Why is spirituality steeped in misconceptions? The answer is quite simple. Spirituality is abstract, the great unknown. Most beginners on the spiritual path don’t have access to an experienced spiritual seeker, so the bulk of their questions remain unanswered.
What is more, these novice seekers hear stories from other novice seekers, which gives rise to a myriad of projections and beliefs. It’s the mind that creates all this. In fact, any misconception is the fruit of thinking.
The spiritual path can be utterly confusing. The novice seeker often times finds herself lost in a vast ocean, without a compass. Let’s take a closer look at the most common spiritual misconceptions. Then, you will learn the principles of true spiritual practice.
Most spiritual seekers believe that every person in a colorful robe has a pure mind, possesses great wisdom and may even be enlightened. These projections are created by the mind. Most of the time, the assumptions are false. Enlightenment is extremely rare, so is spiritual wisdom and purity of mind. Don’t mistake theoretical knowledge for spiritual wisdom.
The sad truth is that the majority of Buddhist monks in developing countries are not even interested in spirituality. Rather, they have ordained for socio-economic reasons. As monks, they eat like royalties and are treated like royalties.
Colorful ceremonies and rituals do not boost or empower spiritual practice. The inspiration is short-lived. Likewise, an exotic spiritual name with a divine meaning won’t do the hard work for you. It’s the mind that practices; not your body, colorful robe or spiritual name.
Monk and nun ordinations do not empower you either. The inspiration wears off quickly and it’s not any easier to meditate with a robe on your skin.
It’s not more beneficial to meditate in a golden temple on a hilltop, than in a grotty basement. What truly matters is giving relaxed, yet steadfast attention to your meditation object.
Having sex with your spiritual teacher, regardless weather he is enlightened or not, won’t benefit you in any way. This is a widespread misconception. It will only result in mental and emotional pain. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment. Please note that a true spiritual master would never mislead or take advantage of his students. A pure mind makes for pure intentions, which makes for pure actions.
Intellectual knowledge of spirituality is of little value to spiritual seekers. Spirituality is experiential, not an intellectual exercise.
It’s quite common that novice seekers believe they can attain enlightenment by using their own techniques and philosophies. An individual with a strong ego, can easily go astray. These seekers rarely show any signs of progress. You do need a teacher that explains the basic meditation techniques and spiritual principles. Not unlike the laws of nature, the spiritual laws cannot be changed to suit your preferences.
Another misconception is that seekers confuse religion for spirituality. Religion is faith-based while spirituality is about exploring truth and reality. A spiritual seeker does not accept spiritual teachings without first putting them to the test, no matter who utters them or how old the teachings are. Spiritual teachers encourage this approach.
The fact that religion and spirituality often are intertwined, makes for a lot of confusion.
In meditation, body postures are only of secondary importance. It’s the mind that practices. So, don’t worry about not being able to sit in a certain posture. It’s fine to meditate on a stool or chair.
True Spiritual Practice
It’s of paramount importance to have a correct understanding of spiritual practice. The essence of spiritual practice is to investigate objective reality, also called ultimate reality. That includes investigation of the mind and the spiritual worlds.
The mind has a strong tendency to think obsessively, to hold on to feelings and thoughts and to like and dislike. Spiritual seekers also take great interest in the concepts of ego and not-self.
The very foundation of true spiritual practice is steadfast awareness, as opposed to endless thinking. Another word for awareness is mindfulness. Awareness is the key to understanding the mind and it opens the doors to the spiritual realms.
Another vital ingredient in spiritual practice is a large dose of morality. The word can simply be defined as thinking and doing what is good and right. You don’t need to read volumes of books to learn what is good and right. Deep inside, you already know.
The more refined your morality is, the easier it is to make progress on the spiritual path. Having said that, don’t be hard on yourself for not being perfect. Step by step, your morality will mature into a beautiful, fragrant flower.
When you practice awareness and morality, over time, the mind will naturally be purified. It will also release deposits of negative mental energy such as anguish, frustration, anger and hatred. As a result, you feel at ease and become less emotionally reactive. By practicing morality, seekers also develop what I call spiritual warmth, which is a kind and caring quality.
Every spiritual seeker needs guidance when it comes to meditation techniques and basic know-how on spiritual practice. Other than that, there is little need for theory on the spiritual path. Spirituality is a practical, hands-on discipline.
Progress on the spiritual path is most gradual. Many times, the novice seeker is unaware of any progress. Then, it’s helpful to be around seasoned seekers who quite easily can observe progress in others.
Generally speaking, progress can be made in the areas of awareness, morality, purification of the mind, spiritual wisdom and connectedness to the spiritual worlds. So for example, releasing unpleasant emotions and a deepened sense of inner peace are signs of progress. The first one relates to purification of the mind and the latter is the fruit of improved awareness.
Spiritual practice calls for high levels of mental effort. If you want to make substantial progress, you have to stay focused on your practice. To do an intensive 3-month meditation retreat, is like running 90 marathons. Every day, you give attention to your meditation object from the moment you wake up in the early morning, until you fall asleep in the evening. Not to mention the physical aches and pains from hours of sitting and walking meditation.
You meditate for 8-10 hours a day and go about all activities mindfully. You are even mindful while you are taking a shower. Intensive retreats are mentally exhausting. I usually run out of motivation after 2-3 weeks. From then on, I’m fueled by discipline.
Further, most retreats encourage you to refrain from conversation, other than with your meditation teacher. Personally, I prefer to meet the teacher as few times as possible. These are effective ways to calm the mind. It’s natural to make progress when the mind is focused and still. If you talk to other meditators, you will continue to think about the conversations when you meditate. It’s a big distraction.
Another distraction that most novice and intermediate seekers battle with, is doubt. It can be doubt in the meditation technique, the teacher, your abilities and the spiritual path altogether. Doubt is the result of thinking; therefore, don’t entertain such thoughts. As you advance on the spiritual path, doubt gradually loses its power over you. Progress makes for confidence.
In the beginning, it’s advisable to do short and relaxed retreats where you are free to share your experiences with the other participants.