Is the spiritual path an inner one? Do we have to leave the world behind to find ourselves? If not, how can we integrate our relationship with the world? Is there an outer path to freedom? I think it is time for us to rethink our relationship with what we are taught on the spiritual path. It’s time to reinvent the spiritual ideal. Let’s start by putting this into context.

The Path of Inner Contemplation

Many modern-day spiritual practitioners are following traditions that were made for a place and time that looked quite different from the modern world.  If you look at it, many of our most popular traditions were curated for the contemplative. The instructions are given for the aspirant who studied to give his or her full life to the path because of family lineage or personal calling. Teachings are often given for the ascetic. This puts many of us in a dilemma because, as important and relevant spiritual practice is in our modern lives, the spiritual ideal that has been fostered over time can actually limit us or create within us certain unrealistic images or goals.

We are busy people with full lives. However, we yearn for peace and inner quiet.  We have family and appointments and careers. However, we are taught to be unattached. We move from meditation, contemplation, or prayer to the full swing of life in a matter of minutes. When we look to our spiritual practice we can recognize that our modern-day intensity is not actually a problem. In fact, this offers us a treasure trove of lessons that can become profound material for spiritual self-inquiry.

What it Means to Reinvent the Spiritual Ideal

This is only possible if we reinvent the spiritual ideal to embrace the busy life. We can absorb the lessons of this moment no matter how challenging. What if those lessons are exactly what we need in order to open more deeply? We might then enfold that life into the practice instead of pushing away our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and perceptions as somehow invalid, problematic, or less-divine.

The spiritual self-investigation practice is about turning our attention to our own personal process of observation and awareness. When we turn inward, we can begin to unravel deep inner patterns or shields that we have created over the course our lives.  We might call this investigation toward the deep heart of the Self the Inward Path. Traditionally this model of inner practice has been prized—for good reason. Contemplation and silent commitment are described as essential to discovering our reverence to the divine within.

This highly individualized practice was born of a distant world that had far fewer distractions and options. When coupled with a deep cultural bias toward individualism in the West, the emphasis on this approach has created some real problems for the spiritual seeker.

Perhaps we think we are failing in the process self-inquiry if we continue to experience nagging thoughts or troubling emotions. We think we should have more clarity, grace, and wisdom. We think we should be quieter. Or we may feel that we should not be triggered by that certain family member or friend. On the spiritual path, we may compartmentalize our busyness and schedule a retreat or covet a certain meditation ritual to recenter and step away from it all.

This misguided understanding of perfect practice is a classic half-teaching of awakening. There are so many misunderstandings when it comes to self-inquiry, particularly non-dual self-inquiry. But this one is particularly challenging for those of us who like to follow the rules and traditions passed to us.

Returning to our Willing Heart

Can we begin to see that the whole world is conspiring to bring us back to the self-discovery of our inner heart? I don’t mean this casually. For real spiritual non-dual self-inquiry understands the gravity of this truth. The dance is just complex enough, just uncomfortable enough, that it is always giving us the material that we need to return to the heart. This is only possible if the heart is willing to stand and meet the dancer as a partner.

Walking the Outward Path

It’s time to explore the Outward Path of spiritual reverence. It’s time to engage actively with our community, with our friends and family, with our work, and to do so with the same contemplative, even ritualized, care that we use when practicing the Inward Path. We need each other for our unfoldment. We need our problems. This is just as important as our inner observation. There is a dynamic between the space we can take to notice what we notice at the point of silence and the interaction with the world around us. The two together teach us the great material that opens the heart further.

Self-inquiry on The Outward Path allows us to begin to recognize that the awakened heart needs the external world for grace and revelation just as much as it needs the internal world as an anchor. One of the mature insights of self-inquiry is that the world “out there” is also the divine, truly equal and seamless to the divine within. The ways in which we navigate our relationships with our intimates and even with strangers becomes the great meditation. This is the path of infusing the ordinary life with the extraordinary.

Meditation and What We Notice in Action

We are never apart from meditation. Meditation is not a practice that we do while closed off for certain minutes of the day, dedicated to a favorite spot, seat, or time. Meditation is how we interact with the complex, living world from validated intimacy, or awareness. It is how we notice what we notice in action. What happens when we are triggered by something someone says? We notice that. What happens when a deep pattern is opened up, leaving us feeling raw and exposed? We notice that, without pushing away we notice and we retrain ourselves to live from that validated intimate place of Self.

We must remember hold valuable the pain of life, the wisdom of our friends and teachers and living relationships, the things that stir our most hidden emotions.  We need the outside world to return us home.  If we cannot find the divine in our ordinary, if sometimes complex, lives, then we certainly will not find that divine sitting alone on a mountaintop.

On a level perhaps even more subtle and beautiful, we are served by understanding that the entire body of the earth is just an outer dance born of the inner, individual heart. The divine loves nothing more than waking up to itself, remembering itself, in every possible way and through every possible lens. This complex world is the dance, is the teacher, is the divine.

Practicing The Inner and Outer Paths Together to Reinvent the Spiritual Ideal

Let’s learn to play with life and have the courage and curiosity to understand that our inner meditations must pour outward into that dance with equal reverence to the inner noticing. At the end of the day, it is this outer world that we are all here to learn from as we take our places as students in a cosmic classroom.

About the Author:

Cynthia Abulafia has been instrumental in the creation and leadership of Yoga Soup’s 200 Hour Teacher Training, is E-RYT 500, YACEP (she teaches continuing education), IAYT (Yoga Therapy), and Pilates certified, and holds a Masters in Nutrition. She has over 25 years of study with world class teachers in several schools of Yoga, including Yoga Therapy, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa Krama with Srivatsa Ramaswami, modern flow blends originating at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, and many beloved meditation, Advaita, non-dual Tantra, kundalini-Shakti, and self-inquiry teachers.  For more info:  (Reprinted from LA Yoga magazine)