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7 essential steps to spiritual growth

No matter what you seek outwardly in life for happiness, pleasure, and inspiration, the path of spirituality is ultimately an inwardly focused journey.

Spiritual growth is achieved through the exploration of the physical body, breath, mind, and how we interact with the world around us.

If you want to delve deeper on this path, I’ve compiled a list of the top suggestions to help you on your way.

1) Commit and make it a priority

The first step into spiritual growth is to recognize that you do in fact want to look deeper at yourself and the nature of life. Perhaps a part of you has grown hungry to understand more about the nature of reality?:

  • You may have pursued things in your life that you thought would make you feel happy, but no longer feel satisfied when you attain or chase after them.
  • You may have experienced great loss or disappointment and now question the deeper meaning of life and your role in it.
  • You might be in a state of apathy, loneliness, confusion, grief, or frustration and feel a strong desire to snap out of it.
  • You might feel stressed, tensed, and overwhelmed and not know how to find reprieve.

Questions and doubts start to form in your mind about your choices and actions. Unexamined, they grow louder and louder. But don’t worry, this is a really good thing!

The first step is spiritual growth to narrow your focus on your inner state and wellbeing. When you start to fine-tune your attention to look at life a little differently, you begin to see new aspects of reality.

It’s like if you were in a big sporting stadium, and I asked you to point out everything blue.

You would still be in the same place, but gather details that may have been overlooked, like hundreds of fans wearing bright blue hats, small aqua stripes on paper cups, a pair of shiny sapphire earrings on the woman next to you, a set of silk team jackets in the dugout, and an arena full of brightly painted empty blue seats.

You might also start to see all the variants in the color blue; some shades may appear more green or purplish, some may look brighter or duller, and so on.

Remember that spiritual growth is a personal process of focus questioning and discovery.

It is your own path! No one can desire it for you. No one can walk it for you. So, take it on! Commit and make it a priority. Set aside time each day to actively explore it and broaden your insights.

2) Explore the question: Who am I?

As the sage, Ramana Maharshi reminds us:

“’Whence does the ‘I’ arise?’ Seek this within. This is the pursuit of wisdom.”

Once you’ve shifted your focus to your inner world, a fundamental question to ask yourself is: “Who am I?

At first, this may seem like a basic thought experiment. But it grows richer the more it is considered. Think of how radically different your sense of self can change in the small time frame of 24 hours. For example:

  • Who is the one who wakes up feeling energized in the morning?
  • The one saddened by a bad mood as work requests roll in?
  • The one who quickly devours lunch
  • The one who feels too exhausted to go out?
  • The one who loses her temper in a flash and feels upset for the rest of the day?
  • Or the one who is patient and caring, and lovingly tucks her children into bed at night?

The inner journey of spirituality calls you to see yourself from many different angles and time frames. So, next imagine this same question, “Who am I?”, as it applies over the past five years? The past ten years? How would you describe yourself?

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Similarly, each day, you can start to explore this question in depth. Watch how it changes and fluctuates in your direct experience. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Observe your mind. Ask yourself the following:

  • How am I breathing?
  • How does my body feel? How does it feel when I move? And when I am still?
  • What thoughts feel heavy on my heart and persistently resurface?
  • What memories are making me feel very strong emotions?
  • Which thoughts would I like to encourage?
  • What would I like to let go of?
  • What am I resisting or fearing?
  • What areas of my life am I struggling with?
  • Where do I need help?

This exercise of self-inquiry may help to reveal how your inner life is organized. You can start to see the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that drive your speech and behaviors in a certain direction.

You can also watch how your inner state can wildly shift and change. The other interesting component of this question is to look for a common thread: What stays the same in every investigation? And what feels intrinsic to your core essence?

3) Explore what you can control throughout the day

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In life, surprises will happen. Tragedy will happen. Joy will happen. It’s easy to get absorbed in our emotions. We worry about things we have no control of. We can react strongly, without care. We can avoid conflict and close ourselves off from what’s actually happening in front of us.

Realize what you can control and put your efforts there. You can’t control your experiences, but you can always control how you react to each moment. So, as you go about your daily life, try to watch:

  • How did I respond? Was I full of emotion, anxiety or fear?
  • What qualities did I bring forth?
  • Is there a way to be more calm, loving, or clear?
  • Can I be more at ease and curious about the outcome instead of fearful?
  • What happens if I listen instead of giving my opinion next time?

