Another spiritual belief that you might like to consider adopting states that life is your teacher. Whilst you may encounter fellow Seekers who have insights which might prove useful to you as you create your own path, you should view life itself as your primary teacher. Life is the only ‘guru’ you ever need to follow to develop yourself spiritually, and you should be very careful of anyone who advises otherwise.
Of course, this does not mean that third-party insights cannot be extremely valuable. The words of Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and others, as presented in their own spiritual traditions, can often help us to clarify certain ideas and concepts, but they are not absolutely necessary for spiritual progress.
Spiritual teachers, both past and present, can be likened to the personal trainers that can be found in fitness centres and gyms around the world. Such trainers may have more experience than you in matters of physical exercise, and they can often point you in the right direction if you want to build muscle, lose weight or tone up, but listening to their words and advice will not, by themselves, result in your attainment of those goals.
Even if you have the best physical trainer in the world, merely listening to their advice, or fawning over their expertise, would not help you to make any physical progress whatsoever. If you want to build muscle, lose weight or tone up, those things can only be achieved through the sweat of your own brow.
Just as attending a gym three times a week and simply listening to the advice being given will not make you physically fit, so attending a church, temple or other spiritual institution to simply listen to someone talk about spiritual development will not, by itself, ensure your progress. In both cases, progress comes not from the instruction you receive, but by the work you put in by yourself.
This being the case, spiritual teachers are completely optional to your progress as a Seeker. Just as you can build muscle, lose weight and tone up by doing your own research in physical exercise and creating your own workout program, so you can develop yourself spiritually by taking a similarly self-reliant approach.
When you view life as your primary teacher in matters of spirituality, you dispense with the need to rely on the guidance of others. Life will, if you let it, teach you everything you need to know. You just have to learn to pay attention to the lessons it teaches you on a daily basis.
How to Learn from Life
Every experience that you have in life contains a lesson of some kind, but to recognise that lesson, you need to be paying attention. Unfortunately, most people live their days so wrapped up in their own internal narratives about what is happening that they completely miss what is really happening.
For this reason, the first skill that I think all Seekers should develop is that of mindfulness, which is the ability to experience the present moment exactly as it is, and without providing any internal commentary of your own. You may well have developed this skill already, but if not, I would highly recommend doing so, and one very good resource that you might want to use to help you do that is a book and CD package by Jon Kabat-Zinn, entitled Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life.
When you have learned to live your life more mindfully, be open to receiving instruction from life as you live it. Do not make any demands about how you should be taught, or what you should learn, but simply be open to whatever each moment brings, and you will find that you will begin to receive all the instruction you will ever need, exactly when you need it.
How will this instruction come to you? In a variety of ways, depending on your own circumstances and experience. For example, when facing a difficult problem, you may happen to see an oak tree, and get the idea that you too can stand tall and strong regardless. You may see reeds blowing in a strong breeze, and be reminded of the fact that being flexible is the best way to be resilient in the face of adversity. Or you may see the clouds passing through the sky, and realise that everything changes, nothing lasts forever, and that even this difficult problem will pass in due course.
The wonderful thing about viewing life as your teacher is that the particular lessons you receive will all be tailor-made to your own situation and understanding. Instead of having to search for ‘the right teacher’ who might somehow be able to give you ‘the right answer’, you will find that the insights you need the most will come to you of their own accord.
Another benefit of viewing life as a teacher in this way is that it transforms all experience into one which can facilitate your growth and evolution as a spiritual being. You will learn that no situation is intrinsically good, or bad, for those concepts are artificial and dualistic. Rather, all situations are exactly as they are, and they can, if you listen to what they have to teach you, help you to make progress on your journey as a Seeker.
Remember, the universe is on your side, and if you heed its instruction, it will teach you all you need to know.
Creating your own spiritual path is all about learning to follow the guidance of your own intuition – that still, small voice within you which can be relied upon to lead you in exactly the right direction at exactly the right time. Before you can follow that inner voice, however, you first need to be able to hear it, and it is therefore no surprise that one of the key practices in almost all spiritual traditions is spending time in silence and solitude.
– Around 2,600 years ago, the prince Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, or ‘awakened one’ after developing and practicing Samatha and Vipassana, or what we now refer to as concentration and mindfulness meditation.
– Around 2,000 years ago, Jesus was in the habit of spending a great deal of time in silence and solitude. Mark 1:35 says that: ‘Early in the morning, while it was still dark, he rose up and went out, and departed into a deserted place, and prayed there.’ The Bible also reveals that he often liked to sit by a lake, or on a mountainside, and that his ministry began only after he had spent forty days in the desert.
Explore other traditions and you will find similar accounts of spiritual development being realised through silence and solitude, and so it is a proven habit which can be just as fruitful today as it was in previous times. In fact, when you consider how much noisier and busier the world is today, it could be argued that the practice of silence and solitude is even more important.
Learning to meditate properly and then doing so on a regular basis is one of the simplest ways of spending time in silence and solitude, and two of the very best books on the subject (both from the Buddhist tradition) are Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana and Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond by Ajahn Brahm.
Of course, meditating isn’t the only way to spend time in silence and solitude, and you could also consider taking yourself away to a natural environment – by a lake or the coast, or in the heart of woodland, for example – to simply sit and enjoy the peace and stillness of that place.
Whichever of those approaches you choose to pursue, the important thing is to immerse yourself in the silence and solitude. This doesn’t always come easy, because we live in a world in which it is considered normal to check emails, texts and social network updates around the clock, but if you make a resolute effort to ‘unplug’ from the noise of daily life for a few minutes each day, you will soon appreciate the benefits.
And what are those benefits? Well, they are numerous, as any number of scientifically rigorous studies can confirm. Your mind will quieten, your stress levels will reduce and your perspective will broaden. You will also find that the inner voice of your intuition becomes a great deal easier to hear, putting you in closer touch with a built-in spiritual guidance system that will never let you down.