A Spiritual Guide to Great Sex

This article is based on my booklet by the same name, and is also adapted from a chapter in Love Lust and the Longing for God.

What?  Spiritual sex…is this an article about Kama Sutra or something?  No.  It is about how the spiritual qualities of intimacy, commitment and character can help you have a really wonderful sex life.  You see, God wants us to be happy and to enjoy all of the wonderful things that this physical world has to offer—including great sex.  He just wants us to do it intelligently, wisely, and in a way that won’t distract us from our spiritual development.  If we look deeply into the writings of most religions, we will discover the eternal secret to truly great sex.

Powerful Sensations

Many sex therapists are fond of saying that the most powerful “sexual organ” we possess is our brain. This means that the mental aspects of sex are more important than the physical ones.  I would like to modify this phrase to say that the most powerful sexual organ we possess is really our heart.  In other words, it is the emotional and spiritual connection we feel—the intimacy between two people—that makes sex really special.

Intimacy Versus Intensity

There are two main ingredients that, when added to sex, almost always increase our feelings of pleasure.  They are intimacy and intensity.  Most people today long for greater intimacy in their relationships.  On the other hand, what the entertainment industry teaches us to pursue is intensity. What most people don’t realize is that these two ingredients are almost always mutually exclusive.  They cancel each other out.

Why do I say this?  Let’s take a look at the qualities and situations that create these two very different states and see how they relate.

What Is Intensity? 

Intensity is the physical sensation of heightened alertness.  Your heart beats faster, your palms sweat, you may feel weak in the knees, and your whole body seems to “buzz.”  In other words, intensity comes in response to a heightened level of adrenaline in your blood stream.  It is a low-level “fight or flight” response that heightens your senses by putting your whole system on alert and under stress.  With all of your senses hyper-charged, sex can be ecstatic, overpowering and exhausting.

But where does adrenaline come from?

It comes from fear.

The entertainment industry would like us to believe that these physical symptoms are a sign of true love.  But if you had this response in the presence of a rattlesnake, would you seek a relationship with it?  Not hardly.

Because it doesn’t “make sense” to be afraid of a beautiful, sexy person standing beside us, we convince ourselves that the feeling we are experiencing is attraction.  But is it?  Consider for just a moment the possibility that what we are responding to is an unconscious awareness that this person could cause us physical, emotional or spiritual pain.

This does not mean that they are evil.  Perhaps you simply sense that they might reject you, love and leave you, recognize your “fatal flaws,” or carry a disease.  If you have grown up in a dysfunctional family, perhaps they remind you of an alcoholic parent, an abuser, or a sex addict.  Perhaps it is a general fear of pregnancy, co-dependency, failure, making a commitment or playing the fool that you feel.

Whatever it is, your body is telling you that you are afraid.  And fear is the opposite of trust, and trust is the foundation of intimacy.

What Is Intimacy?

Intimacy is a profound and complex subject that deserves more explanation than this short booklet can offer.  Nevertheless, there are some key observations that can be made in relationship to sex and intimacy.

Intimacy involves a feeling of knowing and being known; of caring and being cared for, and of physical, mental and spiritual closeness.  Intimacy involves sharing—not just sharing physical pleasure, but sharing time, thoughts, dreams, personal goals and spiritual priorities.  The pleasure that comes from having sex with someone who knows who you really are—both the good and the bad—and loves you anyway, is more satisfying and long-lasting than the pleasure of intensity.

The foundation of intimacy is trust.  Without trust, none of the other aspects of intimacy can be allowed to develop.  So let’s consider some of the elements of a relationship that will create the trust necessary to foster intimacy.

Honesty is the first.  You must know that what a person says is true and that his or her words and actions agree with each other.  On a material level, this may be easy.  But on an emotional level, honesty also requires us to know ourselves in order to be true to ourselves.  A person who does not know his or her own feelings is incapable of being honest about them.  So honesty implies a certain level of spiritual and emotional maturity.

Safety is the second.  You must feel physically safe from violence, disease and financial irresponsibility; emotionally safe from betrayal, abuse and abandonment; spiritually safe from self-centeredness, apathy and decadence.

Good character is the third.  Becoming intimate is a process in which people share their inner lives. There is a metaphoric “mingling of spirit” so to speak. If a person does not have a good character—if they are not kind, loving, generous, patient, etc.—then what they share will reflect their lack of these qualities and become a source of suffering and even spiritual degradation for their partner.

Just as having physical intimacy with a person who is physically unclean can cause disease and even death, so too, emotional and spiritual intimacy with an unhealthy soul can cause spiritual and emotional illness.

Finally, commitment is of paramount importance.  Every action has a consequence.  Love, sex, intimacy—these all have the potential for long-term physical, emotional and spiritual consequences.  It is not safe, it is not honest, and it lacks character to pretend that they only exist “in the moment.”

Along with commitment goes perseverance.  While it is possible to quickly recognize that you want to get to know someone, the process of actually getting to know that person always takes time.  When we try to short-circuit the process, we often end up projecting our hopes on someone rather than discovering their reality.  We fall in love with the person we want them to be rather than the person they really are.

Taking Time

The simple fact is that everything worth having is worth working for.  “Work” involves both time and effort. Playing an instrument, playing a sport, learning to dance, learning to cook, building a house, building a career, learning to listen, learning to care—all of these goals require time and perseverance.  Isn’t it reasonable, then, to acknowledge that something as important and transformative as love, intimacy and great sex requires (and is worth) the same kind of effort?  Think about it.

Spiritual and emotional intimacy develop in stages. We go from strangers to acquaintances, to activities partners, to friends, to close friends, to intimate friends. “Instant spiritual intimacy” is a fallacy.  It is a popular myth because it is very easy to project our fantasies on people rather than wait to see if a person’s inner reality matches his or her outer appearance. “We have so much in common…we think so much alike…It was love at first sight.” No matter how much we want these things to be true, we can’t know that they are until we spend some time together.  If they are true, then the time we spend confirming our initial impressions will be a source of great pleasure and fond memories.  But if we are mistaken, we will be grateful that we “looked before we leaped.”  We may tell ourselves we have fallen out of love just in time to avoid a bad relationship, but in fact, we never loved to begin with.

Physical intimacy also develops in stages, and these stages should follow rather than precede their spiritual counterparts.  “Instant physical intimacy” is really a form of exposure. There is an adrenaline rush that comes from laying ourselves out naked on the table (emotionally or physically) that has nothing to do with knowing, caring or moving closer, but a great deal to do with our deep longing to be known and accepted.  If we do not establish our emotional safety first, then the vulnerability inherent in exposing this longing will only increase our fear and decrease our true intimacy.

Your Choice

So, you get to choose.

If you decide that what you are really interested in is intensity, then you will want to concentrate on those qualities and behaviors that help boost your adrenaline before engaging in sex.  Fear, shame, anger and physical exertion are the four easiest ways to do this. You can see a scary movie, engage in risky, dangerous or illegal activity, or choose a partner who is likely to hurt, shame or abuse you.  Fighting gets the juices flowing too.  Shame, a slightly different “flavor” of arousal, provides some interesting options—you could cross-dress, have sex in a public space, or have your partner spank you, for example. You could also try drugs or alcohol to alter the experience and make it more interesting and intense.

Oh, there is just one word of caution if you make this choice…no matter what you do, you will have to do something a little more frightening, violent or shameful the next time in order to achieve the same level of intensity.  Like other drugs, your body gets used to adrenaline and requires more each time, which means that it is psychologically addictive.  Even relatively safe activities eventually evolve into more risky behaviors when their goal is to increase intensity rather than intimacy.  But boy, will your sex life be exciting…while it lasts.

