Six Spiritual Practices that Will Change Your Life and Transform Your Community, by C. Paul Schroeder (a summary by Pat Evert)
The Way of the Six Spiritual Practices
The Six Spiritual Practices are what love looks like in action. The Six Spiritual Practices connect people to Purpose, the experience of belonging to something infinitely greater than themselves. This “something infinitely greater” is what I have in mind when I speak of “the universe” throughout this book. Spiritual growth, like physical training, does not happen instantaneously, in a moment of illumination. It requires patience, repetition, and hard work. I fell a long, long way. I got divorced, left the priesthood, and ended many friendships. I lost more than I thought it was possible to lose in one lifetime. And when I finally hit rock bottom, that’s where I found the Six Practices. Or rather, where they found me. In the end, it dawned on me: it was all a gift. The journey, the fall, the loss, the pain. All of it. Everything that happened was part of the path that led to the Six Practices. It was all a gift from the universe. And every gift is given by the universe for one reason, and one reason only: to be shared.
The First Spiritual Practice: Compassionate Seeing
When I make a judgment, I take something about myself that I don’t like or feel uncomfortable with, and I pin it on another person. That way, I can dislike that part of me in the other person instead of myself. So if I notice that something about somebody else really bothers me, really gets under my skin, that’s usually a pretty good sign that I am pinning something about myself on that person. I am making a judgment. The trouble with judgments is that they prevent us from seeing clearly. Like the suspicious monk, we may end up seeing things that aren’t really there. This is the human dilemma in a nutshell. We make judgments and pin things about ourselves on other people. We make up stories to support our judgments. And then we get into conflicts with others when their stories don’t agree with ours.
Ending the cycle of judgment and blame requires Compassionate Seeing, the first and most fundamental of the Six Spiritual Practices. Compassionate Seeing is a moment-by-moment commitment to viewing ourselves and others with complete and unconditional acceptance; no exceptions. Here are some ideas for how you can start practicing Compassionate Seeing right now:
1. Notice your discomfort; pay special attention whenever something makes you feel uncomfortable, or seems painful, or ugly, or boring. Don’t try to fix or change anything, just notice it.
2. Suspend your judgments; resist the inclination to immediately decide whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, whether you like or dislike it. Don’t assign blame, and don’t shame yourself or anyone else.
3. Become curious about your experiences; start to wonder about things. Gently query any feelings or sensations you may be having; for example, “I wonder why this bothers me?” or “I wonder what that feeling might be telling me?”
4. Look deeply with the intention to understand; approach your experiences with a flexible mindset, and remain open to new information and alternative explanations.
Compassion actually means to “experience with,” to make a conscious and sustained effort to enter into the experience of another person. Compassion directed toward others and compassion directed toward the self are really one and the same thing. If I practice negative self-talk and harsh judgment toward myself when I make a mistake or engage in behaviors I don’t like, this will be my habitual response when I see someone else making the same mistake or engaging in these behaviors. And the very qualities that irritate me the most about other people usually turn out to be the things I like least about myself. The practice of Compassionate Seeing reminds us above all that our story is not the story. There is a greater reality, a larger picture of which we see only a very small part. So if I am having a hard time practicing compassion toward someone else, I take that as a sign that I just don’t know the whole story. I’m not seeing the big picture.
Recognizing the difference between ourselves and others is especially critical. We must not impose our desires and goals on others, and instead allow them to express who they really are. Instead of thinking I have the other person already figured out, I see that person as a mystery; I am intrigued, and I want to learn more and deepen my understanding. Engaging a discovery mindset helps us avoid judgments and keeps the mind flexible, open, and interested.
Remember, our judgments are always more about us than other people. If the tables were turned, I probably wouldn’t want someone to judge me or question my intentions as I was going through one of the most difficult decisions of my life. More likely, I would want someone who would simply show up, listen, and try to understand. By making a conscious effort to see without judgment, I am creating a safe and supportive environment in which my friend can make the best possible choice.
