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.


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?


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



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.

Nine Things Men Gain by Promoting the Equality of Women

This is side one of my pamphlet on the equality of women and men.

From one man to another… Nine Things Men Gain by Promoting the Equality of Women

A New Kind of Power
In the past, power has usually been seen as power over someone else. But this kind of power requires that a great deal of energy be used to push backwards against someone behind or below. There is a very different kind of power that is more efficient, more effective, and much more pleasant to exercise – this is the power of cooperation. This power uses energy to pull upwards, and the more people there are who join in the effort, the higher everyone progresses. Many women are very good with this kind of power, and they make great teammates. The more equal and the more empowered your teammate, the more empowered you become yourself. So it is in your best interest to both invite women onto your team and give them every opportunity to exercise their power alongside you.

A New View of Your Soul
The soul is a reflection of the attributes (or virtues) of God. If you have always thought of yourself as a male soul in a male body, then you may have felt that you should only reflect “masculine” virtues like courage, strength and perseverance. But God is neither male nor female. There is no battle going on between god and goddess, because God is far beyond the limitations of gender. If we are to achieve our full spiritual potential, we must learn to see ourselves and others as souls first, bodies second, and genders a distant third.

New Relationships with Women
Contrary to popular opinion (and the movie When Harry Met Sally), women and men can have friendships that don’t involve sex. But to do so, we have to see each other as souls. As bodies, we relate to women as mothers, lovers, wives, sisters or daughters. These are material definitions that help us feel separate from and often superior to the women in our lives. But soul-to-soul, we become partners, teachers, helpers and friends. While a body can be judged as strong or frail, young or old, beautiful or ugly at just a glance, a soul must be experienced through a relationship in order to be appreciated. When we accept the principle of equality, we are forced to look beyond obvious physical inequalities, and look for spiritual strengths that unite us.

New Relationships with Men
Women tend to experience relationships differently than men. Differently. Not better or worse, just differently. As we learn to relate to women as equals, as friends and as souls, then we will increase our capacity to reflect a fuller range of relationship styles. We can then use these different styles if and when they seem appropriate in our interactions with other men. We may discover that seeing our fathers, brothers, bosses and sons as souls increases our desire for friendships, while having a wider range of relationship styles gives us the skills we need to maintain them.

New Emotional Flexibility
When we begin to see ourselves as souls, and look beyond the socially defined roles of our gender, then we become free to have and express emotions that were previously considered “inappropriate.” We do not give up our strength and courage; we gain sensitivity and compassion.

Reduced Stress
Trying to maintain feelings of superiority and clinging to control are both very stressful. Being the boss; being the protector; being the king of the household; being the one who is supposed to always know best; these are all roles that men are forced to play, and they can give us ulcers. Life is infinitely easier when decisions, responsibility and control are shared with strong, supportive and equal partners. This is true whether you are “in control” of a household or a corporation.

Greater Wealth
Many people imagine that wealth is something that one gathers – and then they struggle to grab their share. In reality, wealth is something we create through intelligence, creativity and effort. If half of the world’s population is discouraged from using their talents and capacities, then the wealth of the world as a whole is diminished significantly. Until recently, almost half of all art and music, half of all scientific discoveries and half of all social progress was lost or delayed because the genius that might have brought them to light resided within a female body. What would your life be like right now if the world were twice as advanced as it is? Can any of us really afford to delay equality?

A Less Violent World
As guys, we know that a verbal insult can often lead to violence. If a man is called a “stupid idiot” in public, there is a good chance that some form of revenge will be forthcoming. What we may not realize is that the non-verbal insult of treating women like stupid idiots creates an undercurrent of anger and resentment that fosters nonphysical forms of violence like emotional blackmail and sabotage. At the same time, feelings of superiority allow some men to feel that they have a right to take what they want from women, even if it requires coercion, manipulation or physical violence.

Increased Self Esteem
Oddly enough, minimizing women does not actually help men feel better about themselves. The simple reason is that, from a spiritual perspective, women and men are both reflections of the same Creator. We are made in the same image. We can’t look in a mirror and say “you’re so weak and worthless,” without feeling a little weaker and less valuable ourselves. The more good we find in women, the more qualities we will find acceptable in our own characters.

Nine Ways Men Can Work for the Equality of Women

Side Two of my pamphlet on equality of women and men.

From One Man to Another – Nine Ways Men Can Work for the Equality of Women

When we listen to women — without trying to control, seduce or patronize them — we discover that they have much to teach us. We can learn, not just from their words, but from the way they talk to us and to each other, the subjects they find interesting, and the feelings they express. Unless we listen, we may never understand why they care about the things they do, and we may miss out on some of the important things in life. Understanding what women value is a key step in learning to value women themselves.

