What Does It Mean to Be a Spiritual Warrior?
My last article on how to accept yourself, no matter what struck a chord for many people, even those who’ve been working on themselves for years.
Why is that? I believe we live in a wounding culture, in which a child’s basic needs for love, connection, and affirmation often go unmet leading. This can lead to a lack of self-acceptance that remains even as an adult.
As a young girl, I remember picking the petals off a flower one-by-one while saying to myself, “They love me. They love me not.” I fantasized about being kidnapped or falling ill, hoping a catastropic event would make my parents take notice of me. Most of the time, I felt isolated, in my own little world.
Understandably, I desperately sought love as a young adult and acted in reckless ways. In my mid-twenties, a psychic told a close friend I would either pass over or meet a spiritual teacher in the coming years. I turned out to be lucky, circumstances conspired to show me a better way. But my faulty emotional patterns still drove me, even in a spiritual context. It took decades before deeper healing occurred for me.
Going Beyond Self-Help
Many people live their entire lives acting out emotional dramas, never acknowledging their own pain or recognizing they have the power to heal themselves. They want to be happy, but any happiness they might find seems to runaway far too fast.
If you’re reading this, you probably have an inkling that healing’s possible. Maybe you’ve already started upon or have traveled a good ways on the path to wholeness.
What separates you and me from others who don't know there's a way out? It may be a single incident like the warning message I received from the psychic, a kind word from a friend, or reading a blog post that makes them feel heard, seen, and connected.
Once you're on the other side, you're problems aren'y magically all solved. And, like me, it may take years to shift into a healthier mindset.
Even so, once you're moving in a good direction, don't you naturally want to reach out to others and let them know there's a happier way? Doesn't your heart begin to ache for all those less fortunate who need a helping hand?
We need to heal our emotional wounds, there's no question about that. But if we don't adapt a spiritual perspective and begin to think of others with love and compassion at some point on our journey, self-healing will remain self-centered at best. It might buoy us for a while, but eventually it will just bring more pain because we still cling to a solid sense of self and myriad likes and dislikes.
If we truly want to be happy, we have to go beyond self-help, beyond thinking of just ourselves. That's when we enter the path of a love and compassion, the path of the spiritual warrior.
What Is a Spiritual Warrior?
In the Buddhist tradition, a spiritual warrior is someone who longs to attain complete spiritual realization so they can help others do the same and in so doing bring an end to all their suffering, and indeed, to all the suffering in this world.
This is profound love and compassion steeped in wisdom, the kind of compassion that includes, but goes beyond good acts alone.
Some people feel averse to the word "warrior," including me. But it has a precise meaning in this context: It means to courageously confront and overcome negative thoughts, emotions, and actions as well as misplaced notions about reality. It means to train in altruism, until it comes naturally for whomever you meet.
As a spiritual warrior, we vow to meet our own habits, patterns, and demons in a vigorous and determined way, as if we are doing battle with them. This doesn't mean we're hostile or violent. I always encourage people to be gentle with themselves. But it is a dedicated effort to consistently confront and address our own faults, remember our inherent goodness, and express our love and compassion to others.
These are some ways a spiritual warrior thinks and acts.
A spiritual warrior understands that we all want and deserve happiness and at the same time, no one wants to suffer. But often our actions are contrary to our aims. We go about trying to achieve happiness in confused and superficial ways, like accumulating excessive amounts of material possessions, which often leads to dissatisfaction instead of the happiness we seek.
A spiritual warrior trains in awakening profound compassion and living from that heart-centered place in their thoughts, words, and actions. At first, her sense of compassion might be just a tiny seed. That’s okay. She gradually waters and nourishes the seed until she’s able to extend her compassion to a wider and wider circle, not just her friends.
A spiritual warrior centers her action in the knowledge that the world and its inhabits actually are impermanent, interdependent, and subject to cause and effect (karma). To understand these ideas more fully, please read my article: Awakening to Interdependence: The Key to Happiness for All.
A spiritual warrior is centered in her highest self. She goes out of her way to help others however she can, but also uses discernment so her efforts aren’t ineffective, inappropriate, or ill-advised.
A spiritual warrior understands the need to eradicate self-cherishing, the feeling that she is more important than anyone else, in order to dismantle the false sense of a permanent self. It's the clinging to a sense of permanent self and all the likes and dislikes that bring unnecessary suffering into your life. Helping others is one of the best ways to gradually dissolve an over focus on the self.
A spiritual warrior helps without expecting reward, praise, or acknowledgement. Read more about this here: Giving Without Expectations: Overcoming the Need for Acknowledgement and Praise.
