A common question for many people on the spiritual path is, “How do I instill discipline in my spiritual practice?” Especially in the early years, practice requires a certain discipline. Some people seem to have it naturally, but the steps to achieving spiritual discipline can be broken down and tackled one by one.
Step 1 – What’s in it for me?
It sounds obvious, but it’s really important to be clear about why you want your spiritual practice. Without being clear about the “why”, the mind will make excuses to not to do it. The mind shies away from things that don’t have obvious benefits or instant gratification.
Almost anything organic comes from a space of gradual growth. Trees don’t pop up overnight. They start as fragile seedlings and develop large branches and a thick trunk over time. In the same way, having a mature orientation toward gratification is one of the foundational pillars of spirituality. Enlightenment and spiritual growth are mature gratifications rather than instant gratifications. Just as one can develop strength and courage by building those character traits like muscles, the same is true with spiritual discipline. The muscles of spiritual discipline get more robust when exercised over time.
The determination to stick with your practice requires clarity about why it’s important to you as well as an acceptance that the muscle of discipline must be built over time. If you start to wobble about your practice, you can immediately remind yourself why it’s important to you. Create a mental setup to keep creating powerful reasons for maintaining your practice. When a disempowering thought comes up, immediately ground yourself into the space of “why am I doing it?” It may be for yourself, for others, for the community, for the benefit of all beings, etc. Keep reminding yourself about what really sparks your why.
Step 2 – Developing respect for time
Most people in our modern world are busy. But how often are you busy doing things that don’t really make a difference in your life. If you busy yourself with unimportant things, you’re missing out on opportunities. By remembering the big picture of a life well lived, we are respecting the grander aspect of time. Conversely, when we give other tasks higher priority than our spiritual practice, we have lost respect for the grander aspect of time.
I remember a time when my children were still young and it was challenging to balance everything in my life. As a father with a full time job and a daily commute, I found it hard to be able to fulfill all of my responsibilities and still have time for spiritual practice. At the time, I was also in a yoga teacher training and one day our training group went to visit Baba Hari Dass at Mount Madonna Center. It felt like a special treat for me to get away from my work and my family responsibilities and spend a full day at Mount Madonna.
Baba Hari Dass was a silent monk who had led a life of discipline, yoga, and love. I remember watching the joy in his eyes when he was simply giving a piece of candy to a child. At the early age of 29, he had taken a 12 year vow of silence. After 12 years passed, he then chose to continue this austerity because it brought him so much peace and inner silence. He remained silent for the next 66 years until his death in 2018.
My day at Mount Madonna Center started with attending a class on the yoga sutras. Then our group had a private meeting with Baba Hari Das. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask about during the time for questions.
Because Babaji was in silence, one of his disciples moderated the question and answer session and was calling on people to ask questions. Babaji would listen and then offer his response by writing a short phrase on a little chalk board that he always had with him. He was very precise in his language and got straight to the point because his chalk board was small.
When my turn came, I explained about my challenges living as a householder and doing my best to be disciplined in my spiritual practices. My perspective at the time was still somewhat immature because I’d only had a few years of practice under my belt. Some of what I said must have sounded like excuses for not practicing. Babaji cut right to the point. His response has stuck with me to this day and I remember these words whenever I start to waiver about my practice. His response was simple and profound. His disciple read the following from the chalkboard, “We have so much time, we even have time for a movie.”
I immediately knew the words were important for me. Yes, I had made time for movies in my busy life. Making time for spiritual practice was more important and yet sometimes I would let other things get in the way. The words resonated in me for a long time and the clarity of his words felt like a gift and a blessing I will never forget.
I knew that the only way I could guarantee time for my practice was to get up early enough to finish before the kids awoke – before I got engaged in either family or work activities. I made the decision to carve that time out for myself and hold it as sacred.
Find a time that works for you and make a decision to keep that time as a sacred time for your practice. If you do this and don’t let other things distract you, you are honoring and respecting the grander aspect of time. If you wait until your life affords you ample time, you’ll grow old before you start your practice and you may not have enough life left on this planet to bring your practice to its fruition.
Step 3 – Learn how to do things now
Poornaji says that enlightenment happens in an instant. It is a single moment of pure transformation.
This is a reminder that each moment is full of potential. When we procrastinate doing the things that really matter to us, we are prioritizing other less important things and essentially saying no to our deepest desires. It’s not that we should never take time to relax or watch something on TV. However, it’s important to be clear about our choices rather than mindlessly whittling away the time and discovering later that we haven’t allocated enough time to the things that are important to us.
Spontaneously taking spiritual actions is the most powerful way to instill discipline in your life. There are several simple things you can do throughout your day to bring attention to your spiritual path without hindering important duties such as work and family life.
First, start focusing some of your attention on your state of consciousness throughout your day. Before starting a new task, simply check in with yourself and notice your state. Say to yourself internally, ”I am happy,” or “ I am tired.” Whatever feeling is there, acknowledge it with an “I am” statement. Very soon you’ll notice that when a low frequency emotion is there, your body and mind will quite naturally start to shift that emotion to a higher frequency. This is because you’re witnessing the low frequency feeling from a place that’s observing and operating at a higher frequency.
Secondly, put your meditation practice to work throughout your day. Be diligent about watching your thoughts. You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to watch your thoughts. Don’t expect to have the same kind of sustained focus that you might achieve when you’ve carved out time for a formal meditation. However, this routine practice of focus during your day can be cultivated over time.
Start by noticing your small successes such as catching yourself listening to an inner voice while you walk down a hallway to take a tea break. Eventually, you’ll find yourself noticing your thoughts more frequently. Ultimately, you can learn to catch the gaps between your thoughts both when sitting in meditation and when engaged in an activity. Engaging in mindfulness in this way throughout your day is a real support for training the mind and will help you stay focused when sitting on the cushion for meditation as well.
