spirituality is an inside job.  We all want to change the world for the better, but who is ready, willing, and able to change themselves?     We must first learn to change the self by developing an interior life, before we can enable change in others.

Here are some ideas for building a foundation for spiritual renewal.

Establish a daily spiritual practice:  A personal practice is the central plank in developing a spiritual platform.  We must learn to cultivate a deep awareness of our delusions and less positive personal preferences in order to open a body-mind state of clarity that develops wisdom and spontaneous expressions for compassionate action.  For you see, a spiritual life is one that is reflected in our altruistic acts.   What drives a spiritual practice is our ability to connect with it on a regular basis.  That is why we call it a spiritual practice.  We must take time away from our busy lives for quiet-time, and sit in contemplation of the deeper meaning of Universal expressions that are reflected around us.  We must see beyond the shadows that act to cloud our view of what is natural and pure.  To accomplish this, we must find something that helps set the mind free to think and contemplate.  We must find our own source that sparks our spiritual quest.   From my own experience, we need to find an external source that drives the internal voyage for spiritual discovery.   We look for works of others that opens the minds eye and takes us beyond ourselves and presents opportunities for awakened moments.

Contemplation and study:  Like any practice we must work at it, and that requires study and practice.  This work takes on both informal and formal study.  While it is easy to pick up a book, it takes more effort to find the lessons presented in our natural surroundings.  You remember the Buddha holding up a flower.  There are so many teachers that have provided us with wonderful thoughts on the wisdom of awakening to the reality of the world around us, and not just in Buddhist traditions.  We do not have to use Buddhist works to find spiritual lessons.  Most of the books I use, in fact, are not Buddhist, but they value a pluralistic language that points to a deeper way of seeing the world around us.  And it is not just books, we can look to journals, poems, scriptures, and personal stories to gain insight that touches something special inside.

Practicing with a teacher:  The student/teacher relationship is a special one.  It is always a work-in-progress.  A good teacher is a guide and mentor on the path to spiritual wisdom.  You can say the teacher holds the map and points the way.  It is up to the student to walk the path and find their way over the obstacles along the way.   Maps don’t always show the rocks and gulley’s that can waylay our progress as we walk the path.  The teacher is a composes helping us to avoid pitfalls and deviations that can act to get us off course.  A good teacher will help us discover our best self, and understand the lessons that we have set to learn from our course of study.

Practicing with a group:  When we restrict our spiritual study to individual effort we are risking the possibility that the ego will led us astray.  It is better to also practice with a group that can provide us with gifts beyond the boundaries of self-absorbed interests.  A group, no matter the size, gives our spiritual practice balance, and some assurance that we are not restricting our spiritual thoughts for personal achievement alone.  We must develop a degree of comfort when opening up to others, or our spiritual practice can be subject to stagnation and even distortion perhaps.  The support of others helps us to stay focused on why we are engaged in this practice, as we discover the importance of being “alone with others.”  In a group, we discover we learn so much more then we can alone.  This balance is critical for a healthy practice.

Intentionally cultivating a spiritual and contemplative practice will awaken us to how the Universe expresses itself in very thing, and in every moment.  We work to transform ourselves from ordinary animalistic human nature into the boundless potential for causing good to resonate through our actions, and find peace in each moment for the short period we call “our-lives”.

We entered the room we call “life” though the door marked ENTER.  We will leave it through the door marked EXIT.  So many of us are so focused on what is beyond those doors that we miss how to live in the room-of-life.  This room we are all in is what a strong Buddhist practice is about.  It is about human flourishing.  This was the principle concern of the Buddha in his teaching.  But this room of life has windows that we can look though to see how the Universe is that may hold some answers about our own Buddha natures, when we have a mind ready to see beyond the ordinary.  A well developed spiritual life adds something extra to this ordinary way of living.  It is truly extra-ordinary in dimension, yet still resides in the room with us too.  You do not have to step through the doors in order to experience this reality.  You only need to gain wisdom so you too can be ready for the extra-ordinary.

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