The great anthropologist and spiritual teacher Angeles Arrien (1940—2014) was known for teaching people to “walk the mystical path with practical feet," to lead "regular" daily lives while also navigating a spiritual journey.
As a foundation for this teaching, Arrien designed “The Four-Fold Way,” an educational program made up of four principles that integrate “ancient cultural wisdom into contemporary life.”
I find Arrien's simple formula a code to live a happier, healthier and more authentic life in many ways. To me, the principles reflect most wisdom traditions in the world. Here is my own take on the four principles, and some tips on how we can integrate them into our lives.
1. Show up with presence.
Deep down, most of us understand what exactly we need to do in our lives to be the best humans we can be. Of course, this knowledge is useful only when we take theory into practice, and follow through with commitment and with action. To show up in our lives, in other words, is every person's spiritual practice.
Showing up is about action, whether we are inspired to or not. It can be about doing your best at getting your kids off to school happily, taking your morning walk, making a healthy meal, writing in your journal each morning, or performing any daily ritual even when you’re feeling bored, uninspired, even defeated.
Many religions set aside specific times for people to focus on a specific spiritual practice. Muslims bow in prayer five times a day. The Balinese Hindus offer baskets filled with flowers and rice to their deities every morning, afternoon and evening, and the Benedictine nuns sing daily Gregorian chants. So establish a schedule for your own practice. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to make you happy. But it must be one that you will meet, one that’s both realistic and compelling enough to get you to show up and stay grounded.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
To become spiritually literate, pay attention to what’s in front of your eyes at each moment. If you dwell on your past (yearning, regretting, and fantasizing about what could’ve been), you automatically diminish the potency of the right now.
Here's an example to illustrate this belief, conveniently related to spiritual practice: When Lily's sons were four and seven years old, she went on a spiritual retreat in order to recommit to her meditation practice. When she returned home, she set up an altar in the corner of her bedroom and announced to the boys that she would be spending thirty minutes each day in her room meditating. During that time, they would need to be very quiet.
The day she began, they stood quietly outside her room. But soon after, she could hear the boys: pounding one another, yelling and then bursting into tears. In exasperation she jumped up, opened the door, and screamed at them, “You two better stop it right now. I mean stop it, damn it."
Her sons’ faces fell at the sight of their enraged mother, and Lily was struck by the absurdity of this scene. Her practice was hurting all three of them. What her true practice should be, she realized, was to use every event in the day as an opportunity for kindness and patience to emerge. Nowhere was this more important than with her children.
3. Tell the truth, but do so without blame or judgment.
Certainly there is truth in the cliché that "honesty is the best policy." But truthfulness can also be a weapon. We must learn to tell the truth kindly and carefully, to give everyone involved the best chance of being heard.
The ninth step of the well-known 12-step Program advises us to “make direct amends to people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” If we view honesty in the same way, we can learn to speak without blame, and others will be more inclined to hear the truth in what we say.
To refrain from blame doesn’t mean that we deny the pain or difficulty caused by someone else’s actions. Here’s an example of nonjudgmental honesty: “I asked you not to share what I told you about my health condition with others. The fact that you did has upset me.” Now here’s a similar statement that judges and blames: “You’re a terrible friend with a big mouth who can’t be trusted with anything.”
4. Open yourself up to the outcome.
In other words, don't attach yourself to particular expectations, especially in high-stakes experiences or situations. Take Jake, for example. Jake is dating a woman that he really likes and wants to impress. He’d like to have a relationship with her. Once he becomes attached to this outcome, however, he will do whatever he can to make it happen: he may monitor what he tells this woman about himself, and try to influence her view of him by not being authentic. His desire for her to like him is fine. His trying to force it into being by misrepresenting himself, however, could lead to disappointment, even disaster.
Sure, most of us do have preferences about what we’d like to see happen in our lives. And that's not only normal, but healthy. So when isn't it healthy? Well, if we let these desires determine how we act, we can become inauthentic and try to manipulate people and situations (even unconsciously) to get what we want.
Arrien reminds us that the outcome of practicing "the Four-Fold Way" is the same outcome of most forms of spiritual seeking. She says, “The heart and the essence of all spiritual seeking is the reclamation of the authentic self.” Who knew that cultivating the simple (but difficult) practice of being your true self is the most spiritual practice there is?