Metamorphosis: Simple Exercises in Spirituality

By Robert Barzan

return to Winter 1997 (#31): EXERCISES IN SPIRITUALITY

From time to time people have asked me what they can do to deepen their spiritual lives. Over the years I have come up with the following list of activities that I have found helpful in my own life, and that have proven to be powerful in changing the lives of others as well. These are only ten of many healthy and helpful ways to deepen our spiritual lives. All of these suggestions I have tried personally, and for the most part, continue to do in my life. They are powerful activities that will continually challenge you to grow in life-giving virtues, yet they are remarkable in their simplicity. Though there are just ten suggestions, I encourage you to try only a few at a time. Begin with the one or two that tug at your heart. I suggest you pick one activity from the first three, and then one from the remaining seven. How will you know if these activities are deepening your spirituality in healthy ways? They should be helping you grow in compassion, love, generosity, justice, truth and many other virtues. Since we are all different, I cannot say exactly how these activities will affect your life, but I can say that if you approach them with a sense of adventure and fun, amazing things will happen.

1. Free yourself from the mass media.

The more mass media you free yourself from, the more powerful this experience will be. There are two reasons for this. One, of course, is time. The average adult in United States watches television for nearly 5 hours per day, and spends an undetermined amount of time listening to radio, reading newspapers and magazines, exploring the world wide web, and watching movies. Even the most time-strapped are shocked to discover how much time they have on their hands when they stop exposing themselves to mass media. The second reason a mass media fast can be so powerful is because you will free yourself from a mediated and artificial experience of the world. No matter whether you think the mass media is a great blessing for, or a great curse on humanity, you will still be freeing yourself from a carefully packaged world view that at best can only approximate the sensuousness of the real world, and at worst encourages passivity, consumerism, compulsiveness, and regimentation.

Freeing yourself from the mass media is not easy. You may discover how serious your addiction is on the very first day, but in a short time, you will experience a profound change in your world view and in your perception of life. You can expect your dreams to become more vivid and powerful, your imagination will become more rich, and you will be more sensitive to both the visual and audible world around you.

2. Work part-time.

If you now work forty hours a week or more, either significantly cut the number of hours you work, or if that is not possible in your present job, quit and take a new job in which you work fewer hours. U.S. workers labor more hours and have less free time than most other workers on the planet. In 1957 the average work week was 37 hours, today it averages 48-50 hours. European serfs in the Middle Ages worked less. Hunters and gatherers labor 3-4 hours per day to secure all they need. Even in European countries with a higher standard of living than United States, workers have significantly shorter work-weeks, and far more vacation days. We have only been given a finite amount of life energy and when it is gone, it's gone. How many people on their death beds wish they had spent more time at the office, or in the mill?

Work has become a major distraction taking us away from our life, and it's time to claim our lives back. When you free yourself from full-time work you may find yourself temporarily disoriented, but within a few weeks the only regret you will have is that you waited so long. Freeing yourself from full-time employment means you will have the time and energy to enjoy a deeply rewarding and exciting life. Not only will you have time to do a variety of activities that interest you, but you can even return to the ancient civilized traditions of taking afternoon naps, and listening reflectively.

3. Proclaim a buying fast and do a possession inventory.

For a set period of time, at least a month, but preferably two to three months, don't buy anything except what is absolutely necessary for housing, food, transportation, and health. Avoid purchasing kitchen gadgets, clothing, furniture, theatre tickets, books, and whatever else, for the whole time. This is an exercise in our relationship with possessions, it is not meant to encourage an attitude that material possessions are evil, but rather to make us conscious of the place they have in our lives so we can make changes if we want to. In fact, my belief is our society's compulsive materialism is indicative of a basic contempt for material objects. This is best exemplified in ever changing fashions and planned obsolescence. If we savored, appreciated, and shared our possessions, we wouldn't need or want so many.

The average resident of United States spends 3 to 4 times as many hours shopping for non-food items annually than shoppers in Germany and other western European countries.

