The One Thing Guaranteed To Turn Your Goals Into Reality

"Whether...to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts...from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit...Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired."

―Martha Graham

The practice of spirituality

Creating a spiritual life is something like writing a story. Ultimately, it is a mystery—one that will not unfold unless you go into the workroom and make an effort, however banal and humdrum it feels. In other words, you have to practice.

All spiritual traditions show you ways to do this, like attending services and participating in religious rituals. Some practices involve consistently performing a physical exercise, such as yoga and tai chi. Many people find great spiritual value in walking regularly, especially while using breath-control techniques.

The practice of mindfulness
Mindfulness is another example. When we learn to witness ourselves, we stand outside our feelings and thoughts and observe instead of judging, analyzing, or denying them. This practice allows us to become less attached to our dramas, less victimized by our moods, and more aware of what is driving us.

The practice of love
A committed relationship is another form of practice. Many of us think of love as something that should be effortless and constant, not something that requires serious work. The inevitable struggles and disappointments of relationships can help partners develop acceptance, honesty, flexibility, empathy, patience, and self-awareness. To do so, though, we must move off the path to some sort of abstract happiness and get on the one headed toward awakening.

Ironically, when we relinquish the requirement that our partner be the source of our well-being, the relationship can become a wellspring of sustenance and nourishment.

Life as a practice
Some philosophies suggest that life itself, like relationships, is a practice. Ordinary challenges—growing a garden, raising children, or working a job—can be invitations to soul-work. Our daily lives offer us constant opportunities to increase compassion. Many religions have designated days of the week and times of the year for fasting, praying, and reading scriptures. Muslims bow in prayer five times a day. The Balinese Hindus offer baskets filled with flowers and rice to their deities thrice daily, and the Benedictine nuns sing Gregorian chants.

Establish a schedule for your own practice—it doesn't have to be perfect or make you happy—but make it good enough to get you to show up and stay grounded. Mysticism causes us to soar; an ongoing practice keeps us rooted to the earth.

Becoming spiritually literate is about paying attention to what is in front of your eyes at each moment. Thinking about what was, or what could be, diminishes what is happening right now. If we do not pay attention to now, we may never recognize our true prayer or song, the connection to the spark we seek. When we pay attention, we may be surprised.

When her sons were 4 and 7 years old, Lily went to a spiritual retreat and made a recommitment to meditation. When she returned home, she carefully set up an altar in the corner of her bedroom. She found a perfect candle and a meditation cushion with Sanskrit phrases on it. Then she announced to the boys that she would be spending 30 minutes each day in her room meditating, during which they needed to be very quiet.

The day she began her practice, they stood outside her room, compliant and quiet. After about 10 minutes she heard a quiet buzzing, which began to increase decibel by decibel. She tried to ignore the sound, meditating with her special mantra, but the noise grew louder. Soon she could hear the boys hitting one another, then crying and yelling. In exasperation she jumped up, opened the door, and screamed at them, "You two better stop it right now. I mean, stop it, damn it! I am working on my spiritual practice!"

Her sons' faces fell at the sight of their raging mother, and Lily was struck by the absurdity of this scene. Her spiritual practice was hurting all three of them. What her true practice should be, she realized, was to use every event in the day as an opportunity for kindness and patience to emerge. Nowhere was this practice more important than with her children.

Spiritual ideas can be exciting to learn and talk about; so can fitness and learning Spanish. Practice is the bridge that takes us from thinking to becoming.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

5 Unexpected Health Benefits of Love & Friendship

Most of us are aware of the fact that if we love someone and are loved in return, our overall mental health is enhanced. Happiness is healthy, plain and simple. But the benefits of loving others only get more impressive as we examine them more closely.