A very simple mantra goes like this: I accept everything I see. That’s it. Don’t judge it, don’t avoid it, don’t fight it or try to change it. Accept whatever presents itself unconditionally. Say this several times a day. I find that when I’m not getting what I want in a relationship or a particular situation, practicing Compassionate Seeing and using the mantra can help me stay clear of my habitual storylines, familiar narratives like “I’m the victim and you’re the perpetrator,” or “I am good and you are bad.” Instead, I can ask questions like “Why does this keep happening?” and “What does this look like from your perspective?” This naturally leads me to engage in a discovery mindset and become curious about your point of view. The mindset that leads to change is one that is flexible, open, and interested, not rigid or judgmental.
The great enemy of curiosity and wonder is self-absorption. Self-absorption is the opposite of compassion. Love is about going to uncomfortable places. It’s important to remember that warm feelings are not compassion, because compassion is not a feeling, it is a practice, a habit, and a skill. Compassionate Seeing is a practice, which means that, like any skill, we get better by doing it. I have discovered that the more I practice, the more energy and focus I have, because I’m no longer wasting mental resources trying to prove that I am right and someone else is wrong. I find this especially helpful when I am around people who make me feel irritated or uncomfortable or afraid. Put yourself in the other person’s place and ask, “I wonder what it is like to be you right now?” I find that my greatest allies in deepening my practice are those closest to me: my spouse, children, family and friends. As I practice putting myself in their place and becoming curious about their experiences, I can also gain feedback and refine my perceptions.
The universe favors compassion. This is the inescapable conclusion of the evolutionary process. the Golden Rule is much more than a moral code. It is the secret of our success as a species. It is almost like a strand of the universe’s DNA. Compassion is literally woven into the fabric of the universe. The universe is engaged in a learning process, unfolding and growing toward consciousness and compassion. Whenever you engage in Compassionate Seeing, you become part of this process of growth.
The Second Spiritual Practice: Heartfelt Listening
We need be wise enough not to try to solve other people’s problems or answer all their questions. They have the solutions to their problems within themselves. All we have to do is keep repeating the four magic words, “Please tell me more.” We are only as good at listening to others as we are at listening to our own heart. Listening to your heart means paying attention to your feelings and what they are telling you. If I am uncomfortable with my own emotions, I will react to other people’s emotions, and I won’t be able to listen to them very well. I will not want them to tell me more. I avoid these in myself as much as possible. But, I really need to accept them. Before I can listen to another’s grief, I need to listen to mine.
Pay attention to what is happening in your emotional world. Become aware of sensations in your body. Recognize your reactions to other people’s emotions. Don’t judge these emotions, just recognize them. Welcome whatever you find in your heart. Whatever you feel is okay, and whatever others are feeling is okay too. There are two vital, life-giving questions:
- What am I feeling? Are you feeling happy, sad, angry or scared? These are the primary emotions. Become aware of and interested in your own emotions. You might try asking a different question, “Is there anything I am trying not to feel?“
- What is this feeling telling me? Feelings of grief and loss, for instance, are there to remind us of what is most precious in life. Fear, like pain, is unpleasant, but is there for a reason: to keep you safe. When you feel angry, your heart might be saying, “I want something to change.” Our heart is often a more reliable indicator of what we really want than our thoughts.
It is often through emotion and connection to others we experience Purpose, belonging to that which is infinitely greater than ourselves. Connectedness can be a rich source of inner rejuvenation and refreshment. An Egyptian term ‘Acedia’ is a numbness, a state of unfeeling, disconnection from our deepest self. Acedia can lead some people to self-medicate, because they are just trying to feel alive again. When I experience any symptom of Acedia, I take it as a clue that I need to start paying more attention to what’s happening in my heart. Empathy is the capacity to be moved by others’ emotions. It is the highest form of understanding, because we are connected to the other person, not only through the mind, but also the heart. I start to wonder if I were the one in this situation, what would I be feeling? When we engage with others at an emotional level, they feel more deeply heard and understood by us.