Or, instead of the addictive spiral of intensity, you can choose intimacy.  Yes, “good old boring intimacy.”  Morally upright intimacy.  Spiritually uplifting intimacy.  Sexually stimulating intimacy.  Eternally improving intimacy.  Safe, warm, comforting, satisfying, transformative intimacy.   Intellectually, emotionally and spiritually stimulating intimacy.  Life-enhancing intimacy.

Intimacy and Spirituality

Does it seem odd to you that the qualities and behaviors that lead to intimacy are also those encouraged by every major world religion?

Until now, you may have thought of the Founders of the world’s religions as a bunch of party-poopers—authority figures who just wanted to spoil your good time by making everyone feel repressed and guilty.  Would it shatter your world-view to consider the possibility that They were trying to help us attain the very best that the world has to offer—even great sex—through the application of spiritual principles?

Honesty, self knowledge, maturity, the safety and security that comes from commitment and responsibility, good character, virtues and high morals—every religion has taught these principles.  On the other hand, they have all discouraged mind-altering substances, violence and risky or shame-producing behaviors.  Isn’t it amazing to discover that the secret of a wonderful, intimate sex life has been hidden in the Sacred Writings of the world’s religions all these years?

The Rest of the Story

OK, so religious teachings can help you develop your capacity for intimacy, and therefore help you have great sex.  But lets be honest.  That is not the purpose of religion.  The purpose of religion is to improve our relationship with God, to help us become the very best people we can be, and to guide society as a whole so that it can continue to advance both materially and spiritually.

Sometimes our desire for great sex has to take a back seat to our larger goals.  Sometimes sex has to wait until we deepen our connection with God, develop our virtues and meet some of our social obligations. Sex always has to wait until we are materially, emotionally and spiritually capable of making a permanent commitment.  This shows our partner and the world that we are ready to create a safe environment for nurturing intimacy.

So, are you mature enough to postpone sex until you are physically, emotionally, materially and spiritually ready for it? If not, then you can forget about having great intimate sex, because, no matter what your age, you aren’t mature enough to experience it, let alone appreciate it.

Having Your Cake…

I know what you’re thinking…why not have intense sex now, and worry about intimate sex somewhere down the road?  Because it doesn’t work that way.

Why?

  • Because you are not a computer, and life is not a game. You can’t push a “reset” button and start all over.
  • Because patterns and habits are hard to change
  • Because getting used by different lovers makes you jaded and disillusioned.
  • Because using other people is a sign of irresponsibility and untrustworthiness.
  • Because you should not put yourself in the situation where you are defined by your sexual behavior.
  • Because maintaining intensity requires increasing levels of risk, shame or substance abuse.
  • Because adrenaline is addictive.
  • Because risky behavior is addictive.
  • Because shame is addictive.
  • Because drugs & alcohol are addictive.
  • Because sex with people you don’t really know only makes you desperate and lonely.
  • Because the people who are willing to have sex with you without really knowing you are desperate and lonely and not very nurturing.
  • Because other people will see your actions and begin to believe things about your character that will make it difficult for them to like and trust you.
  • Because you will observe your own behavior and begin to believe things about your character that will make it difficult for you to like and trust yourself.
  • Because it is hard to have a healthy relationship with God when you don’t like or trust yourself.
  • Because the person you are looking for is not out there.
  • Because the person you are looking for is inside of you.
  • Because making babies is too sacred to do for a cheap thrill.
  • Because dying of AIDS is too painful to risk for a cheap thrill.
  • Because it can waste a lot of precious time.
  • Because it can waste a lot of precious years.
  • Because when sex precedes commitment, sex replaces commitment as the glue that holds a relationship together.
  • Because lust will blind you to a lover’s faults.
  • Because shame can blind you to a lover’s virtues.
  • Because it will deprive you of the joy of experiencing sex and intimacy for the first time with the person you truly love.
  • Because it will give you a variety of experiences that no single mate will be able to live up to, and will foster disappointment, jealousy, and infidelity.
  • Because you deserve the best.

Now, while all of the preceding is true, it is also true that nothing in life is black or white.  God is forgiving. You will not be damned to hell or addicted to a downward spiral of sexual promiscuity after your first sexual encounter outside of marriage.  But there are consequences to our actions.  You can get pregnant, catch diseases, and start habits after only one sexual experience.  Every time we behave in an unhealthy manner, it makes it harder to respond in a healthier way the next time. So why start (or continue) in a direction that will take you somewhere you don’t want to go?  What would you lose by doing it right to begin with?

Contrary to popular belief, getting to know someone sexually will not increase your chances of making the relationship work.  Many studies have indicated that living together, for example, actually decreases a couple’s odds of having a successful marriage.  Many couples remain married for a much shorter time than they managed to live together.  While some would suggest that this means that marriage is bad for a relationship, it really means that people do not know how to make the transition from a relationship based on intensity to one based on intimacy.  Is it not wiser, then, to begin where you want to end up—with loving, honest, committed, trustworthy, safe intimacy?

A “Sensational” Approach to Virtue

It is not enough to simply decide that this booklet is right, and that you will ignore the temptation of intensity while you seek intimacy with the perfect partner.  The whole world is literally throwing pictures of intense sex at you virtually every minute of the day.  It is both impractical and self-defeating to think that you can swim against the tide through an act of sheer will power.  It is easier and more effective to use spiritual insights to re-channel your effort.  How do you do that?

Well, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “nature abhors a vacuum.”  In personal terms, this means that it is impossible to give up something you like unless you first find something even better to replace it with. Acquiring the emotional maturity to experience healthy intimacy takes time and effort.  It will be hard to postpone sexual experimentation unless you can find a way to make the process of becoming emotionally mature exciting, rewarding and satisfying in its own right.

In its simplest form, sexual intensity is about physical sensations.  Physical sensations are very important.  They are the tools by which we prove to ourselves that we are physically alive and unique.  Research has demonstrated that after living in a sensory deprivation tank for as little as two or three days, a person becomes disoriented, hallucinates, and actually begins to lose his or her sense of identity.  It is very important, then, that we not associate delaying sexual interaction with any kind of sensory deprivation.  I mean, who would want to delay doing something that makes them feel more alive and unique?  If that is how you think of the trade-off between intensity and intimacy, then your subconscious mind will rightfully sabotage your best intentions at every opportunity.

So what is the alternative?  The alternative is to explore a whole new world of sensations—sensations that are generated during the process of becoming emotionally mature—powerful spiritual sensations that most people are completely out of touch with.  Now I am not talking about astral-projecting or anything.  You have been experiencing spiritual sensations every day of your life, but have probably not had the vocabulary to identify them or the training to distinguish them.

At the beginning of this article, I talked about the sensations many people mistakenly identify as love, attraction, or excitement, and which lead to intensity rather than intimacy.  The problem is not that we have these sensations.  It is that we mislabel them.  You see, when you meet a person, your eyes see their body, but your soul perceives their spiritual qualities, or virtues.  We call the part of the soul that perceives virtues our “heart” and we experience its perceptions as sensations that we call “emotions.”  In other words, your emotions tell you about your spiritual environment in a way that is remarkably similar to the way that touch, smell, sight and hearing tell you about your physical environment.  Taste, smell, color, emotion, these can all be understood as the sensations generated by perceptual organs—physical or spiritual.

Just as our physical senses can perceive both light and the absence of light or heat and the absence of heat, our hearts can perceive love and the absence of love, justice and injustice, generosity and selfishness.  Our hearts are then moved by these perceptions to generate the sensations we call emotion.  We feel sadness, pain and anger in the absence of virtue, while we feel love, hope and joy when we encounter virtues such as kindness, faith and generosity.

