Tag Archives: spirituality

Why Spirituality is a Better Escape Than Drinking, Sex or Drugs.

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Joanie Cahill via freeimages.com

What’s your favorite form of “escape”? Personally, I’m a big fan of craft beers. In fact, I’m sipping a Flying Dog Mango Habanero IPA as I write this and it tastes pretty darn delicious. But I fully realize that drinking has a funny, often detrimental effect on some people.

I recall once having a conversation with an EST-trained co-worker sipping a diet soda at a party. I was aware she was a recovering alcoholic and asked her what would happen if she had a beer or glass of wine. She told me it would lead to another and another—and later that night I would find her on a corner uptown trying to buy crack. I thought she was kidding, she wasn’t, and I abruptly changed the subject.

There’s a spirituality writer by the name of Chris Grosso who has had his own share of “overindulgence” problems, which he has chronicled in a couple of books including Everything Mind. He writes about the man he once was—a guy constantly looking for the next drink, the next high, ruining family and personal relationships along the way.

After he hits an especially craggy rock bottom, Grosso comes to the realization that a deeper engagement with his spiritual practice is the only way out. When it comes to drugs or drinking or sex, or even less discussed addictions like online gaming or porn, he concludes:

No activity will ever provide a lasting source of peace, happiness or contentment like spirituality will.

For me, the key part of this statement is “a lasting source”. And as much as I personally like the buzz provided by a few high-octane craft beers, it’s something I primarily reserve for the weekend, and not an activity I can turn to each moment of each day for solace. (Instead, I use these quick stress releases.)

You might also wonder what Grosso means by “spirituality”. The author favors Meister Eckhardt’s definition that “to be spiritual is to be awake and alive”. For him, this includes any activities that “wake me up” like running, meditation and spiritual reading, from the heady writings of Ken Wilber to the dark poetry of Charles Bukowski.

Grosso stresses again and again the need for us to find our own truth and explore what spiritual activities resonate for us. He writes that “there are a number of different ways, paths, beliefs that are available” and that the alternative is “a life lived grasping at external objects for fleeting happiness”.

So how does one avoid the “grasping”? If you want to stay grounded, and live life alert and aware, the key is to develop a regular spiritual practice. Personally, I have a morning ritual that covers some of the same bases as Grosso, as well as acts as simple as spending a few moments alone in quiet contemplation in the early morning hours with a cup of freshly-brewed coffee.

The bottom line is you’ve got to take action. Drinking and drugging and having sex are activities—and if you feel like you’re overly dependent on any one of them, you need to curtail the activity and fill the void with an alternate diversion. Toward that end, Grosso cites this call-to-arms by Ken Wilber:

Nobody will save you but you. You have to engage your own contemplative development. Spiritual development is not a matter of mere belief. It is a matter of actual, prolonged difficult growth, and merely professing belief is meaningless and without impact. Reality is not interested in your beliefs; it’s interested in your actions.

If you don’t have a spiritual practice, that means starting your own today. You may want to follow the lead of my colleague Thomas Moore who has put together an inspiring 10-point guide to starting your own practice. Use it as guidance, but remember, as Grosso reminds us, we must always create our own unique path, our own individual way of finding the God within us.

In parting, here are three smart rules to live by each day that I culled from Grosso’s writings:

  1. Learn to live mindfully with the acceptance of whatever life hands you.
  2. Stop to see the beauty, wonder and interconnectedness of all things.
  3. Cultivate a greater sense of loving-kindness for yourself as well as others.

A 10-step guide to being “spiritual but not religious”.

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Contemplation by Ghassan Salman Faidi, via Wikimedia Commons

I will soon be writing about the brand new book from Thomas Moore, a modern-day translation of one of the New Testament gospels, The Book of Matthew. But as I did a little research on that book, I was reminded of Moore’s previous release, the groundbreaking A Religion of One’s Own.

If you are one of the many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”, this book is a must-read as it lays out a blueprint by which you can develop your own spiritual practice. This is important because if you are truly serious about your spirituality, a regular routine can enrich your spiritual awareness and strengthen your faith. This practice doesn’t just replace religion, it becomes your religion and an integral part of your life.

