Updated: Jun 14, 2021
With the results of a hedonistic, promiscuous party lifestyle coming home to roost for many men in the forms of depression, addictions and a lack of stable, long-term bonds, interest is reoccurring in the notion of the spiritual disciplines as a path to the inner peace and security we seek in pleasure-seeking, partying and intoxicants.
While secular spirituality and Eastern-influenced meditation is usually more popular today – not carrying the ‘sin stigma’ and Ned Flanders soppiness Christianity does for many – this piece actively looks into the spiritual disciplines of the Western tradition.
This isn’t always an easy subject for many as people have been turned off by the hypocrisy, lack of soul and fire and brimstone in the Christian Western tradition, yet this piece intends to go beyond that and find the spiritual, transcendental core so often lacking today.
One of the wonderful things about Eastern/secular spirituality (at least in the West) is that it doesn’t demand so much of you as the Abrahamic faiths do, henceforth, it is also far more accessible and not so replete with rigid law structures.
However, one of the downsides of Eastern/secular spirituality is that it doesn’t demand so much of you as the Abrahamic faiths, it is easily accessible and not so replete with rigid law structures.
Now there are cases in which spiritual teachings become consumed with rigidity and laws to such an extent they can become stale and suffocating, however, sometimes these laws – if evenly balanced in the Justice/Mercy dichotomy – can provide us with solid guidance, calming stability and raw purpose.
This paradox has led to a reawakening in some of these more traditional teachings for many men today, allowing us to see the spiritual disciplines in a different light and realize a new inherent value that we couldn’t previously see due to overt dogma, poor teaching, and our own inexperience.
Given many of us modern men are new to these concepts, yet arguably have a fresher, real-world understanding towards their purpose, this piece looks to explore and explain what the 12 spiritual disciplines are and how you can practice them.
The Spiritual Disciplines
The spiritual disciplines are commonly grouped into three groups of four after the work of Richard J. Foster who wrote many interesting books on the value of discipline as the core of one’s spiritual life.
This piece will begin with the four Inward Disciplines (Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study).
This is to be followed by the four Outward Disciplines (Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service) and ending with the four Corporate Disciplines (Confession, Worship, Guidance, Celebration).
The Inward Disciplines
The concept of meditation we have nowadays tends to edge more towards the Eastern technique of no-mind and presence.
In fact, to even call this a ‘concept’ is to miss the point, however that is a topic I have explored earlier and this piece focuses on another approach.
While the Eastern method is certainly something any man searching for peace and stability should explore, it is not the same as the Christian tradition, which views meditation in several different ways.
Meditation in the Christian tradition of the spiritual disciplines revolves more around a word, value, saint or God.
Now, theologically I’m sure you can make a point that at the highest level of abstraction meditating on God and meditating in no-mind are somewhat synonymous, yet the key point in both on a more fundamental level is to forego the passions, cravings and demands of the egocentric mind for a higher calling.
One of the amazing things about the Christian method is that with regular practice it actively teaches you how to overcome ‘sinful’ thoughts – be they of lustful, angry or prideful – and with time you grow in your peaceful, principled and kindly ways.
Another method is to dwell on a passage from the Bible.
Now, while many atheistically inclined sometimes fear the Bible, or at least see little value in it, it would be churlish to maintain it is without wisdom.
Take this passage from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount:
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
It may seem odd to many that the central figure of Western Culture is so non-materialistic given the present state of the Western world, yet meditating on such a powerful statement reveals more than just a comment on materialism.
Without pushing my own interpretation on you too rigidly, I believe this teaching gets to the very root of who we are beyond form and chimes wonderfully with Zen-based teachings, only with more practical direction.
In essence, meditation as a spiritual discipline opens up windows to the true state of what we are, which in turn helps us in curbing the excesses, shortcomings and suffering in our lives.
Given I’m someone who’s come from a secular, atheist background and came to spirituality through addictions in a more Eastern or ‘transcendental’ route, Christian prayer wasn’t something I particularly understood too well.
This was largely because it seemed out-dated and was heavily mocked (by myself as well as others) through my school and university life as dumb idiots talking to a bearded make-believe man in the sky sitting on a cloud.
Suffice to say, my views have got a little more nuanced since I had my own spiritual experiences in life, as well as began exploring the richness of Christian culture in my country’s past, an oft-ignored part of some of my most famous countrymen (Newton, Blake, Locke, etc).
