Positive Thinking or Spiritual Practice? Does the phrase “spiritual practice” make you think of a religious ritual? Does it sound more like a chore than a joy? Does it mean anything at all to you? For me the phrase “Spiritual Practice” does have meaning.
I like the phrase and I try to think of everything I do as Spiritual Practice. Let me tell you why.
You have probably seen plenty of books on positivethinking in the book store. (How could you not?) Maybe you have read some of them. Maybe you even took classes on how to think positively and how to succeed in life. Such books began to interest me years ago. I was a salesman and—like most sales people—I was sure that a positive attitude and believing in success were the keys to actually being successful. I did my best to learn positive self talk. I tried to envision the success I wanted. I repeated words about believing in myself.
This all was some help to me, but I never practiced with much consistancy what the books preached. My critical mind too often interrupted the positive self-talk. And—I admit it—I was a too undisciplined in my efforts. Then again, maybe it wasn’t my fault at all—maybe some errant neurons in my brain interfered with all the positive flow. For whatever reason, my mind jumped off the success wagon and stayed off for days—well, maybe for months—at a time. If you have had a similar experience, you have my sympathy. It doesn’t make you feel like a success.
After spending a few years on the positive attitude road, I began to see that I had been driven just as much by guilt and self criticism as by a true desire for change. I was “supposed” to be positive. I was “supposed” to make lots of money. I was “supposed” to be successful. In reality, there were plenty of times when I didn’t care much about money or success. The reasons behind my efforts weren’t entirely sincere.
The Promise of Karma
Eventually, I replaced the old self-help books on my reading list with books about meditation and mindful awareness . One idea in “Awakening the Buddha Within,” by Lama Surya Das, seemed targeted at me: “…it’s important that we not overlook the joy of the journey due to an excess of goal orientation.”
I started trying to appreciate what I was doing as I was doing it, whether I was talking to a customer, having dinner with my wife, or working in the garden. Sometimes a ghost from the Calvinistic haunts of my past whispered, “You haven’t fixed this (insert any nasty life problem or personal trait) yet—you had better get to work.” But gradually the new idea displaced the old. I started enjoy life just as it is.
I also encountered the word “karma.” The concept of “Karma” turned out to be more complicated than it at first seemed. I noticed that American teachers have been rather selective in the meanings they use, so why couldn’t I be selective too? For me, karma simply meant that my every thought and action had a sort of “tuning” effect on my mind and my body—that they affected who I was being in that moment and who the future me would be. And my good thoughts and actions could, in the long run, benefit others. Success, as an idea, began to seem less important. What became more important was the person I was being in the present moment.
I like simple—correct that—I need simple. Maybe you do too. So I did a few simple things to take better care of my mind. I did brief meditations that focused on my breath. If I noticed I felt stressed about something that was “wrong” with life, I told myself, “There is nothing that needs to be fixed.” I tried to remind myself during the routine of the day to stop and be aware of life’s real gifts, no matter how small they seemed, right now.
When I practiced these simple things, I felt more in touch with my life than when I was chiding myself to work harder, plan better, and be more positive.Don’t get me wrong—I still believe a positive attitude is important. And I think it’s valid to desire success in projects we attempt—whether in raising a child, repairing a relationship, or building a business. But always—always—tending to what I am doing and thinking in the present moment comes first. I believe that what I do in the present moment has a profound (though unpredictable) effect on those around me and on the future me.
I try to remind myself often how important this mindset is by telling myself, “Everything I do is spiritual practice.” Whether I am talking to another person, eating a meal or working in the garden—all is spiritual practice. I am, so far, not able to carry this mindful approach consistently through the day. Over and over, I notice my mind grinding away at some abstract thought instead of tending to the present reality. But, when I notice, I change my focus to something real and near me right now, like the picture on the wall, the tree outside my window, or the friendly face nearby. My walk is imperfect, but this path feels easier and more fruitful all the time. Life is simply better.
“Spiritual Practice” Feels Real
You might be thinking, “This ‘spiritual’ stuff is too much,” or, “Do you think you are some kind of guru?” I definitely do not think I am a guru. And sometimes the word “spiritual” seems pretty far-fetched and supernatural.
But I use the word “spiritual” anyway. It feels like it has some heft. This path is “spiritual” because it seems to go deep inside me and stay there. Spiritual because it has become more meaningful to me than the religious ideas I honored in the past. And spiritual because it seems somehow profoundly real.
I think of the path as “practice” becausepractice implies an activity that I do regularly. Also, Practice feels concrete, tangible, like the regular physical workouts I have “practiced” for many years. And practice implies something you are continually learning and will probably never perfect. That means I never have to feel guilty for my flawed performance.
To me, the phrase “spiritual practice” suggests value that stretches beyond my personal existence in time. But, most important, “Spiritual Practice” rewards me in the present—it carries beauty and meaning to me right now. It seems to be teaching me a greater love for life.
Try Some Spiritual Practices—Or Whatever You Want to Call Them
If you have already made some specific practices part of your daily life—great! You may be way ahead of me. But if you are interested, here are some simple practices to try. Pick one to work on for a few days. When it starts to feel pretty natural, add another.
- A few times during the day, stop whatever you are doing for a minute and carefully notice your breathing. Feel you stomach rise and fall. You will start getting used to the idea that your life is real and it’s good.
- Sit, do nothing, and let your senses take in the sights, sounds and smells of your immediate environment. The more often you do, the less often you will feel the burden of “all your problems.”
- When speaking to another, pay attention and, no matter what the subject is, choose gracious words not graceless words. It will make you feel good, and your listener will like it too.
- Stop your busy mind in its tracks for a moment. Mentally step back, and curiously ponder what your mind was just doing. You may learn something about yourself.
- When you notice you are obsessing uncomfortably about a goal, remind yourself to enjoy the journey.
Perhaps you aren’t interested in anything “spiritual.” Maybe “practice” sounds like too much work. (Believe me, I have had the same thoughts.) But you wouldn’t have call what you do “spiritual practice.” The name doesn’t matter—only the doing.
Think about this: if you could to be open and aware of your thoughts and actions in each moment, wouldn’t that be a truly positive outcome? You just might end up up loving your own life more. Wouldn’t that be the greatest success of all?Share: by