How to Embark on a Spiritual Journey

By Mary Jaksch

Every true spiritual journey is a quest. Which means that we set out to discover something. Not just anything, but about who we truly are. And what life is about. Those are big, uncomfortable questions.

Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands. ~ Pema Chodron

It’s much easier to coast through life on the surface without ever diving beneath to see down into the dark blue depths. But if we choose to ignore that there is more to life than the daily rush, and the hoarding of possessions – what happens when we come smack up against suffering? When we get ill, or someone we love leaves or dies, or when we near the end or our life (which could be at any time)? If we’ve just coasted through life without going into the depths, we’ll feel disorientated and lost – without any mental or spiritual resources to help us deal with suffering.

The spiritual journey gives us resources to deal with adversity.

The spiritual journey helps us to understand what our challenges are, and how to overcome them. In this post we’ll look at the beginning stage of a spiritual journey. Of course each journey is unique, but there are certain factors that all spiritual journeys have in common. Joseph Campbell wrote a book The Hero With a Thousand Faces in which he describes the archetypal steps of the hero’s journey. The spiritual journey shows a similar structure.

It requires great courage to preserve inner freedom, to move on in one’s inward journey into new realms.
Rollo May

The journey usually starts with what Campbell terms a Call to Adventure. This is the catalyst that starts us on our journey. It’s the point in a person’s life when they first notice that everything is going to change.

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.
~ Dante Alighieri

The Call to Adventure

The Call to Adventure can come in the form of a message, letter, phone call, dream, temptation, last straw, or loss of something precious, or in form of a strange experience. It may be that something dramatically changes in your life. Maybe you lose someone dear to your heart, or your health fails. Or it maybe that the Call to Adventure comes from something you read, or something you hear.

We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.
~ Stephen R. Covey

Almost always, we initially balk at the call.

Refusal of the Call

We tend to refuse the call because know in our heart that a spiritual journey means to face the greatest of all fears, the fear of the unknown. We tend to refuse because we don’t want to change. One way that we commonly refuse the call is by denial. We deny whatever is difficult in our life. ‘This can’t be happening to me’ is a way we fend off what is painful or uncomfortable.

Many great stories hinge upon the refusal of the call. One of the most well-known ones is the story of Jonas and the Whale. Jonah was an Israelite whom God had called to be a prophet but who refused to accept his divine mission. He left on a sea voyage instead but – so the story goes – God raised a great storm as a sign of his anger with Jonah. The sailors, realizing that Jonah’s disobedience had caused the storm, threw him overboard in an attempt to save their ship. He was saved from drowning when he was swallowed by a whale who spat him out onto dry land after three days.

The story of Jonas has some instructive details. I think that each one of us has a mission in life. It can take a long time to find out what that one most important thing in our life actually is. Once we find out what it is, it can seem just too difficult – and we turn away.

We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness.
~ John Hope Franklin

In the Belly of the Whale

When we reluctantly embark on our spiritual journey, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable place: darkness. Being in the belly of the whale is a wonderful metaphor for the darkness that surrounds us on a spiritual journey. It’s the darkness of not-knowing. In fact, as we go farther into our spiritual journey, we find that we have to leave behind what we know, and enter strange territory. We become unintelligible and unrecognizable to ourselves. Not only do we not know ourselves. Knowing itself stops.

That’s  uncomfortable. And many people bail out of their spiritual quest at this point. After all, often the initial motivation for going on a spiritual journey is to gain something. To gain wisdom, or gain enlightenment, or to gain personal power. But if we surrender to our journey, we find that all of this is stripped away, because a spiritual journey is not about having. It’s about being.

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.
~ Marcel Proust

If it’s so difficult, why should we embark on a spiritual journey?

There is no choice, really. We are already on a spiritual journey. The journey is called ‘life’. We are free to refuse the call, but it is there nonetheless. We are called to realize our full potential, and to become a force for good in the world. If we respond to the call, we’re in for an adventure. Life is certainly not going to be boring!


How to respond to the call

When you receive the call, it can be difficult to know what to do next. This is also part of being ‘in the belly of the whale’. It’s good not to rush forward at this point. Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Start by asking a question: “What is my life about?”
  • Give yourself silent space to reflect, and to become present.
  • Take a few moments each day to notice where and how you are.
  • Start a gratitude journal and write down three things that you are grateful for each day.
  • Hang out with others who are also willing to look deeply at life.

