Think Big, Start Small: Building a Sustainable Spiritual Practice

We live in an age when all the corners of the world are talking to each other—even if they don’t always agree on much. That wasn’t true for most of human history. Until the last 500 years or so, it was hard for places that were far apart to communicate. Read More

buddism and sobriety

We live in an age when all the corners of the world are talking to each other—even if they don’t always agree on much. That wasn’t true for most of human history. Until the last 500 years or so, it was hard for places that were far apart to communicate. It took a long time to cross the oceans in what today seem like insanely small and rickety boats; there were the language barriers; and a lot of societies held beliefs that made it hard to trust outsiders who looked, dressed, spoke, and ate stuff that was radically different from what they knew.

religion and sobrietyWhen religious beliefs were taken very literally, that was also a frequent source of conflict, and still is. But all of the communication that’s been going on since the invention of the printing press and the development of faster and better means of travel has meant that people have been learning about each other’s spiritual views. So today there’s an amazing variety of beliefs, teachings and practices we can check out.

But there’s always been a basic disagreement in spiritual approaches that sometimes flies under the radar. While interfaith dialogue has stressed “there are many paths up the mountain, but they all reach the same destination,” the question of how to climb has brought two different answers: immediate or gradual? Work hard or take it easy? This divide turns up in a lot of places.

sobriety and buddhismThe 20th-century spiritual teacher Gurdjieff insisted that “only super-efforts count.” Whereas teachers like Krishnamurti said that the search for self-improvement and enlightenment was itself a source of stress and suffering. In Christianity, there’s been a lot of talk about “faith” vs. “works.” In Buddhism, there are discussions on “self-power” vs. “relying on a greater, outside power.” Does that ring a bell? In Japanese Zen, there are two main schools, Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai is about going all-out: meditating for long stretches of time, giving it all you’ve got, concentrating hard, and focusing on achieving enlightenment through effort. Soto takes a different approach: moving step by step, not worrying too much about the end result, not talking much about enlightenment; an easier, gentler approach. One Soto Zen master compared it to walking in a fine mist: you get wet so gradually you barely notice it happening. And the lack of pressure helps you to keep from sabotaging yourself with performance anxiety. To anyone in recovery who’s benefited from a pressure-relief meeting, the second approach probably sounds like the better plan.

Without trying to sort out issues that people have wrestled with for thousands of years, my own two cents is that the slower, more gradual approach is probably better suited for most of us who are in recovery. For one thing, in my experience, few human beings actually have the temperament and ability to take a Nike, “Just do it!” approach to spiritual growth and make it stick. And I have watched people who tried this and blew themselves up instead.

I’ve also noticed that many of us with addictive personalities have at least a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness, and trying to muscle our way to health, serenity, enlightenment, wholeness, peace or however we define our spiritual goals fits those tendencies a little too tightly for comfort. So in thinking about this still almost new year and what to say about sanely developing a spiritual practice, and about these traditional divides, what I felt I wanted to suggest was to “think big, but start small.”

meditation and sobrietyThinking big helps satisfy the part of us that wants to set goals, take action, and get it done, without pushing us beyond our actual capacity or trying to be spiritual super-heroes and discovering we can’t actually fly, despite putting on a cape. It also helps us to get clear about what we really want, to prioritize, and have a vision for our future that’s meaningful and inspiring.

Starting small is the “how-to” part—the methodology. I almost called this blog “The Power of Clichés,” because as I started researching I kept running into old, familiar sayings that seemed to fit for the how-to:

  • “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”
  • “Stop and smell the roses”
  • “Keep it simple, stupid”
  • “One day at a time”

The above examples are placeholders in popular culture for what we often call “mindfulness,” an idea that is itself enormously popular right now. In different ways, each saying points to narrowing our focus of attention—not in a restrictive way, but by recalling attention from the thousand and one items on our usual agendas and putting it on this present moment, or some aspect of it such as the breath, our footsteps, the brushstrokes we are painting, or the simple act of buttering our bread. “Simple,” in fact, is a key part of the recipe for mindfulness: we want to recreate the quality of attention we had as children when we learned to walk, when just putting one foot in front of the other or balancing on the bike took all of our concentration to master. So that first quote about a journey from the Chinese Tao Teh Ching contains both the notion of “thinking big”—visualizing a thousand-mile trip—and that of “starting small”—beginning to take action with one step, in the awareness that what we are doing now is what will take us to where we want to get.