I find this mantra helpful in listening to my heart. For example:
- When I am experiencing a strong emotion, like anger, fear or sadness. I hear what my heart is saying…
- When I feel numb and life lacks zest. I hear what my heart is saying…
- When other people’s make me feel uncomfortable or reactive. I hear what my heart is saying…
Remember, using a mantra means striking a deal with the universe. By saying this mantra, you are committing to listen to whatever your heart is telling you. Be prepared for this to be deeply uncomfortable. You also might experience a strong emotion that makes you feel like you are not in control. This could be dangerous, for example:
- I would have to admit that I’m not happy in this relationship
- I’m afraid the grief would never end
Our rational self tries to protect us from painful feelings and experiences. But at what cost? Not listening to our heart may keep us from pain, but it also holds us back from all kinds of experiences that lead to personal growth and happiness. The way to be happy is to listen to your heart.
Joy is the experience of being fully in touch with our emotions, feeling emotional currents as life energy coursing through our body. I often find that joy is underneath the emotion I am trying to avoid. I have to go through one to get to the other. We know that whatever we feel is okay, and whatever others feel is okay too. Peace means looking deep into our heart and welcoming whatever we find there. When I am at peace, I’m not fighting my emotions. The spiritual life is not about avoiding emotions or transcending them, it is about experiencing life to the full. Emotions are part of this. It’s important to listen to our sexual feelings and understand what they are telling us. By listening to my heart, even if the message is uncomfortable, I stay in touch with my life energy, and this can bring new vitality to my relationship with my partner.
For many of us, childhood was the time when we first started learning how to ignore our heart. By paying attention to my own feelings and having some understanding of where they come from, I am able to listen to my child’s feelings without reacting to them. By talking openly about my own fears and how I faced them, I am modeling healthy emotional awareness for him. In the workplace our emotions lend passion, vitality, and zest to our work, making heartfelt listening a useful skill. The first step is to focus on my feelings, to become aware of the physical sensations of anger. Next I acknowledge my feelings out loud with as much calm as I can muster. This can bring new energy into the situation.
The Third Spiritual Practice: Intentional Welcoming
The Third Spiritual Practice: Intentional Welcoming
How good are you at saying no? Many of us have trouble setting clear boundaries, especially with friends and family members. We say yes because it’s easy, not because it’s really what we mean. If I can’t figure out how to establish my limits, resentment and anger will inevitably build up, potentially ruining my relationship with this person. My best alternative is to honestly establish boundaries. Saying yes when we don’t mean it leads to a life of exhaustion and resentment. We wonder why we simultaneously crave retreat from our community and deeper connection to it. At the heart of this problem is a clear lack of intentionality. We have not drawn clear boundaries to protect our priorities.
Establish and defend healthy boundaries:
- Make conscious decisions about what is really most important to me. Make deliberate choices instead of letting others choose for you by default.
- Clearly define your limits.
- Politely but firmly decline every request and invitation that does not align with the priorities you have set.
- Warmly and graciously welcome people and opportunities into your life in alignment with your highest values.
When we want to start practicing intentional welcoming, we first need to clarify what really matters to us. What would I do right now if I had more time, energy, and money?
- I would have more fun with my children and spouse.
- I would spend more time on creative activities or writing
Narrow down the options that make you feel the most excited and inspired to about two or three. Focus on what brings you energy, vitality and joy. Practice heartfelt listening and ask yourself how do I feel about this possibility? If I want to open up to new possibilities, I have to learn how to say no and set limits on other less meaningful pursuits. Be fierce. Whatever you do, do it because you want to or don’t do it at all. Eliminate whatever I am currently doing half-hearted and instead focus only on what brings positive energy, enthusiasm and joy. If I have even a doubt or a question in my mind about it I say no. You can always go back and say yes later, but saying no later means going back on your word. If it’s not your desire decline with honesty.
