This essay was first published at The Humanist Contemplative.
Over the course of my comparative studies, there are some general traits I’ve noticed which seem to be shared between those wisdom streams and I thought it could be helpful to point them out. Here are some traits that are a sign of a good and healthy spiritual path…
10) Aim of True Happiness
Good spirituality will have as its aim the happiness of the practitioner. Of course, deep understanding of what this entails is essential. By ‘True Happiness’ we mean something more than mere pleasure associated with one’s conditions. Rather, the kind of happiness a good spirituality will pursue will be a deeper sense of contentment that transcends circumstance. It will be a source of inner strength in the face of adversity and humble appreciation in the face of fortune. Such a happiness is also not selfish in the shallow sense of the word, in that the practitioner will come to see that mere self interest is not always a path to it.
9) Humble approach to knowledge
A good spirituality will engender humility in the practitioner when it comes to beliefs. It will produce a practitioner that is careful about making claims that cannot be substantiated. The practitioner will appreciate their limitations as a human being, not assuming they have more ability to ‘know’ things than they do. They would learn to be comfortable with a state of ‘not knowing’ all things. Such an approach will guide the practitioner in their own assumptions, as well as in accepting the claims of others without good reason. A good spiritual path will encourage doubt, asking questions, etc. It will not encourage the practitioner to accept claims on the basis of authority, or tradition, or faith, or any other means than good sense and self experience. But at the same time, this principle will not be one that encourages the practitioner to spend their time telling others what they should or shouldn’t believe. Rather, its focus will be on helping the practitioner in their own walk.
8) Holistic, not dualistic
A good spirituality will inspire appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things. Dualistic thinking, whether it comes to nature, ourselves, us/them mentalities, and so on, will be anathema to a sound spirituality. Such a spiritual path will, in part, help to guide the practitioner to operate more effectively in an interconnected universe; appreciating subtle cause and effect, and acting more wisely in such a system. This ‘skillful means’ will be a way for the practitioner to see the big picture – to handle the complexities of life more like a surfer on ever-changing waves, moving in a dance with the universe, rather than stubbornly trying to move against the grain.
7) Acceptance of impermanence
The ever-changing flux of the universe, and the impermanence in which that results, has always been obvious to any observer. Nearly all worldviews, philosophies, traditions, or religions can be grouped into two categories regarding how they handle impermanence. One group will try to claim that there really is some permanent phenomenon to which we can attach our hopes and secure our philosophy (an afterlife, a deity, a ‘salvation’, magic powers, etc). While this may or may not be true, #9 (a humble approach to knowledge) suggests that we cannot know for certain whether it is. For that reason, a good spirituality will belong to the second category, which instead helps the practitioner to come to terms with impermanence; to accept it and learn to live effectively and happily in an impermanent universe. Spirituality, at its best, even helps to grow a sense of awe and wonder at such a grand flux, as we come to realize that impermanence means not merely death, but birth as well, and makes possible everything we love and experience.
6) Motivation-focused, not consequentialism
While much philosophy is often concerned with elaborate logical models to define the ethical, based on actions, consequences, and outward results, a good spirituality will know the limitations of these approaches. In the face of highly complex situations we rarely know all the variables, let alone their values and the results of our actions. But a good spirituality will emphasize the importance of good motivation on behalf of the practitioner. It will direct the practitioner to that inner motivation in all actions. Surely, it is important to use our reason as best we can to take responsible action, but in the end, if we have good motivation and take that due diligence, outcomes are not entirely within our say, as the rest of the universe will play its part as well. A good spirituality engenders a deep appreciation and intuitive-level knowledge of that truth. In this way, our deeper happiness in life begins to divorce itself from circumstantial outcomes.
A good spirituality will be more than merely intellectual teachings or academic philosophy or a ‘world view’. It will not be merely centered on intellectual assent to a certain set of beliefs. Rather, its true power will be in its practice. That is, it will be a system of disciplines one can apply and become more skillful at over time. Its wisdom and its practices will be integrated and support one another. In this way, one’s spirituality will not merely be a label – it will be an activity; and the practitioner will have a sense of making continual progress, day by day, as they walk that path.
