My spiritual practice doesn't work for me
It certainly is disappointing when you’ve invested a lot of time or faith in spiritual upliftment or purification and the results prove disappointing. There can be various reasons for this — some of them related to the teachings, and some of them related to you. Before you can decide what to do about your dissatisfaction, try to figure out what is going on in your particular case. Here are some common explanations for spiritual stagnation. Do any of these shoes fit?
You may be trying to succeed with a spiritual path or technique that’s not suited to your temperament. Variations in human personality make it impossible for a range of people to find one particular technique equally useful. Though one approach fits Paul, the chances of that technique being fitting and useful for everyone Paul knows or could know — that is, at best, naïve!
Sectarian religions are often naïve in that way. Sometimes, a future religious leader has a profound religious experience — a conversion, a rapture of some sort. Understandably, but perhaps foolishly, the uplifted individual will think, “The way this experience happened for me will work for everyone else.” Thus, a religious movement is formed, built on as little as one single spiritual technique. “Do this, and you will be saved!”
Actually, there is no telling what really caused the original revelation. It could be a combination of factors, some overlooked. But, to attribute revelation to a technique can easily mislead. It’s not that simple.
We can’t blame someone for enthusiastically recommending to others something that he thinks has worked very well for him. It is nevertheless true, however, that no one path or technique works the same for all people. It may be that only certain types of people, with certain make-up or preparation, are well-suited or prepared for — and can therefore maximally benefit from — any given approach, process, or technique.
Different strokes for different folks! And: If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it — and don’t feel bad about not wearing it!
Read more about finding a spiritual process that is right for you.
Another possibility is, you may have outgrown your organization’s methods and/or beliefs. The more you discover your genuine spiritual nature, the more room you need to accommodate it. That’s one reason why individuals of intelligence and spiritual sensitivity find narrow dogma unsatisfying. For example, you may once have been comforted by the promise that you’ll be saved if only you believe a certain thing. But later, in your spiritual maturity, you may find that assertion implausible, or even offensive.
Similarly, where you once enjoyed a sense of belonging and exclusivity, you may later feel disheartened by your organization’s narrow-minded views. You may be dismayed that your group disapproves of practices and beliefs that are “different” — different than what the church doctrine or authorities approve of or comprehend.
If you need more room in which to grow, you might find it by supplementing your spiritual life from outside sources — if that is allowed in your group. If not, you may need to find an entirely new context for continued growth. Like a growing hermit crab outgrowing his shell, you need to move into a bigger place!
The missing piece
Spiritual success is like treasure hidden in a safe — you need the right combination to get to the gold. If you don’t get all the numbers right, you may try forever, but never open the door.
Sometimes the fault lies with your organization’s approach. Many spiritual teachings contain elements that are fine in themselves, but the path as a whole is missing one or more important pieces. (For example, a path may emphasize prayer, but downplay relationships, or service, or love. Another may emphasize service, but overlook the importance of an inner relationship with God. Etc., etc.)
A successful spiritual life is well-balanced. We can only advance so far in one area of life without bringing the other aspects up to speed.
To consider the importance of a well-rounded spiritual life, and what might need strengthening in yours, see:
Assembling a Whole Spiritual Life
Three Approaches to Spiritual Life: self-Centered. self-Deluded, and self-Transcending
You’ve heard the saying, “One hole is enough to sink a boat.” What that means in spiritual life is sometimes, certain aspects of the way we live obstruct our progress. In that case, our spiritual path may be well-rounded, but we may be overlooking small-but-important personal problems. How often, for example, have you heard someone say, “I would be just fine if I got enough sleep. But darn it, I never seem to get enough sleep.” Or how about that little character flaw the person never seems to correct, like this one: “Carol is such a lovely person and she would go so far in business if only she were a little more tactful.” We begin to see how easy it is to fall short of success if we forget just one number of that winning combination.
(Note: Cracking a safe is much harder than succeeding in spiritual life. To open a safe door, there is only one winning combination. In spiritual life, you simply need to understand and address all the essentials, but there is plenty of room for individual flexibility in doing that!)
To read more about correcting problems that hold you back, see:
The cancel dance
Spiritual progress sounds good as a goal, but sometimes the results of spiritual progress bring discomfort. For example:
- Higher consciousness brings uncomfortable awareness of problematic conditions, in ourselves and in our environment, which we were better able to ignore in a lower state.
- Higher energy makes us feel brighter and more alive — but also brings feelings of being antsy and out of control.
- Heightened spiritual sensibilities awakens us to new responsibilities — and how many people want more responsibility in life?
The price of change is change. Many people desire spiritual progress for pain relief, but not necessarily for real change. It’s easy to say, “I’d like things to be different,” but most people resist making the changes in their habits of action and thinking that may be required for change to occur, or to endure. For example, we may need to stop spending time with old friends or associates who bring us down. We may need to discipline the tendency to blow off our higher energy using common “downers” (such as negative thinking, arguing with others, wrong diet or taking drugs, working too hard, etc.)
Discipline takes effort! Change requires change! If that’s too high a price to pay, our desire to change — and our efforts to change — are both canceled out by our desire to stay the same in certain significant ways.
Sometimes, working hard isn’t enough — you’ve got to work smart. Part of smart work is making sure that all your efforts support the results you want. Obviously, skipping one meal a day but eating extremely rich foods at the other meals may not allow for weight loss. What if a man decided to turn over a new leaf, and go on a health binge, with one tiny exception — he continued his habit of heavy drinking. Similarly, in spiritual life, it’s common to work in two directions at once, sometimes unconsciously, and thereby sabotage progress. For example: A woman decided to go on spiritual retreat with her friends, but she wouldn’t stop arguing with them at every decision point. It’s the cancel dance: one step forward, one step back. Lots of exercise, but no forward progress!
Sometimes we try hard in some ways, but the little things we do (or don’t do) maintain the status quo. Any little behavior can be chilling in its effect. And if it is sufficiently chilling, it will surely hold us down no matter what else we may do to rise up.
The most common obstacle to progress is inner division. “I want to serve, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of.” Or, “I want to take risks, but I want to play it safe and protect myself.” Obviously, to quit dancing the cancel dance, we need to resolve, release, and live beyond our dilemmas about real spiritual progress. That’s the way to succeed.
For more information about how to build and keep higher energy for spiritual transformation, see: