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The 5 Essential Elements of a Life-Long Spiritual Practice

Most of us live in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, stuck in an eternal gap between who we are and who we want to be.

But, without this dissatisfaction, humans would not progress and evolve. A dissatisfied person solves a problem. And humanity benefits from their solution, which in turn, enables them to solve other problems.

  • New methods of transportation enable commerce that wouldn’t have been possible before.

  • New methods of communication enable relationships that wouldn’t have been possible before.

As each of these solutions intersects, paradigms shift. And as a species, we learn to make the impossible possible.

Yet, we somehow suffer, in spite of all our progress. We try to control the uncontrollable, change what can’t be changed and resist the divine order of the universe. Every aspect of our lives becomes a problem to be solved rather than a process to be enjoyed.

I woke up this morning hoping to surf but instead found rain and storms. I wish it wasn’t raining, but this is a pointless wish because it is raining. Wishing to change something you can’t is a fool’s errand.

Maybe you’re in paradise with someone you love and it’s raining. It’s not the vacation you had in mind. But, there’s an alternative that might give you just as much pleasure. Have as much sex as possible until the rain stops. You might look at the rainy day of your vacation as one of the best ones.

I came here to read, write, and reflect. Other than sex, it’s one of the best ways I could spend this rainy day.

Nature has its own rhythm. Whether we meditate in ashrams, read self-help books or chant mantras and affirmations, it will still rain and snow. It will still be hot as hell in the summer and bone-chilling in the winter. The experience of being human has a parallel rhythm to nature.

Survival

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Our ability to survive is a test of our faith, patience, resilience and conviction. Regardless of what we are trying to do with our lives, we need all of these.

Without faith that things will unfold in a way that serves us, we become bitter. Without patience, we can’t persist through the inevitable parts of every hero’s journey that suck.

Without resilience, we will give up on what we want at the first sign of difficulty or the first setback. We lose our capacity to turn shit into sugar and obstacles into opportunities.

Without conviction, we are persuaded by others to live our lives according to their opinions. If someone can talk you out of something in one conversation, your conviction is questionable. When your conviction is unwavering, you develop the ability to take the world in your head and impose it on the world around you until it looks like the world in your head.

Surrender

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To surrender is to let go of all that we can’t control and stop changing what we can’t. Everything you fight has power over you; everything you accept doesn’t.

What is the point of resisting something you can’t control or change? You can resist the rain or the snow, but it’s not as though your choice to resist is a light switch. You can’t turn off the rain at will. You can resist someone’s opinion of you or your art. But why put so much energy into something you can’t control?

In our attempts to control the uncontrollable and change what we can’t, we put on masks and become false or bullshit versions of ourselves. We water down our work in hopes that the audience will clap. But if they do, we now have a facade to keep up. We can change who we are to please another person but we lose ourselves in search of their validation. When our true self emerges, they will be gone and we will be disappointed.

Surrender is not resignation. Surrender is a spiritual victory. Resignation is defeat. Resignation is resistance. Surrender is acceptance. It’s the difference between giving up on the outcome, and letting go of your attachment to the outcome.

When you give up on whatever it is you want, the world becomes dark and you walk around the world as if somebody spat in your coffee. But when you let go, you realize that when you expect nothing, everything comes to you.

Success

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Parents, peers, society, and advertising define success for us. These are the colleges where you should apply; careers you should consider; people you should date; boxes you should check; and life you should live.

At some point, we might abandon this definition of success, falsely believing we have our own definition of success. Our new definition of success is non-conformity, the four-hour work week, or whatever the latest message is from internet celebrities, life-coaches, and self-help authors.

Success is a series of false horizons. Nothing you accomplish will alter your self-image; nobody will fill the holes in your heart; and everything you acquire can be taken away from you.

We quickly adapt to improved circumstances. Because of the hedonic treadmill, every single thing we once believed was the holy grail becomes our new normal. Nobody who has achieved success far beyond anything they could have imagined wakes up and says, “I’m done. There’s nothing wrong with me. I have no problems. My work is done here.”

Success doesn’t undo our flaws. It reveals them. If you’re an asshole, it makes you a bigger one. If you thrive on validation, that desire is amplified along with your insecurity.

It doesn’t make you immune to problems. It expands your capacity to handle them, which in turn, expands your capacity to take on bigger challenges. You’re able to take on bigger projects. Instead of simple creative ideas, you build empires. Instead of long shots, you become capable of moonshots.

But if success brought us everything we thought it would, there would be no need for self-help seminars, religion or any other search for meaning.

Stillness

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In a noisy world, solitude seems like a luxury. But, it’s not. It’s a necessity. It’s why Ryan Holiday says, “Stillness is the key.” Without stillness, we run around the world at a frenetic pace, missing what’s important.

We rush through dinners with close friends, checking our phones, and asking for our tabs. It’s a perpetual sense that there’s somewhere more important to be, and someone more important to be with. Sadly, that’s not much different than not being there at all.

I had breakfast with a friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years when I was on a 17-hour layover. We only had an hour because he was catching a flight. Because we were friends long before the iPhone, there’s no digital trail of our friendship; just the moments and memories we shared 20 years ago. The only time he took out his phone was to show me a picture of his daughter.

When we allow for stillness, we connect to an inner voice—one that isn’t just the echo of our social programming. It’s not the voice of reason, but the voice of faith and unwavering conviction.

Stillness teaches us to pay attention instead of seeking it. Paying attention brings us joy. Seeking attention plants the seeds of discontent.

Significance

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Time is a precious commodity, but we treat it as though we have an infinite supply. At 41, I’m assuming that I might be halfway through this one and only life. Maybe there are a few years on the tail end. But once my bones are brittle, I may not be able to surf, snowboard, and make this much of a ruckus.

But significance isn’t just about accolades and accomplishments. It’s about spending time with people you care about. It’s about the only metric that’s really worth anything in this life: time well spent.

Time with my friends and family is well spent. Time surfing and snowboarding is well spent. Time making good art that might or not make a difference in people’s lives is well spent.

If there’s one regret I’ve had in my life, it’s the time I’ve spent trying to change what I couldn’t and controlling the uncontrollable. It’s crying over other people’s opinions, which I could not control (bosses, romantic partners, readers and audience members).

This is all easy to say and hard to do. We all spend time trying to change what we can’t and control the uncontrollable. My dad always says to me, “Whatever happens is for your own good.” And when the shit hits the fan, I’d say, “How can this possibly be for my own good?” But a few years later, that punch to the face ends up being a gift from the universe, and my dad ends up being right.

Letting go of this tendency is not an item on a to-do list or months at an ashram in search of enlightenment. It’s a practice and the work of a lifetime.

And the in hours I’ve been writing this, the rain has stopped; the surf conditions have cleaned up; the tide is rising; and it seems that nature has rewarded my patience.

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