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 think, 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 famous 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.

* A few months ago, I visited my sister in Los Angeles, and it really is striking how car-centric life is there — one of my favorite things about New York City is that I never have to drive. It was interesting to watch this video showing what L.A. would look like if cars disappeared. Weird to see the streetlights changing, with no one watching them.

* Did I ever happen to mention that The Happiness Project hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list? Oh right, I did. Yay! If you’re curious about the book, you can…
Order your copy!
Read sample chapters!
Watch the one-minute book trailer!
Listen to a few chapters of the audiobook!

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Jake

    I wouldn’t say spiritual masters but I definitely had several mentors. People who teach you how to act correctly, in whatever field you choose. One question that interested me was do you have to have a mentor to do anything well? An interesting discussion on it (without a clear conclusion):

  • raj

    More than 10 years back I was fortunate to come in touch with His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ( – who has dedicated his life to bringing joy and smiles to people and …… life has changed being by his teachings…. 🙂

  • Well, it’s gald to read your post, but I wouldn’t understand your meaning well. Thanks all the same.

  • Nicole

    Back when I was first going through some depression actually, I read two things that may not be spiritual masters, but it was interesting and inspiring.
    One was Katherine Hepburn’s autobiography, as she was very candid about some tragedies in her life but it also had that characteristic strength and spunk that she did.
    The other is much more secular, but it’s called The Mind and the Brain. It really blurs the lines between science and spiritual without being hokey or pessimistic. Very informative and good read. (Similar to Malcom Gladwell’s work, but I enjoyed this better actually.)

  • LivewithFlair

    Well, I wouldn’t imitate any master. Imitation would only reveal more and more of my inability to perfect myself. What I have found happiness in is allow the Holy Spirit to transform my life. It’s not imitation but infusion. I don’t ask “What would Jesus do?” I ask, “What do I need to let Jesus do through me?” It’s relying on the power of God, not myself. I wrote a bit about why a professor can be a Christian, and this explains my view of God infusing me.

    • LivewithFlair

      Gretchen! I didn’t want my little rant to appear disrespectful to you! I clarified the difference between imitation and infusion better.

      • Kristy

        I read your blog, as well as the excerpt in Gretchen’s book. I think you may have taken her words too literally. It seems imitate is a strong word for you and I appreciate the use of infusion. I don’t see it as the literal form of imitation (the childhood mirror game where I lift my arm and you do it at the same time), but rather chosing someone with whom you see as an inspiration and has values upon which you can relate to or inspire to. It is just semantics, potatoes potatoes. Either way reaching within yourself to find happiness and reaching outwords for imitation, influence, inspiration, infusion or any other “I” word leads to a better “U”.

        • LivewithFlair

          Thanks so much, Kristy! (and for reading my blog :).

          • Kristy

            I read more of your blog and love the excerpt about your daughter and her love of photography. I have 3 children (ages 2,3,4) and am enjoying seeing who they become. The way you “infused” her passion into a perspective for your own life was touching to me. It was so true all the things you said. I am also an elementary teacher (on leave right now) and the thing I love most about being around other children and my own is rediscovering life that I already love, but seeing it from a different perspective. I tried to comment on your own blog page, but wasn’t sure how.

          • LivewithFlair

            I totally agree about being around children! Today, this little girl who I have never met before turned to me in the swimming pool and said, “Will you please watch me while I do this amazing jump into the pool? I just need somebody to see it.” I just died I was so warmed by that truth! (It will probably be my blog entry tomorrow! We just need people to witness our lives. . . I changed the comment form to make more sense. Thanks so much! Heather (Live with Flair girl)

          • Kristy

            That is so precious. Very interesting you should say that about people being a witness to our lives. I have been thinking about that A LOT lately. My husband and I have been together since we were 18 (high school) and now 12 years later we are still together and have adopted our 3 children a year and a bit ago. I have been trying to remember memories of my life. I think a lot of times you are meant to be with someone to enhance your life, spend enjoyable time together and love, but also to have people be your memory bank of things you can’t recall. Like if two people experince life together you can walk around memories together. Our children will bring their own memories and together we will store a ton of memories and different perceptions of those memories.

