The universal spiritual acts of experimentation, contemplation, love and service

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As far as I know, four universal categories of spiritual actions are widely practiced in most religious communities around the world. These are experimentation, contemplation, love and service.

All four represent valid spiritual activities. From a historical point of view, experimentation and contemplation have been closely linked to Unity way, while love and service have been staples on the Goodness path. Yet all four categories are available for both paths, which means that a person on the path of goodness can be drawn towards contemplation while a person on the path of unity can be drawn towards love. And so on.

1. Acts of experimentation

“Mysticism is the most scientific form of religion, for it is based, like all science, on experience and experimentation – experimentation being but a specialized form of experience, designed either to discover , or to verify.”
Annie Besant (1847-1933)
British Theosophist

Experimentation is at the heart of the direct approach to religion. The paths of Sufism, Kabbalah, Yoga, Christian mysticism, Taoism and Buddhism encourage all practitioners to experience spiritual practices. The most common spiritual and religious experiences are meditation, prayer, chanting, rituals, and fasting, variations of which have survived the gauntlet of peer review time and time again in religious traditions around the world.

I say peer review because the experimental approach to spirituality is almost identical to the scientific method. First, the devotee is presented with a hypothesis in the form of a spiritual theory. To prove or disprove the proposition, an experiment is performed. It is followed by a peer discussion, preferably a gathering of practitioners who have put in the same number of hours or similar effort with the same type of practice. Finally, the discussions lead to conclusions and, at best, experiences that produce similar results for most practitioners are introduced into the religious community as theologically valid.

Difficulty and results

Experimental spiritual practices differ in their degree of difficulty. Some are simple, like learning to blow bubbles; others are infinitely more difficult.

The experiences produced are either short-lived or have the potential to become more permanent. Short-lived experiences produce temporary insights (seeing the light, for example), while repeated experiences can become permanent traits (such as the cultivation of unwavering equanimity).

The advantage of approaching spiritual practices as experiments is that there can be no failure, only different results. Whatever happens, you will learn more about yourself and your relationship to the spiritual elements of your faith along the way.

2. Acts of contemplation

“I don’t feel compelled to believe that the same God who endowed us with senses, reason and intellect wanted us to renounce their use.”
Galileo Galileo (1564-1642)
Italian astronomer and mathematician

At one time in history, theologians and philosophers occupied the same mental space, namely the contemplation of existential topics, such as the nature of the universe, the nature of God, and the meaning of life. Contemplation was a valid form of personal faith. Yet over the years it has suffered, resulting in limited choices for intellectual followers, many of whom have completely abandoned faith and spirituality. Nevertheless, contemplation remains a valid discipline for people who feel the need to combine spirituality and intellectual exploration.

Acts of contemplation can take many forms. They can transpire in silence and isolation, take place among peers, or occur as an internal reaction to reading inspirational scriptures and texts.

Truth Gathering

An important part of the contemplative approach is to create a group where spiritual thought is stimulated. Most people reflect in private, during periods of silence, writing or reading, and yet the ability to air out thoughts and reflect them – having the ability to listen to the inner workings of other minds that share their passion for contemplation – can add layers of meaning to their spiritual lives that are hard to reach by other means.

Knowledge

From an intellectual perspective, contemplation seeks spiritual insights rather than factual knowledge. The practice can extract meaning from the mundane, spark a deeper understanding of life and the universe, and bring about profound personal breakthroughs.

3. Acts of love

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hate, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, forgiveness;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.”
Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Italian Catholic friar and preacher

Love is the most complex of all human phenomena. It exists on a spectrum of tolerance and kindness towards romantic love and self-sacrifice until it peaks in selflessness, a love that needs nothing in return. Those who follow the path of Good often see love as the central aspect of their lives. Their whole existence revolves around being heart-centered, loving, and kind. For them, everything begins and ends in the heart.

Here is the paradox. Even though love may be a feeling, cultivation and maintenance are undeniable actions.

The religions of the world prescribe different methods, but they all encourage devotees to water the seeds of love within. May the recommended approach be to love your enemy as you would yourself, to lift the veil and see God everywhere, to become a vessel of divine love, to forgive your adversaries, to see the beauty of nature or whatever, the religions of the world seem to agree on one thing; this love becomes more spiritual when it passes from selfishness to altruism.

4. Acts of Service

“God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The problem with many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.
Jackie Pullinger (1944)
Christian missionary

All major religions and spiritual traditions celebrate service as a virtue. The reasons differ. Service can be a duty, spring from love, ward off the danger of apathy, or be the full expression of kindness, but the results are similar with only slight variations. The faithful are always encouraged to serve.

Of the four, service is the easiest to measure but the most difficult to achieve because it requires the selfless use of time and energy. The other three categories of actions also take time, but they are part of a personal spiritual journey. At first glance, service does not appear to meet this test because the law does not appear to do anything for the person serving.

Nonetheless, those who have made service one of their primary spiritual pursuits have sworn by the transformative nature of the practice. Reports range from “it made me understand human unity on a deeper level” to “it gave me purpose and fulfillment” to the most self-absorbed “it helped me get my head out of my problems”.

Service opportunities are everywhere

The poet Tagore expressed this feeling beautifully when he wrote:

I slept and dreamed that life was joy.
I woke up and saw that life was a service.
I acted and behold, the service was a joy.

It is almost impossible to find a place of worship that does not offer some kind of service opportunity.

Gudjon Bergman
Author and mindfulness teacher
Amazon Author Profile

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Image: CC0 License

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