07/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Finding a Path that Fits...and Flows

Q. So many spiritual practices seem to be based either in a religious framework or seemingly not in any at all- a mix of traditions fashioned by an individual teacher or group and perhaps labeled with a catchy name. Many who would like to learn about meditation or to grow spiritually can find it confusing or conflicting. Is meditation a religious practice or just a method for relaxation? Is it betrayal of your own faith to engage in a Buddhist practice when you are Catholic or Jewish?

My perspective, and it is only that, has been garnered from my own uniquely "checkered path". Raised a Catholic, my father was a Southern Baptist minister. I married a Reform Jew, to whose faith I converted after many years of marriage. I have for 18 years practiced a form of Eastern meditation that is primarily Taoist and strongly influenced by Buddhism and shamanism. So I share with you these thoughts.

First, remember to trust your own internal direction as to what "feels" right for you. In choosing a teacher or group to study with, consider not only their basic teaching and philosophy but also their ethics and personal conduct. Because meditation can be both a spiritual practice and a method of relaxation, only you can decide what form and depth of practice meets your needs. Attending stress management classes is very different than joining a spiritual community.

Secondly, spiritual practice is not a "one size fits all". Be cautious of practices that call themselves the "right way", professing to have only correct way to God, enlightenment, salvation, social values, health- you can fill in the blank. So much suffering has resulted from this sort of mindset. So much intolerance, fear and even hatred have been engendered.

Thirdly, no matter how many teachers we study with or workshops or religious institutions we attend, it is wise to respect the values of our own inherited tradition. It is a part of our selves and our emotional and cultural history. Virtually every faith carries the seeds and signposts toward wholeness. Many religious practices have strayed from their original teachings, but I would venture that all contain some valuable essence if we choose to look.

However, trying a new practice can lead us to a deeper appreciation of the rituals and liturgy of a faith that had become so familiar that we no longer participate in it with anything other than a rote response. There is an opportunity for renewal and a new set of eyes.

Fourthly, while many have a need for experimentation and searching, it is generally a good idea to stick with a single practice long enough to begin to fully reap the benefits- and the length of time can vary greatly. This is particularly true in meditation. Sometimes we only see the trajectory of our journey and growth of awareness by looking through the rearview mirror. Jack Kornfield's book, After the Ecstasy, The Laundry, emphasizes bringing our lessons into the mundane moments of daily life. How tempting, after an inspiring workshop, to want to seek again that same clarity, another workshop, another teacher, another peak experience. Being back to "normal" life feels like a letdown. This is when seeking can get in the way of disciplined practice.

Finally, Thich Nhat Hahn cautions us in The Heart of Understanding, "Understanding is like water flowing in the stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and block our understanding....If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won't want to let it in....We have to be able to transcend our previous knowledge the way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think we are very high, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views. Understanding, like water, can flow, can penetrate."

At this time in our world, we have infinite choices and opportunities to learn. Indeed, many things can become our "religion" - our work, our food habits, even our Pilates class. We need not grasp or rigidly cling to or even reject the different learnings we may encounter. Allow and breathe in that which beckons to us and simply let the rest fade away.'

If we approach our task with sincerity and intention, with discernment not judgment, lightness not dogma, then we find that what we seek is not something outside ourselves at all. What we create is a home within for the vastness of spirit that is always with us.

Kay Goldstein, MA teaches meditation and writes poetry, fiction and articles addressing the challenges and joys of daily living and spiritual practice.