A boundary exist to safeguard something special, a precious resource set apart for a particular purpose. We practice Intensional Welcoming, creating a sanctuary, a protected area in our life so that we can share them with others without becoming physically and emotionally depleted. We say no to some requests and opportunities so we can warmly and intentionally say yes to others and give them our full energy attention. Protecting and preserving the sacred space requires fierceness. We have to be vigilant in holding our boundaries. You will always encounter resistance when you establish a new boundary. Rather than taking this personally, think of it as the universe testing your resolve, the seriousness of your commitment.
Mastering the fierceness required to maintain our boundaries isn’t always easy – I’ve found that the simple mantra ‘I honor the boundaries I set’ helps me focus my energy and remember why I set boundaries in the first place. The universe is going to test these boundaries. As we demonstrate that our boundaries are strong and we have enough self-respect to firmly maintain them, the universe will start sending us opportunities worthy of our time and attention, things we will want to say yes to. We will feel energized and fully alive because we are living life on our own terms.
The goal of spiritual development is that each of us should grow into a unique individual with boundaries that are both firm and flexible, so we can connect with others and maintain healthy separation at the same time. Think of your boundaries as doors you can open or close whenever you need to. To keep from being invaded and also to let in life giving resources. Every organism, in order to survive and thrive, needs two conditions: attachment and differentiation. Too much attachment and the organism is engulfed, deteriorates dissolves. But too much differentiation and the organism withers off and dies, disconnected from the source of life. The universe is the dance of differentiation and attachment, autonomy and interdependence. We are different. We are one. Healthy attachment and differentiation enable us to remain connected to the source, to Purpose, so that life energy and love can flow through us. We need limits that are firm but also flexible to maintain this bond. Relationships can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. Boundaries are essential.
The Fourth Spiritual Practice: Joyful Sharing
A gift shared freely, without expectation, has enormous power. It creates a ripple of positive energy in the world and the effects extend far beyond our limited perception. Be willing to let the universe surprise you – and it will.
Give your gift wings: 1) create a simple intention, 2) let go of any expectations, 3) release your gift into the universe and 4) remain open to the universe of infinite possibilities. When I want to share something of myself with others, the first question I ask is, do I feel any sense of obligation about this? Am I doing this grudgingly, because I think I have to? If the answer is yes, I stop. Do I have a particular expectation about how this will be received? Will I feel angry and resentful if what I give does not achieve a certain outcome? If the answer to this question is yes, I stop. I have to untie every expectation from my gift.
The best reason to give is to keep the current of goodness flowing in our lives by sharing freely what the universe has shared with us. When I am in touch with this reality, I experience a current of generosity flowing through me that comes from far beyond myself. The most powerful gift we have to share is always ourselves – our time, energy, and attention and not our material possessions. Remember, you are the greatest gift you have to share. Whenever I feel unappreciated, misunderstood, or unloved, the best thing for me to do is to give love, understanding, and appreciation to someone else. If we want more joy in our life, the secret is to give more, with fewer expectations.
I frequently repeat this mantra: I share what I have freely. When I notice I am sharing something grudgingly or reluctantly, out of a sense of obligation, I share what I have freely. When we give something with an expectation, we are no longer sharing so much as we are making an exchange. If we hold good boundaries and give only when we choose to, this increases our ability to share our gift without any expectation. Freedom begets freedom. Only when we hold our limits firmly can we offer our gift freely and without expectation. Fear of failure stifles our willingness to experiment, to try new things if we’re not sure they will work. It limits creativity. Don’t focus on what you want to get, focus on how you want to share. We must focus on our intentions, drawing deeply from the well of generosity, waiting with curiosity to see what the universe has in store. One act of generosity can unleash a cascade of good effects that were impossible to predict, and it can inspire many others to give in turn, so that the power of our gift is magnified a hundredfold. So give what you can, even if it seems small and don’t be daunted by the fear of failure.
