Guidelines for Leading a Spiritual Life: Some Resolutions for the New Year


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

December 29, 2013

A New Year Dawns . . .

It is the dawning of a new year, a propitious reflex occasion to make resolutions to improve our lives and the lives of others.  As is well known, the resolutions we make typically address health, financial, and social topics: “I resolve to ………..”  – insert here (1) dietary topics (e.g., stop smoking, exercise more, eat less junk food, lose weight, drink less beer, get a colonoscopy); (2) financial (e.g., save more money, ask for a raise, spend less money on clothes and shoes, buy a new car; seek a new job;(3) social relations (e.g., spend more time with family, enjoy life, be more positive, be more of an activist, read more books, attend church or temple, pray daily).

There are so many problems in our lives our daily lives to which we succumb. Our intentions are good, but we fall into habits. St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Habits are man’s second nature.” The New Year is a fresh start symbolically and chronologically. It is an opportunity for renewal. We can post our resolutions on refrigerator doors with the magnets we got as holiday presents.  The posting on the refrigerator door is a conspicuous location since we pass or enter it daily.  We might even give ourselves a reward for adhering to our resolutions.

A decade ago, I wrote some New Year resolutions to improve the quality of my life. The resolutions were a set of guidelines to make my life more spiritual, and less materialistic.  I found them useful, and published them in a Honolulu newspaper as an op-ed article. The resolutions received both praise and criticism. The criticism came from folks who considered my meanderings to contradict specific religious beliefs and teachings.  Later, I shared the resolutions with a wider audience via various listservs and journal publications. Some readers wrote they posted the guidelines on their refrigerator door.

Today, I am sharing the guidelines once again.  I do so, because “spirituality” is an important arbiter of life satisfaction.  While some dislike any “mystical” behavior, most of us find that connecting to larger forces beyond our material existence is valuable for several reasons: First, it speaks to the non-material aspects of our being as we are inundated with pressures to locate ourselves in our material world.  Second, assigning “spirituality” a more prominent role and source of influence in our lives may promote a “social contagion,” which can increase the importance of “connections” in all our lives. Third, leaving behind the material world in favor of connection to the larger cosmos and mysteries in which we live may enable us to lose “ego,” and to experience awe and reverence.  How can these things be wrong or un-needed in a world in which so much is being done to destroy connections, and to empower the shadow side of human nature (e.g., war, violence, prejudice, hatred, selfishness)?

Growing Popularity of Spirituality 

Any reading of the public, social, or private media today reveals an increased interest, concern and use – perhaps even pre-occupation – with the term “spirituality” and various related terms (e.g., spirit, spiritual, soul) embodying  non-material states of existence.  Initially, of course, the term spirituality was associated with various religious doctrines regarding ecclesiastical, clerical, and/or sacred experiences transcending secular life with the latter’s material focus and priorities.  Spirituality has a special denotation and connotation which prizes a non-material essence or way-of-being in which it is assumed there is a perceived connection to events, forces, and beings that exist beyond the secular or temporal and physical world.  The term “spirituality” often has been used to describe individuals whose existence and/or behavior transcended normal or conventional human concerns for meeting daily needs and demands, in favor of focus regarding broader human issues of meaning, purpose, social responsibility, and other higher-order priorities. In my opinion, the peace-makers of our world (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mairead McGuire, Evelin Lindner, and so many more) are spiritual leaders.  They were driven by beliefs and actions that transcended the times and mores of their lives in favor of broader social concerns and spiritual connections.

The term “spirituality” should not be limited to “ecclesiastical” contexts.  Media popularity has liberated the term making it possible to be “spiritual” without being associated with or being a member of particular religion.  The term “secular spirituality,” has emerged to describe non-materialistic individuals or ways-of-being that are not necessarily associated with membership or belief in a formal religion.

In my opinion, this is good!  In a world dominated by Western commercial cultural traditions and values that emphasize materialism, consumerism, production, and commodification, a concern for the “spiritual” serves as a powerful counter-point for defining the meaning and value of life beyond the “collected junk” that adorns our lives yet leaves us feeling unfulfilled. We sense our discontent, but too often, we fail to recognize its source in “meaninglessness,” and we simply continue to accumulate more and more goods.  Materialism can become an addiction. We are driven to consume (i.e., buy, eat, collect) as a source of comfort and anxiety reduction.

