By Gretchen Rubin
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.
About the Author
Gretchen Rubin is one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on the linked subjects of habits, happiness, and human nature. She’s the author of many blockbuster New York Times bestselling books, including The Happiness Project and Better Than Before. Her books have sold more than three million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. On her award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she shares insights, strategies, stories, and tips that help people understand themselves and create happier lives.