Emotional maturity is the ability to both perceive and identify the virtues in our relationships accurately, and to respond appropriately.  As we train ourselves to perceive, identify and practice a wide range of virtues, we become capable of experiencing a level of spiritual ecstasy that is deeper, richer, and more permanent than any mere physical pleasure we may have sought.  This is the rapture of true love that poetry and great literature are talking about—the sensations that the heart generates when it perceives compassion, nobility, generosity and purity in another person’s soul.

So if spiritual sensations are so much more wonderful and satisfying than physical sensations, why aren’t we all saints?  Why aren’t people spending as much energy learning to love God as they are trying to find a sexual partner?  Well, to put it bluntly, because the world stinks—spiritually that is.

Spiritual pleasure is as natural—and should be as common—as physical pleasure.  After all, humans are spiritual beings with spiritual senses that are as important for understanding our environment as our eyes and ears.  The problem is that, just as physically there is both pain and pleasure, there are spiritual pain and pleasure.  In the physical world, we are carefully taught the difference between dolphins and sharks, even though our chances of meeting either is fairly slim.  But spiritually, we are introduced to sharks every day, and are expected to ignore any spiritual sensations that might indicate danger.  Indeed, we are often told that these people are exciting, suave, or hard workers, thus associating positive virtues to the spiritual sensation of fear.  But when we open our hearts to them, we find cruelty, deceit, and selfishness.

Because our hearts have been fooled so many times, we have trained ourselves not to respond too quickly or feel too deeply when they are touched by a passing virtue.  Our fear of being hurt or overwhelmed by unpleasant sensations has caused us to shut down our spiritual sensors almost entirely. We are, spiritually speaking, holding our breath in order to avoid the stench of the moral swamp we are living in.  This response is perfectly reasonable, but there is an alternative.

The Role of Religion— Training Our Hearts

What we need is a way to know when it is safe to let our guard down and respond to a virtue.  In other words, we need to know how to identify a virtue with our minds before we open our hearts too wide.  This is one of the special gifts that the religions of the world have to offer.  The stories, lessons, prayers and examples that God offers us in the Holy Scriptures of the world’s religions provide helpful tools in identifying, naming, appreciating and practicing the virtues that God wants us to develop.  When you read with an open heart and an open mind, your heart trains your mind to identify the virtues that move it emotionally.  With practice, your mind can then help your heart identify when it is safe to open up in your personal relationships—which brings us full circle.

Combining Physical Sensations with Spiritual Sensations—the Complete Relationship

When you learn to identify virtues, then you can begin to choose friends with whom it is safe to be open.  Relationships become more emotionally rewarding because your heart feels free to respond to a wide range of stimuli.  You will attract more and more friends because your own behavior will naturally demonstrate the virtues you have come to appreciate in others.  These relationships will not be artificially “romantic,” nor will they be sexual, but they will be spiritually “sensational.”  They will, I assure you, involve more positive sensations than any dead-end series of one-night stands.

At some point, however, you will probably notice that one of your friends not only has an emotionally stimulating collection of virtues, but also has a number of practical qualities that would make a long-term family-type commitment possible, pleasant and productive.

When your mind is clear that this person has demonstrated a wide range of virtues such as responsibility, honesty, commitment, maturity and kindness, then your heart can be assured that it is safe to open wide and enjoy the spiritual sensations of love, joy, profound contentment, and even spiritual ecstasy.  These spiritual sensations are not in conflict with physical sensations, but can, instead, reinforce and prolong their duration.  Spiritual love really does improve physical love making.

Isn’t it amazing that even the spiritual sensations that we learned to appreciate as a way to distract us from our culture’s obsession with sex, ultimately complement sex when it is experienced in a safe, appropriate and spiritual context.

Of course, spiritual sensations also add to our experience of fine art, music, food, sports, and … well, that would be a whole new post.

The Heart of Spirituality

An Interfaith Exploration of What It Means to Be Spiritual

Not everyone cares about being spiritual.  The fact that you have clicked on this article suggests that you are one of the ones who do.  People like you (and me) would like to believe that we are spiritual people — but are we, really?  How can we tell?  After all, if you believe in the spirit at all, you know that we are all spiritual — that is, we are all spiritual beings operating through physical bodies.  It’s just that some people are more aware of this fact than others.

When we first become aware of our spiritual nature, it can be an amazing awakening.  Suddenly the world is a different place than it was when we saw everything in purely material and mechanical terms.  Still, once that initial sense of wonder wore off, we were faced with the fact that there is a difference between knowing that you are a spiritual being, and living a spiritual life.

If you will walk with me for a little while, I’d like to reflect on some of the different ways of understanding the “life of the spirit” and what it means to be “spiritual.”  It might help you clarify your path and help you choose a community of fellow travelers to support you along the way.

When people say that they are “into spirituality” they generally mean that they are focusing their attention on one of five very different approaches to life.  All of these approaches are related to spirituality, but they lead in very different directions.   “Different directions” doesn’t necessarily mean towards different religions. You will find people in almost every congregation of every religion who have chosen one of these points of focus. Nevertheless, your focus will have a strong influence on the religion you identify with and the people you are attracted to, so think carefully about what is truly meaningful to you.

The first approach to spirituality

is the use of rituals, practices or techniques to generate “spiritual sensations” such as peacefulness, joy or ecstasy.  Some form of these practices can be found in almost every religion, and include activities such as meditation, repetitive prayer, fasting, dancing, chanting, speaking in tongues, and even simply singing in a choir.  At the extreme end of this approach, people explore the use of drugs, hypnosis, or sensory deprivation to generate powerful sensations.  The more mainstream version can involve candles, incense, or simply the feelings of love and belonging that come from forming close-knit communities.

The sensations these practices generate can include feelings of peacefulness, serenity, ecstasy, oneness, harmony and love, to name just a few.  Who can argue with the beauty of these sensations?  They are the stuff of poetry and prayer.  After all, if our first experiences with spirituality made us feel bad, we probably wouldn’t continue, so it is a good thing that many spiritual practices feel good.

These “spiritual highs” can be likened to a “runner’s high.”  They have both an emotional and a physical component.  They feel good in the heart and in the body, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Many of these practices, when incorporated as one part of a full spiritual life, are both inspiring and rewarding.

But here is the question: Are people who feel peace, joy and detachment when they pray, for example, more spiritual than people who feel restless or agitated while praying? Or is spirituality defined by what we do after we finish praying?

Put another way, should positive sensations be considered the goal of a spiritual life, or are they best understood as byproducts of spirituality?

Our answer to this question makes a difference.

If the focus of your spiritual effort is the generation of positive sensations, then you run the risk of doing things that feel good, even if they are not particularly spiritual.  People have used “spiritual exploration” as an excuse for all sorts of unhealthy activities, such as taking drugs or abandoning a family to go on a spiritual “quest.”

At the same time, if your goal is positive sensations, then you may also resist doing things that are spiritual if they don’t give you that euphoric, positive feeling.  If you pray, for example, because it makes you feel peaceful and loved, will you continue to pray if those feelings go away?[1]  Or if you meditate, fast, sing in a choir or work with a group because it feels good, will you stop doing these things if you get bored or hungry, or if there is conflict in your group?  Will you feel unspiritual if the good feelings go away?

This brings up another problem with focusing on sensations as the sign of being spiritual – the fact that good sensations often do go away.  In fact, the stronger the sensation is, the less time you will probably be able to maintain it. Because of this, the desire for spiritual sensations can turn you into a kind of “spiritual junkie,” hopping from one activity or practice to another – trying to hold onto that spiritual “buzz” that tells you that you really are a spiritual person.  The impulse to try to regenerate that “buzz” will often involve finding a new way to meditate, or a new way to pray, or joining a new community of fellow believers that still see you as new and fresh and exciting, and spiritual.

