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What does it mean to choose a spiritual path?
Many people are comfortable with the spiritual tradition or religion that they were born into, while others prefer to search for a different path when they’re older. The process of choosing a spiritual path can be compared to how we choose where to live when we reach adulthood.
You might be most comfortable residing in the country, city, or even the same suburb that you grew up in. Or maybe you love to travel and live in different places all over the world. There’s no right or wrong either way.
The last time I moved, it was amusing to discover that the street that was visible from my new kitchen window was the very street where I once lived as a six-year-old girl. There was no conscious intention to return to that old location, and yet I somehow gravitated back to where “home” used to be. That doesn’t mean I’m trapped to live in the same place forever, but for now I enjoy being in an area that feels familiar and good.
Likewise, there may be a certain religion, philosophy, or tradition that you grew up with, one that feels like your spiritual “home”. There’s no need to deviate from it if it meets your needs and creates a sense of meaning in your life. And for those who feel that they no longer resonate with the traditions and religion of their parents or wider community (or never did), it can be comforting to know that there are a lot of other options out there that may lead to greater spiritual fulfilment.
Even if you continue to follow the same path from childhood, you are still likely to evolve as time goes on, and so your relationship with your spirituality and beliefs may change. Within the same religion, people can apply the same teachings in unique ways, and engage in what appear to be wildly different practices. Your spiritual path is your own.
In the early 2000s I attended a retreat at a Buddhist monastery with a group of university students. On the drive home, we spoke about beliefs, religion and identity. I was surprised to learn that not one person I spoke to during that conversation identified as a Buddhist, despite several of them having grown up in Buddhist households and continuing to observe practices that were consistent with Buddhism. To them, it was a way of life they had chosen, not a fixed label they were stuck with. There was one guy who hadn’t yet confirmed whether or not he was Buddhist, so I questioned him about it. “No,” he responded. “What are you then?” I asked. He smiled and said, “I am a thinker.” This answer appealed to me, as it suggested a certain openness, tolerance, and relaxed attitude towards spirituality.
What if it becomes clear that the path which feels most right to you doesn’t seem to fit an already-established religion? Or what if it involves borrowing ideas and knowledge from various spiritual masters?
While acknowledging that there is value in sticking to one thing at a time in any area of life, I’ve always resisted the idea that to reach your spiritual potential, you have to commit to only one path.
Many teachers have warned against dabbling in different forms of spirituality rather than diving deeply into a particular tradition. The Dalai Lama once used the analogy of taking a boat to your destination. He explained that many spiritual paths can take you all the way to enlightenment, but only if you stick to the path you’ve chosen. To engage in two paths would be like placing your left foot in one boat, and your right foot in another – that approach is unlikely to work. It’s not the boat per se that’s important, it’s the act of putting both feet in the same boat and committing to it for the entire ride.
However, I’ve often enjoyed learning and practicing techniques from different traditions. Sometimes it feels as though each path supports the other. Rather than making things more complicated and splitting between different boats, it seemed like each path was one of two wings – together, they could possibly allow one to fly towards a goal rather than take a slower route.
It makes sense to follow a path based on how much it resonates with you. Does it seem consistent with truth, or at least with what feels true for you? Does it allow you to directly enjoy spiritual experiences for yourself, rather than remain too abstract? Does it bring clarity, and help you to lead a more loving and happier life?
Whatever your path (or paths), let yourself own what you've chosen. Choose and own your spiritual home in such a way that your spirit can most comfortably rest, be nourished, and continue to grow.
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