The Secret of Emotions – ch. 1

The Secret of Emotions

We are all born with an innate longing for God – not a god with a long white beard who shakes his finger at us, but the Divine Creative Spirit that blessed the universe with breathtaking wonder and touched our hearts with limitless grace.

This God filled His creation with His most noble attributes—and then placed the potential for each of these qualities within the human heart. Our longing for God is not an intellectual longing. It is a spiritual longing. We approach God, not through theological study, but by being attracted to the attributes of God that are both reflected in creation and placed within our hearts. It is these attributes, then, such as love, beauty, honesty, forgiveness, patience, creativity and compassion that are the source of our longing for God.

Of all of the attributes that we long for, the one that pulls at our hearts most strongly is love. It is the one we sing songs about; the one we organize our lives around; the one that we are absolutely sure will solve all of our problems.

One would think, then, that over the course of thousands of years we would all have come to a clear understanding of what love is, how it feels in our hearts, and how true spiritual love differs from its more material counterparts of lust and passion. Yet we have not.

Almost no one has.

Our inability to understand and accurately identify love causes many of us to do things in the name of love that are anything but loving; things that take us farther from our goals instead of nearer to them; things that make us feel ashamed instead of noble; things that convince us that we are failures instead of the radiant children of God that we are.

If we are ever going to satisfy our longing for love, and live the lives we were meant to live, then we will need to find a way to accurately identify spiritual love when we experience it so that we can create more of it in our lives.

This is the golden ring.

This is what we all want.

But it is bigger than that.

In order to learn how to recognize one of God’s attributes, we must develop the understanding and skills needed to recognize all of them. God is not a grab-bag of isolated gifts, like faith, hope and love that you get to pick and choose. God is One. If you want to tap into God’s love, you have to be prepared to accept all of God’s bounties, and if you want to be able to recognize and create one virtue, you will need to develop the skills to recognize and create them all – not all at once, but as a lifelong process.

That process, I believe, begins by getting our hearts, our minds and our bodies all speaking the same language so that what we want, what we feel and what we know all fit together accurately and are in harmony with one another.

When our spiritual, physical and intellectual sides understand and respect each other, then we become whole. We are no longer divided against ourselves. We become the pilots of our own lives rather than being buffeted by needs, wants and sensations that confuse us, sabotage our best intentions and lead us astray.

You see, none of us wants a series of dysfunctional relationships. We don’t want to destroy our marriages, sit alone in dark rooms watching videos, fantasize about people who will never love us, or do any of the other things that cause us shame. And yet if that is what we find in our lives, that must be what we are pursuing. Why is it, then, that we spend time and energy trying to acquire something that isn’t what we really want?

What is it that we are looking for when we walk into that bar, pick up that phone, log onto that website, smile at that stranger or knock on that door?  

The answer is…

The answer ALWAYS is…


We are looking for God manifested in the world of creation.

We are looking for love, kindness, meaning, security, joy, hope, nobility, connection, and a myriad other virtues that God deposited within the human heart when He made it His home.

But if that is what we are looking for…

Why can’t we find it?

The answer, if you think about it, is pretty obvious: Because we don’t know what these qualities look like, or, more accurately, we don’t know what these qualities FEEL like when we encounter them. How could we know how to accurately identify the signs of God’s virtues, when everyone out there is as confused as we are? We mistake kindness for weakness, hope for naïveté, nobility for stuffiness, and love… well love is the most misidentified virtue of all. We have been given wildly inaccurate and misleading information about this most important of virtues by everyone – from our families, schools, and religious communities, to almost every single movie and pop song ever made. The feelings we mistake for love range from need and lust to pity, fear and shame.

I can say this because at different times in my life, I’ve mistaken each of these sensations for love, and I don’t think I’m alone. If you have your doubts, let me describe a few experiences and see if they sound familiar. Then I’ll describe what I have come to believe love really is and how it really feels. But first, the mistakes:

My Rosetta Stone

This is the story of how I became painfully aware that I had absolutely no idea of what my emotional sensations were trying to tell me.

During my last year of college, I was dating someone pretty seriously. She was an absolutely wonderful woman – one with whom I might have been happy my entire life. We had talked about marriage, but this was several years before her graduation so we hadn’t become “officially” engaged or set a date.

