Meditation is always a spiritual practice, but for some of us it is our spiritual path. As a teacher of meditation, I find it useful to understand when meditation is someone’s path and when it is a practice that supports them on some other path. Let me begin to explain by defining what a spiritual path is in the first place.
Simply put, a spiritual path is the historical journey that leads a person to greater levels of spiritual fulfillment. It is the path of insights, teachers, traditions, practices, circumstances, and experiences that gradually opened them to greater inner peace and compassion, deeper connection with the sacred and the divine, and more penetrating clarity and self-knowledge. Our spiritual path becomes clear in retrospect. For many years I was aware that often my greatest spiritual growth was occurring in domains of my life that I would not have identified as part of my spiritual path.
When meditation is a spiritual path for us it is because it is in the context of that practice that we are opening to greater inner peace and compassion, deeper connection with the sacred and the divine, and more penetrating clarity and self-knowledge. For twenty years meditation was a primary spiritual path for me. At the start of those years, I despised it. I couldn’t sit for even a minute in stillness, and I didn’t see any value in it at all. My other primary spiritual path was bhakti devotion to my teacher, and he insisted that I learn to meditate. It was only my love for him that motivated me to put in the grueling hours it would take for me to master the practice.
I struggled with boredom, I struggled with sleep, I struggled with a wandering mind, I struggled with self-loathing, I struggled, I struggled, I struggled, but I kept going. I learned to let go of it all and just be. An inner journey that took place during those silent hours of meditation. While my body was sitting cross-legged very still and quiet, internally I was battling demons, enduring hardships, suffering and occasionally breaking through into deeper realization and release. My inner experience of meditation was dramatic and every time I went back to the practice the journey continued. Sometimes the breakthroughs would occur outside of the practice, but I was always aware that it was in my hours of meditation that I was generating the energy that would lead to new openings. That is what I mean by meditation as a spiritual path.
Meditation is not everyone’s spiritual path. Some people are on a path of physical healing. Perhaps they contracted a disease or were born with health issues that became their spiritual path. Learning how to navigate to vitality was the arena that brought greater inner peace and compassion, deeper connection with the sacred and the divine, and more penetrating clarity and self-knowledge. For others the path involves movement, dance, yoga, or exercise. Still others are finding their deepest spiritual openings through personal or romantic relationships. There are many spiritual paths that we might be following, we might be on more than one at a time, and the path we are on might change at different times in our life.
If you are on a path other than meditation, I still see meditation as an invaluable support for your journey. Our habitual patterns of thought and feeling have been conditioned for self-protection, and whatever spiritual path we are on will take us into territory that will feel dangerous to the mind. As we approach spiritual breakthroughs on any path the mind will start freaking out and screaming “Danger!” If we are committed to profound transformation, we must learn to relax and ignore the mind’s habitual warnings and allow ourselves to drift into the unknown waters of a new way of being.
The primary goal of meditation is to transcend the mind’s reactive tendencies so we can relax through the inevitable turmoil that our minds kick up. The ability to remain steady through the turbulence of mind is an essential skill for successfully navigating any path. For some of us the quiet hours of our meditation practice are our path of awakening. For others, meditation is a practice that supports whatever spiritual path that we’re on.