For any given set of spiritual practices, there are many possible approaches to (or ways of engaging with) those practices. This article describes ten such approaches. We tend to cycle through these ten approaches; this article describes that cycle, which I call the cycle of spiritual practice.
I’m also going to talk about four zones of spiritual practice; in different zones, different things are guiding our actions: reason versus intuition, and tradition versus creativity. I’ll talk about the benefits of each of these four zones and the problems that can arise when we don’t have access to each of these zones. I’ll also talk about how the traditional and creative zones of spiritual practice are related to power and exploitation in spiritual groups.
I’m hoping that by the end of this article, you’ll understand the cycle of spiritual practice; you’ll understand the ten different approaches within that cycle; you’ll understand the four zones of spiritual practice; and you’ll start to recognize your edges for growth (you’ll recognize which approaches and zones you’re comfortable in and which approaches and zones seem less familiar). I’m also hoping that by the end of the article, you’ll get a little better at recognizing oppression and exploitation in spiritual groups.
Ten Approaches to Spiritual Practice
To start with, I want to give a quick overview of the cycle of spiritual practice. I’ll describe ten possible approaches to any given set of spiritual practices: yearning for practices, gravitating toward practices, studying practices, learning practices, adapting practices, grokking practices, mastering practices, experimenting with practices, jamming with practices, and, finally, teaching practices. Let’s explore these approaches in more detail.
Yearning for Practices
The first approach is yearning for practices. When we’re in this part of the cycle of spiritual practice, we know we want something, but we don’t really know what it is. We feel that lack. We’re yearning for something that we don’t have, but we can’t define it. If we could define it, if we knew what it was, then we could just go get it; but we’re not there yet. We’re just yearning for something, and we don’t know what it is yet. In a way, this is like a feeling of loneliness. But instead of lacking contact with people, what we’re lacking here is meaning.
We’re kind of vulnerable when we’re yearning for practices because we don’t really have anything to hold onto—except that maybe we have some faith that there’s something out there that might meet this need for meaning. But our faith is also easily squashed at this point. Basically, we’re yearning for the extraordinary, but we haven’t found a way to access the extraordinary yet. There are those who are invested in the ordinary, invested in ordinary ways of approaching life and the world and the universe. There are those who will tell us, “There’s really nothing extraordinary. All phenomenon are ordinary, all phenomena fit neatly into our existing boxes and can be explained by our existing models.”
At a certain point, when I was in this stage of yearning for practices, one of the things that that I ran into was neuroscience and neuroscientific explanations of consciousness and awareness. Neuroscientists have sometimes tended to reduce awareness and subjective experience to neurons—equating awareness with neurons and neuronal activity. That was kind of depressing for me when I was looking for something a little bit beyond the ordinary material world. I had a sense that there was something more than that, but I didn’t know what it was yet, so, that was kind of depressing for me to read those neuro-scientific explanations.
Gravitating Toward Practices
The second approach to spiritual practice is gravitating towards practices. This is what happens when we’ve encountered a spiritual approach or a practice, or we’ve encountered someone who’s done that practice, and we start to think that maybe that practice could actually fulfill our yearning. We start feeling drawn toward that practice. And often we don’t really know why. Sometimes yearning doesn’t arise until we actually encounter a person or a spiritual practice that resonates with us; then yearning and gravitating can happen at the same time.
I experienced this gravitating toward practices thing with the Nonviolent Communication community. When I first encountered Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, I heard an interview with him and I immediately started feeling drawn toward learning more. A similar thing happened to me with meditation. I started feeling drawn toward meditation at a certain point, and the more I learned about it, the more I knew that this was something that I had to learn more about. As I started exploring spiritual groups promoting different kinds of meditative practices, I eventually started gravitating toward Tibetan Buddhism. There was something about Tibetan Buddhism that really resonated with me. I was kind of zeroing in on something over time through this experience of gravitating toward practices.
After we’ve gravitated toward practices, what happens next? When we have zeroed in on some practices that resonate with us, we may start studying those practices. We may find specific practices that we want to learn more about. So, at this third stage of the cycle of spiritual practice, we start studying. We start learning practices, and we start learning the conceptual views or frameworks that go with those practices. This may involve reading, attending lectures, or listening to podcasts and online trainings. There’s a lot of hearing about practices, but not necessarily a lot of doing practices. At this point, we’re using concepts to understand and make sense of practices. We may start imagining what it would be like to do the practices, but we’re not necessarily doing them yet.