Moore has written that he sees the world “heading for a completely secular approach to life, which is to say soulless, which is to say disaster. We need a new way to be religious, a really new way. A way that honors the traditions of the past but moves on.” And A Religion of One’s Own shows us the way, offering us guidance in building our own spiritual practice while sparking our imagination as to what being spiritual really means.

What follows is a summary of the main tenets found in A Religion of One’s Own, a 10-point list written by Thomas Moore himself. It lays out the keys to developing your own spiritual practice and offers a glimpse of what a “spiritual but not religious” life can be.

  1. Meditate. Learn a formal way of meditating, or be contemplative in nature, alone, at work, or at home.
  2. Live ethically. Do no harm and make your life a positive contribution to humanity. Work ethically for ethical companies or organizations. Change work if necessary. At least, stay on track toward a highly moral life work.
  3. Live responsively. Read the signs for who you are to be and what you are to do.
  4. Have a dream practice. Dreams give you strong hints about what’s going on and how you can adjust. Without them you have no guidance but your own consciousness, which is too limited.
  5. Be a mystic. Expand your sense of self through art and wonder. Achieve special states of awareness. Have a greater sense of self through losing yourself.
  6. Be intimate with nature. Especially take daily note of the sky: sun and moon, clouds, weather, planets, stars. Learn from animals. Be astonished by geology and plant life.
  7. Be a monk or monkess. Adapt monasticism of any variety to your daily life and to the world in which you live. Spend time carefully. Read deeply. Study. Honor the book, good food and community.
  8. Aim for bliss. Not superficial happiness or possessions or wealth. Not entertainment. But bliss: knowing you are in the right place and doing what you are meant to do.
  9. Develop a philosophy and theology of life. Think about your life. Work out some principles for yourself. Don’t follow the crowd. Take the road less taken, the narrow gate, the path you see behind you.
  10. Learn from the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. You don’t have to join or believe. Find insights and methods and beautiful expressions and images. Don’t separate secular from sacred. Make your own collection of truths and art works.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 11, 2016.

 

How to improve your spiritual well-being—morning, noon and night.

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Jasper Zeinstra/freeimages.com

I wrote this story in early January for my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, but its “new year” message is still relevant today. It’s about the power of rituals to help calm and center us, and how by adding a simple evening ritual to our routine, we can close each day with a sense of gratitude.

The new year is the time to make big resolutions, and for many of us this includes becoming healthier and more physically fit. But this year, why not strive to improve your spiritual health as well?

I’ve written about about how important it can be to start each day with a morning ritual and how it can have a positive effect on your mental and spiritual well-being. For instance, my morning practice includes a morning run, spiritual reading and a moment of contemplation over a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

When we start our days with this type of regular routine, it nourishes us both body and soul. A morning ritual has a way of calming and centering us, better preparing us for the day ahead. So no matter what challenges life puts in front of us, we can deal with them from a place of greater compassion, humor, kindness and love.

(And for those especially tough days, remember one thing: breathe. When we’re in tense situations, we often shorten our breath. And by engaging in rhythmic breathing, we can calm our mind and soothe our soul.)

I was recently reminded of another tool we can use to maintain our spiritual health—a short evening ritual we can engage in at the close of each day.

If you’re like me, you meditate each morning for a 15 to 20-minute session—and while another meditation session is recommended toward the end of the day, work and family life often get in the way. That’s why I’m happy to share a simple, 5-minute practice you can do each night at bedtime to cap off the day and put your head in a good place before you go to sleep.

The idea comes from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who, while recovering from the sudden death of her husband last year, began a simple practice. Before she went to bed at night, she started writing down three things she did well that day. The list started with small acts like making a cup of tea. She found that by focusing on things she had done well, even if small, she was able to record something positive each day and rebuild her confidence.

Now Sandberg is moving on to the next step. According to a recent story in USA Today, she intends on continuing this practice in the new year, but with a new and important twist:

Instead of recording three things she did well, Sandberg said her resolution was to write down three joyful moments because, to quote Bono, “joy is the ultimate act of defiance”.