But…

If spirituality isn’t about feeling good – indeed, if it isn’t about feelings at all, then the sensations generated by these spiritual practices are more or less irrelevant.  They are a pleasant by-product of a spiritual life, but should not be the thing that motivates our actions.  If they motivate us to start upon a spiritual path, then they have served a valuable purpose, but if they keep us on a spiritual treadmill, always reaching for one more “warm & fuzzy” sensation, then they have become a trap and we are better off ignoring them.  They are not at the heart of spirituality.

The Second Approach to Spirituality

Once you realize that there is a spiritual reality that is not the same as the physical world, it is only natural to wonder if the material world can be influenced or controlled by spiritual means.  The second approach to spirituality, then, focuses on trying to control one’s material health, wealth and relationships through spiritual means.

There are three ways to use the spirit world to control your material circumstances – the indirect, the direct, and the very direct.

The indirect approach is to ask God for assistance.  When we humbly ask God for assistance with the affairs of our lives, we know that whatever happens will be what God knows is best for us.  The most pure prayer is simply “let me understand what You want for me and let me be content with it.”  As long as we ask with humility and are open to God’s Will, this is the safest, surest way to use the spirit to influence our lives.

Unfortunately, for some, prayer becomes something more than a humble request.  It is one thing to make prayers of petition a tool for your spiritual growth, and another to make prayers for material goods the focus of your spiritual life.  God is not an ATM machine or your personal assistant.  There are no “special” prayers that God or the universe is obligated to answer in the affirmative.  “Being spiritual” is not about being extra good at getting God to do what you want.  Healing, money, romance – no matter how much you think you deserve them, you don’t get to control what God brings you.

For that reason and others, some choose a more direct approach to using the spiritual to control their material lives.

The Danger of “Spiritual Power”

When we feel poor, weak and helpless, we often turn to the spiritual realm for assistance through prayer.  Some, however, do not just pray for miracles, they demand them. For them, being “spiritual” is about developing their “spiritual powers” by tapping into non-physical sources of energy. They may call these sources of energy metaphysical, supernatural, paranormal or even The Holy Spirit, but the goal is the same.  By learning to control these “spiritual powers” they believe they will be able to improve and control their material life.  One version of this approach to spirituality focuses on such gifts of the spirit as speaking in tongues, interpreting dreams, faith healing, charming snakes and prophesying. It can also involve “special” prayers that God is “required” to answer.

An alternative approach encourages people to explore ESP, telekinesis, fortune telling, levitating, speaking with aliens, channeling the dead, seeing auras, working with crystals, psychic healing, studying pyramids, “manifesting reality” bending the universe to their will, creating miracles, exploring “The Secret” and lots of other things.

While the vast majority of Americans believe that at least one of these spiritual powers exist, most do not make it the focus of their spiritual lives.  Those who do, find that it gives them a sense of destiny and control. Foretelling the future or listening to the guidance of a channeled Master makes life seem less chaotic and dangerous. But the attraction of spiritualism goes beyond that.

As the title of the book The Secret suggests, belief in one or more supernatural power makes you an “insider” who is both more knowledgeable and more spiritual than the skeptics who don’t believe.  It is hard to resist the boost to one’s self-esteem that comes with belief.

Do these spiritual powers really exist?  Like most Americans, I believe that some do.  I also suspect that many don’t.  The more important question, in my mind, is whether they have anything to do with being spiritual.

People who pursue these powers would like to believe that if they have special spiritual powers, then they must be especially spiritual.  After all, they reason, Jesus was the most spiritual person ever, and he performed miracles.  Therefore, if they can perform miracles, they must be spiritual too. Surely if you can levitate, you share a spiritual brotherhood with the Man who walked on water. Right?

I’m afraid not.

Unfortunately, spirituality and tangible earthly power rarely have anything to do with one another.  Using your spirit to gain power over your friends, your future, or your finances does not make you more spiritual, it just makes you power-hungry.  That’s not a good thing.

You see, it is not the amount of power you have, but what you DO with the powers you were given that defines your spirituality. A person who is physically strong can use his or her strength to lift people up or tear people down.  The same is true of spiritual strength.  A weight lifter is not inherently better than a weakling, and neither is a miracle worker.

If I can read your mind, tell you your future and work miracles, and I use these powers to make myself feel better or more important than you, then I am damaging my own soul in the process.  My spiritual power has made me spiritually weak.

If a faith healer, for example, is arrogant and rude, while a medical doctor is humble and kind, which of them is the more spiritual?  Both heal.  What determines their spirituality— the method they use to heal, or the spirit in which they heal?

One might assume that an arrogant and rude person would never be given the gift of healing in the first place, but there is no evidence for this   belief.  Consider this observation from the New Testament:

 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13)

This doesn’t say that if you don’t have love you won’t be able to perform miracles.  It says that even if you can perform miracles, you are nothing if you don’t also have love. If talking with angels, predicting the future and moving mountains doesn’t make you spiritual, then levitating and seeing auras certainly won’t either.

This still leaves a question. Though having spiritual powers does not make you spiritual, is it possible to pursue the development of spiritual powers and remain spiritual?  I don’t know.  Here is my concern:

Because the pursuit of spiritual power is, at its core, a pursuit of power, not spirituality, it attracts people who like power — and people who like power often like to abuse it.  The phrase “power corrupts” takes on special meaning when applied to people who claim special powers.

Right now there are thousands of books, workshops, gurus and organizations that offer to share a special power or teach a secret knowledge … for a price.

If I may, I would like to share two of these secrets with you for free.

The first is that it is easy to appear to perform miracles.  Ask any magician.  Between misdirection, hidden technology, planted assistants and the placebo effect, it is easy to make people see what they want to see and even experience what they want to experience.  The more you want spiritual powers, the easier it is to demonstrate them to you.[2]

The second secret is that it is easy to offer to teach people how to perform miracles themselves…as long as the path to mastery is long enough and expensive enough that students will be forced to give up before they achieve their goal, or they can be convinced that it is their lack of spiritual worthiness that caused their failure.

Does this mean that I don’t believe in the possibility of miracles?  No, I am not that jaded.  There are some powers, such as communication between souls, that I am fairly certain do exist, but I have never seen anyone achieve it by an act of will.  When it happens, it comes as a gift.

I’ve pondered why this might be.  My thought is that it may be because these powers might only be intended for the use of our souls after we leave our bodies.  Trying to practice them now might do more harm than good. It could be like a fetus trying to explore the world outside the womb by poking holes in its placenta.

Those powers that we are meant to practice in this life don’t need to be pursued.  They will come to us when we need them.  If you have a dream that gives you an insight, or serendipitous good fortune comes your way, those are gifts.  You can benefit from them without trying to control them.

The Third Approach to Spirituality

For some people, the realization that they have an immortal soul brings with it a concern about what the next life will bring.  For them, a spiritual life is a life spent following the rules that will guarantee them salvation. For some, salvation means getting into heaven.  For others, it means attaining Nirvana, reaching Cosmic Consciousness, or avoiding rebirth. This view of spirituality is very concrete, and the path it takes is usually equally specific.  There are things to believe, words to say, rituals and sacraments to observe, mantras to chant, and actions to be avoided.   Some aspects of this approach may resemble an attempt to generate positive sensations because it can include some of the same ritual behaviors.  But these rituals are not about the sensation, only about the desire to be obedient and win Divine approval.

This approach to spirituality is very popular and has a long history.  A famous French philosopher described what is known as “Pascal’s Wager.”  He said that if there is no God and we act as though there were, then when we die, we have lost nothing.  But if there is a God and we act as though there weren’t, then when we die, we lose everything.  Therefore, it is a better bet to believe in God.  This idea has guided the thinking of so-called religious people for centuries since. It can be summarized by the billboards you may have seen along the road: “Avoid Hell – Trust Jesus Today!”

