Practical Spirituality

What is the point of doing doing spiritual work?

Why make an effort to seek truth and free yourself from beliefs, habits, and ways of seeing the world?

Why break out of the mainstream of humanity to take the proverbial “road less traveled”?

For what gain?

Well, spiritual teachings would have us believe that the answer to these questions is the opposite of “gain”. It is the peace that comes from letting go of all that you have accumulated mentally, physically, and in your spirit and soul. And it is not just what you have learned and taken on in this lifetime, but the weight of your past lives, of what has been gifted to you transgenerationally, and even the share of the collective burden of humanity that is yours to shoulder.

Yup. True.

But between where you are now and the end result of true peace is a long, long journey for most. And if you are awake and conscious that you are meant to do spiritual work in this lifetime, the journey usually feels like climbing a mountain that has no top, with little respite along the climb up.

Also true. (mostly)

As I have taken a different spiritual journey than most, what I call “a gentle spiritual path”, my climb has been a different experience.

For sure the climb has been a challenge. There are steep bits that feel like they will never end. And there are bits where the clouds swirl around the mountain and you can’t even see the next step to take. And sometimes the path seems to disappear completely, where you come to a cliff face you can’t seem to be able to get around.

So my path certainly has some of the key elements most spiritual aspirants experience.

But my choice of a gentle spiritual path has also given me some wonderful tools to work with and, per the title of this article, some practical results along the way that truly delight me in this human experience.

First,  a few tools that I use as part of my journey. Think of them as tools a mountain climber might use to climb up the sheer face of a mountain. Sure, some climbers “free solo” their climbs but most are completely laden with gear. Both make it up the mountain, but with lots of effort. Instead, I take the winding walking path up the less steep backside of the mountain where I walk steadily and unwavering up. My climbing tools are like a walking stick and a good set of walking shoes, in comparison. And I  enjoy the view in the sunshine on the less steep side of the mountain when the clouds clear, too.

Tool 1:  The Third Option

Most people, when faced with big challenges see two options:  Left or right. Up or down. This or that. Duality. Most times in life these two options are trade-offs. You gain something and lose something with both.

I have learned a different way to face life’s challenges:  Look for the third option.  Invariably there is one. But you have to look for it. And 100% of the time this third option is “better” than the options of duality. When I find it, I am delighted, grateful, and deeply awed by the power that illuminates my path.

But it is not just looking for a third option, but also having….

Tool 2:  Patience

One thing in the little playbook of life you were not taught is that patience is a really powerful tool. Patience allows a third option to appear in what otherwise looks like a hopeless trade-off of dualistic options.

Patience allows a third option but it also allows for…

Tool 3:  Right Timing

“Right timing” is one of the most powerful tools I have ever learned. In our haste to get what we want in life, including progress up the proverbial mountain of spiritual growth, we push, push, push our way with impatience and forced timing: “I want it right now!!!”

Right timing has saved me from unnecessary pain and suffering so many times that I have learned not to make decisions at all unless it is the right time to do so. This sometimes frustrates some people close to me as I don’t synch with their more rush-based approach to life, but it works for me and the results are so delightful and peaceful that I will never go back to a push-based way of doing things.

Tool 4: Principles

There are certain principles in life that simply work. And on my gentle spiritual path they have meant I not only have a more peaceful experience but also a more joyful one.

To most people principles are a painful set of rules that they dislike and ignore as best they can because they seem hard to adhere to.

To me, principles are the unwavering guides that keep me grounded and safe through the ever-changing weather of life. I never treat them as rules or dogma. Or as prescriptions or scripture. I honour them as companions that never lead me astray…if I have the patience to allow a third option to appear and right timing to take that option.

The actual principles that I honour are the subject of a future article,  but suffice it to say that when I combine these four tools (and some others), I experience a more gentle and joyful spiritual path, far less pain and suffering than I witness in the journey of others, and per the topic of this article, some practical results, too.

Practical = things that make life easier and more joyful = a gentle spiritual path.

Practical results from spiritual work

I chose the above four tools to help explain the practical example I am going to share here that illustrates how spiritual work is very practical along life’s journey and not just useful for achieving the end goal.

The Example:

Every week I drive over 100km (62 miles) between two cities. Along the way are multiple towns, some 20 stop lights, a mountain pass, multiple micro-climates, and lots of highway traffic that changes all the time in density and flow patterns.  The drive takes between 90 and 120 minutes, depending on traffic.

My experience of the drive can be either stressful and tiring or it can be peaceful and enjoyable.

This is where my tools and spiritual practice generate practical results.

