WP_20150122_005Dear Michael:

I have friends who seem to have it all (plenty of money, great jobs, hot boyfriends) and they are all going off to meditation retreats, studying Buddhism and getting all “spiritual” on me. They say it’s bringing them peace of mind and that this is “the next cool thing” for them. It’s creeping me out, but I am kinda curious about it. What exactly is a “spiritual path” and how could I check it out without freaking myself out?

Confused but curious


Dear CBC:

Your letter asks some pretty deep questions, like: what is “spirituality” anyway? I looked it up in the dictionary, and found, “related to the spirit or sacred matters” and “deeply religious”. So I looked up “spirit” and found: “life-giving force, presence of God, vivacity or enthusiasm”. Confusing, isn’t it? Some people use the words “religion” and “spirituality” synonymously, yet for many people, religion is not their thing and spirituality is. So, what is a spiritual path and what does it have to offer? I did some research and here’s what I came up with:

According to Christina Feldman (author of “How to Find Inner Peace in a Busy World” and “Spiritual Practice in Everyday Life”): “All spiritual paths start with misery and help us gradually find our way to happiness…ignorance or unwise view is considered an attachment to physical things, people, events, and/or jobs to make us happy…something that is inevitably going to change will not be able to bring us happiness. Spirituality is about wisdom or insight that brings happiness, joy, liberation, a profound harmony with all things.  Unskillful speech or action is what brings us suffering, struggle, despair, disharmony and disappointment”.

Some people see a spiritual path as a vehicle to move from this unwise way of living (and all the struggle it brings) to wisdom (wise view) and the liberation from struggle that is born of it. Feldman says “most people live in what is secure and familiar, looking there for lasting happiness and are continually disappointed to find that their heroic efforts to be free from struggle lead too often to disappointment”. Perhaps your friends are seeking a spiritual path because with all their external trappings of success, they’re questioning where they can find a (lasting) peace of heart and mind.

This is the kind of internal questioning that may lead to a spiritual path. It’s not really about psychology, although there is a lot of overlap, and it’s not necessarily religious, although it can be. Tricky, eh? Most of my clients on a spiritual path have some sort of structure that supports their process of questioning and discovery: they may read books like Feldman’s, learn to meditate, pray, go on silent retreats, do yoga, chi gong, etc. For many of these men and women, events in their lives “startled them into wakefulness and shattered their sense of safety, security and predictability” (Feldman again). Motivations to seek a spiritual path may include: the pain or the death of someone we care for (a pain we cannot fix), the loss of something or someone we have relied on or treasured, or hurt received from someone we trusted. The inevitable gains and losses, highs and lows, successes and failures that are part of living are great motivators to look deeper than the world of things and people for our peace of mind.

For many of my clients, the heart of their spiritual investigation is a deep questioning of: who am I, really? An unwillingness to do this makes any kind of growth – spiritual, psychological or otherwise – almost impossible. We need to release the rigid idea we have of who we are, what Feldman calls, “the mythology of self” and Lowenian psychology calls, “the false self” (see the overlap between spirituality and psychology?)

Here is an exercise Feldman suggests to begin a spiritual quest: Write a short autobiography, beginning each sentence with the words “I am ——————” (fill in the blank). This may give you a feel for your “mythology of self” and how you may be clinging to outdated ideas of self-identity. Look carefully and you may discover that your sense of security, safety and existence relies upon your self-identity remaining unchallenged. Take your autobiography – your “story of me” – and ask yourself: who am I apart from these descriptions of myself? Who am I if you take away my story? Any spiritual path will require a willingness to consider questions like these. It requires we welcome (yes, welcome) a state of not knowing – a place of our greatest terror and greatest discoveries.

There is a lot of truth in the statement: “All you need are the right questions and the right answers inevitably will come.” Without asking the right questions, we may be deluding ourselves into thinking that our happiness lies in external events or people (all beyond our control). There is suffering in this “mythology of self” because its maintenance relies upon the world supporting it and never changing. Keeping this mythology going requires that we control events; people and circumstances so that our story, opinions and preferences are not challenged. Here is the problem: we cannot make anything stand still for us; clearly we are not in control. A spiritual path offers us a way to cope with ourselves and the often unpredictable, unkind, unsupportive world we live in, so that we can find a peace of mind that doesn’t depend on trying to control the externals of our lives. This may be worth your consideration.

Maybe what your friends consider “the next cool thing” can be a lot more than that. Why not check it out and at least consider the questions? You might find the answers take you in a brand new direction, whether you call it “spirituality”, psychology, philosophy or wherever!