Last time I introduced my shiny new plan to get my spiritual practice back on track and stop spinning my wheels. In this post we’ll look at some of the ideas that inspired my plan. I could have adopted one of these systems wholesale but I wanted to devise my own based on what I need to change. You may find these alternatives helpful for your own practice so follow the links to explore…
Since I’m Buddhist, the obvious place to start is with the Eightfold Path which is a practice based on the teachings of the Middle Way of Buddhism. After attaining enlightenment the Buddha realised it was possible to live without suffering and shared the dharma of the Four Noble Truths which states that suffering is caused by the avoidance of pain and the desire for pleasure in a world that’s impermanent and keeps changing.
But you don’t have suffer because you can free yourself by following the method of the Eightfold Path. This involves studying the dharma and cultivating the right perception of reality. Each step on the path covers a different area and all are equally important so they’re practised simultaneously.
For more details, read my series starting here: The foundational teachings of Buddhism and the Eightfold Path.
Another important influence on my practice comes from Psychosynthesis. This is a transpersonal psychological system developed by Roberto Assagioli that helps you to become more whole. It helped me to recover my sanity after a breakdown in my early 20s and gave me a map that made sense of my psyche. This is the famous Egg diagram that divides the mind into sections and includes the higher or transpersonal Self.
Psychosynthesis: A Manual of Principles and Techniques is filled with exercises and meditations you can do to develop your consciousness and overcome difficulties with sub-personalities and emotional complexes. One of these is the powerful dis-identification exercise that guides you to awareness of the witness or higher Self. For more details, explore these posts:
- Introduction to Psychosynthesis – the Consciousness Egg
- The Psychology of Awakening series
- Psychosynthesis – book review
- The Self-Identification Meditation
My approach to psychology has also been influenced by the work of Ken Wilber and some of his earlier books were life-savers when I was recovering from the breakdown. The Spectrum of Consciousness provides a useful map for understanding how consciousness evolves, and I was particularly helped by his explanation of the pre/trans fallacy in relation to mystical experiences.
However, his AQAL system isn’t perfect and has some serious blind spots: Wilber is very Aquarian and wedded to Enlightenment ideals, like the myth of progress. To be fair, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers and is constantly tweaking his models, although the more recent iterations have got a bit abstract for me. And I’m not convinced you can map individual psychological growth onto society at large, as in Spiral Dynamics. Despite its limitations, his work provides a useful starting point for further research.
For more on how consciousness evolves towards awakening, start here: The Evolution of Consciousness: How to Grow a Person.
Ken Wilber also provides the main inspiration for my plan in the form of Integral Life Practice. This incorporates multiple transformative practices into a series of modules called the Integral Life Practice Matrix. There are 4 core modules which are the most important, and then auxiliary modules that cover other areas. The idea is to pick one practice from each of the core modules and then add practices from the auxiliary modules as you wish. Here’s an example (the auxiliary modules here are just a few of the possible ones):
While researching the practices, they found that you get better results if you do something from each of the core modules: Body, Mind, Spirit, and Shadow. If you miss anything out, none of the practices will really take root and you won’t transform as deeply and the results won’t last. When you combine practices and work on more than one level at once it seems to accelerate your growth – probably because it grounds the practice in your body.
In an interview, Wilber explains how they found the best practices and distilled them so you can get fast results. I found this emphasis on speed and progress troubling – it seems antithetical to the whole point of spiritual practice. Is transforming yourself quickly a good idea? And if you’re focused on progressing – where exactly are you trying to go?
ILP is aimed at our fragmented, postmodern way of life and provides a way to bring it back together, which is a good thing, but it’s also open to abuse and misunderstanding. It could easily degenerate into a results-oriented materialist practice that tries to control the outcome: do this to improve your health, or get a better job, or improve your relationships so people will like you, and so on. It comes across as quite ego-driven. But it doesn’t have to be.
There may also be good reasons for being cautious in sharing some of the transformative practices, especially the powerful ones, such as pranayama, for example. There can be serious consequences for your health and sanity if you dabble in these practices without proper preparation, and they’re usually only recommended for people under the guidance of a competent master.
It’s possible to tip yourself into a dark night of the soul if you push yourself to realise the true nature of reality before you’re ready. There are stories of people being carried out of ashrams and into hospital because too much meditation has sent them over the edge. But it depends on your karma, your level of previous trauma, and where you are on the spiritual path. Assuming you’re further ahead than you really are, can be devastating. More on that here: The Hidden Dangers of Mindfulness
For more about Integral Life Practice start here.