One weekend, I went home to visit friends. While there, my best friend, who was married, told me about a wonderful single woman who had recently joined the community. He encouraged me to check her out before making any final commitments to my girlfriend.

I went to visit her, and had one of the strangest experiences of my entire life. Sitting in her room, my entire body began to tingle. I felt like I had electricity running through my veins. I remember that when she left the room for a minute, I paced back and forth, shaking my arms and fingers, trying to fling the excess energy out of my body. I was sure that if I touched her, sparks would fly between us.

Surely, this was a sign from God.

My heart was beating, my body tingled from head to toe; this must be what love was supposed to feel like.

Even though I knew almost nothing about this woman, I went back to my girlfriend and confessed that I would not be able to commit to getting married to her until I had explored this new relationship. She looked me in the eye and said, “Get out.”

So I moved back home to see if I could turn sparks and tingles into a permanent relationship. As you might guess, over the next few months the sparks and tingles began to fade, and when I was offered a job in a different city, our relationship died a natural death.

I was befuddled. What had it all been about?

Fast forward almost exactly ten years. I am divorced, broke, depressed, alone and horny. I find myself in the middle of the night, standing in the parking lot of an adult video store. As I contemplate whether or not to go in, my body starts to tingle. I feel like I have electricity running through my veins. I start shaking my arms and fingers, trying to fling some of that excess energy out of my body.

I stop.

I remember this feeling.

But now it sure doesn’t feel like love.

What was it all about?

I now had two data points for one sensation. What did they have in common? It wasn’t love. It wasn’t sex (I hadn’t been contemplating sex with the woman I had just met). So what were my heart and body trying to tell my short-circuited brain?

Finally, after much time, prayer, journaling and therapy, I figured it out.

This is what intense shame feels like.

I was ashamed of myself for being untrue to my girlfriend.

I was ashamed of myself for thinking of buying pornography.

My body had been trying to tell me to turn around and run, and what I heard was, “This is really, really important. Stay and explore it.”

If I could so completely misidentify a message of shame as a message of love, what other sensations had I misidentified over the years?

I began to listen, and watch, and correlate sensations with the experiences that went with them.

I discovered that when I got weak in the knees, it didn’t mean I was in love. It meant that I was afraid that I would be blamed for breaking someone’s heart.

I discovered that when my heart was moved by a woman’s tears, it wasn’t love, but a desire to rescue someone.

Over time, I began to identify sensations that were so subtle that I couldn’t put a name to them, I could only identify them by the patterns they followed.

A certain tug on my heart let me know that women had been sexually abused.

A similar tug said that they were afraid of men.

Another told me that they were recently divorced with small children at home.

An uneasiness that at one time might have felt exciting now tells me that someone is not being completely honest.

At one point, all of these little emotional cues – whispers of the heart – would have been interpreted as, “God wants me to explore a relationship with this person.” Now these messages simply say, “This person reflects some aspect of my relationship to my original God-figure. Resolve that relationship, don’t enter into this one.”

Next week: Recalibrating our inner compass so that we can accurately identify the emotions we are experiencing.

Click here to order the entire book, either in hard copy or Kindle.

The Secret of Emotions

I will be posting my entire book, The Secret of Emotions here on my blog, a chapter at a time, starting with the introduction.

If following your heart has repeatedly gotten you into trouble,
but to follow your head feels like a kind of soul-death, then this
book will open up a whole new world of possibilities for you. It
will teach your head how to understand the language of your heart,
and teach your heart how to speak the language of God.

You see, I believe that our emotional sensations tell us about
the virtues we are experiencing, and that these virtues are reflections of the qualities of God in the world. Making the connection
between emotions and virtues gives us a whole new vocabulary
for understanding our feelings.

Since most people make their life-choices based on their feelings rather than reason, understanding the meaning of our emotions is the second-most important lesson we can learn in this life.

The most important lesson is that virtues are our path to the Transcendent. Whether you call it God, Higher Power, Creative Spirit,
or just your better self, we are all born with a longing to become
more than we are right now – to demonstrate that we are, indeed,
created in the image of the Divine.

