Advancing on the Spiritual Path 1: Spiritual Skills
Meditation forms a sound basis for developing spiritual skills
Posted July 31, 2011
"The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life". These are the
words of spiritual master Sogyal Rinpoche from his book, ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying' (Rider Books, 1992). I agree. Meditation forms a sound basis for developing other spiritual skills.
Some Spiritual Skills
• "Being able to rest, relax and create a still, peaceful state of mind".
• "Remaining focused in the present while staying alert, unhurried and attentive".
• "Going deeper into the stillness, observing one's emerging thoughts and feelings with emotional stability in a way that carries over into everyday life".
• "Being honestly self-reflective, taking responsibility for every thought, word and action".
• "Using the capacity for deep reflection to connect with one's spiritual essence and values".
• "Developing compassion and an extensive capacity for direct empathic communication with others".
• "Emotional resilience: having the courage to witness and endure distress while sustaining an attitude of hope".
• "Being able to give without feeling drained".
• "Being able to grieve and let go".
sowing seeds; imparting information, values, codes of behaviour and so on. Education also involves preparing the soil in which those seeds are to grow and flourish; and this involves making it a genuine ‘leading out' of a person's innate wisdom and knowledge, maximizing the expression of the fine human qualities that come with spiritual maturity.
Respected researchers* report that teaching schoolchildren to meditate regularly, even for short periods daily (only five minutes for younger children) improves their powers of concentration, helps them deal better with stress, and reduces conflict between them. Some go further and suggest that meditation (also called ‘stilling') can contribute to improvement in schoolwork and grades, children's sporting abilities, their general levels of creativity, and their willingness to co-operate with each other. What a blessing for their parents and teachers!
Meditation works for adults too, and is arguably the most valuable of spiritual skills, because it opens doors to many other possibilities. The foremost of the skills it underpins are:
"Being able to rest, relax and create a still, peaceful state of mind", and,
"Remaining focused in the present while staying alert, unhurried and attentive".
Although these abilities can be achieved without formally engaging in meditation practice, learning to meditate is a good way to improve one's capacity for restful calm as a prelude to productive activity.
Meditation skills develop with regular practice. In time, a strong mental stability supervenes during the sessions. This equilibrium allows us to experience thoughts, impulses and emotions without immediately reacting, becoming both observer and participant in the process. It is like depressing the clutch briefly, while the mind's motor is still running. This gives you a brief instant in which to deliberate about whether or not to respond, and how to do so, letting wisdom prevail over other, more destructive, impulses.
In advanced meditation, continuing observation permits watching how the mind's contents come and go, like on a cinema screen. This is instructive, giving valuable insights into the patterns of thought, feelings and behaviour that have been governing us.
We can work towards changing the more destructive patterns that have been learned, conditioned and ingrained by earlier experiences. With sufficient stability, we will have a secure, calm base to which to return, both in and outside the sessions - ‘within the space of a single breath' - whenever we recognize that we have become even slightly distracted, emotionally challenged or upset.
In this way the following additional spiritual skills may be acquired:
"Going deeper into the stillness, observing one's emerging thoughts and feelings with emotional stability in a way that carries over into everyday life", and,
"Being honestly and sincerely self-reflective, taking responsibility for every thought, word and action".
As meditation grows deeper, the self-seeking ‘everyday ego' seems to disappear, leaving the ‘spiritual self', the mind focusing on itself, in a kind of blissful calm, empty of unpleasant feelings, ambivalences and chatter. Intuitive experiences now become more likely. ‘Something happens' in such moments, when the spiritual realm appears in full harmony with the temporal world.
With the mind naturally attuned like this to the spiritual dimension, the spiritual self or ‘soul' of the individual can be thought of as in direct communication with the great, pervading and uniting spirit, deity or life force of the universe. Another spiritual skill is thereby enabled:
"Using the capacity for deep reflection to connect with one's spiritual essence and values".
The insight dawns eventually of a kind of universal connectedness and kinship, not only with nature and the entire universe, but also with everyone else. This promotes another spiritual skill:
"Developing compassion and an extensive capacity for direct empathic communication with others".
This is among the key skills for health and social care professionals. To be skilled empathically involves being able to empty one's mind of self-regard, and avoid being distracted by one's own emotional state. Meditation practice helps this, and also improves the degree of concentration you can give to the more subtle sensations that result from direct empathic communication received viscerally, as a ‘gut feeling', from someone else.
Other spiritual skills concern the well-being of people who, through the demands of their profession or in the general course of their lives, engage with those who are suffering.
"Emotional resilience: having the courage to witness and endure distress while sustaining an attitude of hope",
"Being able to give without feeling drained", and,
"Being able to grieve and let go".
It is important to remember that our ability to help others involves giving adequate priority to our
own welfare - and each other's. Meditation practice enhances all three of these skills by providing access to the spiritual source of emotional equanimity and hope, vital energy, and the wisdom to acknowledge the inevitability of loss.
Meditation practice is not for everybody. Some people experience it as unproductive or boring, or are dissuaded from practice by doubting its potential efficacy. Others find themselves too restless or distracted to be still and concentrate. Such people often benefit through engaging in other spiritual practices. These form the subject of the next post: Advancing on the Spiritual Path 2... Coming soon!
*See, for example, David Fontana & Ingrid Slack (2007) Teaching Meditation to Children: The Practical Guide to the Use and Benefits of Meditation Techniques. London: Watkins Publishing.
Copyright Larry Culliford
Larry's books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).