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Stages of Spiritual Practice - a theoretical model

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Something slightly different from what I teach and share, but nevertheless a model I have found very useful in my life both professionally and socially. The thoughts summarised below by me are based on the ideas presented in a series of Dharma Talks by Charlotte Joko Beck - they are not my own original ideas. As with any model, they are useful only to a point and once understood I believe they should be discarded, lest we confuse the model for reality itself. If you'd like to find out more about her work, I highly recommend reading her book "Everyday Zen".

The dramatic life

Caught up in the drama of life, the attention lies on the external (they did this, this made me feel that) and we have strong emotional reactions to situations and people. In this state of being we are so caught up in our own story that we are unable to step back and see ourselves clearly, or to know what we’re feeling. We are constantly doing and trying to fix the problems of life.

Observing thoughts

We begin to be aware of our own emotional reactions to things, to see how we turn situations into drama. The focus shifts from what is happening out there to observing my own thoughts and patterns. We are learning to see ourselves more clearly, to know ourselves. We’re still reacting and creating drama, and trying to fix life’s problems, but we begin to see ourselves doing it.

Letting sensations be

As we get to know ourself better, we bring more attention to the bodily sensation that accompany thoughts and emotions, and we find some moments in which we are able to just sit with uncomfortable sensations and feelings. We still have dramatic or emotional thoughts and ideas, but we are beginning to recognise that they are just thoughts, and to separate them from “reality”. The small self is still there, and we still feel strong emotions about things, but more and more we feel able to let those situations be and just watch how those feelings play out in the body without trying to control the external situation as much.

Becoming present

The more we practice and observe our thoughts and physical sensations, the easier it becomes to be present with what is. In this phase, we slowly begin to spend less time focusing on the story of what happened and more time focusing on what is. When something happens that seems unpleasant to us, we hold on to that for less and less time. If someone makes us angry, how long do we hold on to that anger, playing it over and over in our heads? At first perhaps a month, a week, a few days. With more practice perhaps just a tense hour, a few minutes, or one deep breath. This happens not by repressing the anger, which is happens more in the dramatic life or when observing thoughts, but by embracing everything. Whereas before the awareness would be swept away by strong emotions, our awareness is now wider and more grounded. We feel the emotion, but we still see everything else: we see our thoughts as thoughts, our body sensations and sensations, and we recognise the other person and the situation dispassionately as well. In this light, the emotion has less and less significance, and as we lose interest in it, it dissipates.

Mindful living

In this state of being, we are living almost all the time in the present moment. Through careful observation of thoughts and bodily sensations, we have broken down much of our attachments. We aren’t creating drama or trying to manipulate the world to suit our own purposes and more of our decisions are made for the mutual benefit of all parties. In this state we feel peaceful most of the time: this doesn’t mean that we don’t experience love, excitement, sadness or anger, but that we are able to experience those feelings without being swept away by them. We are able to laugh at our own thoughts and we don’t feel the pain of things not being the way we want. When things don’t go our way, we’re able to let it go and move on. In other words, we are able to see and accept things as they are, and make decisions that are grounded in present reality without anxiety about the future or regrets about the past.

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