What a great idea—appreciating the good that happens each day before it’s forgotten. And it squares with another practice I just heard about via the pastor Steve Wiens of Minnesota. He reminds us of a centuries-old ritual called examen. It involves “noticing God’s presence and discerning God’s direction” each evening by reflecting on the day’s events and asking ourselves two simple questions. To quote Wiens:

At the end of each day, take ten minutes to stop and review the day’s events, becoming aware of God’s presence all through it. Then ask two simple questions:
1. When was I most alive today?
2. When was I most drained today?

You can write your answers down in a journal or simply contemplate them. (Wiens recommends “praying through them”.) Either way, the point is to find out what in your life is bringing you closer to God (a happy place) and which actions take you further from God (a negative place). By noticing these patterns, we can then make the necessary adjustments to help ensure our good days outnumber the bad.

By ending the day with the practices suggested by Sandberg or Wiens, we bring our day full circle. With our morning ritual, we ready ourselves for the day ahead. With our nighttime ritual, we reflect on the day’s events and learn to appreciate all that is good and right in our lives. It also helps us better realize our true selves in the process.

4 Life Lessons from the Minister who helped win a Super Bowl.

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Jack Easterby

If you’re even a casual football fan, you probably know by now that the New England Patriots won the 2015 Super Bowl. But you may not know about the man called “a critical part of the team’s success”, though he’s not part of the coaching staff and has never played a single down.

His name is Jack Easterby and he’s the Patriots’ team chaplain. In that role, he hosts regular Bible study classes and has an office in the Patriots’ complex where he counsels players and their wives. Interestingly, Easterby doesn’t push religion. He considers himself “a character coach” and his goal is to help the football players become better human beings.

Easterby was featured in a recent story on ESPN and one thing that becomes clear is that he has established close personal bonds with many of the players. He is known as a “hugger” and when he meets people “he pulls them in for an embrace, raising their handshake to his heart”.

He’s available to the Patriots’ players 24/7 and it is said that “when he’s not listening, he’s texting, when he’s not texting, he’s writing individual notes”, recapping the players’ personal goals and reminding them of how thankful he is to know them. One player says, “he just wants to love you, to be your friend”.

One message that Easterby has passed on to the Patriots’ is that they need to keep their jobs, as professional athletes, in perspective. He tells them that “football is temporary” and to never forget how blessed they are to have the ability to earn a living playing a sport. He reminds them to “focus on their gifts—their beautiful wives or girlfriends or children”.

During the season, Easterby talked frequently with Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and it seems to have had an effect. During Super Bowl week, when Brady was being peppered with questions about whether or not the Patriots cheated (in a minor scandal called “Deflategate”), he had this even-keeled response:

“Everyone will say, ‘God, it’s been a tough week for you. But it’s been a great week for me, to really be able to recalibrate the things that are important in my life and understand the people that support me, and love me, and care about me.”

FOUR LIFE LESSONS I PICKED UP FROM JACK EASTERBY

  1. Keep Things in Perspective. Easterby reminds us that our jobs are secondary to the important things in life—like the care, companionship and appreciation of our loved ones and friends. Jobs are temporary while our relationships can last a lifetime and are really what life is all about.
  2. Always Give Thanks. During Super Bowl week, Easterby texted players that he was grateful for “another opportunity to serve” and “blessed to have a chance to impact”. I believe a daily prayer of gratitude is the best way for all of us to recognize the good in our lives. Best of all, giving daily thanks has a funny way of opening the door for even more blessings to enter our lives.
  3. Communication is Vital. Easterby is continually checking in with the players who seek his counsel, making sure they’re on the right track. He calls, he writes, he texts. Ask yourself: who in your life could be better served by your regular recognition, encouragement or praise?
  4. Be Humble. “I’m so humbled to be a part of this,” says Easterby. In the words of John Templeton, “without humility, we may become too self-satisfied with past glories to launch boldly into the challenges ahead”. We must continue to strive to move the ball forward, never resting on our past accomplishments or laurels. Today is a new day with new opportunities to serve those around us.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, February 17, 2015.

Can you be spiritual and still have a wild streak?

