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I think we’ve all experienced those times of doubts about our spiritual practices. Am I doing it correctly? Did that teacher know what they were talking about? Is this technique really working?
It’s not uncommon for us to plateau once in a while. We feel like we’ve been making good progress, looking forward to our practices, feeling calm and joyful, noticing positive changes in our life. Then all of a sudden, nothing seems to be happening anymore and the former joy and ease has now become frustration and effort or we feel like we’re on autopilot. Although the temptation will be there, this is not the time to give up. Be patient. There’s a story of a man who went to his teacher and complained that his meditations were boring, he felt restless or just fell asleep. The teacher smiled and replied, “This will pass”. A month later the same man returned to his teacher and said that his meditations were wonderful, he felt joy, bliss and energized. The teacher smiled and replied, “This will pass”. We will all have periods of boredom and ecstasy but the key is to avoid judging yourself, treat each experience equally and remember that your current situation is never your final destination or, as Mother Teresa said, “Restlessness is only the surface level of a beautiful wellspring of energy within”.
The purpose of all spiritual practices is self-realization, to remember that we are not merely this limited mind and body with their stress, fatigue and emotional rollercoaster of pleasure and suffering. But that who we really are is a perfect, joyfully Divine, being of love and light, beyond space, time and all worldly limitations. The reason we suffer is because our true essence has been covered over and hidden. Our spiritual practices are then a process of peeling off the layers of physical, mental and emotional stress, fatigue and toxins so our full beauty and magnificence can shine through.
Spiritual practices are a detoxification or purification process. With balanced daily practices this cleansing is mostly smooth and comfortable, we release a little here dissolve a little there, allowing us to notice the benefits unfolding in our lives as blockages are removed. However, sometimes we may encounter larger obstacles, which take longer to remove, which can cause us to think that nothing is happening. Think of it like driving down a highway. You’re relaxed, enjoying the journey towards your destination. Then you come upon a sign telling you that the road is blocked by a landslide and to follow a diversion. Now you’re going in the wrong direction, it feels like you’re making no progress, it seems like a waste of time. But, eventually the diversion brings you back onto the highway and on you go again. Even though you felt you weren’t making any progress, the diversion made it possible for you to overcome whatever was blocking the highway. This is the time for patience, to maintain regularity of your practices and not give in to the doubts and frustrations. Sometimes we just need to let things happen, or as Thich Nhat Hanh advised, "For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.”
So, during these periods of drought don’t immediately panic and think something is wrong however, if they continue, at some point it might be good to ask yourself if it’s time for a change to your practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning something that has served you for years, often a small adjustment can make a huge difference. Let’s look at some possibilities.
First, take a look at what’s happening in your life. If there are a lot of changes, uncertainties, things or people that are causing emotional challenges, these can be disruptive to our spiritual practices. Ask yourself if there’s something you can do to remove or minimize these distractions. If you are under a lot of pressure and stress, this is when regular practices will support you through them.
Nurture yourself. Your mind and body are the vehicle that carries your soul on its spiritual journey. Any imbalance will be a distraction and slow progress. Look at your diet, are you eating nutritious food? A poor diet, over eating, insufficient sleep or not enough fresh air will create dullness in our physiology, which is reflected in our practices. Spending time in nature is a spiritual experience.
Review your practices. Sometimes trying to squeeze to much into the day can create frustration. Are you a perfectionist? Do you need to lighten up and not be too demanding on yourself. While it doesn’t serve to be lazy and sloppy, doing the best we can and keeping it simple is often best. Avoid extremes, both the Buddha and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita taught the middle way. Consider modifying your routine. Changing the location of some of your practices, perhaps with less distractions, can bring new energy. If you find yourself rushed, try shortening the time so you can always rest for a few minutes at the end. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used to say that if we jump up out of meditation too quickly, we’ll go through the day like a pack of wild dogs!
If you have a yoga asana practice that you once enjoyed but has now gone flat, maybe it’s time to try a different style or instructor. The original intent for asanas was to prepare the body for sitting in meditation. Doing a few simple postures before meditation will help to alleviate some of the restlessness you may be experiencing. If getting down on the mat isn’t convenient, try some chair yoga.
Selfless service should also be part of our spiritual practices. Doing things for others without the expectation of a reward is a great way to open the heart and allow its qualities of love, compassion and kindness to flow through us. This can help us see ourselves in a whole new light and invigorate our other practices.
One thing that I have always enjoyed and found inspiring is reading the biographies of some of the great saints and gurus of all traditions. Most of them started from humble beginnings and many went through a dark night of the soul, but persevered to become great spiritual leaders. Being part of a group of like-minded people can be similarly helpful. Having a kindred spirit to share your concerns and doubts with can be very up lifting.
For most of us, meditation is the most important part of our spiritual practice and should always be included daily. Using a personal mantra is a powerful tool for taking us on the path of self-realization but again, this can sometimes feel stale. If you’ve had a busy day, rather than taking it into your meditation, spend a few minutes doing some breathing exercises. Alternative nostril pranayama is excellent for settling and preparing the mind to go within. When you first close your eyes, take a moment to be aware of how your body feels. If there’s any tension or tightness, breathe into that area and use your breath to soften your body. Check in with your mind, your thoughts and emotions. If you find yourself overthinking, pause for a few seconds, take some deep breaths, consciously let go of anything that’s not important for the next thirty minutes. Start by thinking of something you’re grateful for. This automatically expands the heart center.
There are many different styles of meditation so, if you really feel stuck with the one you are using, try another. However, it can be confusing to keep jumping from one style to another. Mantra meditation takes the awareness from activity to silence, reconnecting us with the field of infinite possibilities and our essence. Guided meditations help to restore balance to the mind, emotions or physical body. Regular mantra meditation will take care of everything but, if you have specific needs, including a guided meditation at a different time of the day, will often be helpful.
When doubts and uncertainties arise in your practice, always ask yourself if this is your higher self talking or your ego playing games. The ego loves to create boundaries and control everything, while our spiritual path takes us to the unbounded. Before making too many changes or adjustments ask your heart for guidance, listen to and trust your inner wisdom. Remember these wise words, it is impossible said pride, it’s risky said experience, it’s pointless said reason, give it a try whispered the heart.
While there will always be bumps in the road, whatever practices you choose to follow should be fun and bring you joy. This whole universe was created to be fun. Try not to take anything too seriously, especially your spiritual practices. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in, forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."
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