I spent most of my life longing to be more spiritual but dreading spiritual practice because I felt like it’s onerous drudgery, agonizingly boring hard work. I never considered myself a particularly disciplined person and felt deeply ashamed as I compared myself to the spiritual leaders whom I admired. As a teenager, I enviously watched them spend long hours fasting, meditating, and devoting themselves to rigorous practice while I devoted myself to Saint Super Mario. I felt crushing despair and frequently gave up trying entirely because I believed I could never be devoted enough to make any lasting progress. How could a person like me with mediocre, inconsistent motivation ever hope to make it on the spiritual path? I was a pretender, a sham, and maybe better off resigning myself to more realistic ambitions.
One of the most common perceptions of spiritual practice is that it’s drudgery. This is to a large extent the result of the conditioning of a meritocracy; a society in which the message is constantly reinforced from birth that our worth is connected to our will to work. Many gurus and ministers preach this false gospel as divine truth, championing their achievements as the result of their exceptional spiritual prowess and telling us we just need to be more disciplined and devoted to self-denial. Yet major religious and spiritual traditions teach the diametrically opposite message of grace: spirituality is free, easy, and fun.
Liberation from the Spiritual Slavery of Legalism to Divine Grace
The mindset that spirituality and morality are hard work is referred to in the Bible as life under the Law and is identified as spiritual slavery (Galatians 4, Romans 6-7): “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke [=yoga] of slavery [the Law]” (Galatians, 5:1, NIV). Rather than empowering us, our unconscious agreements to be slaves of willpower (will-worshippers) cripple our spiritual growth. Slaves can indeed be very productive and hardworking, but only externally, not in the heart. Spiritual achievement without heart transformation results in a deeper form of enslavement and bitterness than no spiritual practice whatsoever. Better to be an outright sadist than a saint in the world but a masochist in the heart!
This is why spiritual liberation is referred to in the Bible as the New Covenant (new pact) never again to submit to spiritual slavery. When we renounce the old pact of legalism (work equals worth) and accept the new agreement that grace is our nature, it is said that our hardened, closed, and enslaved hearts of stone are transplanted with new hearts of flesh, open and free: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19, NIV). This new heart is undivided or nondual; holy and godly: empowered by its connection to all that is to flow in seemingly effortless action.
Spiritual life (prana) is released when we liberate ourselves from enslaving mindsets that deify the will. Compulsion and fear are relatively weak motivations. But spiritual life is freedom from the moral drudgery of shoulds and shouldnt’s unto the lifegiving power of sheer desire (also known as grace): “The law of the Spirit [=spirituality] who gives life has set you free from the law of sin [=unwholeness] and death” (Romans 8:2, NIV). The higher law of spirituality sets us free to live from the power of our heart’s purest intentions rather than some external religious or internal superegoic voice telling us what to do: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18, NIV). What greater motivation is there than doing what you want to do most!
The world is in desperate need of a new grace reformation, the faith that human freedom is all that is necessary and does not require one ounce of coercion or control (spiritual law). Grace is divine will, which is the willpower of the entire universe singularly devoted to achieving your aligned intention. Yet we have been taught in the name of spirituality to rely on the consistently unreliable weakness of egoic will instead of grace. This message has been instituted as divine law by capitalism and the mentally-disordered Christian Protestant Work ethic, even though the Bible’s central message of the gospel condemns it in the strongest terms: “You who are trying to be justified by the law… have fallen from grace” Galatians 5:4, NIV). But spiritual grace results naturally in right-living and vocational alignment (dharma), just as trees naturally grow fruit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV).
Work as Divine Play: The Yoga of Jesus, Hinduism, and Taoism
Weary soul, lay down your heavy burden and enter into the eternal rest of heaven on earth that is your birthright! To those who find themselves wanting to be spiritual but lacking motivation, heed the words of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV). Understood through the lens of self-divinity, we may take Jesus’ invitation as a call to self-rabbiship (or self-guruship). Once we understand and stand firm in our liberation from the spiritual slaveries of fear-inspired dogmas, control, and will-worship, we are free to create our own spiritual practice as the gods we are (“I have said, you are gods,” Jesus, John 10:34, NIV), compelled by the will of our hearts.
Like Jesus, the Hindu Scriptures emphasize the liberating power of grace. In nondualist spiritual practice, the concept of lila (Sanskrit लीला) means “divine play.” The purpose of existence is the joy, wonder, and discovery of play. The raw power of inspiration and flow that come from play result in the hardest kind of work possible. It can only be described by words like supernatural, for this type of work connects us to a power beyond ourselves within ourselves (higher self, transpersonal self, “God”). Grace works.