Invite Women to Join Your Team
You are already good at what you are good at. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have teammates that are good at other things? Different perspectives and different experiences help build different skills. Women often have the skills your project needs in order to succeed. In return, you can provide the opportunity for women to develop the new skills they need — and that your project can teach them.

Study the Art of Consultation
Consultation is a decision-making process in which personalities and private agendas are set aside and everyone in a group is encouraged to offer input concerning a common goal. Letting go of ownership of an idea, and wholehearted support of the group’s decision are two key elements of the process. Women’s voices are more likely to be heard, and their ideas appreciated in this kind of setting.

Rethink Your View of Motherhood
Being a mother is not what women do when they have rich husbands or can’t find a better job. Nor is it the sappy idealized image on a Mother’s Day card. Just as the womb provides the physical nutrients needed for healthy development, a mother provides the physical, emotional and spiritual “food” for an awakening young soul. If the mother lacks food, education, serenity, self esteem or love of God, then how can these essential needs be passed down to her child?

Value Children
We will never value mothers until we value children and understand the critical importance of the first few years of our lives. For centuries we have pretended that children were “resilient” and would “get over” whatever pain, suffering and humiliation they might experience. Now we are discovering that what we have forgotten from our childhood may have a stronger influence on our habits and fears than those things we remember. The importance of healthy, happy, and empowered mothers is clear. Our future depends on them.

Be a Good Father
Support your daughter’s dreams. Make sure she receives the education and inspiration she needs to be a loving parent and a contributing member of society. In doing this, you will also be setting a good example for your sons, who need to see your respect for women demonstrated in action.

Be a Supportive Husband
Give your wife time for prayer, meditation and rejuvenation. This is a polite way of saying do your share of housework. Whether your wife works outside of the home or rears children, these are both full-time activities that are just as demanding as what you do. So set aside some time to cook, clean, do laundry, and grocery shop so that your wife will be able to recharge her batteries and be a fully empowered partner.

Stand Up for Women
This may be the most difficult act of all, because it forces us to step outside of our comfortable circle of friends, risk our own position of status, and support someone else. The process is even more challenging when we realize that we must do it with love. We are not taking sides in the battle of the sexes. We are trying to bring the sides together in greater understanding and cooperation. This is best accomplished when we focus on how much we have to gain rather than what we are giving up; how much we love unity rather than how disgusted we are by sexism.

Listen Some More
Not only to women, but also to comments by other men, advertisements, jokes, media portrayals, and (most importantly) your own soul. Become sensitive to the subtle ways in which both men and women are limited by habit, tradition, expectations and prejudice. Then practice thinking, acting and feeling differently than you have in the past.

Now, find a safe place to practice.
The Bahá’í Community is a safe place to practice developing new attitudes towards women. In it you will find men and women of all educational, racial and social backgrounds working together to understand each other better without using blame, anger or guilt as tools of manipulation. You will see women in positions of power, and find men who welcome and learn from them. It is not a utopia, but it is a safe place to start.

The Bahá’í Community is an international group of people united by their common faith in the unity of the human family. We believe that there is only one loving Creator, Whose Spirit is reflected in the hearts of both men and women of every race and nation on earth. We look at the world’s great religions—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith—as progressive chapters in the unfolding book of God’s love and guidance. If that makes sense to you, then give us a call or visit our web site to find out more.

Nine Reasons to Work for Race Unity

This is the other half of a pamphlet I wrote 18 years ago. It still applies today.

1) Because racism hurts everyone. It is not just the occasional race riot or hate crime that hurts us. Rather, it is the daily dose of tension, suspicion and distrust that crosses racial lines in both directions and eats away at human potential from every side.

2) Because these tensions raise the over-all level of violence and aggression in our country, which, in turn, increase stress, depression, domestic violence, drug abuse, and a host of other social and spiritual ills.

3) Because our children deserve the chance to live in a world free of prejudice.

4) Because, “All humanity are the children of God; they belong to the same family, to the same original race.”

5) Because the belief that some people are better or more valuable than others is a spiritual cancer that can consume our souls and destroy our relationships.

6) Because love between black and white Americans will set such a powerful example that it will encourage peace and cooperation around the world.

7) Because treating everyone with dignity and respect is the spiritual essence of the Golden Rule.

8) Because making friends and feeling comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds is so much fun and feels so good.

9) Because it is God’s Will – and it is always smarter to be with God than against Him.