There is a lot more to be said about the stages of the spiritual journey, and I’ll pick up the theme in future posts. For now, all you need to do is to exhale. Let go of wanting, striving, struggling and just be for a moment.

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
~ Matsuo Basho

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{ 19 Comments }

  1. I think the spiritual journey is totally unavoidable, it must come sooner or later and most of us hear it once it’s banging on our doors. Still if said journey is chosen, one will see the world with very different eyes.

    I am walking those steps finding a lot of things about myself, and of course seeing the world with new eyes.

    I do hope we can talk about this during the Zen retreat.
    .-= Alejandro Reyes´s last blog ..Monday unfolds… =-.

  2. Love the basho quote. Totally true as well. I love my spirituality and the quest. It is easily the most exciting thing in my life.
    .-= Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com´s last blog ..Awareness Meditation =-.

  3. Very well written with great quotes. Thank you Mary. Once we can get past the belly of the whale it does to into a fantastic adventure as you mention above! Thank you for giving us a platform to learn more and discuss these very things!
    .-= Adrian Nadeau´s last blog ..500 words for a more brilliant life… =-.

  4. That should read “it does to into a fantastic adventure as you mention above!”
    .-= Adrian Nadeau´s last blog ..500 words for a more brilliant life… =-.

  5. “turn into” :-) Sorry.
    .-= Adrian Nadeau´s last blog ..500 words for a more brilliant life… =-.

  6. Cyndie says:

    Mary,
    I have recently suffered the loss of my boyfrined to cancer…after three years
    of living his life ,I am now ready to live mine,trouble is I am deep into the bellly of the whale.
    I am looking forward to changing that. Thank you!

  7. Zen Choices says:

    What a great way to incorporate Joseph Campbell’s conception of a hero’s journey with one’s own personal spiritual quest. When you consider your own life (depending on your age of course), it’s amazing how much you can draw parallels and lessons from
    the “monomyth.” Monomyth being all the phases that a hero goes through in his life (ie. Ulysses). By the way, I’ve found that a great way to teach children about facing challenges (‘responding to the call’) is through books and movies about heroes. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harry Potter and now Percy Jackson and The Olympians follow the hero’s journey model like clockwork.

  8. Udaysree says:

    …all is stripped away. it is stripped away, not about having but about being…

    it’s not only outer stripping away but more importantly inner stripping away: wrong thoughts, wrong knowledge, wrong habits, social conditioning. we are comfortable where we are but don’t want to take the next step of inner stripping away. here is where we hold on and have lots of inner struggle. and Mary is right, even the thought of enlightenment will be stripped away…. so much more to say about it…. looking forward to your upcoming posts on this, Mary! the path may be zen or Hinduism, the path may be different but the outcome the same, a shining and transformed being living in eternal bliss untouched by anything in the inner and outer worlds!
    .-= Udaysree´s last blog ..Emerging as a more Creative Artist =-.

  9. […] a final note, I have just finished reading an interesting blog by Goodlife Zen on the Stages of the Spiritual Journey.  I thought this sentence was just so appropriate to all of […]

  10. Zengirl says:

    Mary,

    Being spiritual is natural, but sometimes we are too busy in our life to hear our inner self. Stop to listen to our own gut feelings is crucial for next step in journey of life.

    By the way, did you become bit younger? I like your new picture on blog! I liked other one too.
    .-= Zengirl´s last blog ..Life balance: 6 Critical areas =-.

  11. Lovely post Mary, i remember my journey started at the age of 15 and I have since turned many corners and overcome many tides.

    My favorite Marcel Proust quote is ‘the real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’.
    .-= Amit Sodha – The Power Of Choice´s last blog ..Honouring People And Cultures With Language Skills =-.

  12. eskimo40 says:

    Amit, thank you for the Proust quote. I could never wade through his literature, and you lifted out a gem for me. I’m new here, but looking forward to becoming a part of the forum. Am in a time of great change and uncertainty, trying to cope with fear of the future. I am being forced to let go of possessions. It’s a gift. Unprying my fingers one at a time.

  13. Zydone. says:

    Zydone….

    Zydone….