“Stop and smell the roses” may sound like something one’s aunt might tell her niece in recommending a retirement community in Florida, but it’s actually very Buddhist. Here’s the breakdown: “Stop” is the beginning of many meditation processes. Gurdjieff taught one called “The Stop Exercise,” in which he would call out the word “Stop” at random times and his students would freeze wherever they happened to be and take note of everything going on around them, in their bodies, their feelings, and their thinking. Taking one’s seat on the meditation cushion is an act of stopping the flow of one’s usual activity, slowing down, and noticing—“the breeze is blowing the curtain. My knee hurts a little. I have a feeling of quiet satisfaction”—whatever is there.

“Smell the roses” is part of that. Paying keen, relaxed attention on strong sensory stimuli is common to many forms of meditation. This common saying is a particularly good one, in fact, since the sense of smell is the strongest one in terms of triggering deep memories, making it both powerful and easy to use. Ironically, accessing clear memories can be a great way of getting settled in the present, as long as we stay aware that the sense memory is happening now, rather than getting pulled into its storyline.

“Keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) is known as “the Design Principle,” and originated in the U.S. Navy in 1960 in relation to aircraft engineering. The basic idea is that systems work best if they are simple in design, having less moving parts to go wrong. The “stupid” part isn’t meant as a put-down; it’s supposed to remind us that we have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be, so keep that impulse in check. Both parts make a lot of sense for the recovery community, since overcomplicating tends to create anxiety about “getting it right,” and thanks, got enough of that already. In creating your spiritual practice, having a simple, straightforward set of behaviors you engage on a daily or regular basis is a good way to establish a strong momentum, without scattering energy in different directions.

“One day at a time,” of course, is the famous AA saying that has been a lifeline for countless members in hanging on to their sobriety. In its wider application, it reminds us that the events of our lives only come at us one at a time for the most part, and much of our distress is the creation of our minds imagining unpleasant possibilities that aren’t actually present. Taking not only each day but each moment one at a time is the essence of meditation.

One way to apply all of this is to see creating your practice as an ongoing project, rather than a dramatic one-off “decision” or “resolution” you make forever and ever. Taking the drama out of it lets our emotions breathe and allows us to approach our practice realistically, make assessments, and change things as needed. None of it is written in stone.

Starting small means not frontloading with more than you can handle. Don’t resolve to meditate for an hour every day if you’ve never meditated before; this is why New Year’s resolutions often fail. Start with 10 to 20 minutes, or even five minutes. Keep your big thought, your vision, in the back of your mind as something to aim for, to encourage yourself with, but start with something you can accomplish nowThe Buddhist teacher Tara Brach has developed a process she calls RAIN, which incorporates many of the simple advice contained in the popular sayings above. Brach says that the acronym RAIN is an easy-to-remember tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using the following four steps:

Recognize what is happening;

Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;

Investigate with interest and care;

Nurture with self-compassion.

(You can Google “the RAIN of Self-Compassion” for a full description of the steps.)

The RAIN method aligns beautifully with the aim of “starting small.” The first step, to “Recognize,” means to simply be aware of and acknowledge what’s going on with us in this moment—sensations in the body, emotions, perceptions, thoughts, and what’s happening around us. “Allow,” the second step, means not hurrying or rushing things by immediately trying to “fix” what we experience in the first step (like my dad, who would take apart appliances, clean them, fix them, and put them back together so they looked great—but would no longer work). We suspend judgment on what we perceive with mindfulness, including on ourselves. Then we move gently into the third step, and “Investigate” with care—meaning with interest and affection—letting our awareness move naturally to whatever feels strongest, whether a place of discomfort in the body, a nagging or pleasant emotion, or a thought that keeps repeating, without getting completely identified with or swallowed up in it. We remain the witness, clear, calm and watchful, centered in the felt-sense of the body as a whole.

In a way, the fourth and final step, “Nurture,” is also the first step, or even precedes the first step: the “zero” step that supports the whole process. Mindfulness isn’t a soulless witnessing conducted as if we were an advanced form of artificial intelligence. It’s about bringing the light of attention from the heart, with warmth and compassion, to and through the whole being, until “the whole body is filled with light,” in Jesus’s words. That light is soft and warm, not sharp and glacial. We hold all the aspects of ourselves and our experience the way a loving mother holds her baby, says the Buddha. It is loving attention, not mere mechanical noticing, that transforms us. Self-nurturing is part of our big vision, the wide-open space in which we take the small steps that will bring us to the destination we want to reach.

Enjoy the trip up the mountain. Stop and look around now and then. Remember to pack a lunch and plenty of water. Don’t forget the air gets thinner the higher you go, so slow down and take deep breaths. Those markers along the way are reminders of the thousands who have made the journey before, the proof it can be done by people who were as hurt and confused as us. Maybe they’re waiting to greet us at the top.

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