Anyhow, perhaps the person who helped me understand Christian prayer more than any other was Emmet Fox, a spiritual teacher born in Ireland, who grew up in England and became famous in America.
Now while Fox isn’t as highly regarded in conventional Christianity as he is by the more ‘spiritually’ inclined, it is for exactly this reason he has an enduring popularity.
He has the ability to converse on a transcendental plane, which welcomes in strangers to the faith such as me, without frightening me off with fire and brimstone.
His work on The Lord’s Prayer is a manual for the meaning of Christian prayer, with each line outlining the tenets of the faith as well as personal conduct.
For instance, the opening line: “Our Father, who art in Heaven”, Fox transcribes as the articulation that God is everyone’s father, meaning we are ALL brothers and sisters.
While Fox’s analysis is all worth checking out, another key element to note is the famous: “Forgive us of our sins as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.”
An essential truth lays herein. While we are eager as men to take revenge, prayer reminds us this is a fool’s errand in that revenge only creates more revenge, yet more importantly, it stops us feeling inner peace.
Thus, if we want peace internally in our hearts, we must first be peaceful externally and make restitution with the world.
Prayer is the engine of this peace.
The third of the four Inward Disciplines and the third of the 12 spiritual disciplines is fasting, yet as with meditation (and arguably even prayer) this probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.
I’ve experimented with fasting somewhat recently and one of the key points I make is that as well as the physical benefits, it did feel spiritually pure (even if it was a relatively short fast).
The experience was a window into why the ancient practice of fasting remains very popular today for myriad reasons, be they emotional, spiritual or physical.
While fasting is usually more associated with the Islamic faith, however, it is a traditional Christian practice too.
Yet while Christianity has softened the discipline side of things to be more accessible, it will always be a fundamental practice for seekers and those looking to transform in a truer, more genuine manner.
Surely the most famous of these examples is Lent, which acts as a time for reflection and self-sacrifice to remember the suffering of Jesus, but also to allow light and authenticity to come into one’s own life.
Fasting is an excellent principle for men to learn discipline, perseverance and peace, seeking long-term gain over short-term gratification.
Yet fasting isn’t limited to gluttony, intoxicants or that which we physically imbibe.
Another key principle of fasting is refraining from argument, negative thinking (or even just thinking) and taking time away from lust, greed and anger too.
Practicing this type of fasting allows us to really hear and learn about our inner world, our cravings, our hidden passions and our resentments.
The more we sit with these and vow to be guided by peace, calmness and discipline, the stronger we become as men.
Fasting is therefore a way to evolve your spirit, soul and physical self.
Study is something we have become accustomed to conceptualizing as academic, yet spiritual study isn’t exactly like this in the prism of the spiritual disciplines.
This is chiefly because this form of academic study can lead to a sort of pedantry which blocks us from higher knowledge.
This is why much of scripture, Christian and otherwise, is poetic, symbolic and metaphorical – spiritual truth isn’t read like an instruction manual or flat-pack furniture, but imbibed, mulled over and left to blossom in the heart and soul.
This is made evident throughout the gospels in which we see Jesus consistently at odds with the Pharisees, a group of know-it-alls and ostentatious religious leaders who destroy the lived reality of love in an endless web of laws, practicality and human status.
In essence, spiritual study is asking us to unlearn academic routines that we have developed and start to dwell within scripture, letting it reveal its deeper meaning to us as we open ourselves ever more to it.
Similarly, we can also begin to see how scripture, such as the Bible, on the whole, interlinks (see below picture):
This method of study enriches the mind, heart and the soul and is designed to teach, guide and grow our felt sense of spirit rather than our sense of intellectual or spiritual pride.
Spiritual teachers and religious systems have long been wary of the intellect with its magnificence, piercing insight and incredible abilities to logically analyze.
While the mind is exceptionally powerful, it is not the be-all and end-all of life.
In fact, in realizing that there is a realm beyond the intellect is very often the first step for many into the ‘spiritual’ dimension.
This is a point made so many times by different people I hardly know who to quote, however two of my personal favourites are from Hamlet to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And more recently from Eckhart Tolle:
“Thinking needs consciousness to exist but consciousness doesn’t need thinking.”
When we grasp these quotes on the heart – not mind – level, our venture into spiritual study can begin.