I have three concerns with this approach to spirituality.  The first is that it turns spiritual life into a process of following lists of rules rather than being moved by the spirit.  The second is that it envisions some kind of arbitrary line that one has to cross in order to get on the “right side” of God.  Either you are in heaven or you are out; you reach Nirvana, or you don’t; your consciousness is Cosmic or pedestrian.  Somehow I don’t think of my spiritual progress in such black and white terms.

Finally, if we obey God just so we can get into heaven, then we’ve really made heaven our God, and belief in God is just a means to an end.  We need to ask ourselves, if we could get to Heaven, Nirvana, or whatever, just by snapping our fingers, would we still make the effort to pray, meditate, follow our religion’s teachings or try to be good people?

Put another way, if we got to heaven and found out that God was in Hell serving iced tea to the suffering sinners, would we stay in Heaven where it was pleasant, or go to Hell to be near to God?  After all, what does it mean to “be near to God?”

Answering that question will point us towards what it really means to be spiritual.

If you kind of liked the idea of going to Hell to serve iced tea, then you will identify with the fourth approach to being spiritual.  It is not the last, but it is getting close.

The Fourth Approach to Spirituality

The fourth approach to spirituality is to follow a path of service.  It is based on the idea that “spiritual” is not defined by how you feel, what your powers are or where you go when you die, but rather “spiritual is as spiritual does.”  A spiritual person serves humanity.  Therefore, to be spiritual, you must serve others.  This truth is expressed in many beautiful quotations, starting with this one from the New Testament:

Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:  for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’  Matthew 25:34-40

Here are some others:

  • Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve… You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.  Martin Luther King, Jr.
  •  Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity. Buddha
  •  The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. Mohandas Gandhi
  •  There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.  Woodrow Wilson
  •  The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  •  This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer.  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

 So if a spiritual person serves others, does that mean that service to others is my definition of what it means to be spiritual?

No.

Like positive sensations, power and heaven, I believe that service is a by-product of spirituality, not its essence.  I say this because it is possible to serve without love.  One can serve for many reasons, including ego gratification, financial gain, to get to heaven, and even as a distraction from doing necessary personal spiritual work.  Service, by itself, is not an expression of spirituality.  It is the motive behind the service that matters.

As Mother Teresa said: “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.”

Having said this, I also believe that it is not possible to be spiritual if you don’t also serve others.  The two are inextricably linked.  To understand why this is true, you have to understand what the true heart of spirituality is.

What, Then, Is The Heart Of Spirituality? 

The essence of spirituality is the love of service.

But that is not all.

It is also the love of kindness, compassion, courage, creativity, patience, integrity, forgiveness, and faith.

It is an attraction towards justice, humility, beauty, wonder, reverence and a host of other spiritual qualities.  These spiritual qualities, also known as virtues or character traits, can also be thought of as the Attributes of God that have been placed within the human soul.  Therefore, loving these qualities is another way of saying “loving God” and expressing these qualities is another way of saying “being near unto God.”

Because we are all created in the image of God, loving God and being near to God also involves loving and expressing our own highest nature.  This intertwining of love and expression of Divine qualities in the human soul means that there are many different ways to talk about the condition that I am calling the heart of spirituality.

At different times and in various religions, people have called this spiritual condition:

  • Love of God
  • Nearness to God
  • Love of virtue
  • Love of the Names and Attributes of God
  • Being Filled with the Spirit of Faith
  • Attraction to our highest Human Potential
  • Reflecting the Light
  • Heaven, The Kingdom of God and Nirvana
  • Being drawn to the light
  • Being Born Again
  • Seeing virtue as its own reward
  • Living with Integrity
  • Becoming your True Self

Whatever words resonate for you, I am describing a spirit, a driving motivation and underlying intention that is based on a love of doing what is right, true and beautiful — regardless of whether it feels good, generates prestige or power, or promises any external reward.  This is the heart of spirituality.

If more people were motivated by this love, the world would be a very different place.

Choosing to Become More Spiritual

If you are not sure whether or not you really, truly love practicing spiritual virtues such as service, humility or patience — don’t despair.

While it only takes a moment to recognize the fact that we have a spirit, training our spirits to love the good and let go of the rest is a lifelong process.  It starts with an initial desire to be “good” for its own sake.  Even just the desire to be “better” may be all it takes to set the soul on the path to true spirituality.  That is the first step, and it is often the hardest.  The fact that you have read this far suggests that you have taken this step and are ready for what comes next.

Once you decide that you want to do more than just go through the motions of being spiritual — that you want to develop your natural love for virtues so that you can put them into practice — the next steps become fairly obvious.

You see, if virtues were ugly things – a burden to be suffered in silence – then we would really have to work hard to learn how to love them.  But virtues aren’t ugly.  It is not painful to practice them.  It is freeing.  It is beautiful.  It is rewarding.

If we knew them better, we would already know that.

So the obvious next step is to get to know them better.

The more you know about virtues, the more you will love them — and in loving them, you will love both yourself and your Creator even more.

Many people say they love God.

But everything we can ever know about God is shown to us through His attributes, and every one of His attributes is reflected in our own souls.  If we really understood what it means to love God, we would spend our days searching for His attributes within ourselves so that we could bring them out into the world of humanity.

If we love the God of Love, then we must love serving His children.  If we love the God of Creation, we must love being creative.  If we love the God of Justice, we must love being honest and fair.  When we truly understand what it means to love God, then we will know what it means to love virtues

Integrating Knowing and Loving

This link between knowing and loving means that “being spiritual” cannot be thought of as the opposite of “being rational.”  Nor is it the opposite of “being physical.” It is not about choosing emotions over logic, or faith over facts, or spiritual desires over physical needs.  True spirituality integrates all aspect of the human experience. It is holistic, involving the mind, heart and body working together.  The mind must learn to recognize the nature and purpose of the soul’s many virtues.  The heart exercises its capacity for attraction, and the body follows the guidance of the Will as it puts the virtues into practice in daily activities. Knowledge, attraction and action – mind heart and body – all have to work together and in harmony for true spiritual growth to take place.

Getting to Know Virtues

How do we get to know virtues?  How do we learn to recognize them when they are there, and identify which are missing when they are absent?  By using the three tools we were given – mind, heart and body – to explore, experience and practice the virtues that we were created to develop.

Using Our Minds

Our minds can be used to read scripture, study the lives of Saints and Prophets, study philosophy and great literature, and observe the people around us.  From these, we learn the names of the virtues that God wants us to develop.  We see them expressed by others and develop our own understandings of how they look in practice.  With the help of prayer and meditation, we can make decisions as to how to behave based on this acquired wisdom combined with our own experience.

Using Our Hearts

Our (spiritual) hearts (not the physical ones that pump blood, but the ones where the Spirit dwells) do two things for us.  First, they are attracted towards God – which, as I’ve explained, means they are attracted towards virtues.  Just as we naturally lean down to smell the fragrance of a rose, our hearts naturally lean towards the good and want to experience it.  But the heart can do more than just register the presence of virtues.  Just as we can tell the difference between the smell of a rose and the smell of a lilac, our hearts can tell the difference between kindness and courage, between love and loyalty.  Different virtues generate different feelings, and those feelings are called emotions.  We feel generous.  We feel peaceful.  We feel reverent.  We feel love.[3]  The absence of virtues can also generate feelings – feelings of sadness, anger or shame.

This means we can use our hearts to identify the virtues around us.  Our own actions and those of others will generate emotional responses.  If we are paying attention, we can find correlations between the feelings we feel and the virtues our minds tell us are present.  Neither the heart nor the mind can do this alone.  We can tell the difference between the scent of a rose and a lilac because we were taught the difference.  We must train our hearts in the same way, by paying attention to the subtleties of our feelings and holding them up to the light of Scripture and the example of people of character.