Humor and fun keep a marriage or committed partnership strong and resilient. Joyful Sharing is about keeping a sense of humor when things don’t turn out the way we had expected. Joyful Sharing is the key to creativity and innovation. By shaping life around our intentions instead of expectations, we leave room for experimentation and surprise twists. We have no reason to fear failure because we have no set vision of success. But if we orient ourselves around our intentions, we can’t help but see the whole story as a winding path to surprising fulfillment. In the long run, our dreams come true.
The Fifth Spiritual Practice: Grateful Receiving
Gratitude is the secret of happiness. But internally, your mind keeps an ongoing tally of things that aren’t the way you would like. Complaining never helps. It only reaffirms my negative mindset and makes me feel worse about my situation. In fact, sometimes not getting what we want turns out to be the greatest gift of all.
Here are some simple suggestions for making Grateful Receiving a part of your life today:
1) Pause for a moment to consider what you have to be thankful for.
2) take inventory of what you appreciate about your life right now.
3) focus your attention on these bright spots.
4) express gratitude, remember to say thank you to other people and/or the universe for what you have received.
The key is to keep practicing every day. Smile, even if you have to force it a little. If you practice gratitude regularly in this way, feelings of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction will soon follow.
Life is a precious gift that no one does anything to deserve. Gratitude situated us in a universe of connections. Ingratitude, on the other hand, is profoundly isolating. When I don’t get what I want or what I think I deserve, bitterness often seeps in. It’s a sour taste in my mouth, a scowl on my face, resentment in my gut. Forgiveness means choosing gratitude.
Life owes us nothing. Everything we receive is a gift. To help me remember these things, I repeat the following mantra: I receive the gift that is offered. When something comes into my life that doesn’t feel like a gift, such as a difficult person or a painful experience. I receive the gift that is offered. When I notice I’m taking things for granted, or when I can’t think of anything for which I am grateful. I receive the gift that is offered. When I recognize that bitterness is seeping into my life because I missed out on something I thought I deserved. I receive the gift that is offered. Pay attention so you don’t miss any gifts in disguise. This is about slowly growing in gratitude, finding a bit more to appreciate every day.
Difficult people can be our greatest teachers in the spiritual life. Sometimes, the gift the other person offers is the opportunity to become more patient. Sometimes, it’s the chance to learn how to say no and mean it, to become stronger in the face of criticism, or to stand up for myself and hold my ground. Without difficulty or demanding people we might never learn these important skills. We might not discover our own inner strength, fierceness and resolve. I find that I am more and more thankful for the gift she is to me: someone who challenges me to grow stronger and isn’t afraid to tell me when I might be making a mistake. Gratitude transforms everything. Difficult experiences that once seemed like hardships we now recognize as opportunities.
The universe does not give us anything so we can keep it for ourselves. Whatever the universe offers is given for one reason only: to be shared with others. In no case is this more true than the gift of painful experiences. Yet just imagine the beauty that could come from my circumstances. Most of all, I can learn to embrace the gift of an ordinary life. After this experience, I can relate to people who are struggling, and share deeply personal stories that might be an encouragement to them. It just might turn out to be the worst and best thing that ever happened to me. I have discovered some imaginative techniques that are incredibly helpful in rekindling gratitude. Our problem is that we don’t usually recognize these gifts for what they really are. We take them for granted. Using a mental exercise like this can help us enjoy and appreciate the miracles that are all around us. Heartfelt Listening helps us remember why those feelings are there in the first place: to remind us of what is most precious in life before it’s too late. That’s what makes these imaginative techniques so powerful: they refresh our perspective, helping us to stop taking the people we care about for granted and start expressing our appreciation to them right now, while we still have time.