Man-drinking-pint-of-beer-011-150x150I consider myself a spiritual guy. Though I’m a lapsed Catholic, I believe in God. I meditate and pray daily. I like nothing better than to spend an hour or two reading a good spirituality book. Oh, and I write the Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

Yet, there is a side to me that craves more than just a fulfilling spiritual life. While the party-all-the-time days of my youth are long gone, I still like to engage in activities that keep me in touch with the wilder side of my soul.

I enjoy going out with my wife for a good meal, accompanied by a bottle of wine and often followed by a nightcap. I still go to clubs in the city to hear live bands. I enjoy quaffing pints of craft beer with friends, whether it’s at a local pub or while watching a sporting event, in person or on TV.

But do these hedonistic pursuits mix with the spiritual life?

At the spiritually-charged Web site Rebelle Society, there’s a story by Victoria Erickson titled “8 Wonderous Ways to Restore Your Wild Spirit” that talks to this issue. It offers several suggestions on escaping life’s often draining rules and routines, by feeding “our naturally wild spirit”. Here are three of my favorites, pulled directly from Victoria’s article:

Find live music. Find the kind of music that makes your soul soar from the sound. Music’s rhythmic beats exist to tell universal truths that awaken us from everyday hibernation.

Make love. Like it’s your last night on earth, gasping for air and sanity, frantic under clouds and stars and sheets. The kind that’s made of heartbeats, intertwined flesh, and fiery, blazing, all consuming passion.

Get wet. These are cures that open you in places you forgot could even open, for salt and water are a miraculous mix. Release disappointment through tears, sweat from awesome, bodily pumping movement, and swim in the soft caress of water.

I say bravo to all of these ideas, and have added three of my own:

Go for a drink. Invite a friend to a local bar, preferably one without the distraction of a blaring TV, and engage in the art of conversation. A bar may be a good place to drink—but more importantly, it is a place to laugh and share stories and enjoy the companionship of a good friend.

Do new stuff. Don’t have time to take up a new hobby or go on an exotic vacation? Tweak your current routine. Drive a different route to work, even if it takes a little longer. Go out for dinner on a weekday. Stop by that coffee shop, you’ve always meant to visit. Mix it up!

Sit in a church. Not on Sunday and not when any type of mass or service is going on. Sit in a church when it is empty or nearly empty of people. Clear your head of all thoughts and do not pray. Do nothing but immerse yourself in the great silence of a sacred space.

Set your life on fire—seek those who fan your flames. ~Rumi

Like Rumi, the spiritual author Thomas Moore believes that we must find and light the “spark” within, and pursue the intangibles that give us our passion for life. Moore writes that we must fight against “mediocrity in life”. He believes that “it is the failure to let the inner brilliance shine” and “doing only what is necessary and sufficient,” that leads to a life of mediocrity—and ultimately, to boredom and even despair.

It is in our own best interests to “fan our flames” (Rumi), to “light our spark” (Moore) and to “feed our wild spirit” (Erickson). The alternative is to live a less than full life, a life that’s less than satisfying. And who want’s that?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, November 12, 2014.

It’s time to take Mark Twain back from the Atheists.

Mark Twain, famed humorist and writer of the classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is perhaps the most celebrated American author of all time. He is also a favorite of atheists and atheist Web sites, who claim Twain as one of their own. But is their faith in Twain misguided?

I stumbled upon the Mark Twain-atheist connection recently, when I went online to verify that a quote came from the author. I found Twain’s name and writings on one atheist Web site after another (Celebrity Atheist, anyone?) and it’s easy to see why non-believers are attracted to him. The author had a knack for writing sharp one-liners like this:

If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.

While Twain was raised a Presbyterian, and his funeral was held in the local Presbyterian church, he spent much of his life highly critical of organized religion, especially the Christian religion he grew up in. For instance, Twain wrote:

There is one notable thing about our Christianity…ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

Twain was often equally hostile to the mixed messages he found in the Bible. He saw the books not as the word of God, but as works of pure fiction:

I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less inspired by Him.

And while Twain claimed to believe in “God the Almighty”, he also went so far as to say, “If there is a God, he is a malign thug”. Yet, what this and the other cherry-picked quotes you’ll find on the atheist Web sites don’t reveal are Twain’s more nuanced statements on the subject. Take this passage:

I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in any danger from that kind of a Deity. The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible.