Nine Ways to Work for Race Unity

This is one half of a pamphlet I wrote 18 years ago.
1) Promote education – both your own and other’s, because ignorance and blind imitation are the root causes of prejudice.
2) Recognize the essential nobility of the Human Soul – Many of the symptoms of racism are the result of either projecting or internalizing feelings of unworthiness. When we like ourselves, we feel less need to hate or fear others
3) Practice the qualities of “genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent and prayerful effort.”
4) Become sensitive to forms of prejudice and oppression that you might experience from a different perspective, (like sexism or ageism) and apply what you learn to your own racial attitudes.
5) Develop a personal awareness of the Oneness of Humanity as a spiritual and scientific reality.
6) Read the Holy Writings of the world’s religions – including the Bible, Koran and the Bahá’í Writings – and pray for guidance every day.
7) Contemplate the mortality of your body and the immortality of your soul.
8) Develop a thirst for justice because “The best beloved of all things in My sight is justice….” and “The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity amongst men.”
9) Make lots and lots of diverse friends so that you have many opportunities to study unity and practice virtues.
“We work and pray for the unity of mankind, that all the races of the earth may become one race, all the countries one country, and that all hearts may beat as one heart, working together for perfect unity and brotherhood.
“Only have faith, patience and courage – this is but the beginning, but surely you will succeed, for God is with you!”

It is the 35th Anniversary of the Creation of Special Ideas

Thirty-five years ago this month, I returned from my first Pilgrimage to the Baha’i Holy Land with an idea for a new company – a company that would not only create unique materials for teaching the Baha’i Faith, but would explain how to use them, when, where and with whom. Here’s the story of how it all began:
How I Created Special Ideas 35 Years Ago

I became a Bahá’í forty-two years ago, on June 27th, in the summer between high school and college. From the moment I signed my card, my heart was devoted to serving the Cause and teaching the Faith. In college, I majored in art, and spent most of my creative energy designing posters and fliers for the many Bahá’í Club meetings we held every week. I also created portable fair booths out of fabric, and travel-taught every summer, giving musical slide shows and talking about love, unity, and the non-existence of evil.

It was at one of those firesides that I heard about a job opening at the Bahá’í Publishing Trust. It was a dream come true to be offered a job there just a few months after I graduated. I was “Assistant Production Coordinator for Special Materials.” As exciting as that may sound, I discovered that they weren’t really interested in having me help develop any special materials. My job was to make whatever the people in charge wanted made. They were wonderful, dedicated people, but they simply weren’t as interested in teaching as I was. In the year I was there, we made greeting cards, records and jewelry, but not a single teaching card, radio spot or button. Our catalog included only one pamphlet, and no T-shirts. Needless to say, I was frustrated.

My heart wanted to teach, but working in Wilmette, I was surrounded by Bahá’ís, not seekers.  I was not helping anyone else teach either. I decided to quit and spend my meager savings travel-teaching again while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

This is where it gets interesting.

I had no intention of starting a company, but I did have one good design that everyone told me I should do something with. Maybe you remember it. It was the “United Doves” logo, with a white dove and a black dove coming together to form a heart. Well, I had offered the design to the Publishing Trust, the Race Unity Committee, the Teaching Committee and the Office of Public Affairs. None of them liked it. So I decided I would print up a few posters to sell to fund my travel-teaching. I had a printer make film and plates to print up some posters.

That is when it got REALLY interesting.

One week before my last day at the Trust, I got a call from the Pilgrimage Office. Did I have a passport? They wanted to know. It turned out that someone had cancelled at the last minute and there was an opening for pilgrimage three weeks later, the second week of June. I jumped at the chance to go, but… I would have to spend the money I had saved to pay for my travel-teaching AND for the printing of the posters.

I went on Pilgrimage to the Baha’i Holy Land in Haifa Israel – a wonderful experience – and spent much of the time praying for guidance. What should I do now?

The answer, given to me while my forehead was on the Sacred Threshold, was that I should use the posters I was printing as the seed of a new business producing the Bahá’í teaching materials that I loved.

On my way home from Haifa, I had arranged to spend two weeks travel-teaching in Norway. I was in Kristiansand, at the home of the secretary of the Norwegian National Teaching Committee for my 7th Bahá’í birthday, dreaming dreams and making plans.  By the time I got home, I had the name of my new company and a dozen product ideas. Keep in mind that I was an art major and had no idea of how to run a business (and I had no money). But I was passionate about teaching. My secret marketing scheme was that I would not just tell people what I was selling, but I would give them detailed explanations as to how to use them so their teaching work would be more effective. I would teach people how to teach – and in so doing, I would help create my next customers! I would also have enough faith in the Community to risk printing things in huge quantities so that I could sell them really cheaply.

