I know tons of people who get into the spiritual stuff and then early on throw up their hands, saying it’s too hard. That they just “don’t have it” in this area. So they blow it off.
If you’re one of those people who has blown off spiritual work or is struggling mightily and considering casting it aside, this article is for you. Here’s why.
At the heart of most people’s struggle in this arena is a misconception about the work itself. They get into it, inevitably encounter obstacles, then quit.
But consider what my favorite spiritual teacher, Mickey Singer, says about this. He asks people to consider all kinds of things we endeavor to learn.
Trigonometry was hard at first, too
For example, consider when you took trigonometry in high school. You’re in there for a week or two and the teacher is talking about secants, cosecants, tangents, cotangents, etc. And this stuff may as well be a foreign language. You really have no clue what it’s all about. Did you go up to the teacher early on and say, “I’m really sorry, Mr. Johnson, but I just don’t understand trigonometry. It’s too hard. I’m not cut out for it. So I’m going to drop the class.”
No, you didn’t. Why? Because you just started the class. Of course you don’t understand trigonometry. You need to learn it.
Same with the piano. After a week of lessons you can’t play Beethoven. You need to learn the notes of the white keys and black keys and learn scales, etc.
Practice is required to get good at anything
It’s the same with tennis, golf, French, 17th century Dutch painting, welding and every other subject under the sun. We commit some level of effort to practicing and studying these things and then we get better.
In fact, I defy anybody to challenge me on this point: If on day one you commit to practicing any of the above, you will be more proficient at it on day 365. And I don’t even mean giving your whole life to it. Giving some modest level of effort to anything will result in you getting better at anything.
It is the exact same way with spiritual work.
How practice works with the spiritual path
To illustrate why, let’s dive in by identifying three discrete areas of spiritual work — meditation, mindfulness and letting go — and see how this plays out.
Meditation: This is the most glaring example of people giving up early because they think they’re just not cut out for it. They get started and the thoughts swirl around like leaves in a Kansas tornado.
If this frustration happened to a budding piano player, they’d be told to stay with the basics — just be patient and keep learning your notes.
With meditation, it’s the same thing. Stick with the basics, which would be simply following something like breathing or a guided body scan meditation and when that tornado of thoughts invades, just do your best to notice them, nonjudgmentally, and return attention to the present moment.
AND BE PATIENT.
Patience is the key to learning anything, isn’t it? It’s being okay with NOT being proficient at whatever your pursuing. But staying with it and trusting in the learning process. So it is with meditation.
Mindfulness: You’re trying to be more present throughout your days, but keep finding that you get lost in your head all the time. You drive home from a tough day at work and realize you were so stuck in your mind that you can’t remember anything from your thirty minute drive.
That’s okay! You just stay patient and keep practicing. With mindfulness that mostly means being as vigilant as we can with becoming aware as quickly as possible when we’re drifting off into thought. And then bringing our attention back to the car, our work desk or the conversation we’re having with our five year old daughter.
Letting go: I’ve written extensively about the importance of letting go of our egoic selves when our buttons get pushed. And especially when we’re just starting out on this, it is incredibly difficult. Why? Because our buttons have been pushed every single day, for decades for most of us, and we have reacted by diving in and fighting, arguing, retaliating, stewing, etc.
In other words, reacting that way is so normal that it’s hard to even become aware that we’re doing it. So what does it take to get better at it?
Just like the piano, tennis and French, the more we practice, the better we’ll get at letting go.
As with mindfulness, the key lies in using our will to become aware when our buttons have been pushed. Because we can’t let go of something if we aren’t conscious that it has arisen.
Commitment is the indispensable piece
Finally, for spiritual work, and every other endeavor, there is one underlying necessity for success: Commitment. If you want to become a great piano player it’s going to require that you commit to practicing a lot.
Making progress on the spiritual path is no different. It takes commitment.
The only thing that differentiates spiritual work from piano, tennis and all the others is that spiritual work is more valuable than any of the others. And it’s not even close.
Spiritual work makes us better at everything
Why? Because the benefits of this work, in the form of greater inner peace, more compassion for others and accessing the power and genius inside all of us that makes us better tennis players, piano players and everything else, make us better human beings in every way.
So pursue your spiritual work as you would anything else: commit to it, practice and be patient. You, your family and everybody in your life will be better for it.