  • Michael Melcher

    Hi Gretchen,

    Maybe I need to look into St. Therese as well. Especially as I have found as I have gotten older that other people’s semi-annoying habits really bug me (for instance, people sending text messages in movie theaters). I don’t want to be a crabby person!

    I grew up in Southern California, so I appreciate the LA-without-cars video. One thing New Yorkers often forget is that the even the roads in NYC were not invented to accommodate cars. The roads came before cars did and were used by people, horses, etc. Can you imagine how delightful New York would be without cars parked everywhere and jamming the intersection?

    Oops, looks like my crabby side is coming on. One order of St. Therese, on the double!


  • Now you cant just read a single book and expect to become like the fabled genie who can make it happen immediately, you must first attune yourself to the desire, then the desire will be met, only after you have changed will the universe change.

    Be Blessed

  • Mary Beth Carson

    Very good suggestion and one I will follow up on, perhaps with St. Therese, as well. I once had a friend, a therapist, who shared with me that some people who sigh heavily have very high anxiety. They are so anxious they neglect to breathe and eventually their body takes over and gasps for air in a sigh. If that helps….

  • As I read you post, I actually thought about the responsibility of my spiritual influence on others more than who I wanted to imitate. As a spouse, a writer and teacher, and a parent, I’m playing at least a partial role in the spiritual influence of many people who I care about deeply. So as I ponder whom I wish to emulate spiritually, I want to also remember that my daily actions, thoughts, words, and expressions of love have the potential to have a very positive spiritual affect on others. Of course, it can work the other way around when I get caught up in the day-to-day, push of deadlines, concerns about myself, etc. and forget to love the ones around me. Thanks for reminding me to pay attention to the important stuff today.

  • Lovely post. My go-tos for inspiration are not exactly spiritual leaders per se, but they have been held by me as touchstones since high school, and I’m 40 now, so that’s saying something for staying power. First is Woodrow Wilson. Yes, I got disillusioned a bit after learning more about his feelings on suffrage for women, but I still marvel at how hard he tried to do right. History books focus too much on the fact that the League of Nations was a failure, and give short shrift to how daring and beautiful it was to propose the idea. My other fella is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Far too much genius to capture in a post, but here is a stand-out: in his journal at Harvard he wrote “I find myself often stupid, vagrant and hollow,” reminding me forever that we are our own worst critics.

  • Blair424

    I’m not sure I would call her a spiritual master, but Rachel Scott is an inspiration to me. She was one of the kids killed at Columbine. Rachel’s father Darrell Scott wrote a book called Chain Reaction based on her journals. He describes how amazed the family was to hear from so many people whose lives Rachel had touched with acts of kindness. For example, she had chosen three groups of kids at school to go out of her way to be nice to: new kids, disabled kids, and picked on kids. After Rachel’s death, many of these kids told the family about how they would be eating their lunch alone in the cafeteria and she would come up and ask if she could join them, or about how when she saw them in the hallway, she would always say hi and ask how they were doing. I certainly wish I’d been a kid like Rachel in high school. And, of course, I wished we’d had a kid like Rachel in high school! It’s just so remarkable that a 16-year-old could be so wise beyond her years, and it’s just so sad that her age never got a chance to catch up to her wisdom.

  • anonymous

    The figure Don Juan Matus, a central character in several books by Carlos Casteneda, incidentally became the most influential spiritual master I’ve encountered so far. The books are prefaced to be anthropological studies drawn from actual field work, but it is still unknown whether or not the whole body of work is actually pure fiction, including the characters… if that’s the case, then maybe Castaneda is the actual master?

  • anonymous

    Oops, I made a typo on “Castaneda” below. I’d delete it if I could…

  • Liz

    Dipa Ma is my go-to gal:
    But I am a lazy student:)

  • jenny_o

    I do not have any one spiritual master, but try to take the best from every person I meet and use that as a guide for my own behavior and outlook.