The Sixth Spiritual Practice: Cooperative Building
Communities are full of tension, but they are full of great power as well. No one wants to bend or give up their own way; that’s just human nature. But I have learned that when I yield, that’s when I am really strong. When we are willing to compromise and open to the influence of others, we create a dynamic and fruitful tension. I want things how I want them and get upset when my wishes are thwarted. But, this kind of mental rigidity, however, doesn’t get me very far. I get stuck in recurring patterns of behavior, thinking the same old thoughts and doing the same old things. Inflexibility produces no power. If both sides feel safe in the conversation, we can each confess that there are things we admire and appreciate about the others way of thinking, and out of that could come powerful personal growth and a more united approach to life. But in order for this to happen, we have to stop fighting to get our own way.
Cooperative Building means gracefully partnering with others to construct a new way of living together.
- observe the tension that builds whenever someone proposes an idea that is different from your own.
- lower your defenses, instead of becoming oppositional or fighting what the other person is proposing, make a conscious effort to relax into the tension and let down your guard.
- engage a playful mindset, without making any commitments, try the other person’s ideas on for size, just for fun.
- focus on the process rather than the outcome.
When we engage in processes that are truly cooperative instead of one-sided, we are helping each other develop to our full human potential. The first aspect of Cooperative Building is receiving help gracefully. When we request assistance from others, we are making ourselves vulnerable. The second aspect of Cooperative Building is offering to help respectfully. This means providing assistance to others in such a way that we do not impose our own will on them or take away their freedom and initiative. The most effective kind of help we can ever offer someone else is to let them shine, to reflect back to them just how capable and talented with think they really are. I remember that as I am helping others they are also helping me.
All creation is co-creation. This teaches us to value the contributions of other people, even if they seem at first to be in opposition to our own ideas. When we are willing to be flexible and work with others in our decision making process, something magical happens. Synergism is a form of alchemy, and nowhere is its potency more evident than in the alchemy of human relationships. So long as we cling to our own ideas simply because they are ours, nothing happens. The deeper we go in this practice, the more we discover that we are cooperating not only with other people, but with the universe as well. Everyone will have something to receive from others, something to appreciate and feel grateful for. In this way, the distinction between helpers and helped, between designated givers and receivers, will gradually diminish and disappear. We will all be helping each other flourish. This process will encompass everyone not just the people who look, think, act or talk like us.
The mantra for Cooperative Building invites us to draw upon the synergism in our relationships. The sixth mantra goes like this: I co-create a new reality. When I am engaged in a cooperative process with someone else and I notice that synergism is starting to flow, I co-create a new reality. When I am feeling a resistance to asking for help or fear of making myself vulnerable, I co-create a new reality. Anytime I am starting to get locked in a power struggle with another person, I co-create a new reality. As you practice using this final mantra, you may notice some skepticism arising. It may seem as if nothing is happening, but the deeper truth may be that something is growing. Every time we engage in cooperative effort instead of competing for raw dominance, we are taking one small step toward the creation of a new kind of human community. This process doesn’t happen all at once. It unfolds slowly almost imperceptibly, like a seed germinating in darkness beneath the surface of the soil.
Competition becomes dysfunctional when our competitive efforts are based on an every person for themselves mentality. We cannot practice Cooperative Building while trying to win all the glory for ourselves. As we go deeper in the practice of Cooperative Building, we recognize that we are cooperating not only with the people who are in our lives right now, but also with those who came before us, and even those yet to be born. Just as we must tame the need to win with regard to our peers, we must learn to accept that our generation will not be the ones to see this project through. We can relax and let go, knowing that the universe is guiding the process, and that our actions are never in vain so long as they accord with this synergistic movement.
Integrating the Six Practices into Daily Life
If you’re serious about integrating the six spiritual practices into your life for the long haul, I strongly encourage you to invite friends and family into the journey with you. The best way to deepen your practice is to do it with others.
*The geometric design on the cover is sometimes referred to as the “flower of life,” it is an image of human flourishing, unfolding to one’s full potential, and as such, a visible representation of the Six Practices.