Read the first part of that statement and it’s clear that Twain had developed his own concept of the Almighty, one that was at odds with the God of the Old Testament. He appears to have believed in a just and loving God, which is further evidenced by the quote below:

I think the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God are manifested in His works: I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one.

So Twain even leaves open the idea of an after-life. In other instances, his tone softens to the point that he actually seems to see the value of organized religion, even if its benefits don’t relate directly to him:

I am not able to believe one’s religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life–hence it is a valuable possession to him.

There’s another interesting fact about Twain, that you also won’t read about on the atheist Web sites. Late in life he spent over a dozen years researching and writing a book about a Catholic saint—the legendary Frenchwoman Joan of Arc. The book is titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and it was his last major work, completed just a few years before his death. He claimed this book was his personal favorite and his best work, writing:

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.

What did Twain see in this farm girl turned legendary leader, who claimed to be personally directed by the voice of God and who regularly spoke with angels? Certainly, the core religious beliefs of Joan of Arc were very different from his own, but after reading excerpts from the book, it becomes quickly apparent that Twain holds his subject in high esteem:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counseled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character.

And therein lies the enigma of Mark Twain. He hated organized religion, saw the Bible as a book of dubious value and while he appeared to believe in God, wrote little positive on the subject. Yet he spent over a decade of his life writing about a women who claimed to be in regular contact with the Divine, and he did not write a single disparaging word about her saying:

She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

Perhaps Mark Twain is not the man the atheists think he is.

Earlier this month, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, had an exhibit on “Spiritualism, Séances and Sam”. It seems that Twain’s wife was a fan of séances and Twain himself occasionally sat in on the proceedings. Asked to explain Twain’s take on the spirit world, a curator at the museum, Mallory Howard, said: “He was always trying to figure out an answer without ever coming to a conclusion.”

And that possibly explains Twain’s motives best—he was just trying to figure things out. He was a man of contradictions who while quick to deliver a humorous and acerbic barb about religion and God, spent the twilight years of his life studying and writing about Joan of Arc, a woman for whom God was the primary reason and motivation for her existence.

Twain may have been like many of us spiritually-minded individuals, who shun organized religion and find little of value in the Bible—yet believe there is a greater life force, what some people call God, out there. We seek it ourselves and while we may come up short, we admire those who seem to have tapped into this force in such a meaningful and powerful way.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, October 22, 2014.

You’re spiritual, your job is not. So how do you cope?

hide_face-150x150Are you a fellow participant in the rat race? If you’re like me, and regularly work 40-plus hour weeks in a high-stress environment, you know how hard it can be to keep your spiritual bearings intact. It can often seem like the working world and the spiritual world are at opposite ends of the life spectrum.

So how do you maintain a spiritual focus, when the stresses of the secular world come knocking on your cubicle? Is there a way to stay centered and at peace, even when those around you are in states of work-induced irritability and angst?

Advice from the Front Lines.

Like anything else you want to be good at in life, the key is preparation and practice. That starts with having a daily spiritual routine as part of your regular schedule. It should be as integral to your mornings as taking a shower, brushing your teeth and having that first cup coffee (which itself can be part of your routine, more on that later).

Your prep-work should start upon awakening and can be tailored to what works best for you. For example, my personal workday routine involves the following steps:

  • Getting up early each morning and after some stretching, going for a 3-mile run (though any form of exercise will do)
  • Meditating for 10-15 minutes when I can, especially on days when I don’t have time to run
  • Engaging in some spiritual reading during my bus commute (when I drive to work, I use spiritual books on tape and podcasts)
  • Taking a few moments to engage in a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks for everyone and everything I am grateful for
  • Enjoying brief spiritual breaks throughout the day—slowing down and focusing on my breath and going on short walks as needed

When we think of our spiritual practice, we often see it as a passive activity, best done while sitting in a comfortable chair at home. But the fact is you can also engage in active contemplation. So for me, activities like morning runs and afternoon walks serve dual purposes, exercising the body while relaxing the mind.