Which brings us back to those posters. If I printed 100, they would cost $5 each, but if I printed 20,000 I could sell them for 19¢ each. The problem was that I didn’t have the money to pay for any of them, but the plates were already made. So I talked the printer into giving me 90 days to pay. I then gathered the names of all the people I had met while travel teaching, and sent samples out to them. People bought them by the hundreds, then by the thousand, with one community giving out 1,500 at an Educator’s Conference a few years later. The posters got paid for, and the rest is history… sort of.

The first 15 years were a bit rough. Everyone thought I was crazy. First of all, most people didn’t think independent Bahá’í companies were allowed. Second, if they WERE allowed, they certainly couldn’t make any money. Third, if they were going to make money, it would not be by selling teaching materials! Fourth, you know, you really need to know something about business… Plus, I think I moved the company 15 times in 15 years. I’m amazed anyone could find me, but you did – and I thank you. Friends and strangers would buy more than they really needed just to help keep Special Ideas afloat. I bless you all. Then I met Karen and things fell into place. She was the stable ground that my creativity needed in order to flourish.

It has now been 35 years since I returned from Pilgrimage. I recently browsed through the fifty or more catalogs I’ve mailed out in that time. They contain literally thousands of different products – most of which we published ourselves – that represent millions of individual teaching items, from pamphlets to billboards, stickers, posters and prayer books. We have distributed over a quarter of a million copies of The Hidden Words and close to half a million prayer books. Several million assorted stickers have been given away. Countless pamphlets have been read. The name “Bahá’í” has been placed on the walls of thousands of homes and classrooms because of our posters. Who can tell how many conversations have been started because of a T-shirt, window decal, button, or piece of Bahá’í jewelry? Through all of these millions of items – each of which were sold for only pennies in profit – we have managed to fulfill our mission and our passion, while eking out enough income to keep our small family alive. It is a blessing for which I thank God every day.

Teaching is still the central mission of Special Ideas, but we’ve also expanded our vision to include interfaith fellowship, teaching virtues and emotional healing. I hope you’ve enjoyed following our evolution. Some of you, I know, were on my very first mailing list, while many others have been faithful customers for decades. I know your names. I recognize many of your voices. Sometimes I even know your parent’s names. It’s been that long.

I’ve loved serving the Bahá’í Community all these years, and I will continue to serve you as long as you let me – and as long as you all continue to need materials that make the world a better place.

Justice Saint Rain

How to Rescue the Publishing Industry

My Current Thoughts:
In the digital age, a book is no longer a “thing.” Reading is a “process.” Our current system for both books and music is still tied up with the idea of objects rather than a time-based process.
As technology improves, I believe that instead of tracking purchases of books and music (that we might never actually process) our gadgets will track the time we spend listening to each track of music and the number of words we read in a book, then charge a unified account accordingly (think nickels, not dollars), with royalties being disbursed to the appropriate artists or writers.
Amazon is experimenting with something along these lines with their loaning library system in which readers “join” in order to “borrow” Kindle books, and the authors are only paid if the reader reads more than 10% of the book. But you pay to join, and you may never get your money’s worth out of it. (And authors are encouraged to write really short books.)
I suspect that there will soon be competition in which you don’t join, but are charged by the item, and by the percentage of the item you “process.” I, for one, would rather pay 10-cents every time I hear a song I like than pay $15 for a CD or even $1 for a song on my ipod. I would rather pay 10-cents for every 5,000 words I read of a book, than risk $1 on a self-published e-book that I might stop reading after two pages. This would be especially true if I knew that the author or artist was actually receiving the bulk of the fee.
Right now, with Amazon controlling so much of the market, they can take a hefty portion of everyone’s royalties (though not as big as traditional publishers). They are trying to consolidate their lead by forcing authors to choose Kindle-only services or get left behind. That can’t last long. There are too many pre-Amazon books out there, and they can’t control the technological advances on their way.

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.


Labor Day Weekend Workshop

I’m very pleased to announce that I will be giving an adult workshop at the Thunder Eagle Ridge youth retreat center in Missouri over the Labor Day Weekend on the subject of my book The Secret of Emotions.   It will be an intimate and powerful weekend.  The cost is low, the setting is beautiful, and the people are wonderful.  I would love to see you all there.

Second Book Give-Away at

In my last book give-away over 600 people entered to win one of 200 copies of The Secret of Emotions.  Now I am giving away 19 print copies of 4 Tools of Emotional Healing.  Click here to go to Good Reads and enter.  You will need to join Good Reads, but it is free.  While there, don’t forget to rate and/or write a review of any of my other books you’ve read.