  • joe

    James Allen

    “as a man thinkth so shall he be”

    “You become what you think about most of the time”

    This is all you really need

  • really nice sharing thanks

  • Marcia

    The L.A. video, and the note about NYC streets, made me think of this video I saw showing the scene from a streetcar in San Francisco in 1906. Chaos of a different sort…

  • Katharine

    A few years ago I stumbled on a French film on tv about St theresa’s life. It was beautiful but I didn’t know the name of it because I missed the beginning.
    Do you know it and if it is on dvd? It has haunted me with its beauty.

    • gretchenrubin

      I have the DVD, I think, but still haven’t watched it — somehow, can’t
      imagine a movie about St. Therese! But I heard it was supposed to be good,
      so I got it.

      Now that I’ve heard positive things, I’ll watch it.

  • What if the spiritual leader says not to follow anyone else but yourself?

    “To be a light to oneself is not to follow the light of another, however reasonable, logical, historical, and however convincing.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

    “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” ~ Basho

  • Dawn R

    The closest thing I have to a personal bible is “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. While I don’t know much about his life, I do know that the beautiful translation of his short book has provided me with guidance and comfort since I first read it in my early 20s. I received it as a high school graduation gift, but I did not truly read it or appreciate it until a few years later. Each time I read it, I take something new from it: a new understanding of an old problem, a new perspective on a current frustration, or a new idea of something I need to work on in myself. There are still a few concepts in it that I either don’t understand or find somewhat odd, but I highly recommend it.

  • M.E.

    My spiritual master might not be so thrilled to be referred to as a master, but that very sort of humility is what makes her the master [to me] that she is. Her name is Pat J. Her husband plucked her up from Massachusettes years ago & put her down in the very middle of SC.
    I’ve been “imitating” or at least bending her ear and loving her since 1996. God allows me the grace to learn from her how to know and love him. Now that’s a tall order and she’s done that by loving me through anything. Actually she’s known to be the only human who I know without doubt loves me unconditionally. And I love her ….

  • Janet

    I work at a small university at the edge of a small town in North Carolina. The traffic pattern needs updating as the University grows. I would love to see this town try becoming a bicycle town – where you part at a lot and inside the city limits use bicycles or bicycle taxis. I don’t know if this has been tried in a small town in the US.

  • Darcy

    My spiritual master is my grandfather. He was the most amazing person I’ve ever met, and I feel very lucky to have had so many years with him. He was stricken by polio in 1954 (1 year before the Salk vaccine became available) and wasn’t expected to live. Once they realized he was going to live, he wasn’t expected to ever be able to come out of the iron lung he was in. But he learned how to breathe by gulping air and was able to come out of the iron lung. He was paralyzed from the neck down, and he was a farmer. He said that a doctor came to see him one day and told him that he’d never walk again. The doctor then told him that he had a choice, he could choose to wallow in that, or he could choose to appreciate what he had. My grandfather chose to appreciate his family and community. Everyone pitched in to get the farming done and my grandpa started doing all the research for him and his neighbors about new farming technology. He had a holster built for his typewriter and taped a pen to a spoon and wrote correspondence and his church bulletin. I’ll always remember how well we all obeyed my grandpa, even though he could never lift a hand to us. We all just respected him so much. He was very kind and very happy. I don’t appreciate my own very blessed life enough, so I try to remember my grandfather and to appreciate what I do have instead of worrying about what I don’t have.

    • Kristy

      Wow! What an amazing man your grandfather was. Certainly a perfect person to inspire you!

  • Pat

    I just saw “City Island,” a wonderful little gem of a movie set in, well, City Island. (It’s part of the Bronx, to those not in the know.) Your claim that NY is a mass transit town is put to the test in extremis by this movie. Everyone drives everywhere. Ah, it’s funny how the small things can irritate. I’m saying my St. Thérèse prayers . . .