During the time of the buying fast, make a detailed inventory of every possession, from shoes and socks, to pieces of furniture. Count everything, including objects you may have in storage. What types of possessions do you tend to accumulate? Are you using what you have? Are your possessions well made? Beautiful? What level of satisfaction do they bring to you? A buying fast will deepen your appreciation for material objects and may change your entire relationship to your possessions.

It might seem from the first three activities listed here that your lives will be somewhat leisurely and perhaps even impoverished if you follow too many of these suggestions. In fact, you are only clearing space for the riches to come. If you've enacted any one of the first three suggestions you will find yourself with ample time to experiment with the remaining suggestions. You will also discover that you can truly thrive on a lot less money. Having less money is not the goal of these exercises, however, the goal is to reclaim your life, and enrich your spirituality. The way our society and economy are set up it is very likely that you will have to sacrifice income to find yourself and develop spiritually, because most of us have sold our time and our life energy for money. Now you will be making the exchange back. You will be giving up some of your income to redeem your life. You will discover that this is easier to do than you might now think, and that you can be very happy and fulfilled as well, yet you will not be empoverished. Notice that none of the activities suggested here require the expenditure of large sums of money. There are no workshops to attend, no expensive retreats or seminars, very little or nothing needs to be purchased, yet in their simplicity these activities are remarkably powerful and effective in our lives. Give them a try.

4. Cook meals and share them with your friends.

Though many people consider the preparation and sharing of a meal to be a burdensome task, actually it is one of the most sensual and erotic experiences possible. If you give yourselves amble time and don't create a production beyond your means, you can have a deeply rewarding and entertaining time preparing the meal, sharing it with your friends, and even cleaning up afterwards. Plan a meal for a small group of friends, perhaps 2 or 3 people. Select the menu, go shopping, and when possible work with raw, unprocessed foods. Savor the sensual experience of preparing the meal--the smell of the chives, the color of the tomatoes, the textures of the grains. Taste the spices, be mindful of all that went into the process of getting the food into your hands.

Prepare food that you cultivated in your own garden, or that you picked yourself. The meal does not have to be fancy or expensive. Invite people to share the meal that you would enjoy spending time with. You can invite old friends or new friends, but perhaps it would be best to invite a combination of new and old. Linger over the meal, spend time talking, let the evening unfold as it would, and don't be in a rush to clean up. If it doesn't happen immediately after the meal, you can do it later. It might be fun, however, if you and your friends cleaned up together. When you do clean-up, get into the sensuality of the chore.

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

5. Walk

Who would have ever thought that walking would one day be a revolutionary activity? The average resident of United States spends less than 15 minutes outside on any given day. Most of that time is spent going to and from an automobile. If you are not already a walker, you are in for some surprises. As with the other activities suggested here, the benefits of walking are many. Walking will effect the way you relate to where you live, your relationship to your neighbors--whom you will meet as they go to and from their cars--and you will experience nature in ways you never thought possible. You may not like all you see. You will discover that many cities are so car oriented that no provisions are made for pedestrians, especially in residential areas, and sidewalks, crosswalks, and traffic lights to aid in crossing busy streets are lacking. You will also notice the wonders of nature and the beauty of architecture. Walk in all seasons, at different times of day and night (make sure you are safe), and in a variety of weather. Walk as much as you can on unpaved surfaces. Sometimes walk alone, and at other times walk with a friend or two. Start out with short distances. Remember, your body has to make some changes, after all, this may be a new exercise. You will be sore if you walk too much, too soon, using muscles that haven't been used in a long time. Before long you will be walking everywhere and enjoying it immensely.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I chose.

Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune,

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content, I travel the open road.

from "Song of the Open Road" -- Walt Whitman

6. Learn a new skill or craft.

Woodworking, cooking, ballroom dancing, ceramics, piano, upholstering, drawing, aikido, tennis, accordion, sewing, Italian or Navaho, and dozens of other skills and crafts are waiting to make your lives richer. Now that you finally have the time to learn what you have always wanted to, you can do it. Classes are offered in evening adult education programs, local recreation centers, hobby shops, and community colleges. You will meet people, create beautiful objects, experience new manners of thinking, have a lot of fun, and use your body in ways that will change how you relate to yourself and the world around you. When you are thinking about what you might like to do, remember that not long ago almost everyone in almost every society knew how to dance, to sing, to play a musical instrument, and to speak more than one language. Many of our ancestors' skills facilitated social activities. Of course, now we learn other skills--how to run a computer, drive a car, and program a VCR--skills that aid our work and facilitate modern life, but there are other skills that deepen our direct sensual experience of life and bring joy to ourselves and others. Let these be the skills you learn and master.