There was a time when I knew I was looking for some specific meditative tradition, but I didn’t know which one I wanted yet. So, I was exploring them; I was looking around, following leads, doing research on the internet, and exploring various meditation traditions. When I encountered a new tradition or teacher, I’d do some reading to get to know that tradition a little better. At one point, I started doing a lot of reading of Hindu and Buddhist texts. This was hard work because I found them pretty esoteric, kind of hard to understand, with a lot of jargon and a lot of translation from other languages.
Studying practices can also happen when you start immersing yourself in the work of a particular teacher or tradition. That happened with me with Ken Wilber and his Integral theory. I’d kind of zeroed in on him and wanted to really understand his approach to things, so I did a lot of reading. I read a lot of his books. He had a website where he posted talks with other people and interviews, so I immersed myself in his work and was doing a lot of reading and listening.
Later, I did the same thing with the work of a spiritual teacher named Ken McCleod. He had a lot of Dharma talks posted online, and I think he still does. I listened to a lot of them, and I decided to learn as much as I could about his approach.
Let’s talk about the fourth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice: learning practices. This is when you actually start practicing and engaging with a set of practices or a tradition. This approach may overlap with the previous approach of studying; you can study a set of practices and you can actually start learning how to do them at the same time. When you’re learning practices, you’re focused on following directions; you’re trying to repeat what others have done to try to get some similar results. When we start learning practices, we start gaining experience with the actual sensations of practicing.
We can get overly focused on detail when we’re learning practices. For example, when I did some brief exploration in the Zen tradition, I was trying to learn how to do Zen walking meditation. I really wanted to get the form right. I had a friend who was a Zen priest and I remember asking him at one point, “When I start walking, am I supposed to start walking with my left foot or my right foot? Which foot do I start with?” He laughed, and I got the sense that it really didn’t matter too much to him. He said something like, “Well, I don’t really concern myself with that much detail with these things.” That was kind of an eye-opener. I realized that even though form was important, maybe there were other things that were more important.
The fifth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice is adapting practices. This is what happens when you’ve started learning some practices and you realize that some of them just aren’t really working so well for you because your mind or your body just can’t do certain aspects of the practice. So you have to adapt it to your own personal needs and constraints. Here are a couple of examples.
Sitting cross-legged is a big part of various meditative traditions that I’ve explored. I’m probably one of the stiffest people that I know; my legs are just not very flexible, and sitting cross-legged was really difficult for me. So, I had to find ways of adapting my body to the practice and also adapting the practice to my body. I never did long, long periods of sitting cross-legged; that was just too difficult for me. I would alternate sitting cross-legged with walking meditation, with just sitting in a chair, and with lying down as I meditated, and that worked pretty well for me. Later, I totally gave up sitting cross-legged because I found it was messing up my knees. I was starting to get random knee pain and eventually realized that this was related to sitting cross-legged on the floor, so I decided, “Enough of that!” I gave it up, and my knees have been a lot happier since. I find I can meditate just as well in other postures.
Another example of adapting practices has been my experience of Hatha Yoga. My wife used to teach yoga and when she would see me doing yoga, she would kind of cringe; she’d have to restrain herself from giving me advice on how I should be holding my body in different ways. Again, my body’s pretty stiff and I could not always do the postures exactly the way they were supposed to be done. So, I just found ways that worked for me. Recently I’ve given up yoga, as well. I’ve found that it’s just too easy for me to get injured doing yoga. I’m finding other practices like breathwork and ecstatic movement that are a little less demanding on my stiff body.
The sixth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice is grokking practices. This is when you start mindfully attending to the experience of the practices that you’re doing and you start accessing your inner teacher. You get a little less directed by other people’s ideas and you find that your mind and body actually know what to do. This happens after you’ve repeated a practice many times.
An example from my life is qigong. I studied a certain practice of qigong and started doing it regularly. At first, it took a lot of attention to just remember what the various movements were and to remember the sequence of movements. But after a while, I found that there was no longer any effort required to remember these things. I started focusing less on following instructions and more on how the practice felt to me, more on the inner sensations, the subjective experience of doing the practice. As I did, the subjective experience of the practice started informing how I actually do the practice.
The seventh approach is mastering practices. This is what happens when you’ve done a practice many times over a long period of time. When you’ve done that, you may develop a high level of skill in the practice. At this point, the practice is fully integrated into you and your being and no longer requires much thought. You don’t have to think about what to do, and the practice no longer requires much effort.
There’s not a whole lot that I have mastered in terms of spiritual practices. I tend to be more exploratory; I like to explore a lot of different things and I like a variety of practices. There is one thing that I think I have developed some mastery of, and that is social skills in emotionally intimate relationships. This was a long, hard road for me. I probably have some mild autism and consider myself an aspie. Because of that, learning social skills did not come easily for me. It actually required work. It wasn’t just a natural thing that happened all of a sudden, as it does for most people, in adolescence.