  • Quote from Candice O’Denver, who teaches “short moments of pure awareness, repeated many times, until you find yourself resting there 24/7′:
    “When this continuous soothing energy is tapped into, it will never go away. It will be increasingly obvious from then on. This soothing is something we all desire, something that we all seek in all kinds of antidotes. When we instinctively recognize that soothing energy and power within ourselves,
    then we know that there is nowhere else to go. There is nothing to do. It’s already present. It’s up to us. Just relax, acknowledge its presence. Nothing could be more natural.”
    The Empowering Basic State of Awareness

  • Lyyli

    For me, it is Martin Luther King, Jr. His words and ideas captivate me–they go so far beyond just the amazing things he did on the Civil Rights front. But they scare me too, because I am unsure if I can ever live up to some of his ideals, despite the fact that I feel the truth of them in my heart.

    Two of my favorites are “Love is the only force capable of changing an enemy into a friend.” [Very hard for me]
    & “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altrusium or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

  • Wow! What an amazing man your grandfather was. Certainly a perfect person to inspire you!

  • Vicki Travis

    My spiritual master is God. My faith in Him has given me strength to survive the ups and downs in my life. My trust in Him and His love, His promise to never leave me or forsake me lights my way.

  • Shirley

    My spiritual Master is C.S. Lewis—Shirley Koiner

  • Claudia Henzler

    Dear Gretchen, thank you so much for your continuous uplifting inspirational thoughts that you share with us! I just recently came across DON MIGUEL RUIZ and when I read his book “the Mastery of Love” I was deeply touched by the depth of his wisdom, which at the same time is written in a very simple and practical way. So, I just made up my mind and call him my “spiritual master” for this time (until someone else comes in to my life where I would say, I can learn from him/her – of course I see that we continuously have chances to learn from different people of the past and present and even from ourselves, it´s up to us and what and on whom we focus on:)
    Thanks again.
    Greetings from Vienna, Austria – Claudia Henzler (freelance photographer)

  • Char

    This is so interesting Gretchen. However, I can’t really understand what a spiritual master is. What does it actually mean? How is it chosen? Why do you think it contributes to your happiness? Thanks, as always, your blog is so insightful!

  • Annonymous

    St. Therese is my patroness Saint. She has helped me out in many times in my life. Including helping to bring me to my husband. She is very much a hands on saint and I love that you feel a connection to her!

  • Tiffany

    I have 2 – one is more emotionally connected to me. My grandmother, Minabelle Olson and Nicole Johnson who is part of Women of Faith (an amazing, powerful group of ladies).
    My grandma taught me how to “love” others unconditionally and to live with a “servant mentality.” She had an inner strength and a passion to live life joyfully… even up til the end of her life 8 years ago (cancer). She touched so many lives, that in a community of 250 people, 500 attended her funeral! I miss her and feel closest to her when I live how I know she would want me to… joyfully! She would want me to live life “out loud!” 🙂

    I started listening to Nicole Johnson when I was 15 (that was 15 years ago)… I went with my mom to my very first “Women of Faith” event. It was amazing… she is sooo animated! She was able to grab all minds and keep you at the edge of your seat waiting for the “punch line!” I have read a few of her books and listened to some of her CD series… always feel rejuvenated after listening to her (and have a sore tummy from laughing so hard!). I admire her because through strife and difficulty, she found her purpose … she recognized her gift to share “her message!” with others. I have gone through and am going through more trials/tribulations, and I only hope that instead of holding/hiding/dwelling on them, I get the confidence to share my message to help others!

    I have really enjoyed your book… Thank you so much for the inspiration! 🙂

  • Jim

    I am currently reading the relevant chapter in The Happiness Project and was surprised that no one mentioned Eckhart Tolle. I have read many spiritual books written by authors many different religious backgrounds and I feel that Tolle’s The Power of Now and A New Earth contain as much spiritual truth as anything I have read. I especially love the audio books!

  • Helene

    But, out of the hundreds or thousands of possibilities, how would I begin to find out who my spiritual master is?

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s part of the fun! Who speaks most directly to you?