Using Our Bodies

When we think we understand the virtues around us – both those that are present and those that are absent and in need of expression – then we act.  It is in acting that we discover whether our understandings are accurate or not.  Every problem is caused by the absence of a virtue.  When we know virtues and love virtues, then we can find the right virtue to add to any situation to make it better.

Contemplating virtues will not change the world.  Feeling good about virtues will not make you a better person.  It is only by practicing virtues – applying them to real life situations – that we live a spiritual life.

But wait!  Didn’t I just say that service was not the essence of spirituality; that love of virtue was?  Yes.  But you can’t love virtue without wanting to practice it.  It is as the New Testament says.  We are saved by faith, not by deeds, but faith without deeds is dead. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:26) 

Faith is an attraction to the invisible Attributes of God.  We believe they exist, even though we can’t see them.  We prove they exist by expressing them in action.  This is why faith precedes works, and why love of virtues precedes service.  They go hand-in-hand.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. Poet Rabindranath Tagore

Loving God is not some abstract, go-into-a-trance-and-become-one-with-the-universe kind of activity.  It is loving the purest expressions of virtues that we can imagine, and modeling our behavior after that ideal.  We do this, not on a mountain top, not in a retreat center, not in a community of people who all look and think like we do, but in the real world, surrounded by real people.

The Role of Religion

If spirituality is about developing our virtues, then why do we need religion at all?  The Founders of the world’s great religions—often called Prophets, Divine Messengers or Enlightened Ones—aid our spiritual development in three ways.  First, through their teachings we learn about the virtues that God wants us to develop—virtues like meekness, peacefulness and compassion.  These are virtues that most societies would otherwise fail to recognize as valuable.  What political leader, for example, would encourage people to “turn the other cheek?”

Second, and equally important, They make these invisible virtues visible through the example of their lives and actions.  In demonstrating virtues, they inspire our love for them, and because of our love for them, we become open to even more virtues that we might otherwise resist developing.

Third, They become the focal points of communities of people who are committed to supporting one another in practicing these same Divine virtues.  It is much easier to develop your character when you have the support and encouragement of those around you.

Finding a Spiritual Community

Unfortunately, over time, these communities often begin to break into smaller pieces as the original purpose gets forgotten.  Some begin to focus on feeling good, some on power, some on following rules in order to get to heaven, a handful on service, and very few on loving and practicing all of their virtues.  Even so, there have always been, and will always be a few people in every religious community that intuitively understand the true nature of spirituality and try to practice it in their lives. These people see past the superficial activities of their groups and focus instead on the meaning behind them.  These are probably not the people sitting at the front of the room shaking their fingers, giving directions or being bowed down to.  They are the ones in the back, teaching the children or cleaning the kitchen.  Look for them in any gathering.

If you don’t find them in your community, don’t be afraid to try joining a different group to see if more of its members seem to be filled with a spirit of love—love of God, love for each other, and love of the virtues they were given to develop.  You might start with the person who gave you this booklet.  Do they talk about loving God, or are they loving?  Do they talk about unity, or are they unifying?  Listen to their deeds, not just their words.

And if you find that in your entire circle of friends or even your entire city there are only one or two people who are truly loving and dedicated to being kind and honest, then consider yourself lucky to have found them, and treasure their company.  Be glad that your heart can recognize the qualities they possess.  Strive to be that kind of person for someone else.

In conclusion:

Becoming one’s True Self by exercising virtues sometimes feels good, and sometimes it hurts like hell.  Sometimes it reveals wondrous “spiritual powers” and sometimes it leaves us exhausted.  Sometimes it seems the surest path to heaven, and sometimes it feels like we are taking two steps back for every step forward.  Sometimes it leads us out into the world of service, and sometimes it leads us back to a deeper exploration of ourselves.  Being spiritual will not guarantee that the angels will always put the wind at our backs.  Quite the contrary, being spiritual is a conscious choice to take the hard road, to love the seemingly unlovable, to persevere in the face of a thousand obstacles, and to simply do “what is good” when no one else will.

This fifth approach to spirituality is deceptively simple, but it is not very easy.  This makes it the least attractive of the five.  There is no secret here. No one has been hiding some deep, profound truth from you. There is no one to blame if you haven’t tried it, and it is unlikely anyone will give you brownie points if you do. You don’t need to pay anyone for the password that will get you into heaven or the mantra that will unlock your soul. Levitating will not get you a single inch closer to God. Reading minds, telling the future, talking to plants – none of these things would make you a bit more spiritual unless you were to use them as a tool for loving and serving people.

The only “ego boost” this approach can possibly give you is the humble satisfaction of knowing that you have reconnected with the same definition of spirituality that we’ve had for at least three-thousand years.

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?  (Micah 6:8)

This truth was reiterated by Jesus when He said:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  Matthew22:37-39

 Peace.

 

If you are not sure whether your religion supports this approach to spirituality, I encourage you to read your scriptures while looking for references that relate loving God to practicing virtues, as well as references to our ability to reflect God’s qualities or find the Divine within ourselves.  Here are just a few from different religions to get you started.

  • Conform yourselves to the character of God. Islam.
  • The Superior man reflects in his person [Heaven’s] virtue.  Taoism.
  • Father, O mighty Force, That Force which is in everything,
    Come down between us, fill us, Until we become like Thee,
    Until we become like Thee.   African Traditional Religions
  • Religion is basically virtue, which is grounded ultimately in the spiritual nature of man.           Jainism.
  • “What is the purpose of our lives?”  “To acquire virtues.” Bahá’í
  • The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.            Christianity
  • The believers whose faith is most perfect are those who have the best character.”            Islam.
  • The spiritual love of God maketh man pure and holy and clotheth him with the garment of virtue and purity.     Bahá’í

[1] I met someone who used hypnotism to generate feelings of euphoria every time they prayed.  This increased their desire to talk to God, but did it increase their willingness to listen?

[2] A favorite hook for attracting students is to offer to teach them how to see “auras.”  What they are really shown is an optical illusion created by “retina burn” which is produced by staring at a high-contrast silhouette.

[3] This is another reason why focusing on spiritual sensations as a path to spirituality is ineffective.  Each situation calls for a different virtue and every virtue feels different.  No matter how wonderful a particular virtue is and how pleasant the sensation it generates, it won’t meet every need. If you dedicate yourself to feeling peaceful, for example, then you will be less open to developing your creativity, and you might even resist developing your enthusiasm and courage because they might interrupt your serenity.

My Favorite Author Interview

I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for a series of podcasts called A Baha’i Perspective, produced by Warren Odess-Gillett. He asked me about my life and influences, then we talked about how I got into publishing. At minute 23 we start talking about the four main books I’ve written – Falling Into Grace (minute 23), Why Me? (minute 28:30), My Baha’i Faith (minute 36:30), and we round out the interview with an extended discussion of the three separate parts of Love, Lust and the Longing for God starting around minute 42:20.  If you haven’t read any of my books and would like a quick, painless and free way to learn the basic concepts behind each of them, this is your chance.

Click here to listen to the podcast, and click here to go to the home page of the series to see who else you might want to hear about.

My Book Tour Talks Are on YouTube!

I gave five talks in three days during my book tour of SE Michigan.  Three of them were recorded, but at this point only snippets of two are available at Alan Gamble’s page.  You can check them out by clicking here.  If you just want a taste of my presentation, here’s a short clip about finding the right person to spend your life with.

I had such a good time that I’m eager to hit the road again.  If you would like me to come to your area, let me know.

Book Tour!