But I did care about relationships with other people and I wanted healthy relationships. I wanted good social skills. So I just kept working at it. And over the course of my young adult and adult years, with a lot of studying and practicing relating with people, I found that I started getting better at relating, better at social skills, and better at relationships, to the point where now I make my living as a psychotherapist. That’s all about relating with people, relating with my clients on an emotional level. I also really love facilitating other people’s relationships with each other in a group therapy context.
A big part of my learning about relationships and improving my social skills has been my relationship with my wife, Emilah. We’ve been together for ten years and I think we both really learned a lot about ourselves, each other, and relationships through our marriage.
Experimenting with Practices
Let’s talk about the eighth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice, which is experimenting with practices. When you’re experimenting with practices, you’re trying something new. There are two ways of doing this. You can alter practices or you can mix practices. An important point here is that even though I’m describing this as something that comes after mastering practices, you don’t actually have to master practices before you start experimenting with them. You can start experimenting with practices at any point.
Let’s talk about altering practices. When you’re altering practices, you may start to get curious about what happens if you try something a little different, and you start exploring. You start intentionally altering a practice. These alterations could be planned, or they could happen spontaneously, mid-practice. Eventually, as you start altering practices, you start discovering alterations and customizations that make the practice work better for you, that take you in new directions.
An example from my life is alterations that I did on a practice called liminal dreaming, which is something that I started learning recently from Jennifer Dumpert’s book, Liminal Dreaming: Exploring Consciousness at the Edges of Sleep, which I highly recommend. The idea with liminal dreaming is, you’re exploring the mental zone between waking and sleeping. In full-on liminal dreaming, as Jennifer Dumpert teaches it, you let yourself almost fall asleep, but not quite, and you stay in that middle zone between waking and sleeping and explore all the interesting psychedelic experiences that you can have in that zone. I’m just starting to learn how to do that.
Even though I certainly haven’t mastered that practice yet, I’ve already started experimenting with some alterations to it. I started wondering what would happen if, in my waking life, I let my consciousness shift slightly toward the dream state. I’m still awake; I’m still watching a movie or doing whatever I might be doing in waking life, but I just let my consciousness shift slightly toward dreaming. I found I really like doing that. It’s really relaxing and it gets me out of my intellectual, rational mind where I spend probably more time than I should, more time than I need to.
Another way of experimenting with practices is mixing practices. You could mix practices from the same tradition or you could mix practices across multiple traditions. An example from my life would be mixing breathwork and ecstatic movement or shaking. These are kind of two different practices from two different traditions that I was learning around the same time. I found that when I was doing long periods of breathwork, my body would start shaking a bit, and when I was doing my shaking practice, a big part of that was breathing and focusing on the breath; letting breathing happen. So I thought, “Why don’t I just do some breath work and some ecstatic movement at the same time?” I found that created a deeper experience for me.
Jamming with Practices
The ninth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice practices is jamming with practices. This might happen after you’ve done some mastering practices and you’ve done some experimenting with practices, and you start getting a sense of what really works for you. Then, you start doing some free-form shifting among practices that work for you, right in the middle of doing your practices. You’re basically jamming like you would if you were a musician; you’re spontaneously exploring different things, trying different things on the fly.
I do this sometimes when I’m meditating. There are many different meditative or contemplative practices you can do while you’re meditating, and I tend to shift between them on the fly based on where my mind feels like going. That can be a kind of a playful way of exploring various mental states.
The downside of jamming is that sometimes jamming is just a form of distraction; instead of getting distracted by things around you, you’re getting distracted by different practices and different ideas about how you might practice. Jamming can be a little unfocused sometimes, and that’s another thing to be aware of. Probably best not to jam all the time.
The tenth approach in the cycle of spiritual practice is teaching practices. As I’ve talked about in another article, there are many roles in which you can do spiritual teaching. You don’t have to be a teacher in the Buddhist sense. I talk about this in an article called Teachers and Teaching. I have a very, very wide definition of a spiritual teacher. I consider anyone who is helping people grow more empowered and more compassionate a spiritual teacher. Basically, in teaching, what you’re doing is, you’re just describing what you’ve discovered so others can try it, describing the practices you’ve discovered so others can try them, and possibly your guiding others so they can go where you’ve gone.
