Do we need to believe in an elusive spiritual world to benefit from spiritual practice?

A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (often including spiritual exercises) is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development – Wikipedia 

The above gives a fairly accurate definition of spiritual practice but I wonder if we truly need to believe in an elusive spiritual world to benefit from spiritual practice.

What is ‘spiritual practice’ after all?

Meditation, yoga, mindfulness with the occasional prayer thrown in when times are tough (let’s face it even those who do not believe in God pray when desperate). Do we need to undertake such exercises with the sole aim of ‘inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development’?

I don’t believe we do.

I was propelled into this line of thought after listening to a conversation on the tube between two women (I do this a lot so be careful what you talk about!). One appeared to be in her 20’s, the other in her 50’s. Mother and daughter perhaps. The younger woman said, a little self-consciously, that she had signed up for an eight week course in meditation and mindfulness to help her deal with her stressful job.

The older woman’s lip curled, a look of disdain on her face, as she replied:

‘You don’t believe in all that rubbish do you? Just a waste of money. They’re out to con you. You’ll be telling me next you’ve seen angels and was Lady Godiva in a past life!’

The young woman’s shoulders sagged and she didn’t reply, knowing perhaps that any attempt at defending her actions would be futile. The older woman then went on to complain about her ailments and how fed up she was.

By the time they had left the tube I felt depressed so I can image how the young woman must have felt because she probably had to listen to the other woman whinging on a regular basis.

This is the problem when anything connected with the spiritual comes into the mix, especially when some books or magazines claim they are ready to take your soul to a new level – probably in just 30 days!! People are sceptical and remain closed to the benefits of taking up practises like meditation, mindfulness and yoga.

But is it necessary to believe in the soul, in reincarnation or the possibility of an out of body experience to take advantage of what these practices have to offer? Surely the exercises can be carried out on different levels with different aims.

The ultimate goal for those on the spiritual path is enlightenment/transcendence. This means a shift in experience and perception of the world around us which frees us from pain and suffering. The problem with this approach is that most of us are unlikely to attain this goal anytime soon and are doomed for disappointment if that is all we are aiming for.

Is it not enough to practise mindfulness as frequently as possible in order to foster a measure of control over our emotions and enjoy life more fully? Is it not enough to practise yoga and meditation to calm the mind and keep the body fit? Is it not enough to think positively and make the best of each day?

There is a growing body of evidence that meditation alone can curb anger, relieve depression, lower blood pressure and…wait for it…increase grey matter in the brain (eat your heart out Poirot!) Mindfulness puts us in the present, allowing the appreciation of each day rather than waiting for something that may, possibly, happen in the distant future. The benefits of yoga for physical health and energy are well documented.

A belief in the metaphysical is not a prerequisite for partaking in these beneficial ‘spiritual practices’.

In fact, sometimes the desire to search for evidence of a spiritual world, of life after death, becomes so all-consuming that family and friends become less of a priority – and this should not be the aim of a true spiritual disciple. It is also easy to become disillusioned on the spiritual path when, after regular practice, a spiritual experience remains elusive.

Fantastic if you are on a quest to understand the purpose of existence but for those who are not, there are still huge benefits both mental and physical to engaging in the exercises of spiritual practice. The goals may be different but the advantages are the same for all. How amazing to be able to retrain your mind to positive thinking in order to be happy, calm and in control. How good would it be for your body to be fit and pain free? I can’t think of much that would be better!


…and if you are that lady on the tube, stop complaining and take up meditation, mindfulness, yoga  – or all three. Your family and friends will be grateful, I’m sure!