Typically, individual well-being is assessed in terms of how well we're doing physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and socially. So let's take a look at how cultivating love and healthy relationships positively affects our health and well-being in these five areas:

1. Physical Health
Oxytocin, often called the “cuddle chemical,” is a hormone released when we touch someone we care about. (It's also a factor in our connection with animal companions.) Many of us know that this hormone increases with regular sexual intercourse, but we also have more of it in our systems when we are simply hanging out and having fun with friends.
Love Cycles

So the more loving our connections, the more we amass this fabulous chemical, which is known to lower blood pressure, decrease stress and even boost immunity.
Oxytocin reduces aches and pains, increases energy and enables us to experience life more often on the upbeat.

In fact, studies of psychology and aging show that loneliness increases blood pressure while the feeling of being “connected” lowers it. Studies also show how oxytocin overrides fear and reduces anxiety, which is why people do such great (and also "crazy") things in the name of love. Yet this chemical also improves our ability to recognize and respond appropriately to social cues and enhances all aspects of our well-being.

2. Intellectual Health
Intellectual health involves increased alertness, knowledge and common sense. Sure, we can cultivate our intellectual health with books, cultural events and other formal educational experiences. But we can also learn an incredible amount from the people we surround ourselves with.

A person who exhibits intellectual health is able to access their own gifts. From that awareness they can tap into their capacity for creativity. But it's also inarguable that our connections to others feed all of these self-discoveries. We learn through building our relationships and learning to improve our communication with others: opening up, listening to others open up, and simply having fun all sharpen our emotional intelligence.

Smart people make good decisions after some thoughtful consideration to decide how to move forward. Brainstorming often is an invaluable part of the process, whether on social media or through a tête-à-tête with a friend. Such connections increase our skill and capacity to think, respond, cultivate resilience and expand our minds.

3. Emotional Health
Studies have found that people who maintain close relationships with others are less likely to suffer from clinical depression. There's a reason, of course, which isn't often articulated: to maintain successful relationships, we will have already learned to manage our own emotions in healthy ways.

In fact, that kind of accountability to oneself is a prerequisite to successful connections. If we have already cultivated self-awareness, we most likely will also have developed social skills, including the ability to read social cues and show appreciation, care and concern for others. These skills establish the healthy ground on which relationships can thrive.

4. Spiritual Health
Let's face it: humans are imperfect and often annoying.
We hurt one another's feelings. We fall into the traps of assumptions and unmet expectations. We let one another down.

But people who have successful long-term relationships practice generosity, forgiveness, patience and acceptance. Gratitude and appreciation are often said to be the most important qualities in a successful relationship, and there is much research to support this assertion. Studies suggest that communicating gratitude actually contributes to neuroplasticity — our brain's ability to make changes in response to our experiences. More generally, these are the benefits of practicing mindfulness. The more we practice being thankful, for ourselves, others and for life itself, the easier and more natural the feeling becomes.

5. Social Health
Successful relationships require us to develop particular skills: to be supportive without attempting to “fix” the problem,
to communicate warmth without intruding on another's privacy and to manage conflict without damaging our connections.

To understand how to traverse the slippery slope of good boundary management is essential to healthy connection. The reach of such skills extends to our relationships with other loved ones, and carries over to enhance the power and meaning of our interactions in the workplace and in community life.

In the wellness space, we're swamped by information overload about what to do and what not to do in order to remain healthy and live longer. We hear the latest about the benefits of kale and the detriments of BPA in plastic. Sometimes the information is contradictory or the research confusing, and much of it changes on a regular basis. What does stay consistent, however, is that healthy connections with others means fewer visits to the doctor, shorter stays at the hospital and a longer life span. This is undeniable.

The Beatles were right when they sang, “I just need someone to love.” We all do. In fact, we need a community of people to love. It will reward us with health in all areas of our lives.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

3 Myths About Spirituality That May be Hurting You

The first person I ever knew who had her own guru in India was a woman named Shakti. She wore brilliant-colored, filmy clothes, exotic bracelets and amulets of carved snakes and jaguars. She spoke frequently about harmony, manifestation and unconditional love. 