More advice on maintaining an even keel throughout the day comes from Thomas Moore and his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore recommends that we follow the lead of monks who “intensify the spiritual side of life by incorporating a number of relatively brief times for meditation and reflection during the day.” He advises us that:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule, you might start up a few regular activities like mediation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after 10 p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quiet walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.

Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning hours. Now to put this is context, it’s not about sipping a cup as you surf the Internet with the TV blaring in the background. It’s about getting up before the family, quieting the mind and becoming totally immersed in the moment as you sip your coffee.

But what if, for whatever reason, you’re not able to engage in daily exercise, and meditation just doesn’t cut it for you?

Try starting the day with centering prayer. It’s essentially a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with the Divine, to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times. With an assist from David Frenette and his book The Path of Centering Prayer, here’s a six-point “how to” guide:

THE SIX STEPS OF CENTERING PRAYER

  1. Choose a one- or two-syllable word such as God, Jesus, peace, love, stillness or faith. (I cheat and use three syllables that direct me to my ultimate goal: Rest in God.)
  2. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within yourself.
  4. If the mind wanders, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest and simply be with God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking.” Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

I’ve read that it can take six months or longer to master centering prayer, but if you’re versed in meditation I think you’ll see the results much faster, perhaps immediately. Also, it’s important to note that as time goes on, Frenette recommends engaging in centering prayer without any words, to “let go of the life preserver and just float.”

And that’s what I now do. As this wonderful analogy suggests, I release the life preserver and float. I do this in the early morning before exercising, sipping coffee in the quiet of my home, while the family is still sleeping and only the cats are awake. Sipping. Centering. Feeling the presence of God. And I am better prepared for the workday ahead because of it.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, September 24, 2014.

Moving away from formal religion—toward a one-to-one relationship with God.

The_Creation_Michelangelo-150x150The problem is that we have lost religion—in the deep meaning of the word. We have formal religions that contain the seeds of genuine religiousness, but they are weakened by…fundamentalism, moralism, empty ritual, misunderstood teachings and general irrelevancy. ~Thomas Moore

Are you one of the millions worldwide who classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”? I count myself among that group and if you’re like me, at one point in your life you were part of an organized religion. You may have attended church or religious services on a regular basis, but abandoned this practice because you just didn’t get much out of it.

Yet, the spiritual world still calls you. You have a yearning to connect with something greater than yourself. So you fill that need with a hodgepodge of spiritually-related activities. You pray and/or meditate. You read spirituality books. You take yoga, engage in mindful exercise or go outdoors to find a spiritual connection with nature.

You’re creating your own one-to-one relationship with God, a religion of your own.

One person who knows where the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) are coming from is Care of the Soul author Thomas Moore. He has written a groundbreaking new book that gives valuable instruction on how we can create and enrich our own spiritual practice. In A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, he talks about a future where we “move away from being a follower to being a creator of religion.”

Moore reminds us that we can just as easily discover the divine outside the church as inside it. In this new spiritual world, we look to formal religions for insight, but create and follow our own path.

We can, in fact, create a personal religion rooted in the practices and rituals of our own everyday lives. On this path, we treat “the natural world and everyday activities as sacred.” We sense the divine in nature, through the appreciation of art and music, by feeling “our soul stir at family gatherings and visits home, in deep friendships and romantic relationships.”

If you’re one of those of us on the SBNR path, Moore stresses that “the discovery or creation of religion of your own, is not an option. It’s a necessary step in your spiritual unfolding.” It is, in fact, a calling, a part of our essence that we cannot ignore if we want to achieve true spiritual fulfillment.

As members of the SBNR community, the key is to deepen and further enrich our spiritual practice—to move beyond paying lip-service to the “spiritual but not religious” designation and place ourselves squarely on a path of spiritual growth and development. Developing a real one-to-one relationship with God only works with our real intention and commitment to make it work.

The good news is we are not starting with a blank slate. No matter the limitations of your current practice, there is room for growth and we “don’t have to rely entirely on our originality” to enrich our spiritual pursuits. Moore instructs us that:

Language, ideas, techniques, methods and rituals are there to be borrowed. We can learn from many different traditions how to meditate, how to honor special days…how to go on a pilgrimage, how to pray, how to fast and abstain…how to forgive and heal and offer gratitude.