It is time for another book tour – this time South Eastern Michigan – and it is this weekend! I’d love to see you all. Here is the schedule:

Friday March 28
The Secret of Emotions
3:30-5pm Jackson District Library’s Carnegie Branch, 244 W Michigan Ave., Jackson – .

A Conversation on Healing
7-8:30pm Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Rd., East Lansing

Saturday March 29
The Science of Happiness
1-2:30pm Adrian Public Library, 143 E. Maumee St., Adrian

Songs & Conversation on Unity
4-6pm King Community Center, 1107 Adrian St., Jackson

Sunday March 30
The Secret of Happiness
12:30-1:30pm Baha’i Center of Washtenaw County, 5550 Morgan Rd., Ypsilanti

By the way, if you would like me to come speak in your area, all you have to do is ask (and help with expenses).

The ABCs of Virtues

If we want people to understand the relationship between virtues and emotions, we will probably need to start young.  Toward that aim, I’m working on a new project – a Virtues Alphabet Refrigerator Magnet set.  I’ve decided that along with the 60 magnets – each of which contains a letter and a virtue that starts with that letter – I should offer my own parent-friendly definition of each virtue.  I welcome your comments.  (Since comments are moderated, they will not appear immediately, but I’ll post them as fast as I can.)
You already know what these virtues mean, but here are some helpful hints as to how to apply them to your children:

Call them active when they initiate activities other than watching TV or playing video games.

Call them adorable when they do something that melts your heart.

Call them attentive when they listen to what you are saying, even if there are lots of distractions.

Call them brave when they try something new or challenging.

Call them beautiful when they are a pleasure to be with.

Call them creative when they put things or ideas together in a new way.

Call them courteous when they say please and thank-you, or are polite in social situations.

Call them dependable when they do what they say they will.

Call them delightful when they make you smile.

Call them eager when they are excited about doing something.

Call them eloquent when they use words well for their age.

Call them energetic when their youthful energy is being channeled wisely.

Call them excellent when they achieve something at the top edge of their ability.

Call them forgiving when they let go of anger or disappointment with a friend.

Call them friendly when they make an effort to get along with their peers.

Call them generous when they share something of theirs with a friend or family member

Call them gentle when they handle small animals, babies or delicate items with care.

Call them helpful whenever they help you do something – even if you have to make up an artificial need so that they can practice this important virtue.

Call them happy when they are enjoying the many virtues that surround them.

Call them independent when they try something new on their own.

Call them intuitive when they express a thought or feeling about their environment that might not be obvious at first glance, or that they figured out through an emotional insight rather than through their rational understanding.

Call them idealistic when they express hopes and dreams for a better world.

Call them just when they choose to be fair, whether it is in a game, or when dividing treats.

Call them joyful when they take pleasure in their own growth.

Call them kind when they show concern for other people and animals.

Call them knowing or knowledgeable when they share with you something new they have learned.

Call them loving when they perform acts of kindness or service for those they love.

Call them loyal when they show support or say positive things about one friend or family member to another.

Call them mature when they behave in a way that is advanced for their age, or do NOT behave in a way that might be considered typical for their age.

Call them modest when they 1) dress and behave appropriately for their age and gender or 2) avoid bragging or boasting about their accomplishments.

Call them noble when they strive to be their very best.

Call them nurturing when they care for those weaker than themselves.

Call them observant when they notice something interesting and point it out to you.

Call them optimistic when they show a positive outlook towards some future endeavor.

Call them organized when they clean their room, compete a puzzle or successfully take on a task with multiple parts.

Call them patient when they wait for you.

Call them playful when they are having fun being silly.

Call them questioning when they want to know more.

Call them quiet when they are willing to moderate their noise level to match the situation.

Call them radiant when they are so full of life and love and enthusiasm that you can hardly stand it.

Call them respectful when they control their impulses in respect for the rights and feelings other people, or when they do thing that show that they value people and things other than themselves.

Call them strong when they put forth extraordinary effort, either physically or emotionally.

Call them sincere when they express how they really feel.

Call them truthful when they tell the truth – even if it is difficult.

Call them thankful when they express gratitude.

Call them unique when they do something that demonstrates their unique personality or way of thinking.

Call them unselfish when they give up something they want for someone else.

Call them unified when they successfully negotiate with other children or family members to do things together.

Call them vibrant when they approach a task full of energy and enthusiasm.

Call them virtuous when they demonstrate a combination of any of these virtues, but especially the kind, loving, selfless and generous ones.

Call them wise when they recognize the difference between what their impulses demand and what their virtues require.

Call them wonderful when you are amazed at how well they are practicing these virtues.

Call them expressive when they use words, gestures and emotions to communicate their experience.

Call them exuberant when their enthusiasm is so contagious that you catch it yourself.

Say “you are being yourself” when they express a personal opinion or do something that makes you want to smile because it is just so “them.”

Say they are yearning when they want something good for them or the world with all of their heart.

Say they have zeal when they express commitment and enthusiasm for achieving a goal.

Call them zestful when their natural joy of life bubbles over.

 

Finding an Alternative to “Better, Special and Right”

I spent much of my life trying to be better, special, and right. The only alternative I could imagine was to be worse, ordinary and wrong and no one wants to be that.
Now I’m trying to teach myself (and my kids) that it is possible to be unique, valuable and connected instead. It is difficult to overcome years of conditioning. I still want to be best. I still want to be right. I still long to be special. But all of those adjectives create barriers between me and others.  They keep me in a state of comparison instead of a state of compassion.

Unique is not special.  We are all unique.  Paradoxically, it is one of the many qualities we have in common with every human on earth.  Our ability to recognize our own and other’s uniqueness helps us to connect with others as sovereign identities.  Being unique is one of the things that gives us value.  Even if every link in a chain appears identical, it is unique, and it plays its unique role in life.  No other person – no other link in the chain of life – can take another’s place.

But for that uniqueness to have an effect, it must be connected.  Without a connection to the rest of humanity, a person’s unique contribution to the world will be lost.  It doesn’t have to be the best contribution, a “special” contribution, or even the right contribution.  It just has to be that person’s contribution.

I came to understand that participation is more important than being right when I realized that Aristotle was wrong about almost everything he said. Seriously.  He had some crazy ideas. But the fact that he was willing to share his ideas and explore them with others made him a valuable contributor to the world of ideas.

Like Aristotle, I can offer unique and valuable insights – even if they turn out to be completely wrong.  I can offer unique and valuable service – even if it is not perfect; even if it’s not better than the guy’s beside me.  It is my desire to be of service, my willingness to contribute and my whole-hearted participation that defines who I am, not whether I am better, special or right.

Even if the only thing I can do is to be the person that someone else practices their patience and compassion on, that is still a link in the chain and it serves a valuable purpose.

This is a real challenge to smart, talented and/or beautiful people – to truly be able to believe that they would still have value if they were slow, untalented and ugly.  Humility is not about seeing yourself as low, but about understanding that EVERY person on earth is just as valuable as you are, no matter how un-special and wrong they may be.

I tell myself this.  I try to believe it, but it goes against 57 years of conditioning. I pray to God that – as I grow old and weak and forgetful and needy – I can hold onto this belief and begin to internalize it enough that I can be at peace when even the dream of being better, special and right is beyond me.

This is what it means to pray for humility.

A Simple and Comprehensive Overview of Life

It has been a while since I posted anything here, so to make up for my absence, I’m going to tell you everything I know in one short post.  The rest is just details.

The purpose of life is to become our true selves, to reflect the qualities of God in the world of creation and to acquire virtues – which are three ways of saying the same thing.

In order to acquire virtues, we need to be able to recognize them, become attracted to them and practice them.

We learn to recognize virtues by using our hearts to perceive their presence or absence, and our minds to analyze, compare, contrast and correlate our experiences with our emotional responses to them.