So this book has the humble goal of helping you accurately
identify your feelings so that you can develop the virtues that will
help you become the best person possible. Along the way, you
will heal old wounds, overcome shame, learn the true meaning of
love, let go of compulsive behaviors, break unhealthy relationship
patterns and develop new, healthy habits that will make future
growth even easier.

If all of this seems too much to promise, I offer you this observation: simple awareness is often curative. Understanding the source and meaning of your emotions can literally change everything in a heartbeat.

How to use our ABCs of Virtue Flag Set

In addition to hanging our virtues flags around the top of the room, there are all sorts of Games & Activities you can do with them. Here are just a few Ideas:

These beautiful letters make captivating conversation pieces. Here are some of the questions you can ask about each letter as you interact with them:

What is this letter?
What sound does it make?
What other words start with this sound?
Is there anything in this room that starts with that sound?
Then, what is this word?
What are the letters in this word?
What does this word mean?
Do you act like this? Do you know anyone who does?
What is an example of someone practicing this virtue?
How does it feel to be around people like this?
How does it feel to act like this?

For One Child:
Let your child trace the letters with their finger.
Hold the soft fabric up to their cheek and enjoy the silky softness.
Hook two together and wear them like a bib and cape combination or two shoulder pads.
Make up a super hero name combining the two letters or the two virtues and swoop around the room pretending to do good deeds.
Letter Delivery – put a flag in the back of a toy truck or car and deliver it to a person or “store” on the other side of the room.
For One or More Children:

Letter Hunt – hide the flags around the house or yard like Easter Eggs and let children hunt for them.
Pull flags out of a bag and see how many tries before they can spell a word.
Give a child a letter at the beginning of the day and tell them that it is their letter and virtue for the day.

Group Activities:
Let each child carry a letter or wear it like an armband for these activities:
Have the children arrange themselves in alphabetical order.
If the class is less than 26 children, ask them what letters are missing.
See if the children can arrange themselves into a word – either one of your choosing or theirs.
For older children, try to spell entire sentences or phrases using just one of each letter. For this one, you may need to choose in advance which letters to pass out.

Here are some silly possibilities:
Go Fish
Quiet Days
My friends go zap.
Zebras jump on high.
Question Sam
Clean up This Dog
Quest for my brain.
Love kind ways

“That’s Me!”
Have the children sit in a circle and give each one a letter.  Have them pass their letters to their right. Then the teacher (or parent) calls out the name of a letter. The child that is holding that letter should shout “That’s Me!” Then everyone passes their letter to the right, and the child that shouted “that’s me” gets to name a different letter. If no one says “That’s Me!” then that child gets to name another letter, until someone has the letter named and the game continues in like manner.

Here are some child-friendly definitions for the virtues on the flags:
Call them active when they initiate activities other than watching TV or playing video games.
To be brave is to be willing to do what is right or needed even when it is hard or scary. So call them brave when they try something new or challenging.
Creativity is not the same as originality, so call them creative when they put things or ideas together in a way that is new for them.
To be dependable is to be trustworthy and reliable, so call them dependable when they do what they say they will.
Call them eager when they are excited about doing something.
To be friendly is to be pleasant, kind and welcoming and enjoying the company of others, so call them friendly when they make an effort to get along with their peers, or to be welcoming to new people.
Call them generous when they share something of theirs with a friend or family member
Call them helpful whenever they help you do something – even if you have to make up an artificial need so that they can practice.
Call them independent when they try something new on their own, or learn to do something new for themselves.
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 loving when they perform acts of kindness or service for those they love.
To be mature is to be grown-up in the way you think and the way you express your emotions. So 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 noble when they strive to be their very best.
Call them observant when they notice something interesting and point it out to you.
To be patient is to stay calm and happy, even when you have to wait a long time. So call them patient when they wait for you or a fun activity without complaining.
Call them questioning when they want to know more.
To be radiant is to be aglow with great joy and love; spreading delight & happiness to all. So call them radiant when they are so full of life and love and enthusiasm that you can hardly stand it.
Call them strong when they put forth extraordinary effort, either physically or emotionally.
Call them truthful when they tell the truth even if it is difficult.
Call them unselfish when they give up something they want for someone else.
Call them vibrant when they approach a task full of energy and enthusiasm.
To be wise is to know which virtues are needed in each situation, so call them wise when they make good choices in their behavior.
Call them expressive when they use both words and emotions to communicate their experience.
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 have zeal when they express commitment and enthusiasm for achieving a goal.


