In my life and teaching I’m fond of the phrase Always, Already. I use this phrase to remind myself and my dear students that true, lasting happiness doesn’t come from external sources. This isn’t to deny our very real need for food, shelter, safety, and love. Rather, it’s a reminder that deep within us exists a spiritual heart—an abiding center where true joy and ease reside.
Poet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo wrote:
Each person is born with an unencumbered spot—free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry—an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, theologians call it the Soul, Jung calls it the Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qalb, and Jesus calls it the Center of our Love.
Nepo continues by saying that:
To know this spot of Inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed, but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin, while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. Each of us lives in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over, only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.
Spiritual practice is a constant invitation to shift the seat of our identification. We all misidentify. By which I mean, we attempt to locate the ground of our being in the surface markers of identity rather than the spot of grace at our core.
The world is a complicated place, full of ups and downs. And when we allow our well-being, happiness, and fulfillment to be contingent on the fickle reality of the world, we will undoubtedly suffer. As Mark Nepo said we each live in the midst of an ongoing tension. One moment we’re lost in the pressures of the world and misidentifying with our successes and failures. And then, in another moment—a moment of grace—we feel connected to the pulse of our Heart Center.
As I see it, the goal of spiritual practice is not fixing something we deem broken, but to put forth effort to live our lives more and more in the moments of grace and connection. It’s about consistently working to uncover and reconnect with That which is always, already within us. Yoga teacher Donna Farhi writes:
[Practice] is not about self-improvement or making ourselves better. It is a process of deconstructing all the barriers we may have erected that prevent us from having an authentic connection with ourselves and with the world. This tenet is an extremely important one because the effort to change and improve ourselves is fraught with the risk of subtle self-aggression that only produces more unhappiness. We cannot strive toward something that we already are.
The last line of this quote is a mantra worthy of regular repetition. “We cannot strive toward something that we already are.” As I said, true, lasting happiness doesn’t come from external sources. But as seekers we often think we’re looking for something different than ourselves. As minister Wayne Muller writes:
Spiritual identity is not something far off, not something we need to go to Tibet to find. It is here, in the way we walk on the earth, the way we see our life, the way we care for ourselves and others. Our true nature is not something extraordinary; in fact, it is quite ordinary, an inevitable portion of our daily life.
We, right now, in our daily life already have the depths of what we seek. Nothing can tear this reality from us. But there are many things that can keep it hidden. We live in a world of busyness and distraction. We live in a world of anxiety and violence. We live in a world obsessed with external gratification. American culture most often teaches us to root our identity in consumerism. Society at large isn’t going to support our efforts to identify with the still, small voice within. We ourselves must take up this responsibility. While it’s true that we don’t have to look outside ourselves to hear our inner voice. We do have to make a commitment to listen to it.
Spiritual practice is about putting forth a daily effort to remember who we truly are and to fight against anything that keeps us trapped in false ideas of separateness that lead to our misidentification. It’s about putting forth a daily effort to get down below the corrosive noise of the world to find the edifying beauty of the world. Spiritual practice is about regularly taking refuge in the quiet ease that resides in the cave of the heart.
Quaker educator Thomas Kelly wrote:
Deep within us there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us.
Spiritual practice is about committing ourselves to the lifelong task, as Mark Nepo says, of feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and inhabiting it.