I'll admit that in her presence I always felt inadequate, ashamed of my “lowly” struggles with righteousness, resentment and materialism. So it came as a surprise to learn how harshly Shakti judged people who were not vegetarians or who found meaning in traditional religions. I discovered, too, that her friendships seemed troubled, and all relatively new: she had kept none of the friends she had made in the past. She also had no contact with her family at all, and brushed off the fact, noting that her parents were both alcoholics and that she had left home at fourteen. 

Shakti had never dealt directly with the pain and anguish of her early experiences. Instead, she had taken a spiritual “bypass”: she was using spirituality as a veil to hide her problems from herself. 

love cycles
By contrast, there were other people I admired, who had been practicing a spiritual way of life for a long time. They didn't act pious or superior, and they didn't romanticize how they lived either. They were modest about both their mystical experiences and their daily practice. They smiled easily, expressed sorrow, admitted to moments of anger and judgment, and were the first to laugh at their own human foibles. 

It occurred to me, then, that 
not only did our culture mistake the idea of “love” for “romance,” we also misunderstood what it meant for a person to be “spiritual.” Our distorted view has led to myths that have created shadows on the spiritual path. 

Here are three myths about spirituality (quite commonly held) that may be keeping you at arm's length from what's really going on inside. 

1. Enlightenment is a destination.
The illusion of “enlightenment” as a light at the end of the tunnel is a common pitfall — with its promise of a permanent place of arrival. But in fact, enlightenment is not an ultimate state of being that can be perpetually sustained. Buddhist students are warned not to become attached to enlightenment as a goal. 

Sometimes we may experience transcendence or deep inner peace, and that's great. But the trick is not to dwell on the moment so much that we become fixated on how to achieve the feeling again. Rather, it is deeply spiritual to appreciate the feeling as a glimpse of what's possible as we move on to the work of living this very human and (often) unenlightened life. 

2. “Spiritual people” are superior to others.
Sometimes the idea of “being on a spiritual journey” can be misperceived as gaining membership into a secret society or an exclusive country club. People inside the clubhouse are on the true path. Those outside it are not; because their focus is elsewhere they are inferior, right? Wrong. 

Our connection with spirituality is meant to shorten the distance between us and the rest of the world, not to set us apart from it. We're only one small part of a very large design. Everyone is on a “spiritual journey.” We only know what is the right one for us. 

Through a true practice, we gain in compassion and humility, and this gain reduces our need to feel special. True spirituality permits us to see that we're a part of everything, that we're all a part of each other, rather than separated into those who know and those who don't. 

3. Spirituality rids your life of all negativity. 
Whether our spiritual evolution leads us to scale mystical peaks or to settle into the repose of quiet new thoughts, eventually we reach a point where parts of our old life (and some of the people in it) no longer fit in the same way. To try and describe our new beliefs can be awkward. In turn, those that hear us may respond with cynicism. They may be dismissive, critical, or feel threatened by what we say. Spiritual discovery is a subjective experience; it cannot be told to another without the sacrifice of some of its magic. 

Inner change sometimes reveals itself in dramatic outward shifts in attitude and behavior. We may find that we can no longer maintain our old relationships in the same way because something inside us has deeply changed. The challenge then is to admit that the fit is not the same, to mourn the loss of some relationships, and even to grieve for the old self we've lost. It may be as painful to let go of who we've been as it is joyful to welcome the new self. 

The real destination on any spiritual path is to reach a broad acceptance, which includes the beginnings and endings that take place along the way, without the need to denounce any part of our experience. 

Whatever wonders we witness in our journey, we remember that we're still humans in the physical world. Cosmic moments of understanding come and go, and we plummet back into ordinary life. We cannot hold on, nor are we meant to. We may have been to the mountain and seen miracles, but we still need to do the laundry and remind our kids to brush their teeth. We have the potential to claim more wholeness and peace of mind than we imagine. 

We also have egos, body-centered personal dramas, instincts, and a variety of hard-wired emotions. 
Spirituality isn't a goal; it's our essence. Depression, disillusionment, and doubt are part of life. So are sorrow, anger, and struggle for meaning, and difficulties with love. There is no escaping the human condition and, when we try to bypass it, we fall into the shadow-lands of the journey.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.