As I am driving, I practice patience and right timing. I typically find my own speed that feels just right for the flow of the highway. It is often just above the speed limit, in the traveling lane (right lane), and is never close to the vehicle in front of me.  Vehicles come up behind me, change lanes, and pass me in the passing lane (left lane) all the time. Often they speed by, clearly in a rush to get to where they are going. And they push others to get out of their way. And they themselves are pushed by others behind them.

All this pushing and speeding and changing lanes before they race up to a red light makes them frustrated, stressed, and even angry.

My experience is that I see these patterns because I am not locked into their mind frame. And by seeing these patterns I intuitively slow down or speed up to stay in my own peaceful zone away from their chaos.

I also let people merge into my lane and never cut off anyone by darting in front of them (a principle of respect).

I stay in a peaceful “observer” mode while driving, with calming music playing, alert presence to allow me to see patterns emerging on the highway, and a feeling of flow.

And from my patience and choice of principles come right timing and the third option.

I giggle because I get mostly green lights (right timing) by flowing up to lights rather than racing and then slamming on the brakes between them.

And when a traffic jam occurs because of an accident or construction? I can see the pattern building long before I get there and a third option appears: I can exit the highway and take a parallel service road around the stoppage, for example. This has happened so notably that I now know that it is not a random occurrence.

This is just one example of how spiritual work has very practical results.  As I climb the  proverbial mountain in my own steady but gentle way, more and more results appear.

Spiritual work does not have to only be about about reaching an end goal. It can also be about practical results that make you feel awe, joy, and deep gratitude all along the path.

Simplicity within complexity

Life is complex. It is complicated. It is messy.

This is truth. 

However, there is a common belief among spiritual aspirants that one must create a simple lifestyle in order to progress in one’s spiritual work in a pointed and determined manner. A simple lifestyle is one dedicated to disciplined religious practice in a monastery, for example, or a simple pastoral life, “far from the madding crowd” to quote Thomas Hardy.

If life itself is complex, complicated, and messy, does removing oneself to a lifestyle of simplicity then resolve the very nature of life – that it is not actually simple?

No!

Creating a lifestyle of simplicity may be pleasing and more understandable, but it does not necessarily mean that it helps you make any more progress in your spiritual journey than having a lifestyle embedded in complexity!

“What?!?! You mean that simply donning the traditional cloak and practices of a spiritual aspirant won’t actually get me to where I want to go?!”

(sigh) 

No.

Some notable quotes on this:

“Be in the world, but not of it” (the bible)

“Why did we meditate in a monastery for 30 years and get nowhere when a farmer working his field became enlightened?” (paraphrased from something I read somewhere)

Larry Darrell to Monk: “It is one thing to be a monk on the top of a mountain and another to live spiritually in a city”.

Monk, in response:  “You are closer to enlightenment than you think.”
(From The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham: )

“Life is difficult” (The Road Less Travelled, by Scott M. Peck)

“Life in complex” (The follow-up book, called The Road Less Travelled and Beyond, written because people didn’t understand that life is not simple)

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” (Albert Einstein)

Oh, dear.  A conundrum seems to appear:

“How can I even pretend to be spiritual, much less actually be it, when life is complex, complicated, and messy?! And on top of this, now it seems that creating a lifestyle of simplicity is not the recipe for making spiritual progress?!”

And on the theme of “a gentle spiritual path”, which is the underlying them of my journey and my writing:

“How can one have a gentle spiritual path while living in a life that by nature is not simple?!”

Peace within the chaos of life

The way out of this conundrum is actually pretty straightforward, but as with many things in life, not always easy to achieve:

Learn to be peaceful inside yourself while life swirls its dance outside of yourself. 

Peace is by nature peaceful. It is the opposite of complexity, complication, and messiness. It is the opposite of chaos. And it is simple.

Simplicity, then, is the result of spiritual progress, not a prescription for making spiritual progress.

“How do I find inner peacefulness while living in the chaos?”

Ahhh…now this is great question!

And the answer is an easy one:

You create inner peacefulness!

Hurray! And this is the end of this article.

Ok, so it is not the end of this article.

Why not? Because like I mentioned in an earlier article, simple cryptic sayings may be truth, but they are of little value in helping one actually do anything.

So, what can you actually do to create inner peacefulness?

Some practical first steps:

  • Every single day take some time out from distractions. Even just 20 minutes, 30 minutes, but preferably 60 minutes or more.  Set down your smartphone. Turn off the computer screen, shut off the television, pull out the earbuds. turn off the music.  Put the book down. Remove yourself from other people. Be by yourself.

