“Religion is doing; a man does not merely think his religion or feel it, he ‘lives’ his religion as much as he is able, otherwise it is not religion but fantasy or philosophy. Whether he likes it or not he shows his attitude towards religion by his actions and he can show his attitude only by his actions. Therefore if his actions are opposed to those which are demanded by a given religion he cannot assert that he belongs to that religion.”
G.I. Gurdjieff (1866–1949)
Mystic, Philosopher, and Spiritual Teacher
As far as I can tell, four universal categories of spiritual actions are widely practiced in most religious communities around the world. They are experimentation, contemplation, love, and service.
All four represent valid spiritual activities. From a historical perspective, experimentation and contemplation have been closely related to the Oneness path, while love and service have been staples on the Goodness path. Still, all four categories are available to both paths, meaning that a person on the Goodness path can be drawn to contemplation while a person on the Oneness path can be drawn to love and so on.
1. Acts of Experimentation
“Mysticism is the most scientific form of religion, for it bases itself, as does all science, on experience and experiment—experiment being only a specialized form of experience, devised either to discover or to verify.”
Annie Besant (1847–1933)
Experimentation is at the heart of the firsthand approach to religion. The paths of Sufism, Kabbalah, Yoga, Christian Mysticism, Taoism, and Buddhism all encourage practitioners to experiment with spiritual practices. The most common spiritual and religious experiments are meditation, prayer, chanting, rituals, and fasting, variations of which have survived the peer review gauntlet in the world’s faith traditions time and time again.
I say peer review because the experimental approach to spirituality is almost identical to the scientific method. First, the devotee is presented with a hypothesis in the form of spiritual theory. To prove or disprove the proposition, an experiment is performed. It is followed by a discussion among peers, preferably a gathering of practitioners who have put in the same number of hours or similar effort with the same kind of practice. Finally, discussions lead to conclusions, and in best-case scenarios, experiments that produce similar outcomes for most practitioners are introduced into the faith community as theologically sound.
Difficulty and Outcomes
Experimental spiritual practices differ in their degree of difficulty. Some are simple, like learning to blow bubbles; others are infinitely more challenging.
Experiences produced are either short-lived or have the potential to become more permanent. Short-lived experiences produce temporary insights (seeing the light, for example), while repeated experiences can become permanent traits (such as the cultivation of unshakable equanimity).
The upside of approaching spiritual practices like experiments is that there can be no failure, only different outcomes. Whatever happens, you will learn about yourself and your relationship with the spiritual elements of your faith along the way.
2. Acts of Contemplation
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
Italian Astronomer and Mathematician
At one time in history, theologians and philosophers occupied the same mental space, namely the contemplation of existential topics, such as the nature of the universe, the nature of God, and the meaning of life. Contemplation was a valid form of personal faith. Still, over the years, it has suffered, resulting in limited choices for intellectual adherents, many of whom have abandoned faith and spirituality altogether. Nonetheless, contemplation remains a valid discipline for people who feel a need to combine spirituality and intellectual exploration.
Acts of contemplation can take many forms. They can transpire in silence and isolation, take place among peers, or occur as an internal reaction to reading scriptures and inspirational texts.
Gathering of Truth
An important part of the contemplative approach consists of creating a group where spiritual thought is stimulated. Most people do their thinking in private, during periods of silence, writing, or reading, and yet, the ability to air thoughts and have them mirrored back—having the opportunity to listen to the inner workings of other minds who share their passion for contemplation—can add layers of meaning to their spiritual lives that are difficult to attain in other ways.
From an intellectual standpoint, contemplation looks for spiritual insights rather than factual knowledge. The practice can extract meaning from the mundane, elicit a deeper understanding of life and the universe, and cause profound personal breakthroughs.
3. Acts of Love
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.”
St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226)
Italian Roman Catholic Friar and Preacher
Love is the most complex of all human phenomena. It exists on a spectrum of tolerance and kindness to romantic love and self-sacrifice until it reaches its pinnacle in altruism, a love that needs nothing in return. Those who follow the path of Goodness often see love as the central aspect of their life. Their entire existence revolves around being heart-centered, loving and good. To them, everything begins and ends at the heart.
Here is the paradox. Even though love may be a feeling, cultivation and maintenance are undeniable actions.
The world’s religions prescribe different methods, but they all encourage devotees to water the seeds of love within. Whether the recommended approach is to love thy enemy as you would yourself, lift the veil and see God everywhere, become a vessel of Divine love, forgive your adversaries, see beauty in nature, or something else, religions of the world seem to agree on one thing; that love becomes more spiritual when it shifts from being selfish to being unselfish.
4. Acts of Service
“God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.”
Jackie Pullinger (1944)
All major religions and spiritual traditions celebrate service as a virtue. Reasons differ. Service can be a duty, spring from love, stave off the danger of apathy or be the full expression of goodness, but the results are similar with only slight variations. The faithful are always encouraged to serve.
Of the four, service is easiest to measure but hardest to do because it demands the unselfish use of time and energy. The other three action categories also take time, but they are part of a personal spiritual path. On the face of it, service does not seem to meet that criterion because the act doesn’t seem to do anything for the person serving.
Nevertheless, those who have made service one of their primary spiritual activities have sworn by the transformative nature of the practice. Reports vary from “it made me understand human unity at a deeper level” to “it gave me purpose and fulfillment” to the more self-centered “it helped me get my head out of my problems.”
Service Opportunities are Everywhere
The poet Tagore phrased the sentiment beautifully when he wrote:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was a joy.
It is almost impossible to find a place of worship that does not offer a service opportunity of some sort.
Author and Mindfulness Teacher
Amazon Author Profile
- Monk of All Faiths: Inspired by The Prophet (fiction)
- Spiritual in My Own Way (memoir)
- Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (nonfiction)
- Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion (nonfiction)
- Premature Holiness: Five Weeks at the Ashram (novel)
- The Meditating Psychiatrist Who Tried to Kill Himself (novel)
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