Your Happiness Project: Imitate a spiritual master.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One of the most universal spiritual practices is the imitation of a spiritual master as a way to gain understanding and discipline. For example, in Christianity, many people study The Imitation Of Christ and ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?”

In the secular world, I suspect, people often read biographies for spiritual reasons: they want to study and learn from the example of great lives. As a writer, I steeped myself in the lives of Winston Churchill and John Kennedy, and it seems to me that much of the fascination in these two towering figures comes from people’s desire to imitate their great qualities (though of course they both also had some not-so-great qualities).

Oprah is a spiritual master for a lot of people; also—I could be wrong about this—Warren Buffett. Some lucky people have found a spiritual master within their set of personal relationships.

For my happiness project, I decided to study and imitate a spiritual master—but whom? I didn’t feel a particular affinity for any potential masters, until I came across St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I’d become interested in St. Thérèse after I saw her praised in Thomas Merton’s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. I’d been so surprised to see the cranky, monkish Merton write reverently about the sappily-named “Little Flower” that I was curious to read her spiritual memoir, The Story of a Soul. Since then, I’ve developed a mini-obsession with St. Thérèse. I have almost twenty biographies of her, and “Indulging in a (not so) modest splurge,” I spent $75 on a book of photographs of her. Ah, St. Thérèse! She is the perfect spiritual master for me — the fact that I’m not Catholic doesn’t change that.

What figure would you choose to be your spiritual master? It might be obvious to you; it might take you some serious reflection. Once you’ve identified a spiritual master, try to learn more about his or her life; think about why you picked that particular figure; and, most important, how to incorporate the lessons of that life into your own life.

For example, when I was annoyed when the woman working next to me at the library kept sighing noisily, I was inspired by St. Thérèse: she tells the story of how she once broke into a sweat at the effort to conquer her annoyance when a fellow nun made maddening clicking noises during evening prayers. I could relate.

I’m curious to know what spiritual masters other people have adopted. Have you found someone whose life or teaching has captivated you? If you’ve identified your spiritual master, please post it—I, and I’m sure other people, would be very interested to see the range of choices.

Speaking of St. Therese, a friend from blogland, herself named for Therese and also a devotee, has a terrific blog, Beyond Blue, about “the spiritual journey to mental health.” I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in the subject of depression, especially the spiritual aspect.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Janne Goossens

    My spiritual master is Liz Murray, author of “Breaking Night: A memoir of forgiveness, survival, and my journey from Homeless to Harvard”.
    A long time ago I saw the Lifetime movie “Homeless to Harvard: the Liz Murray story”, which is based on her life and it just grabbed me and shook me awake. Her story is such an inspiring one and last year I bought and read her book and it really inspired me to let go of my laziness and to stop skipping classes at school and to become a better person.
    Liz Murray changed my life.

  • Great post. I have been studying Neville Goddard for the past ten years. “Consciousness is the only reality” and “Imagination creates your world” are phrases that I constantly try to remember and practice.

  • Joe

    Jesus is my spiritual master. He is also my King and savior. Without Him, I don’t have happiness. Nothing in this world can bring me true Joy except for knowing Jesus. Knowing that He loves me and gives me PURPOSE. A spiritual master is more then just a person you look up to, it’s who you LIVE for. So for those whose spiritual masters are Oprah and Winston Churchill, you’ve got it all wrong haha.

  • kathy

    Like Joe, I also have a strong faith. Therefore, what you call spiritual masters, I would call heroes, mentors, people who inspire. It would be impossible for me to pick one. Each one has admirable traits, deeds, and strengths. It is apparent to me in marriage and friendships, that a persons strengths are also their weaknesses. What draws you to a person, also drives you nuts later.

  • Stephen Gifford

    My spiritual teacher is Stephen Gaskin, though I mostly don’t tell that to anyone but the closest to me. one morning I experienced with him an enlightenment in which I felt that I was absolutely home. That experience is not particular to him, anyone can achieve it under the right set of circumstances. Google him!

  • One of my spiritual masters is Marjorie Hinckley. Here’s an example of her life philosophy that I find so inspiring: “I don’t want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails.
    I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp.
    I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbors children.
    I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone’s garden.
    I want to be there with children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder.
    I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.”
    ― Marjorie Pay Hinckley

  • Rachel

    Gretchen: I’m very interested in reading more about St. Therese. Of the many books you’ve read about her, would you recommend a few in particular?