  • Be uncomfortable in your time out from distractions. Yes, you read this correctly: Be uncomfortable. Do you think that suddenly removing yourself from distractions would be instantly peaceful and relaxing? Heck no! It will most likely be sometimes frustrating, irritating, and even scary. You are spending time only with yourself. You are not used to doing so. Your mind will go crazy trying to fill in the silence gap that external stimuli constantly feeds it. You are literally removing a drug from your mind.

    You will be uncomfortable for awhile. Likely for days and on and off for weeks and months.

    But that’s ok, because on the other side of the discomfort you will find some very real evidence of what you are seeking. “How long will it take?” you might ask. Not to worry: You will get glimpses of the other side pretty quickly. Just glimpses at first, but tantalizing ones that will encourage  you to continue making the effort and keep going.

  • Find the separate observer inside yourself: The consciousness that is watching your mind chatter away and your body doing all kinds of things throughout every moment of every day.

    You are not your mind. You are not your body. You are consciousness observing and living out a mind and body experience.

    You need do little to find the conscious observer inside yourself and spend some time feeling it.  Being free of distractions helps you get started. And telling yourself you would like to be present and feel being an observer can be the trigger to actually experiencing it.

    Spend some time every day in conscious observer mode only. A few seconds at first is all most people can maintain. Then they get lost in thought again. After a few days you will be able to spend 10 or 20 seconds in this mode. In a few weeks you will find you switch in and out of being present as a conscious observer while at the same time going about living your normal life.

    And then…

…You will notice that time spent being a conscious observer feels different.  It often feels a lot more peaceful.

But emotions, tiredness, discombobulation, and distraction will continually knock you out of peacefulness. Just because you have discovered that you are a conscious observer, and being in that mode sometimes comes with a new feeling of peacefulness, does not mean you are “done” and have achieved what gurus, saints, and enlightened being have become.

But you have definitely taken a really powerful first step.

You are for some parts of your complex, complicated, and messy daily life an awake conscious participant. You are now a participant with the power to observe and intervene in response to what their mind and body are doing, rather than reacting unconsciously and instinctively.

You are taking responsibility for your life in the most powerful way possible.

You are becoming active rather than passive. Not active in running around out there in the world doing things, but active inside yourself.

This is real power.

Power that is yours to take back from those influences you have unknowingly given it to:  Distractions, emotions, non-stop thinking, instinctual reactions, beliefs, mental constructs, the story of your past, and your desires for the future.

And now the real work begins. The work of deciding what distractions you will end permanently in your life. Learning where your emotions are being triggered from and deciding if you want to experience the triggered emotions any longer. Consciously quieting your mind. Letting go of beliefs and mental constructs that no longer serve you well. Seeing where the story of your past is coloring your present in ways you not longer wish it to. And letting go of the myriad desires for the future in exchange for only a few important ones that you know will actually be worth having.

But that is what lies ahead.

Right now?

Right now it is worth acknowledging that you have already tasted the inner peace that is yours to have forever if you are willing to take on the real challenge of making it permanent.

Welcome to the biggest challenge of your life and ultimately the most satisfying goal you will ever achieve:

Inner peace and simplicity in the complex, complicated, and messy external experience that is your life.

 

 

Self-empowerment 101: I will make fewer decisions

Undoing mental patterns and habitual behaviors can be devilishly hard to do.  This is in direct contrast to how easily we create mental patterns and habitual behaviors.

I recently began undoing my belief that I have to make decisions all the time.  I guess I made a decision to stop making so many decisions!  A most fascinating and empowering journey has followed.

I gained the belief early in life that we are in control of our lives and destinies.  This control is called free will, and I was taught in school and by the world that it is a precious thing that should be exercised daily.  This belief in my free will has been at the foundation of my philosophy of life.  In fact, I still have the belief that I have free will.

What has changed, however, is in how I choose to use my free will.  One choice I made was to undo the belief that I have to make decisions all the time.  I used to believe that if I am not making decisions all the time I am not actually exercising my free will.

I now have a different belief.  Free will is not about making decisions all the time.  It is about “freely using my will”.

If this is getting too theoretical, here is an example:

ballotElection day.  You are to elect a new government leader.  You are presented with a list of 4 candidates.  You must decide on one and choose him/her.

Full stop.

First, who said you have to choose one from a set of options you didn’t create?

Second, who said you must participate in this decision process called an election?

Why did you buy into these two beliefs?

“If you don’t vote, you are not fulfilling your legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities to this country. ”

Ahhh…there we go:  I was forced, encouraged, or guilted into participating in a decision making process called an election.  And I am a bad person if I do not participate.  Someone decided that participating in elections makes you a good person and not participating in elections makes you a bad person.