So, those are the ten approaches to spiritual practice in the cycle of spiritual practice. After you’ve been through all of them, what happens next? Well, in my experience, I generally return to a yearning for practices. Because, after you’ve spent a lot of time with any particular practice or any particular spiritual group, you may find that you’ve gotten what you need out of that practice, or you’ve gotten what you need out of that group. You may even notice some aversion arising toward the practice or the group. You start feeling ready to move on. This happened for me with Nonviolent Communication at one point, then later with Buddhism and Integral theory. Even though I was excited about these things when I first encountered them and I was gravitating toward them, eventually I found myself being repelled away from them because it was time for something new in my life. So I moved on to whatever was next. I moved back to yearning for practices, yearning for something new.
Zones of Spiritual Practice
I just described the cycle of spiritual practice and the ten approaches within that cycle. Now, let’s shift gears; I’d like to describe the four zones within that cycle. I’m going to take these zones two at a time.
The Rational Zone and the Intuitive Zone
The first two zones are the rational zone and the intuitive zone. Some approaches are more rationally guided (where your actions are being guided by some kind of conceptual framework with explicit directions and explicit goals) and other approaches are more intuitively guided (where your actions are being guided by non-conceptual experiences like your body sensations or your intuitive sense of what to do).
The rational zone is actually fairly small; it encompasses studying practices and learning practices; the intuitive zone involves all the other approaches in the cycle of spiritual practice. We start the cycle with yearning for practices and gravitating toward practices. When we’re gravitating toward practices, we’re being guided by our intuition and by the call of awakening. After we’ve gravitated toward practices, that’s when we enter the rational zone, and we start studying and learning practices. Then we go back into the intuitive zone when we’re adapting practices because adapting practices requires attending to your body and your mind, though it’s still mostly rational, because you’re still working with a conceptual framework; you’re just altering that framework when you need to. Grokking practices is really intuitive; intuition starts becoming your inner teacher. Mastering practices is also very intuitive because you can’t master practices without attending to your subjective experience and your intuition.
Experimenting with practices is also very intuitive. It can be playful; you’re no longer following directions. Experimenting with practices may actually take us out of the conceptual views or frameworks that we started with. In jamming with practices, you’re intuitively shifting between practices, mid practice, so it’s also very intuitively focused.
In teaching practices, you’re focused on creating instructions, not following instructions. Generally, this requires putting practices into words, unless you’re teaching completely by demonstration. Most teachers do put their practices into words in some way; most teachers are describing practices (and their related views or frameworks), they’re describing goals (the intended results of practices), and they’re communicating all of this with other people through writing, speaking or demonstrating. Creating instructions and putting practices into words requires both reason and intuition.
The Traditional Zone and the Creative Zone
Now I’m going to describe another distinction: between the traditional zone and the creative zone. Then, I’ll talk about how the traditional zone and the creative zone relate to empowerment, oppression, and exploitation in spiritual groups.
Let’s start with the traditional zone. The traditional zone involves studying practices, learning practices, adapting practices, grokking practices, mastering practices and teaching practices. All of these approaches deal with a particular tradition—with a particular set of practices. In the traditional zone, you’re staying within a traditional framework.
The traditional zone empowers you through mastering a particular practice tradition. When you master something, it generally empowers you in some way. Mastery may be threatening to people and institutions whose power depends on a scarcity of mastery. So, ironically, you may find that in a given spiritual group, those whose power depends on keeping mastery scarce may find ways to restrict access to mastery as a way of protecting their power. You may find that there are rules about secrecy—about keeping the more advanced practices or views secret. This creates an artificial scarcity of resources.
The effect of this secrecy can be either beneficial or exploitative. Scarcity can add a certain mystique to advanced practices. It can also increase the power and status of those who have access to those practices, and that can increase the demand for those advanced practices.
I encountered some level of secret secrecy both within Tibetan Buddhism and within a Hindu tradition that I explored. I don’t really like secrecy; I find it annoying. It goes against the values of science that I grew up with, where it’s all about sharing information and sharing knowledge so that we can improve our views and practices. So, secrecy rubs me the wrong way. I gravitated away from practices and traditions that involved a lot of secrecy. In the Tibetan tradition and the Hindu tradition that I explored, sometimes the advanced views and practices were not even written down; they were only offered in person or only offered in levels, where the advanced levels were kept secret.
This is changing these days, as there’s now more openness about practices and traditions. Some of the Tibetan Buddhist practices and views that had been secret in the past, you can find written down in books that you can just order off the internet. One of my favorite books based on the Tibetan tradition is Loch Kelly’s book, The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life. That book covers the core of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahamudra tradition that I’ve found very helpful.