Start small, situation by situation. Your expressions and reactions are a muscle to be exercised.

4) Cultivate gratitude

Either mentally or by starting a journal, note all things in your life that you are thankful for. This list could include waking up feeling more energetic than the day prior, or embracing a loving companion at your side, or feeling full after a morning of hard, physical work, or connecting with someone’s smile.

Make a quick list. Write down:

  • What uplifts me?
  • Who inspires me?
  • What touches my heart?
  • What makes me feel most alive?
  • When did I feel open, fearless, and invincible today?

Observe and reinforce these moments in your memory. Try to imagine all the love and support you have and have had in your life. Bring that along with you throughout your day. You might have moments when you feel alone, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely and disconnected.

5) Critically study the writings of people who think about spirituality

Whether reading passages from the Bible, the Tripitaka, the Upanishads, or the Dao De Jing, or delighting the philosophical reflections of the Stoics and Transcendentalism Humanists, or taking in the poetic writings of ancient mystics, we can be exposed to timeless ideas from around the world.

Whatever the deeper questions are, other thinkers have spent years considering them and suggested alternative maps to approach life. This can help you to analyze your own thoughts and insights.

Explore their thoughts critically. Take time to study the writings, the context, the author, and the history behind them. Really dive in. You even may find insight, a common language, or point of contention.

As Rabbi Mordecai Finley reflects on teaching the poet and Zen Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen, who had a very different philosophical approach to life, they could be bonded by their love for ancient spiritual texts.

One text could give them both useful metaphors. In Rabbi Finley’s words, from an article in the Jewish Journal:

“I think whatever drew Leonard to me, to be his rabbi these last 10 years, was that for each of us, Lurianic Kabbalah gave voice to the impossible brokenness of the human condition. The pain of the Divine breakage permeates reality. We inherit it: It inhabits us. We can deny it. Or we can study and teach it, write it and sing its mournful songs.”

6) Get outside

Move your body, walk, stretch, and enjoy the fresh air! Getting outside can allow us to feel more vibrant and connected to the world. Even if the weather isn’t perfect, try a new route, a new park, a new trail, and explore!

The scenery and details will shift and change. The soft rain may feel surprisingly cool and fresh on your body. The cloudy day may exhibit sculptural wonders in the sky. The sun may feel energizing and invigorate your body.

Are there any fragrances in the air? What sounds are around?

Just be in the experience. Notice life happening around you without labeling it as good or bad. Directly experiencing life doesn’t require much thinking or reflection at all. Simple practice being present.

This helps us to get to know ourselves beyond our day-to-day conversations and interactions. It gives us space to feel our place in the world, beyond our own headspace.

7) Serve and connect with others

You may come across people who think similarly or quite differently than you. Engage in real-time conversations with them. Really put yourself in someone else’s experience and learn what their driving emotions and intentions are.

Debate and question how different philosophies can be embodied. Metabolize the aspects that you feel drawn to. Ask yourself:

  • Does this resonate with me?
  • What about this person inspires or challenges me?
  • How can I cultivate similar traits that I am inspired by?

Remember to think beyond your own life. Often we spend so much time focusing on ourselves, that we lessen the importance of people around us. Joy, pain, and suffering touch us all.

And we can share lessons of unbelievable patience, courage, compassion, and humility, and ways to live a life of meaning and significance with one another.

Is there someone you can help? Someone you can assist? And help to make their own struggles a little easier?

Remember to follow your path

As the poet Rainer Marie Rilke reminds us, self-development and insight is an unending path of sincere questions of the heart:

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers.

“They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present, you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Spiritual growth is a process. Each question pours out into another. It is an unending path that you navigate. A path no one else can walk for you.

We may find inspiration from others, nature, and ancient writings, but at its essence, we must be honest with ourselves and understand what is more important to us and what we are seeking.

When we truly know ourselves, we won’t be swayed by the whims of pleasure and pain and drama of our interactions.

In life, we may not know what will happen next, or what we will have, or who will be close to us, or what will change. We can choose to move through it with a compass of self-knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration. We can try to our minds clear, our emotions in check and our hearts open.

This will ultimately help us to be able to more deeply connect with others and the world around us. And in this way, all things become a little more bearable and bright.

So, ask yourself:  What is it that I am called to deeply question? Begin there, and go deep.

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