Wait a minute!

How many other beliefs and decision making processes have I been invited to ascribe to and participate in?  How many have I chosen to believe and participate in, quite willingly, because I thought it was the fulfillment of the reason I have free will?

Lots, and lots, and lots.

Let’s take a step further back to uncover more goodies:

In university I chose a business education, where I gained the belief that leaders and managers are decisive, taking initiative as a part of their minute-by-minute workday.  One must “drive the agenda”.  And another saying goes:  “Decide, or someone else will decide for you.”

This is where it gets even more interesting:  “Decide, or someone else will decide for you”, is actually a fear-based belief!

I chose long ago not to live or act from a state of fear.

But I am still playing out the habits of my university training and even more traditional acculturation as a man, which says that a strong man is a decisive man!

Decide. decide. decide.

“People who don’t decide are weak, spineless individuals. They are soft.  They don’t take initiative, but let life walk all over them. The meek may inherit the earth, as the saying goes, but I would never want to be meek! Why be a victim when you can be a victor!”

Again, full stop.

This is getting silly.

One last look at this:

How many times have I encouraged my children to make decisions, when they did not understand the need for the decision to be made, the choices available, or the consequences?  And how traumatic was it for me to have to make “blind” decisions as a child or teenager, when I learned that decision making often resulted in outcomes that I didn’t understand and that hurt?  Ouch.

What I believe free will is not

Free will is not about becoming a “decision junkie”, thinking we have to make decisions all the time when we really don’t. It is not about habitually making decisions out of fear, usually without understanding the real reasons for the decision needing to be made in the first place. It is not about accepting the choices we are being presented and assuming without thought that they are the only options and the most valid ones. Free will is also not about making decisions when you don’t understand the importance of the consequences of the decisions.

And it is not about forcing others to make decisions when they don’t need to.

What I believe free will is

Free will is about exercising our ability to choose how we live our lives: What we believe, and how we act from those beliefs.

This year, I will use my free will to undo lots of beliefs and to make fewer decisions. And in doing so, I choose to empower myself to stay focused on the quality of my life itself and how I wish to live it.

I can hear the critics gleefully challenging this logic with “you just made a decision!”

Intellectualize all you want. I won’t play that game (another decision).

I am backing out of my addiction to the distracting activity called decision making.

And in doing so I am taking my power back to use my free will to focus on what will make me stronger and happier in my life.

Teaching reset: “How do you want to use technology in the classroom?”

Every so often I do a reset of my teaching habits in order to see if I am in synch with my MBA students. They are mature adults with years and sometimes even decades of international work experience behind them. I want to be sure I am current with their professional realities. It is time again for a reset, so I used the beginning of the new term to ask them how they wished to use technology during our class time together.

I love turning the tables on my students and inviting them to take ownership of their learning process. Many are delighted with the invitation and eagerly embrace the opportunity. Others are unsure, as their previous learning experiences have been largely out of their control. Empowerment takes a bit of getting used to, as a Japanese student reflected to me at the end of the class.

I had expected the discussion of technology in the classroom to take a maximum of 15 minutes. It would be simple, right?  Use smart phones or not? Easy. Laptops or not? Easy.

Not so.  Each of my three sections of students took over an hour, with one section going to 90 minutes. Clearly, the topic touched on real concerns they had about the use of technology in the classroom and the workplace.

Some fascinating insights emerged:

1.  Personal use of technology is now the accepted norm in the workplace.

The old world of separation between work and personal life is over.  Not only is it unenforceable, but it is simply impractical. Even just 10 years ago the assumption was that when you were at work you were working. Only emergency personal communication was expected by your employer. You should be focused on your work when at work.

Now? While some old-school dictatorial type managers can still be observed in the wilds of the workplace, they are an endangered species.  It is now the socially and professionally accepted norm that you will flow between work and personal smoothly and without significant concern.  Only when you are clearly not getting your work done or are disturbing others with your personal interactions will a concern be raised with you.

This is the world of work.  Students feel that the classroom should be the same as the workplace:  Technology for personal use should be just fine.

2. You are always connected and reachable.

Again, even just 10 years ago when someone in your personal sphere wanted to connect with you they would hesitate if it was during working hours: “Is this important enough for me to ask for your attention?” might go through their subconscious.

Now? Send a text message. Initiate an online chat. Or call. Anytime. You are expected to be reachable 24×7 to friends and family now. For any reason.