  14. Tony says:

    I’m seventeen years of age and I’m not quite sure what my future holds for me right now, I don’t know who I am as a person and I’m just stressed out about too many things, I’m not sure if I got the call or not but something is telling me that I truly need to find myself. I’ve decided to take a spiritual journey somewhere far away from new jersey, maybe to africa or india and hopefully comeback a new person with a different outlook on life and know who I am and what I want to do

  15. Robert J says:

    The pathway for every spiritual journey is ordered by God as he did for Jacob! There are four stages, with several stages: All of these are designed to return us to Bethel and parttake in the spiritual espousal or transforming union with God. We enter or immerse into creation and soon thereafter we must emerge through creation. As we seek to emerge through creation, we recognize that we are all the prodigal son and with God’s mercy and love begin the process of returning home. Like Jacob, we too must wrestle with both man and God, and cross our ford at jabbok. We then return to Bethel to be spiritually married with God. This is very much the process described by John of the Cross when he addressed so eloquently the Night of the Soul. The old man must die and the new man reborn. The journey is transforming as it was for Jacob, and each of us must return to Bethel. There is no escaping the way of the cross. Today, we seem all too interested in escape from life or a desire not to emerge through creation but to drift in creation.

    The real problem with finding our way is that we spend little time recognizing our true condition. We have very few true spiritual instructors to help guide us on our journey.

    That’s why I began writing the book Finding Bethel.

  16. I have been on a spiritual journey for years now and it is what makes me feel alive! You are right to say that it is like a quest, it is a quest that is never ending for me…
    But as I have grown older I understand more fully that it is the journey that is important and not the destination :).
    Thank you! That article refreshed a lot of memories for me…sad as well as happy…
    ~ Über Alchemy
    .-= The Spiritual Sphere´s last blog ..Pondering The Nature Of God… =-.

  17. Suryanarayan Arun Kumar says:

    Spirituality is all about detachment from the wordly pleasures and attachment with the cosmic energies. You get connected with the higher spirit & feel no difference to the wordly happenings. Spiritualism helps individuals realize there purpose of life. The life of purpose and purpose for life.

    The journey begins only when an individual feels from the bottom of his heart the need to find the greater meaning for life. Just a short story to share … When vivekananda approached his master Sri ramakrishna paramahamsa seeking an answer for ” How can I find God? master took him to the river and forced him under the currents of water…. and finally released him. Vivekananda came out of waters gasping for breath… and questioned his master “I asked you to answer me on how can I find god ?? and u r forcing me under water and I might have died of breathlessness… then master replied when you get the same feeling to find god the way you felt under water you really find him.

    In short the feel to find the greater meaning of life and strong convictions & commitments to really embark the spiritual journey is what matters a true journey.The urge & the desire to feel the highest potential of living is what matters and takes one on this journey.

    Wish all the readers to develop an serious urge and desire to embark this beautiful journey of our life.

  18. […] of each day, before you go to bed, spend a few minutes writing about one thing in your day that you feel richer for the experience and makes you grateful. Take pleasure in enjoyable sights or sounds, and simple experiences such as […]

  19. Justin says:

    “We are already on a spiritual journey. The journey is called ‘life’.” What a beautiful quote.

    The concept of a spiritual journey is so fascinating to me. I just read Dee Wallace’s biography, Bright Light, which really focused on the lessons in spirituality she’s learned from a life in acting. It’s really inspiring to witness her soul quest, if only by reading it.
    I’ve recently evaluated how I look at everyday life and started to incorporate more spirituality into my world. Any tips on other books to read? I’ve read The Secret, as well.

  20. Tiffany says:

    My favorite quote from this post: “It requires great courage to preserve inner freedom, to move on in one’s inward journey into new realms.”

    For me, that really sums up how to begin your journey. I adore reading about different paths to enlightenment, individual stories and interpretation of individual journeys. One of my favorite recent reads is “Earth’s Pivotal Years” by Selacia- http://earthspivotalyears.com/
    It’s a wonderful read.

  21. lovely says:

    Very inspiring quotes. I always love to read inspirational message for me to strengthen my spiritual side. Thanks for sharing this.
    lovely´s last blog post ..Spiritual Movies- The Best Movies for All Times

  22. Natalie Justice says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article. It brought to words the feeling of my heart toward spirituality and it’s presence in ordinary life. Thank you again for sharing!

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