by Scott London
I believe the single most important step we can take toward leading happier and more fulfilling lives is to develop a spiritual practice. By that I mean some regular activity or set of rituals that quiet the mind and bring us into harmony with ourselves.
Spiritual practices take many forms, from meditation and prayer to yoga and chanting. It doesn’t even have to be explicitly spiritual — it might simply be a quiet activity like knitting, gardening, or walking in the woods. Or perhaps immersing ourselves in poetry, music, or the beauty of nature.
It’s not the content of the practice that matters so much as what it evokes in us in the process. A strong and healthy practice is one that allows us to find our inner center and bring us into alignment with our highest truth and sense of purpose.
But there can be no doubt that serious and systematic practices — especially those that engage the body and mind, such as yoga, qigong, tai chi, and Unity in Motion, or those that involve regular meditation over a period of months or years, such as zazen or vipassana — can bring about dramatic changes in people’s lives. Among other things, they can lead to physical health and vitality, clarity of mind, and a profound inner peace.
Many people find their way into their practice through some personal crisis, such as an illness or the loss of a loved one. But the value of a serious and sustained practice is not therapeutic so much as developmental. In other words, it’s not about healing past traumas or alleviating personal suffering so much as actualizing our highest capacities as human beings.
But even that is misleading becase ultimately a spiritual practice is not about self-improvement at all. In the beginning, a serious spiritual practice can enrich and expand our lives in a progressive, step-by-step fashion, one stage of advancement following the other. But when we begin to close in on the higher reaches of our human potential — the cessation of suffering and the gaining of direct insight into who we are and the nature of ultimate reality — then we come up against the limits of self-improvement.
While we can certainly attain great heights following a step-by-step program of personal growth, it will only take us so far. But we can’t “work our way” through the final gate by the elimination of our own imperfections, no matter how “perfect” we may have become. Enlightenment, wisdom, salvation, spiritual liberation, self-realization — whatever we call it — can never be attained through a process of self-improvement since taking the final step means going beyond the self.
The pursuit of happiness, if it means anything at all, means finding that path toward inner freedom and self-transcendence.
MARIANNE WILLIAMSON ON SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
Marianne Williamson is one of America’s most prominent spiritual teachers and the author of several bestselling books, including A Return to Love, A Woman’s Worth, Healing the Soul of America, and, most recently, The Age of Miracles. I asked her about the practical steps we can take toward awakening the spirit in everyday life.
Scott London: A point you make in your talks is that we need to move beyond spirituality as a set of ideas or beliefs and incorporate it into our daily lives. How do we do that?
Marianne Williamson: Through serious spiritual practice. In the Kabbala, it says that we receive the light in order to impart the light, and thus we repair the world. You receive the light through what you read, through what you hear in meditation, or through some spiritual practice. I believe we are shown the path that is right as soon as we ask for it. Then we must live in the world and in some way express what we have learned. We are likely to feel better when we go to bed tonight if we have an internal sense that we spent our lives meaningfully today.
London: Is that really the ultimate goal, feeling better?
Williamson: Yes, living meaningfully is what brings joy. Increasing meaning and joy on the planet is the ultimate goal because within that space all evil is cast out. People who are joyful from a center of meaning and righteousness do not molest, do not rape, do not violate, do not abuse, do not war, do not fear.
London: What do you have in mind when you say “serious spiritual practice”?
Williamson: Whatever comes into your life, whether it is A Course in Miracles, Transcendental Meditation, prayer, meditation, or service. I believe that ultimately it all comes down to whether we seek conscious contact with God on a daily basis through prayer and meditation. You can know everything that the books have to say, but ultimately it boils down to whether we do the inner work of devotion and surrender, whether we can put aside our own agendas and allow the spirit to move through us.