Who needs to teach children to play or artists to paint? Or do we have to train people to want sex? Are procrastination, discipline, and time-management issues we need to emphasize to hungry people to motivate them to eat? Laziness is a symptom of misalignment, not a character trait. There are no lazy passionate people; provided they are free. You will do anything to get your desire if your heart is free, your mind is clear, and your soul is healed of traumas. Spirituality is as natural as being born. It is human nature. It is an instinctual force that cannot be contained except by ideologies that keep us from comprehending who we really are. This is not to say that there is no place for teaching or apprenticeship. All the tools, practices, and learnings in the world are at our disposal; we should not hold ourselves back. And spirituality is not just internal or individual. It is a total task, requiring our entire personhood, the efforts and transformation of all humanity, and all of existence. But all of this can be accessed within through our connection to the within without, and that which is lacking inside will show up in the worlds of those who embrace their heart’s purest desire (also known as “divine providence”).
In nondualist psychocosmology, play is the natural outcome of existence in a nondual reality. There is no necessity within divinity (brahmin, the absolute oneness of all) because divinity is perfect and whole. Therefore, existence is not a matter of shoulds and obligations, but play:
Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity. (Misra, 1998, p. 187)
Thus, yogic psychospiritualities teach detachment from the outcome of one’s actions (vairāgya) as a means of grace (divine) realization. By reconnecting purpose with the purity of our heart’s intuitive desire, we connect with the flow of the universe–intrapsychic and cosmopsychic. Likewise, the Hindu notion of samādhi, or blissful ecstatic nondual realization, can be seen as complete absorption in graceful activity: “Complete absorption means that the self is completely absorbed in play, in which case the self and its activity are nondual” (Loy, 1988, p. 111). This notion is similar to the nondual wei-wu-wei of Taoism, “the action of nonaction” (Loy, 1988, p. 96). Through complete absorption in our actions, we reattach ourselves to wholeness, no longer seeing our actions in terms of isolated individual subjects separate from the whole, but as cells living in the larger body of existence, strings vibrating on a cosmic harp. The purpose is the play, not just the outcome.
Individuated Spiritual Practice: Create Your Own Yoga
What does playful spiritual practice look like? This is an individualized question, and the answers are as multitudinous and varied as there are people on the earth. Jesus’ yoke metaphor for spiritual practice is informative for this endeavor. A yoke is a crosspiece attaching animals to carts they pull. The yoke of divine work Jesus preaches is, ironically, hard work through ease and rest; divine play. The yoke is similar to the Indian notion of yoga. Yoga refers to the practice of psychsospiritual technologies and teachings that result in freedom from solely ego-bound personality consciousness to continuous ecstatic union with the nondual (divine) (Feuerstein, 2008, pp. 3-7). Spiritual practice is a matter of zooming in and zooming out: developing our egoic personalities through self-actualization (evolution, individuation) and transcending them and deconstructing the conditioning of our identifications with them through uniting with the transpersonal self (involution, divinization, deification, theosis). We must develop our egos and dissolve them–two paradoxical sides of the same coin of psychospiritual praxis.
The ways in which we accomplish these tasks are infinite. The universe is your oyster! It is possible to find spiritual connection through virtually any activity with intention and attention. If mowing the lawn gets you going, do it religiously! The practices and teachings of many spiritual traditions, especially the contemplative and mystical psychotechnologies, are useful and readily available as guides. Go out and explore; your path will find you finding it. There is no need to reinvent the wheel of spiritual practice, but a diverse array of spokes make for a powerfully-individualized custom-you wheel. Discover what works for you and set aside what you are not drawn to–that is a practice suited to someone else with a different constitution, or for a different situation and time in your life. Do not feel the need to torture yourself–unless you are drawn to spiritual practice as torture! Spiritual practice can certainly be trying and demanding, at times requiring all of our strength and then some. And there may be an initial trial period for new practices, a time during which it takes persistence and patience to learn a new skill and breakthrough to the benefits and sense of flow. But the overall tenor of your practice must be enjoyable to be sustainable. The overarching frame must be desire, even in the most demanding practices of denial and asceticism.
Perhaps spiritually is easier than we have traditionally imagined it to be. For far too long, world religions and totalitarian economic orders have preached doctrines that suppress our hearts rather than inspire our flourishing. Spirituality can be as easy and recreational as popping a pill or eating a mushroom, as sensuous as having tantric sex or indulging your artistic creativity. The harder path is neither better nor worse. Everything depends on you trusting your heart and living from the core of your own truth. You are divine; the answer you seek without also lies within.
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Misra, Ram Shankar (1998). Integral Advaitism of Sri Aurobindo. India: Motilal Banarsidass.
Feuerstein, G. (2008). The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice. Arizona: Hohm Press.
Loy, D. (1988). Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press.