Another great technique for bringing your spiritual practice into daily life is pausing for a split second and remembering to be grateful in that moment. Gratitude is also a great support for your spiritual practice. The more you can remember your gratitude, the more you can accelerate your progress on the spiritual path.
Don’t wait for the right time to emphasize your practice. Tomorrow is an unknown, but in each moment there is an opportunity to grow. Make it a lifestyle to bring your practice with you into daily life in these three ways:
Notice your state and make an “I am” statement.
Watch your thoughts.
Remember to be grateful.
You’ll not only speed your progress, but you’ll start to attract more positivity and more opportunities into your life.
Step 4. Hold yourself accountable to your goals
I went through a stage in life where I thought goals were a bad idea. That cognition came from my direct experience in seeing ways that goal setting had created limitations in my life. For example, after I achieved a simple goal such as owning a new car, I remember feeling like maybe that wasn’t what I really wanted. It was a borrowed desire from the culture I had grown up in.
As I grew older, I started to recognize that I had worked very hard in my early adult life to achieve things that now looked like a poor use of my time. My desires had matured and material possessions had become less important to me. So my earlier life goals of having a nice house and car, etc. seemed frivolous.
After some time, I realized that this too was a wrong cognition. The goals I had set when I had those desires had indeed helped me achieve what I wanted at that time. And by focusing and achieving, I had learned more about taking responsibility and about sticking to my plan to manifest what I wanted. The fact that those desires were achieved actually set the stage for more mature desires to arise. So, it wasn’t the goals that were a bad idea. It’s just that they need to be held with flexibility. As desires change, the goals can change too.
When working with goals, it’s important to set realistic goals. Unrealistic goals can sabotage your success. Then, rather than achieving the goal and strengthening your will muscle, you may create a setback, which will make it seem even harder next time. Success builds the will, failure sabotages it. Be willing to stretch yourself a little with your goals, but make sure they are achievable and realistic.
Once you’ve clarified your goal and defined a measurable outcome, write it down and then commit to someone else that you’re going to do it. This allows the other to hold you accountable. And, since you won’t want to be embarrassed by not achieving it, you will strengthen your resolve to do it.
For example, when I first learned Poornaji’s True Gratitude meditation, I committed to doing it three times a day. I told him of my commitment and I didn’t want to disappoint him. So, that helped me find the discipline to do it. I knew I could not lie to him if he asked me whether I had done it, so I was committed. I also did it because I believed in it. I knew it had worked for Poornaji, so it could work for me.
I continued the practice three times daily for 2.5 years until Poornaji told me to focus on something else. Being accountable helped me experience the benefits of a truly transformative practice.
Step 5. Always complete what you start
If you start something and don’t complete it, it may hang over you and drain energy away from other things you’d really like to achieve. As long as there is still some desire in you to complete the task or project, you’ll be putting energy toward it even without taking action. That has the effect of making you less focused on other achievements. There will be some unconscious energy that is simply scattered across incomplete projects.
On the other hand, completing a task or life goal often creates a sense of fulfillment inside and a feeling of wellbeing. You develop more confidence in yourself.
So, if something is taking longer than you thought, stick with it as long as there is still desire to complete it. Don’t let yourself get distracted by other new desires until this one has been fulfilled. There is something magical about the completion process. The action of finishing is fulfilling and it completes a gap inside you when you’ve fulfilled a desire.
Of course, if your original desire really does change, it’s fine to change course and not complete the goal. However, when letting it go, be sure to release it completely and feel the fulfillment of having done your best and now moving on to a newer and hopefully more mature desire.
Step 6. I can statements
Sometimes your spiritual practice asks you to do things that are beyond logic, so the mind comes in and says, “I can’t.” The “I can’t” makes you feel trapped and unable to see possibilities or adopt new cognitions about life.
So, how do you transform the feeling of “I can’t” to an “I can” cognition. The first thing to try is to change the goal just enough that it feels achievable. Say, “I can, if …” Let the possibilities flow and let them happen.
In each of the past three years, Poornaji has asked me to do something that felt impossible to me when first asked. A big factor for me in changing my “I can’t” to an “I can,” was simply remembering that Poornaji thought it was possible for me or he would not have asked me. As my trust in him has grown over the last few years, I find it much easier to get to an “I can” statement regarding anything he asks of me.
It’s not just my trust in Poornaji that has grown but also my trust in myself. The success of having done other things that I had first thought impossible, helped me have healthy skepticism when my own mind was saying something was impossible. If I started to lean toward the feeling of impossible, the trust I had built from previous successes helped me question myself and explore more options for, “I can if …” Now, I feel more like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland who said, “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
At some point, your spiritual journey will lead you into the space of possibilities. This is a space where time and space are elastic. You can just manifest something with a thought. At that point the “ifs” and “buts” no longer exist. It’s only “I can.”
Step 7. Bring Passion and Persistence
This last one is really important. Each of us are different, and we must discover our own unique spiritual disciplines that work for us. Discover what really works for you and take it on. What motivates you? What gives you joy?
During the early part of your journey, you need guidance from a spiritual master or coach. Following that guidance and incorporating it into your daily life is how you create self-discipline.
Once the self-discipline has formed in the student, a Master will give space for the student’s personal discovery to happen. If there is enough passion and persistence, the student will start to flower in their own practice.
Only your own intense passion and a non-compromising persistence will allow that flowering to happen. You will start defining the rules of dharma that you want to follow. This can then become your unique expression of Oneness. Discovering your passion and persistence is part of your spiritual journey. It’s the final stage of spiritual discipline. The passion and persistence become the very expression of Oneness – a unique expression for each student.