One of the blessings of our modern age is the abundance of information on spiritual practices available to anyone who seeks it. It was not long ago that a person would be indoctrinated into a particular religious tradition in childhood, and that would pretty much be the end of it. If you wanted to learn about other spiritual traditions you would need to travel the world and seek someone who would be willing to teach you. Such an adventure would generally be discouraged at home. Sometimes that discouragement included the use of a stake in the ground and bundles of firewood.
Since the mid-twentieth century, options have opened up. Travel became quicker and easier. Communication became possible across long distances. Books and electronic media proliferated information that was once esoteric. One of the first signs that something was happening was when Trappist monks began practicing Zen Meditation. Later, you might find listings for Native American Corn Dance on an Episcopalian church bulletin. People learned that there is richness in other traditions, and one need not give up one’s faith in order to experiment with different spiritual practices.
There is something to be said for finding one well-trod spiritual path and sticking to it. Side trips can be distracting and can be an opportunity to avoid commitment to spiritual development. If you were to pick one spiritual practice and practice it diligently, you might be better off than someone who flits from one practice to another and never gets too deeply involved with any of them. Still, the proliferation of available information on spiritual matters is an opportunity and a gift we should be grateful for. How, though, do we find what we need when the information at our fingertips is so massive?
It used to be that a new computer came with a manual. Some people actually read the manual. Now you get a CD or a hard drive with a large number of help files. You are no longer in the linear world of the book. You jump from topic to topic according to your need. The benefit is that you can usually find information easily. The downside is that you may not get the big picture. The spiritual seeker who wants to look beyond the manual of an individual faith is faced with a similar circumstance. The amount of spiritual and religious material found in books and on the Internet alone is more than a person could explore in a lifetime. You need some search criteria.
Troubleshooting: Think about what troubles you. Where do you put your mental and emotional energy? Look for spiritual practices that will address the problem.
Intuitive: Follow the energy of your heart. Observe the changes in your emotional state when you encounter information about different spiritual opportunities. Your inner knowing can lead you where you need to go.
Talk to a service representative: Many people devote their lives to helping other people find their way. Pick a priest, monk, minister, nun, swami or sage of your choice and talk to them about what is most important to you. Find out what is important to them and what works.
Wander: Surf the net. Read from many sources. Visit a variety of spiritual or religious events.
Watch for synchronicity: Look for meaningful coincidences that might suggest a fork in the path worth following. When a book falls off the shelf at your feet, pick it up and see if it is the one you need.
Use a checklist: Some criteria to look for in a spiritual practice or spiritual community include:
Some negative criteria:
- Is it life affirming?
- Is it balanced?
- Does it draw you into the light?
- Does it celebrate life?
- Does it allow for diversity of thought and opinion?
- Does it acknowledge and accept the frailty of fallible humans?
- Does it enhance the dignity of human beings?
- Is collection of money a big focus?
- Is the gratification of the leadership very important?
- Do you feel diminished by your participation?
- Do followers believe they have a monopoly on The Truth?
When all else fails (or even if it doesn’t) READ THE MANUAL: Many of the great religions have produced holy scriptures that contain deep wisdom. Seek what has inspired those that came before us to collect these writings. Read deeply and read broadly. When you find the same idea in sacred traditions separated by time and distance it is likely you have stumbled on the truth.
Stick to the basics: Learn to meditate and become skilled in it. Learn to pray and become devoted to it.
© 2002 Tom Barrett