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.


  • 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.


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.

The Lord of the Rings and the Will to Power

I watched The Lord of the Rings again tonight. I was intrigued by the idea that the reason that Hobbits were chosen to carry The Ring was that they had no desire for power, while humans did. It made us power-hungry humans look pretty bad. But as William Hatcher explains in his book, Love Power and Justice, it is not the desire for power itself, but rather the desire for power over others rather than oneself, that is the essence of all evil. I believe that understanding and recognizing this distinction is of critical importance at this point in the development of the Bahá’í Community. Religion, whose primary purpose is to give us power over our own souls, can very easily be perverted – to be used to exercise power over others. We see this in the rise of fanatical and fundamentalist Christian and Moslem groups who try to control the behavior of believers and non-believers alike. We see it in members of clergy who use their position to abuse and exploit their followers. But we can also see it in our own communities when individuals and/or Assemblies become more concerned about controlling other people’s behavior than in manifesting love, unity and encouragement of others. This desire to control other community members springs from a view of the purpose of religion that is fundamentally different from the one I aspire to.

I believe that the Community may be at a crossroads. Each of us needs to consider which view of religion we wish to encourage. Do we want to use the Bahá’í teachings as clubs to beat other people over the head with in order to force them to behave in certain ways, or do we use them as sources of personal inspiration that change the way we treat other people? Are the Bahá’í laws tools for guiding our own spiritual development, or excuses for looking over the shoulders of our fellow believers? Is the administrative order a structure with which to coerce people into approved behavior, or a fountainhead of guidance and encouragement? When your Assembly meets, does consultation revolve around “how do we get the community or an individual to do XYZ,” or does it revolve around “how can we become more loving “Parents,” more encouraging, better examples?” How much of your time is spent trying to change the actions of other Bahá’ís or non-Bahá’ís rather than loving them? Though the following passage refers to national institutions, I believe it applies just as much to local Assemblies:
He hopes your Assembly will devote special, constant attention to encouraging the friends in their teaching work, and facilitate their tasks. As the new National Assemblies are being formed, he feels it incumbent upon him to issue a word of warning to avoid rules and regulations and tying the believers’ work up in red tape. Over-administration can be even worse for the Faith at this time than under-administration. The believers are, for the most part, young in the Cause, and if they make mistakes it is not half as important as if their spirit is crushed by being told all the time – do this and don’t do that! The new National Body should be like a loving parent, watching over and helping its children, and not like a stern judge, waiting for an opportunity to display his judicial powers. The reason he points this out to you is that constantly, for the past twenty years and more, he has been pointing this out to the old and tried National Assemblies, and he does not want the younger bodies to make the same mistakes.
(Shoghi Effendi: High Endeavors, Page: 35)

The one thing I got out of my workshop with Wm. Hatcher is the realization that, not only is trying to exert power over other people evil, it is almost universally ineffective! Success requires training and encouragement. In a different workshop, I was given a quotation from the UHJ that promised that when training and encouragement are in place, success is guaranteed. Training and encouragement are not the same as control. Control overpowers the other person’s will, while training and encouragement empowers the other person’s will. This, then, is the question that you and/or your Assembly can use when determining whether your decisions are appropriate: does this decision attempt to reduce a community member’s control of their own actions, or does it attempt to increase their control of their actions through training and encouragement? Please note that shaming a person for doing something wrong is not the same as training them in how and why to do it right.

As the world outside gets darker and darker, there will be two kinds of Communities evolving. One will believe that protection comes from purifying, perfecting and controlling the behavior of every active member of their group. They will focus on attacking every sign of darkness they can find. The other will dedicate themselves to serving, adoring and praising one another without distinction. They will focus on shining as much light into the world as possible. They will be applying the Bahá’í teachings to their own lives rather than promoting the Bahá’í teachings to others. I believe that the growth of the national community will be directly proportional to the number of local communities who chose the second path.

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!”