I found another interesting practice online called The Formula for Creating Heaven on Earth (or just The Formula), created by David Sunfellow based on near-death experiences. There are 12 sections that interact with each other, but instead of presenting them in a grid like the ILP Matrix, they’re shown in a circle. The titles of each section are descriptive of the action you need to take, such as “Love Others via Daily Acts of Kindness,” “See, Speak, Live the Truth,” and “Join Deeply with Other Human Beings.”
In a similar way to Integral Life Practice, the idea is to identify areas where you’re weakest and choose practices that will help you to develop. This was inspired by the life review that often happens during a near-death experience. There’s also a worksheet you can use to keep track of what you’re doing, which helps to boost your motivation because you can see how you’re ‘progressing’.
The whole thing is infused with a sense of the presence of God and the experience of unconditional love. So even when you’re struggling, you can remember that everything, including your imperfection, is fine from the perspective of your soul.
This focus on God seems to be the main difference between The Formula and ILP. Sunfellow criticises Wilber’s system for being too heavily intellectual and for de-emphasising the need to develop a personal relationship with God. There are many critiques of cult-like behaviour in the Integral community online and it shows signs of being elitist and in danger of disappearing up its own arse – a shame, because it contains a lot of genuinely useful stuff.
Having said that, the need for faith and a relationship to the divine is included in the Integral system in the Spirit module. So it really comes down to how you approach it and whether you take individual practices to heart and actually do them. You get out what you put in.
To explore The Formula in more depth start here.
Another system I found online is 30 Challenges to Enlightenment from High Existence, and it perfectly illustrates the problem with ego-based results-oriented practice. It’s billed as a life experiment made up of 6 quests over 900 days. The idea is to undertake a series of challenges that last 30 days each, all designed to lead you to enlightenment. Unfortunately, it won’t work, although some of the challenges could be worth doing anyway.
The quests claim to be based on the stages of enlightenment in the Zen tradition but when you dig a little deeper, there’s not much substance. It has nothing to do with spiritual realisation – it’s pure spiritual materialism.
They say it’s based on Nietzsche’s idea of a “gymnastics of the will” designed to overcome negative habits that control your life. There’s nothing wrong with that, in principle. It’s important to break out of your conditioning and that definitely forms part of the spiritual path. But they’re simply co-opting Zen and using it to sell their snake oil. It’s also ill-informed. They claim:
“One issue with the self-development and spirituality memespace nowadays is that most sources do not provide any map of development for seekers to follow. Curious students of life become overloaded with fragments of information from different creators, but are never sure how to put the pieces together. The lack of structure sabotages their growth.”
First of all: “spirituality memespace”?!
Second: there are countless maps of development, especially for seekers on the spiritual path. You just have to pick one and follow it. The trouble, perhaps, is that people don’t know how to choose between them. The answer to that depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
Criticism aside, there are some interesting challenges that you could incorporate into a more grounded spiritual practice. For example:
- Self-Ownership – hold yourself accountable in all areas of your life for 30 days. No blaming. No self-victimisation. No excuses.
- Non-Violence – communicate compassionately for 30 days. Speak kindly, honestly. Do not insult, judge, or blame.
- Gandhi’s Grandchild – do at least one act of kindness each day for 30 days. Step into unknown and uncomfortable territory.
The last two provide good examples of the problem with this kind of system. There’s no deeper truth or context underpinning the practices so all you’re doing is forcing yourself to act in ways you wouldn’t normally. It’s inauthentic. If you don’t feel compassion but try to act that way anyway, you’re just a hypocrite. This has nothing to do with awakening or spiritual growth. But if you take those same practices and incorporate them into a system embedded in spiritual truth, then they could be transformative.
To explore the 30 Challenges to Enlightenment start here.
Finally, if you need a map to follow then a good place to start is The Direct Path by Andrew Harvey. The book is subtitled: “Creating a journey to the Divine using the world’s mystical traditions”, and I’ve found it immensely helpful.
It explains how awakening unfolds through stages of transformation that deconstruct the false self, or ego, and lead to unity with the divine. It also includes many practices that emphasise embodiment and integration to ground your spiritual insight in your daily life. Harvey explains the purpose of the path here:
“The first thing we must understand if we are to take the Direct Path in full awareness is why we are here in the first place and who and what we really are. The great mystical traditions are astonishingly united in their answers to these questions; they each claim, in different ways, that we are essentially sparks of Divine Consciousness, emanated by the Divine out of itself, and placed here in this dimension to travel back to conscious union with the Godhead. … we are placed here as a seed of the Divine within time, space, and matter to unfold fully all our divine powers and capacities within them. We do this not to escape the ‘illusion’ of creation but to divinise not only ourselves but also reality from within it.”
So, lots of work to do! Next time, we’ll delve into the details of the Mystic Warrior Practice with an overview of the plan…
Image: Birds (edited)