7. Change religious paths.

Yes, I know, this one isn't going to be easy for some people, but give yourself permission to think about it for a moment. For at least two or three months, and preferably longer, set a time that you are comfortable with, follow an entirely different religious path. If you've been a monotheist all your life, take the path of a Hindu, or a Wiccan. If polytheism is your path, you might select non-theistic Buddhism, or perhaps Christianity or Islam. If you live in a place where the local Native American traditions are practiced, I recommend that you consider them. Whatever path you select, immerse yourself in what seems like the best of that tradition's nature-centered spirituality. Read the sacred scriptures, attend services, pray or meditate according to the custom of the tradition you select, talk with other believers, and as much as possible see the world as they see it. At the same time let go of your own tradition for the set period of time. You can come back to your tradition at the end of the experimental period, but for now allow yourself to experience this new tradition fully. A word of warning: if you are someone who has changed religious paths often, and continue to do so, then instead of trying yet another religious path, stay in the tradition you are in now for a longer period of time. Deepen the experience you are having, rather than moving to yet another one.

"People often ask me how Buddhists answer the question: Does God exist? The other day I was walking along the river. I was suddenly aware of the sun, shining through the bare trees. Its warmth, its brightness, and all this completely free, completely gratuitous. Simply there for us to enjoy. And without my knowing it, completely spontaneously, my two hands came together, and I realized that I was making gassho. And it occurred to me that this is all that matters: that we can bow, take a deep bow. Just that. Just that."

-- Zen master Eido Tai Shimano.

8. Volunteer

Select an organization in your community whose cause you would like to further and volunteer there for at least six months. Set up a definite time for your work, preferably on a weekly basis. You don't have to put in a lot of time, but make it consistent and regular, even if it's only one or two hours one day a week. If you have a choice of several volunteer opportunities, I suggest one that involves working for the conservation of the environment, or working to improve the well being of the human community. These include schools, parks, public service agencies, and environmental organizations. Check before you commitment yourself to a project that you will either be out in nature or working directly with other people.

9. Garden

Plant and care for a garden. It does not have to be large, it can even be in pots or window boxes. Grow vegetables and fruits, or flowers and foliage, or all manner of plants. You can work with native plants, exotics, or you can focus on a particular plant family like roses or cacti. Maintain your garden for at least one full year. If you are an urban resident with no access to a gardening area, find a friend willing to let you use a section of her or his gardening area.

Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe.

-- Thomas Berry

10. Develop a new love relationship.

This is another scary activity, for few experiences in our lives are as powerful as love. It has the potential to change everything in our lives. Love exposes us to the danger of being hurt and losing control. Love can also revitalize a life, bring healing to old wounds, make life worth living, and even improve our immune systems. If you are already in a committed relationship, allow yourself to deepen that love. Fall in love all over again. If your committed relationship is already satisfying, allow yourself to develop a love for others. Let the love of your committed relationship overflow to others in a way that is life-giving. If you are single, allow yourself to feel some passion, some vulnerability, some care for a new person. It isn't necessary that the relationship be sexual, but if you are free to allow that to happen, and it seems right, then embrace a sexual dimension to your love. If you have a habit of falling in love with new people all the time and forgetting the loves of last month, you would do better to deepen a relationship you already have. Let your focus be on giving love and expecting little or nothing in return, and have fun. We tend to take love too seriously in our society, rationing it out as if it were a commodity in short supply. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much love you have to give away.

In the end there are three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.

These are ten activities that have been powerful in my own spiritual life, but there are many others. I would like to hear what has been powerful in your own life. You can write to me at P.O. Box 170152, San Francisco, CA 94117.

Robert Barzan is creator and past editor of White Crane.

return to Winter 1997 (#31): EXERCISES IN SPIRITUALITY