We become attracted to virtues by opening our hearts to the positive sensations we feel when we experience or express a virtue.

Virtues are a form of energy.  They motivate us to act.  They are like food for the soul.  They give us the energy we need to exercise our will.

Happiness comes from surrounding ourselves with God’s virtues.  Joy comes from acquiring God’s virtues.

The physical world is not just a vague metaphor for spiritual reality; it is an active reflection of the spiritual world.  Virtually every spiritual phenomenon has one or more forms of expression in the material world.  Human souls and human bodies exhibit many “parallel systems.”  We can learn more than we think about the soul by studying our bodies – and vice versa.

Our “higher nature” is that part of us that is attracted to the attributes of God themselves.

Our “lower nature” is that part of us that is attracted to the symbols (or reflections) of God’s attributes.  Both are good.  One is better.  We can learn to turn an attraction to the symbol into an attraction to the virtue.

The inner life of the human soul is reflected in the social organization which it has collectively developed.  We are composed of an inner community which must be unified, coherent, consistent and well-organized in order for us to live spiritually healthy lives.

The only way to achieve this is to practice internal consultation – that is, to meditate and learn how to listen, not just to our loud conscious thoughts, but to our quiet subconscious thoughts and feelings as well.  They don’t always point in the same direction.  Helping each voice be heard and resolving any differences between them brings us peace and inner unity.   The technique called “focusing” is an excellent first step in acquiring this skill.

All of these skills – the ability to love and acquire virtues, and to create a harmonious inner and outer life – exist potentially in every person, and can be developed through education, prayer, meditation (internal consultation) and practice.

The religions of the world offer us inspiration, guidance and examples to follow.  They are how we come to know what virtues really are.

That’s it.  Once you know why you are here and how to get pointed in the right direction, the rest of life is in the traveling – or in the making music if you prefer.  Enjoy.

Kill Them with Kindness, or Turn the Other Cheek?

Last week I had a spat with one of my customers that ended with them demanding more of a refund than I thought was justified or fair.

I stewed over this conflict for hours over the course of several days.  When the returned goods arrived with yet another snotty note and demand for payment, I had to make a decision as to what to do.

Should I give in to an unjust demand, or stand up for myself and only refund what I thought was fair?  I was becoming more angry and agitated the more I wrestled with my decision.

I knew that this was not healthy.  I tried walking thorough the steps of forgiveness that I understood so well intellectually, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Finally, I realized that there was a difference between what was right, and what was spiritual.  The world’s scriptures don’t say to treat fair people with fairness, they say to treat your enemies with kindness; that we should turn the other cheek, not because it is just or fair, but because that is how we change the world.

As I contemplated this idea while still stewing in my anger, I remembered a talk I had given in college about the three spiritual stages we can act from in our dealings with our enemies.

The first is to continue to see a person as an enemy, but be kind to them anyway – first because it is the right thing to do, but second, because doing so will drive them crazy.  This is summarized beautifully in this very graphic Proverb:

 “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:  For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.” Proverbs 25:21

The second stage is to see mean people as enemies, but to love and pray for them anyway.  Jesus says this right after telling us to turn the other cheek.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Matthew 5:43-44)

That’s pretty darn hard, but there is an even more challenging stage available to us – that of not even seeing people as enemies in the first place.

“Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends….” Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 1

In this situation, I knew that I was not yet capable of the third level of spiritual kindness, and wasn’t even feeling the love that I needed for the second.  What I could do, however, was to heap coals on this person’s head by being exceedingly kind.

I decided to not only refund the amount that they asked, but to refund 10% MORE than what they had demanded.  At least this way, no one could accuse me of being unfair, and I could finally let go of the tug-of-war in my own head about whether I was being unprofessional or not.

There is a Chris Williamson song with a chorus that goes “Gonna KILL them with kindness. Gonna kill them with KINDNESS,” that kept running through my head as I typed in the credit.

So does this count as being spiritual?  Could going through the motions, even if I wasn’t feeling loving or kind, count as a spiritual victory?  Were the angels smiling, laughing, or shaking their heads in dismay?

Three days later, my wife received a very strange call.  The customer who had demanded the refund was on the phone and was very distraught.  They didn’t know what had come over them to make them be so rude, and would we please forgive them and let them order from us again in the future?  This had been a minor wake-up call that caused this customer to re-think their attitude towards money and service and courtesy.

Now, I have no idea whether this customer even checked their credit card statement to see that I had refunded more than they expected.  All I know is that I had decided to follow God’s guidance, even though my heart wasn’t in it, and it had worked a minor miracle.

Don’t get me wrong.  I would still LIKE to be able to love people who are mean to me, but between now and then, if all I can do is move from the desire to get revenge to the desire to “kill them with kindness,” then I will take solace in knowing that any movement in the right direction is still good.  I may never get this kind of confirmation again, and that’s OK.  I got the message. There is a reason why every religion asks us to overcome hate with love and evil with good.  No matter what else it does, it puts a little more good into the world.

Gaining Wisdom Through Compassion

The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion.  — Bahá’u’lláh

Wisdom is the virtue that allows us to recognize what virtue is needed in any given situation.  Put concisely, wisdom allows us to squeeze maximum spiritual gain out of minimum spiritual pain.  It allows us develop our virtues efficiently and effectively.  Common wisdom is that wisdom only comes through experience—lots and lots of experience.  We need to be able to try many different responses to the same type of tests to see what works and what doesn’t.  Wisdom, it seems, comes from trial and error.

But does it have to?

We all learn through experience. The more experiences we have, the more mistakes we make.  The more mistakes we make, the more we learn and the wiser we become. But life is only so long, and many mistakes are fatal. If I want to learn a lot and grow old, then I would be wise to learn as much as I can from other people’s experiences. Through consultation—sharing thoughts, ideas and experiences with people verbally—I can experience the world through other people’s minds. Through compassion, however, I can experience the world through other people’s hearts. I can learn how to identify the presence or absence of virtues in different situations. I can come to feel passion for the virtues that other people love, and grieve the absence of virtues that other people value.

The mind may be able to guess what virtues are present, but it is the heart that is specifically designed to be able to sense the presence and absence of virtues.  Your mind might be able to guess that a brown liquid in a cup is coffee, but without the sense of taste or smell, it would be difficult to prove.  Likewise, there are the virtues that should be present in a situation, and then there are the virtues that actually are.  Our hearts, through our emotional response to a situation, tell us what virtues we perceive.  But it is only through compassion that we are able to experience the emotional response to the virtues that someone else may perceive.

We have all had the experience of expecting a person to react emotionally to a situation in one way, only to discover that they responded completely differently.  People’s emotional perspective is just as unique, just as personal, and just as filtered as their intellectual perspectives. It is not that these people are being “illogical.”  It is that their experience and filters are causing them to sense the presence or absence of a different set of virtues.  The only way to understand them—and increase your level of wisdom in the process—is to develop compassion.

Compassion, then, is the virtue that allows us to identify and appreciate a wide range of virtues through our emotional connection with other people.  When we feel compassion for people who suffer from poverty, sickness, drug addiction, abuse, and other personal loss, then we acquire a great longing for the virtues that would help ease their pain—without ourselves having to suffer from their difficulties.  This is a kind of wisdom that no amount of talk will provide.

The capacity for compassion does not only apply to sadness. To feel what another person feels and be compelled to take action can also apply to hope, love and wonder; to courage and conviction; to faith and joy.

When we see a mother cry at the loss of her son, do we not cry? When we see a child laugh in delight and wonder, do we not laugh? Compassion allows us to benefit from everyone’s experience and be uplifted by anyone’s joy. It connects us to the entire human race.

Note: This is an excerpt from 4 Tools of Emotional Healing and Love, Lust and the Longing for God.