That was the traditional zone; now, let’s talk about the creative zone. In a previous article, Awakening as a Creative Process, I gave a high-level view of how we can engage creatively with technologies, teachers and groups. Here, I’m talking about a lower-level view of approaches that we can take to engage with any given set of spiritual practices, not only as practitioners but also as creators. Three creative approaches that we’ve talked about are experimenting with practices, jamming with practices, and teaching practices. This is the creative zone, as opposed to the traditional zone. In the creative zone, we are moving outside of a given practice framework and we’re creating new frameworks.
The creative zone empowers you through creativity—not mastery. The traditional zone empowers you through mastery of a given tradition; the creative zone empowers you through creativity. So, who is threatened by the creative zone? The creative zone may be threatening to people whose power depends on tradition; so, entry into the creative zone may be ignored, discouraged, or restricted by people whose power depends on tradition.
If you wanted to discourage people from entering the creative zone, how could you do it? You could do it through group norms. Within a given spiritual group, group norms are ideas about what’s good or appropriate and what’s bad or inappropriate. If you have group norms that make it bad to experiment, jam or teach, then you can use the power of the group to keep people from doing those things.
Within a given institution, another way to restrict entry into the creative zone is through restrictive contracts. I experienced this in the Nonviolent Communication community. When I was a certified trainer, there was a long contract you had to sign in order to get that credential, and there were aspects within that contract that restricted what you could teach and how you could teach it (if you wanted to call it Nonviolent Communication). I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is it was restrictive in certain ways, and again, this can be either protective or exploitive.
Restricting access to the creative zone can protect the integrity of a given tradition. Creativity can be disruptive, and if you want to protect the integrity of a tradition, you can’t just have people changing it all over the place—but that protection of the integrity of a tradition comes at the expense of freedom and innovation within that tradition. If there’s too much restriction on access to the creative zone, a given tradition can stagnate because it’s not adapting and changing.
Balance in Spiritual Practice
Now, let’s talk about some questions to consider about all four of the zones that I’ve described so far. Within the cycle of spiritual practice, I’ve described the rational zone versus the intuitive zone and the traditional zone versus the creative zone. Which of these zones do you tend to hang out in, and which of them are unfamiliar to you? Which of these zones do you find distasteful, which of them are you afraid of, and which zones seem off-limits to you? My suggestion is that you consider exploring those zones that you haven’t spent much time in so you can discover their benefits.
For instance, maybe you’re comfortable in the rational zone but not the intuitive zone; then you might try getting in touch with your intuition, getting in touch with your inner teacher. Following directions will only get you so far; you need to get access to your intuition to go beyond that point.
Let’s say that you’re comfortable in the intuitive zone, but not the rational zone. Well, you might ask yourself, are you able to set goals and stick to them? Are you able to follow directions if you want to? Learning to set goals, focus, and follow directions could help you because by doing that, you can benefit from what others have learned. You don’t have to intuit everything yourself.
If you’re interested in teaching and you’re comfortable in the intuitive zone but not the rational zone, you might consider whether learning to express yourself more clearly using reason and the intellect could help you teach more effectively. There are a lot of spiritual teachers out there who just don’t really express themselves very clearly, and clarity is something I have found really helpful both in the student and teacher roles.
Let’s say you’re comfortable in the traditional zone but not the creative zone. You might want to consider loosening up a little bit and having some fun with your spiritual practices. You might want to consider doing some exploring and maybe even sharing what you’ve learned with other people.
If you’re comfortable in the creative zone but not the traditional zone, recognize that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and create everything from scratch. Consider what you could learn from other people, and consider the benefits of going deep, going the distance, going a long way down a path that others have gone.
If you’re involved in a spiritual group, ask yourself whether access to mastery or access to the creative zone is being restricted by your group’s norms or by contracts. If so, ask yourself to what extent this is helpful and appropriate and to what extent this is exploitative or oppressive? If it’s exploitative or oppressive, ask yourself how you want to respond to this. You could respond by choosing to follow group norms, or not; choosing to agree to contracts, or not; or, advocating for changes to those norms and contracts. You can also respond by choosing which groups to be involved in; if your group is exploitative or oppressive in some ways, maybe it’s time to move on.
Let’s review where we’ve been. For any given set of spiritual practices, there are many possible approaches or ways of engaging with them. I’ve described ten such approaches. We tend to cycle through these ten approaches, and I call this the cycle of spiritual practice. Within that cycle, I’ve identified four zones of practice defined by what’s guiding our actions: reason or intuition, tradition or creativity. I described the benefits of each of these four zones and the problems that can arise when we can’t access these zones. I also talked about how the traditional and creative zones are related to power and exploitation.