4) Changing self instead of others or the world
A legitimately spiritual person will certainly be found taking positive action to help others and help make positive change in the world, but these are merely symptoms of the spiritual life. A good spirituality will help the practitioner always to focus on changing what they have the most capacity to change: the person in the mirror. Understanding that we live in an impermanent and interconnected world, the practitioner will understand that all of their efforts may or may not come to fruition. Therefore, a good spirituality will help us to change our focus from “I must change the world” to, “I must be the kind of person that seeks positive change in the world”. Thus, when we adopt this focus we have already succeeded, regardless of outcomes. This focus not only helps against ‘burn out’ in activist efforts, but it helps us avoid the pitfalls of focusing too much on how others ought to be acting without tending to our own shortcomings.
3) Transcending the ego
A sign of a poor spirituality will be that it coddles the practitioner and makes all things about them. Perhaps it promises wish fulfillment and certain externals such as wealth, health, reputation, etc. It fools us into thinking we have more control than we do. These claims to empower the practitioner appeal to the practitioner’s shallow and mundane self interests and reinforce the ego. A good spirituality will be ego-busting. It will help to free the practitioner from the prison of the ego, expanding one’s sense of self and concern outward to include others. Only through such a liberation from the ego can we begin to see what had been consuming distress for what it is, and begin to know a larger world. Healthy spiritual paths will help us in this process.
2) Wisdom, not -ism
Good spirituality will not be about labels, or a particular people or culture, or particular brands, or personalities. It will inspire the practitioner to seek out and respect wise notions and practices wherever they can be found. It will not inspire the practitioner to defend their ‘ism’ as though holding a flag, but rather to seek truth first with an open mind. Such a practitioner will not care too much whether this or that is considered a religion by some or a philosophy by others, or what titles by which they may or may not be called. They will be adept at exchanging lexicons to suit the context and the conversant, keeping in mind the meaning behind that language as what is important. They will not turn away from certain sources because of bias, ignorance, or reactionary tendencies. Good spirituality encourages the practitioner not to form attachments to the trappings of its own form.
1) Compassion as foundation
Most importantly, a good spirituality will have compassion at its core. Even the pursuit of truth is only worthwhile because of the good it makes possible for all people and is thus secondary to compassion. Good spirituality will help to expand one’s sense of empathy and compassion, ultimately toward all beings. It will teach forgiveness and reject retributive approaches toward dealing with human conflict. Even when action against others is necessary, it will help the practitioner maintain compassion even for enemies. A good spirituality will reject the notion that compassion and pragmatism are at odds – that the virtuous and the advantageous can be exclusive to one another. Ultimately, the practitioner of a good spiritual path will come toward greater perception that virtue (including compassion) and wisdom are synonymous.
About DT Strain
Rev. Strain speaks and writes on a wide variety of philosophic concepts and participates in several organizations. His “Humanist Contemplative” group and concept has since helped inspire a similar group at Harvard University. He is former president of the Humanists of Houston (HOH), and has served as vice-chair on the Executive Council of AHA’s Chapter Assembly, on the Education Committee of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center, and as a member of the Stoic Council at New Stoa.DT is a Humanist Minister, certified by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and a Spiritual Naturalist. He is the founder and director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society.
His writing appears in the Houston Chronicle and has been published in magazines, newsletters, and in the AHA national publication “Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism”. He has been a guest speaker on the Philosophy of Religion panel discussion at San Jacinto College, and has appeared on the Houston PBS television program, The Connection, discussing religious belief and non-belief. DT Strain is an enthusiast of Stoicism, Buddhism, and other ancient philosophies; seeking to supplement modern scientific and humanistic values with these practices. His essays and blog can be found at www.HumanistContemplative.org.