A spiritual warrior helps even when it’s hard. For example, it may not be your first choice to sit and talk with a lonely, elderly relative, but you’re willing to give of yourself to bring a glimmer of joy or connection into someone else’s life. This isn't martyrdom if it's centered in the bigger perspective.
A spiritual warrior doesn't act out of guilt, shame, or a desperate need to be loved, but from a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all life.
A spiritual warrior focuses on both the inner and outer dimensions. She works with her own mind to change unhealthy patterns, transform negative emotions, and dismantle false beliefs about herself and the world. She also practices positive emotions like love and compassion to relieve the suffering of others and help them realize their full spiritual potential, as best she can.
It sounds big, doesn’t it? The aspiration is magnanimous, but you start where you are, even if that means taking tiny steps.
Of course, you won't be able to maintain an ideal perspective all the time, but you'll grow into it more and more as you regularly practice compassionate courage.
How Do You Become a Spiritual Warrior?
Every genuine spiritual path encourages love and compassion, the heart of spiritual warriorship, and some especially emphasize selfless service. For example, here's what it means to be a spiritual warrior in the Toltec tradition.
In the Buddhist tradition, which I know the best, there's an entire path laid out and indeed, entire books written on compassionate courage.
In this approach, a spiritual warrior begins by taking a vow and then repeats that vow daily as a reminder to think of others not just herself.
Here’s a beautiful one from Shantideva:
For as long as space exists And sentient beings endure, May I too remain, To dispel the misery of the world.
This prayer of St. Francis holds a similar sentiment:
Lord, make me an instrument Of thy peace, where there is hatred, Let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love; For it is in the giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we Are pardoned, and it is in dying That we are born to external life.
In Mahayana Buddhism, love, compassion, joy (rejoicing for others), and impartiality (seeing others as equal) are essential practices of a spiritual warrior. I share the specifics of these practices in these articles:
That's a lot already, but there's even more because it takes a lot to eradicate our automatic habit of self-centeredness: seeing others as another you, exchanging yourself for others with the practice of giving and receiving on the breath (Tonglen), and ultimately, when your'e ready, seeing others as more important than yourself. You can learn about the first two practices in these articles:
The above are considered aspiration practices, ones you do on the meditation cushion or in your own mind as you go about your day. But a spiritual warrior also engages in action as well, including generosity, patience, discipline, joyful diligence, meditation, and wisdom. She does so from a recognition that goes beyond separating "I" from "other."
Neurotic Compassion Will Just Mess You Up
Just today, I received an e-letter from a life coach underlining how you must put your needs first.
That's a common message in personal development circles these days. I understand why this is. Many women, in particular, burn themselves out by over-giving due to conditioning or a deep wound that urges them to fulfill an image, seek appreciation, or meet someone else’s expectations.
But that’s not what it means to be a spiritual warrior. That type of motivation is still highly focused on the self, at least to some degree.
I'm not dissing self-healing or self-care. But why must it be black or white, first or second, my needs or yours? Why must you follow someone else’s rules about how you “should” now take care of yourself first?
A spiritual warrior loves, accepts, and cares for themselves, and they care for others too. They’re not in state of perpetual conflict because they use their basic intelligence. Being a spiritual warrior doesn’t mean you have to suffer, burnout from fatigue, or make yourself sick. It doesn’t mean you can never have fun, do something self-indulgent, or take time for yourself.
Sometimes, you may need to take care of yourself first and that's okay. But sometimes you might choose to tire yourself out helping another because your heart tells you it’s the right thing to do. Learn to follow your heart, see what’s appropriate in each circumstance, and use your sense of discernment instead of following the latest self-help rules.
The World Needs You to Shine
Think of a firefighter who puts her life on the line to save someone else. Think of the freedom fighter who risks imprisonment to stand up for what’s right. Think of the nun who feeds the poor on the streets. Somehow they know that taking care of the all is more important than protecting their singular life.
Our world is in trouble. She needs you to heal so you can step onto the path of compassion and help others in your own way. And when you do, these suggestions might help:
Start when you are ready, not because you "should."
Take small steps, ones that are realistic for you.
Slowly build your capacity to give and do more.
Give from a place of wisdom, not neurosis, as best you can.
And, of course, please take care of yourself.
You don’t have to be a big time heroine. Just start where you are and do what you can. You might change someone’s life for the better, and you'll definitely change yours.
Over the coming year, I will be writing more about the nitty-gritty of what it means to be a spiritual warrior. Stay tuned!
What are your thoughts about making love and compassion a central part of your life? Have you ever found joy in selfless service? I would love to hear.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free resources in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra