In the Beginning…
Early human life was difficult. Treacherous. We didn’t have germ theory, didn’t understand proper sanitation, and couldn’t combat the darkness when night fell.
For thousands of years, this state of existence continued in the dark, until the invention of fire. Once we controlled fire, we could cook, coordinate, and converse after dark. Our control of fire led to the creation of candles, and humans could now control when their surroundings were dark.
The problem of the dark plagued humanity for ages. However, much like the dark and shadows when a beam of light falls on them, the problem of darkness disappeared with the invention of flame and candles.
Oftentimes it is not the problem that gets in your way, but the lack of the appropriate tool to address the problem.
Read that again. The problem is not the real problem, the problem is that you do not have the right tools to address the problem.
Having the Right Tools
This is the hidden secret of any successful, high-performing individual. It isn’t that they are geniuses, innately better at problem-solving than everyone else. It is the fact that they have the best tools to tackle specific problems.
By using the appropriate frameworks, mental models, and systems to approach your problems, you can systematically address and conquer any problem in front of you. The right tools make the task at hand infinitely easier. You could hammer in a nail with a screwdriver – but you’d have an easier time with a hammer.
This solution works very nicely for simple problems like hammering a nail or finding light in the darkness. However, for issues such as spiritual growth, personal development, or conscious exploration, it is not clear what tools are available, or how they can be leveraged.
Paulo Coelho, in his esteemed work The Pilgrimage (original title ‘O Diario De Um Mago’), presents a solution. As we follow his protagonist’s pilgrimage across the Spanish plains, we build a toolbox—a conscious toolbox, if you will—filled with the tools and tactics necessary to address problems of personal importance.
Creating A Spiritual Practice Toolbox
This is the problem our protagonist faces: Seeking to join the RAM (Regnus Agnus Mundi) order, our hero must complete an ancient pilgrimage across Spain, along the Camino de Santiago to find his sword, the symbol of his acceptance into RAM.
Throughout this journey, he encounters a number of obstacles, mind-numbing existential questions, and roadblocks where we realize a new tool is necessary. Whether this is scaling an active waterfall or figuring out how to raise a 30-ft tall cross with wounded hands, the pilgrimage cannot continue until these obstacles are overcome.
Life is always like this.
Many times in your life you will reach a point where the tools you have at your disposal are not enough. You will need to learn and grow to continue moving forward.
To address such obstacles, you can utilize the practices discussed in The Pilgrimage. These 10 exercises can be used to re-focus attention, re-frame problems, and highlight the tools that will move you forward. Even if you don’t have a waterfall to climb, these exercises are applicable to everyone’s pursuit of everyday enlightenment.
10 Spiritual Exercises to Help You Master Your Mind
1 – The Seed Exercise (Create a Growth Mindset)
Move into child’s pose with your arms behind you. You should be in a fetal position. Relax, breathe deeply. Little by little, perceive that you are a tiny seed, cradled in the comfort of the earth. Suddenly, a finger moves. You no longer wish to be a seed, you want to grow. Slowly your arms come forward, your torso rises, and you are seated on your knees. Begin to lift your body slowly.
The moment has come to break through the earth. Put one foot down on the ground and then the other, rising slowly as you grow. Once you are standing, you are a shoot beginning to grow. Your arms reach up, stretching further until you feel tension across your entire body, as they are pulled higher. When you can no longer stand the tension, open your eyes and yell out. Repeat this exercise for 7 consecutive days, always at the same time.
The Seed exercise allows you to move into a growth mindset. Instead of being confined to old ideas, habits, or jobs, you are an object in motion, a seed that is growing. The benefits of a growth mindset are limitless, and this serves as the foundation for the rest of your growth.
2 – The Speed Exercise (Practicing Mindfulness)
Walk for twenty minutes at half the speed at which you normally walk. Pay attention to the details, people, and surroundings. The best time to do this is after lunch. Repeat the exercise for 7 days.
In today’s society, moving fast is the norm. Sometimes, it’s so fast that you miss the beauty, serenity, and inspiration that surrounds you at every moment. Slowing down and being intentional will help you instill calm throughout your day and appreciate the world you live in. Slowing down will help you evaluate what is important, and what to do next.
3 – The Cruelty Exercise (Reducing Negative Self-Talk)
Every time a thought comes to your mind that makes you feel bad about yourself—jealousy, self-pity, envy, hatred—do the following:
Dig the nail of your index finger into the cuticle of your thumb on the same hand until it becomes quite painful. Concentrate on this pain: it is the physical reflection of the suffering you are experiencing spiritually. Repeat this until the thought subsides. Repeat as necessary, the cruel thought will take longer and longer to come back, and will eventually disappear altogether.
This exercise is also commonly practiced with an elastic band around your wrist, giving a quick flick whenever you indulge in an unwanted or unproductive act. As a very direct approach, this helps you combat the negative self-talk that we all experience. Shifting your inner dialogue from negativity and pessimism towards positivity and optimism will shape your life in ways you cannot yet imagine.
4 – The Water Exercise (Building Intuition)
Make a small puddle of water on a smooth surface. Study it for a while, then begin to play with it, without any particular commitment or objective. Make designs that mean nothing. Do this exercise for a week, for at least 10 minutes each time.
Do not look for immediate results, this is building your intuition and allowing your subconscious to tackle problems that have been lurking just under conscious perception. When your intuition surfaces in the future, trust in it.
We absorb an unbelievable amount of information each day. Instead of constantly overclocking our brain to solve the problem, sometimes the easiest way to find the solution is to sit back and let it surface. Your brain is always working on your problems, whether you are conscious of this or not. For example, to avoid presque vu and remember a word that’s on the tip of your tongue, it’s often best to move onto a new topic and the word will surface shortly after.
5 – The Blue Sphere Exercise (Practicing Love/Compassion)
Seat yourself comfortably and relax. Try not to think about anything. Feel how good it is to be alive, to receive breathe. Let your heart feel free and affectionate. Begin to sing a song from your childhood. Imagine that your heart is growing, filling the room, and then your home, with an intense, shining blue light.
When you reach this point and the sensation becomes strong, feel that the blue light is flowing through you, out into the world. Watch as it surrounds your home, your neighborhood, your city, country, then the world. Eventually, the world is enveloped in this blue sphere filled with unconditional love. Hold this image in your head for as long as possible. This exercise can also be done with more than one person, and individuals should hold hands if practicing this together.
This is an incredibly powerful exercise. It is also covered by Andy Puddicombe in the popular meditation app Headspace, though it is discussed as an orange sphere of sunlight. Whether a pilgrim on the road, a monk deep in meditation, or a worker in their cubicle, cultivating compassion and love for everyone around you radically improves your attitude and outlook.
6 – The Buried Alive Exercise (Understanding Life’s Value)
Lie down on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest in the posture of death. Imagine all the details of your burial as if it were tomorrow, except you’re being buried alive. As the scene develops—the chapel, the procession, lowering the casket, the worms in the ground—you begin to tense your muscles, trying to escape; but you can’t. Keep trying until you cannot stand it any longer, then with a burst of motion and a yell that invokes your whole being, throw the coffin aside and burst out, breathing deeply and feeling your newfound freedom.
Too often we live as though we are immortal, not appreciating the beauty, fragility, and elusiveness of life. This exercise will bring you back to the rich, child-like appreciation of your surroundings, and help motivate you to make the most of each day and appreciate all the beings and moments that shape your life.
7 – The RAM Breathing Exercise (Cultivating Calm)
Expel all the air from your lungs. Inhale slowly as you raise your arms as high as possible. As you inhale, focus on allowing love, peace, and harmony with the universe to enter into your body.
Hold the air you have taken in and keep your arms raised as long as you can, enjoying the harmony between your inner sensations and the outer world. When you reach your limit, exhale all of the air rapidly. Repeat this process for 5 minutes each time you do the exercise.
Being able to find peace in perilous situations, or to invoke calmness when a calamity is occurring, is a superpower these days.
The world belongs to those who can master their inner world.
Conscious, focused breath work will promote this calm within you, and help prepare you for whatever the world will bring.
8 – The Shadow Exercise (Wrong Will Show You Right)
Relax completely. For 5 minutes, study the shadows of all objects around you. Try to determine exactly what part of the object is casting the shadow. For the next 5 minutes, continue this practice, but think about a problem you want to solve in your life. Look for all of the possible wrong solutions to this.
Finally, spend the last 5 minutes of this exercise studying the shadows and thinking about what correct solutions remain after the wrong options have been eliminated. Eliminate all options one by one until only a single correct solution remains.
Much like the black hat method popularized by Edward de Bono, thinking critically about a problem and highlighting wrong decisions can focus your mind on the remaining correct answers. If you’ve been stuck on a problem for some time, flip it around and focus on finding solutions that are incorrect, and soon enough the correct answer will be all that remains.
9 – The Listening Exercise (Building Deep Focus)
Relax. Close your eyes. Try for several minutes to focus on all of the sounds around you, as if you were hearing an orchestra playing its instruments. Little by little, try to separate each sound from the others. Do this exercise for 10 minutes at a time.
This exercise will seem difficult at first but persist anyway. Separating sounds from one another requires intense, sustained focus, and this will help you dive deeper into your everyday work. For more on the value of sustained focus and attention, check out ‘Deep Work’.
10 – The Dance Exercise (Exploring Self-Expression)
Relax and close your eyes. Recall the first song you remember hearing as a child. Begin to sing this in your thoughts. Little by little, let a certain part of your body—your feet, hands, chest—but only one part, begin dancing to the melody you are singing.
After 5 minutes, stop singing and listen to the world around you. Create a melody from these sounds and dance to it with your whole body. Do not worry about perfection, let your body move freely and express itself as it will. This exercise should last 15 minutes.
In this modern day and age, many of us have lost the beauty of unfiltered self-expression. Exchanging this for composed, controlled displays of emotion, showing only the side of us that we want people to see. The Dance Exercise allows you to reconnect with your inner, authentic self, and become comfortable sharing your beauty with the world. Take this new confidence with you as you go about your day.
Every Problem in Life is an Opportunity for Growth
You now have a toolbox full of exercises, models, and mental frameworks that can be used whenever you run into a new problem or need assistance navigating through a decision.
These exercises can be used in isolation, or in tandem with one another to create real synergy and forcefully push you along your path of personal and spiritual growth.
Now, you have the ability to create the life you want to live. You know how to transition into a growth mindset, to express yourself freely, to cultivate feelings of compassion, openness, and to feel the vigor of life again. You can quell negative thoughts and can control your focus and problem-solving abilities.
These exercises aren’t silver bullets; they won’t change your life overnight. But the biggest buildings can only be built on the strongest foundations. These exercises provide a strong, stable foundation for you to build a beautiful, brilliant life.
Each problem you face in your life is an opportunity for growth. Face these head on, be confident that you have the tools and skills to tackle them, and watch in awe as you grow faster than you ever expected.
So, what are you currently stuck on?
Do you now have the right tool or framework to address it?
Let’s get going.