3. Everyone must develop their own discipline.

My students were most vocal about this. Do not restrict our use of technology in the classroom or workplace. Let us learn the hard way to discipline ourselves. When we fail in our studies or in meeting our goals in the workplace, we will learn when to put the phone into silent mode and close personal windows on our laptops so that we can focus on what we have to get done.

The Pavlovian urge to check text messages must be overcome by the individual. They need results oriented feedback before they will begin to discipline themselves.

Personally I question this, but mostly for self-preservation reasons as a professor.  When a student fails in their studies their first reaction is that it is not their fault. Blame is projected outward and the blame gun is pointed directly at the professor.  And in this era of “the student is a customer mindset” of institutions, the student must be placated, if only for institutional marketing reasons.

4. Our classrooms and workplaces are 100 years out of date.

This is my personal favourite. We have “Master” centric classrooms with mechanical layouts that encourage students and workers to think and act like robots being prepared for 19th century factories when they graduate. Desks all lined up in the classroom so the teacher is the authority. In the same way, cubicles in the workplace de-humanize employees in the workplace. Yikes.

We brainstormed what the 21st century classroom and workplace should look like.  Tables with wireless charging built into them.  Groupings of tables so that teams can work together face-to-face to solve problems and construct things.  Wireless projectors so that students can easily project what is on their smartphone to the whole class. Continual, natural, and individual-driven use of technology, all the time. Co-working, an emerging evolution of the workspace, is an example of how positive change is happening in the real world, where technology is fully integrated into the physical place people work.

Ahhh….I love the smell of empowerment in the classroom.

But then I asked them:  “May I use my smartphone during class?”

Their reply:  “No! Not you. We paid for you to be here and teach us.”

Clearly, there are still some limits on the use of technology in the classroom. Well, limits on my use, anyway.  And of course, they don’t see the irony:  “Teach us, but we won’t necessarily be listening, engaging, or learning from what you are doing. We might be busy focusing elsewhere with our phones and laptops.  But keep going.  We paid you to do this, so do it anyway. And make sure that we get good grades, too.  Oh, and thank you for doing all that. ”

They are polite.  I give them that.

Musing on Education, Part 1: Why education is not a business and students are not “customers”

Musings on Education, Part 1:  Why education is not a business and students are not customers

I started teaching my MBA course on business responsibility this term with a case study on the Thunderbird School of Business in AZ and the controversy over their privatization efforts. Thunderbird has joined with a private education company to delivery a new undergrad business degree. They have made their undergrad degree a “business”.

I thought this was a nice fresh case discussion challenge for my students:

“Why isn’t your MBA degree a private business? Wouldn’t it make sense to have an MBA degree delivered by a business…an education business?  After all, it seems silly to have a non-profit, government-funded university teaching you how to run a for-profit business, no?”

Well, the discussion didn’t really get very far.  My students knew something was wrong with the logic, but couldn’t really make sense of why.

And I started to wonder why it is that education is increasingly being treated like a business and our students increasingly being called “customers”.

Which led me to think about my 22 years of teaching and designing programs in colleges and universities and what I was really doing all those years.

And this led to some rather startling insights.  Here they are:

1.  The students we have in our classrooms are not our customers.  Instead, we have three other customers:

A.  The parents, teachers, counselors, and everyone else who encouraged the students to go into higher education.

Many students are in my classroom not because they want to be, but because they know of no other way to a better life than what they have been told.   In some cases, pleasing parents is the only reason the students are in my classroom.   So, the customer I am to please in many cases is not the student, but their parents.

B.  Society.

Government pays for a big part of higher education because it knows that education can create a better society.  So, my customer is, at least partly, the government and society in general.

C.  The student’s future self:  5-10 years from now.

Students don’t even begin to really understand what they have experienced and gained in higher education until many years in the future. So for a third time, my customer is not the student sitting in front of me right now, but their future self.

So, if the person sitting in my classroom is not my customer, then who is this person?  Which led to my next insight:

2.  The students in my classroom are the raw material of other stakeholders’ needs. They are the seed that will grow into a tree that others will approve of…including their future self.

And this raw material – this seed – does not even know it is not the customer.

Which led to my next insight:

3.  Students are not aware they are the raw material for other people’s wishes.

They are not aware of the system they are going through.

They are not aware of what education is and how it works.

They are not aware of who and what they really are.

They are not aware that they are not my customer.

Which led to my next insight:

4.  How can education be a business when the student is treated like a customer but they are not the customer?

Which led me to conclude that if education does become a business, it would be a very, very strange animal indeed.

It would be an organization where the raw material – the seed – is treated like a customer when it is not the customer…but believes that it is the customer.

Weird.