Among the spiritual activities Moore recommends is reading and studying classic spiritual texts, which might include teachings as diverse as the Bible to the wisdom teachings of Native Americans. He also calls out the Lectio Divina practice of the Benedictine monks, which involves four simple acts: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate.

Moore also places great importance on the use of sacraments in your practice, which he defines “as an outward sign signifying inward grace.” He calls out the example of Thoreau at Walden Pond and how he had his own set of “sacraments.” Thoreau saw acts as simple as taking a bath or rising early as connecting him with “the gods.”

The fact is, with the right intention, virtually every daily activity can be seen as a way to connect with the Divine. Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: sipping a cup of coffee in the early morning hours, in quiet contemplation. The potential activities that can help you experience this connection are as endless as your imagination. Moore writes of the following historical examples:

Emerson lectured, Thoreau built a cabin and wrote a diary, Dickinson wrote poems, Kevin Kelly arranges flowers, Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach, you make gardens, I sturdy and write books. Just as we each may have a religion of our own, we may also have our own rituals and narratives and express our intuitions in ways that are most comfortable to us.

It’s all about staying “in tune with the rhythms of nature and the pulse of your life”. In following your own path, you discover, sometimes through trial and error, what activities work best for you. In time, you create a spiritual practice that is true to you, removing the veil of religion, until nothing separates you from God.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 30, 2014.

Everyone has a spiritual story to tell. What’s yours?

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

Are you familiar with StoryCorps? It’s a nonprofit group that records people telling stories about a key moment in their lives. Over the years, they’ve collected almost 50,000 stories that can be accessed online and at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You may have heard one of their broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition where they air Friday mornings.

It got me thinking that we all have a story to tell about ourselves, especially as it relates to our spirituality. We all have taken a unique path to get where we are today—and just like those who tell their stories on StoryCorps, chances are there was a key moment or moments in your life that shaped your own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.

Here’s my abbreviated spiritual story:

I was raised in a strict Catholic household and forced to go to church and catechism classes weekly until the age of 16. But the church and Bible did not speak to me in words I could understand. Then, after a gap of over a decade with no religion or spiritualty in my life, I realized there was a hole in me that could only be filled by figuring out the greater meaning of life.

I began reading spiritual and religious books voraciously. I learned to breathe. I had several mystical experiences with nature where I became so tuned-in to my surroundings that I could sense the Divine in every leaf, in the chirp of each bird, in the blowing breeze. I rediscovered prayer. I heard the voice of God inside me clearly directing me to a different life path where I put the well-being of others ahead of my own self-centered interests.

There have been many inspiring personal spiritual stories told in book form, The Last Barrier by Reshad Feild and Hidden Journey by Andrew Harvey, come to mind. They talk of each individual’s very different path to self-discovery and their own version of spiritual truth. And while both offer keen insights, they do not take the place of your own story, the one that is unique to you, the steps you took to get where you are today.

One person telling their spiritual story is Angela Kolias who I met through a LinkedIn Spirituality group. She self-published a book titled Alpha Omega Yoga that tells her own story of self-transformation through drawings and poetry and spiritual insights. She tells us who she is as person by showing us how she got to where she is today, her spiritual progression and growth, and she shares her wisdom with all who read her book. It will also serve as an important artifact in the future for those want to know who Angela is and was, it captures her true essence.

The biggest issue for many of us is that we don’t believe our stories are worth telling. We think they are too small or insignificant. So instead of crafting our own tales, we spend our time looking outside our own lives at the stories of others, oftentimes the rich, the powerful and/or famous.

Yet, we all have had special moments and spiritual experiences in our lives that make us the people we are today. These stories talk to your path in life, your passions, your spiritual explorations, the times when, if only for a fleeting moment, you sensed the presence of a higher power.

What’s your story? What gives your life meaning and purpose? How did you arrive at the spiritual place you now stand? Was there a single moment of enlightenment or many? Look into your past and find the stories that matter most to you. Write them down. Or, like StoryCorps, record them on audiotape. Then, share them with family and friends, with anyone who wants to know who you are and what makes you tick.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 21, 2014.

Finding your own personal spiritual mentor (with advice from Napoleon Hill).

wiseman-150x150The really smart marketer Seth Godin got met thinking about mentors the other day. While I’ve always believed the spiritual path is best navigated as a solo journey, and have railed against “gurus” in the past, the word “mentor” evokes a different image for me. I picture a wise sage who, when needed, dispenses valuable advice and counsel, ensuring that the spiritual journeyer stays on course.

But how do we go about finding our own spiritual mentor?

According to Godin, it’s easier than you think. He points out that our mentors can be anyone, living or dead, whose example we live up to and honor, “even if we never meet them, even if they’ve passed away”. He writes that most of us don’t have mentors within our reach, so “for the rest of us, heroes will have to do”. And the good news is there’s a vast supply of heroes available. In his words:

I find heroes everywhere I look. I find people who speak to me over my shoulder, virtual muses, who encourage me to solve a problem or deal with a situation the way they would. This is thrilling news, because there are so many heroes, so freely available, whenever we need them.

Once you find your own personal hero to emulate, he even coined an expression that can help guide you in your life decisions:

WWHD. What would my hero do?

Now commiserating with a dead hero may seem like an unusual way to receive guidance, but consider that Napoleon Hill, author of the classic motivational bookThink and Grow Rich, gave similar instruction. Buried deep in Hill’s long-time bestseller you’ll find a chapter devoted to “The Sixth Sense: the Door to the Temple of Wisdom” that addresses this very subject. His initial comments on mentorship mirror those of Godin:

My experience has taught me that the next best thing to being truly great is to emulate the great, by feeling and action, as closely as possible.

At this point, Hill ventures into more esoteric territory that may surprise those who view Hill as a straight-laced uber-capitalist. He reveals that “every night over a long period of years”, he “held an imaginary council meeting” with a group he called the Invisible Counselors. Who were his counselors? Some of the greatest minds of all time including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison.

Hill says that his communications with the panel of counselors worked like this:

Just before going to sleep at night, I would shut my eyes and see, in my imagination, this group of men seated with me around my council table…here I had the opportunity to sit among those whom I considered to be great…(I) called on my cabinet members for the knowledge I wished each to contribute.

Now it needs to be noted that Hill had extensive knowledge of each of his “cabinet members”, which also included Henry Ford and Napoleon, having studied their lives in detail. He knew their backgrounds, their manner of thinking and their individual characteristics. So it’s easy to see how he may have conjured up his league of mentors.

But Hill’s story goes a step further. After a few years of regular evening sessions, Hill notes that he “was astounded by the discovery that these imaginary figures became, apparently, real.” In his book, he details several encounters that moved beyond give-and-take conversations where his counselors begin giving him unsolicited advice.

One night Hill awakens to find Abraham Lincoln standing at his bedside.Lincoln informs him that: “the world will soon need your services. It is about to undergo a period of chaos that will cause men and women to lose faith and become panic stricken. Go ahead with your work…this is your mission in life.” Hill follows this advice (and who wouldn’t listen to a direct appeal from Abe Lincon) which leads him to write the aforementioned Think and Grow Rich.

As time goes on, Hill discontinues his these regular nightly meetings, but throughout his life he goes back to the counselors whenever he needs mentoring or advice. And they were always there for him.

On scores of occasions when I have faced emergencies—some of them so grave that my life was in jeopardy—I have been miraculously guided past these difficulties through the influence of my counselors.

Ready to find your own spiritual mentor?

For starters, let me point out that Hill was a voracious reader and in effect knew the counselors he enlisted well. So it only makes sense to choose a mentor whose teachings, and life, you’re well versed in—or to kick-off the process by studying books by and about your preferred mentor.

Additionally, Hill believes the earliest one can encounter the counselors is the age of 40–and that in most cases, they’re usually not accessible “until one is well past 50” and only after you’ve gone through “years of meditation, self-examination and serious thought”.

As for me, I’m buying into it and have enlisted the aid of my own spiritual mentor—the great American businessman turned philanthropist and spiritual author John Templeton who, by the way, passed away in 2008. I will write more about him and my experiences in an upcoming post.

This post originally appeared under a different title on my Wake Up Call column at the faith site Patheos, January 9, 2014.