Okay, what can we do?  It is difficult to escape the daily pressures to consume.  We have just completed a holiday in which extravagances in purchases and consumption dominated our lives.  However, when people say: “I begin to be excited just anticipating “Black Friday” (i.e., the day after Thanksgiving reputed to be largest shopping day) and/or “Self Day” (i.e., the day after Christmas day when goods are exchanged and gift cards used).”  Something needs to be corrected.

I do not choose a medieval monastic life for myself, nor do I advocate the same for others.  I see the virtues and appeal in complete social detachment and silence, but I think meaning is best found in pursuing inner and outer paths. I am not free from materialistic impulses, nor am I free of the comforts materialism provides. Clearly, I am privileged to have access to the material comforts in our society.  But this does not mean that I cannot strive to understand and experience “spirituality” in my life.

It is a special privilege to reflect, contemplate, ponder, meditate, and explore the nature of spirituality, and the possibilities of leading a spiritual life. To that end, I am attaching some of my personal guidelines for leading a spiritual life.  I do not claim they are absolutes. They are merely thoughts I have found useful in pursuing a state of spirituality. I consider these guidelines to be consistent with all religions, and they are offered with respect for organized all religions.  I offer five specific actions.



1.       Awareness

 I resolve to be more aware and responsive to the spiritual dimensions of my being and my nature.  I intend to accept and to embrace the self-evident truth that the very life force that is within me is the same life force that moves, propels, and governs the universe itself, and because of this, I must approach life with a new sense of awe, humbled by the mystery of this truth, yet elated and confident by its consequences.  I am alive!  I am part of life!  And, because of this, I must act in ways that encourage and support this fact, and I must act in ways that are responsive to its requirements and demands.

2.       Cultivation of the Spirit

 Because I am both an individual and a collective part of the life force that moves, propels, and governs the universe, I have serious responsibilities including acting and behaving in ways that sustain life in all its forms.  I have an individual responsibility to do this.  To this end, I resolve to perfect the spiritual dimension of my being because it is in this pursuit that I can discover and fulfill my unique destiny in the larger cosmic plan whose details remain unknown, but whose intent seems clear — the promotion of an evolutionary harmony, balance, and synergy among all life forms.  To this end, I intend to do all I can to fulfill and actualize my potential as a human being conscious of the power of choice and conscious of the virtue of cultivating the enduring life values of peace, beauty, truth, justice, and civility.

 3.       Living in the Passions of Our Time

 Because spiritual maturity and perfection must be pursued through behavior, I resolve to actively participate in the world in which I live, and to be a force for life through the conscious support of those people, ideas, and institutions that serve life through humanistic action.  To this end, I intend to live within the passions of my time, and not to be a passive bystander.  I intend to make a difference in solving those life problems and challenges I can, whether they be big or small, using whenever possible the very energies generated by these challenges to derive my strength and determination.

4.       Promoting Life

Because humanistic action is a pathway to spiritual perfection, and because the pursuit of spiritual perfection is the pathway revealing my place and role in the larger cosmic destiny and order, I resolve to commit myself to those beliefs and actions that will illuminate, affirm, and promote the value and power of life, including: (1) A recognition of the interdependency of all things; (2) A recognition of the importance of the process or way we do things rather than simply the product or outcome; (3) A recognition of the importance of promoting inner and outer peace as a means of promoting and preserving life; (4) An appreciation of beauty in all its manifestations and forms and, (5) A fostering of the impulse to penetrate into the nature of things for the sheer delight of inquiry, without any need to conquer or to subdue that which is learned.

5.       Constant Renewal

Because the spiritual dimension of life is at once the most self-evident dimension of our being, and simultaneously the most hidden and mysterious, I resolve to constantly acknowledge my spiritual nature, to revel in it, to preserve it, and to renew it, so all of my thoughts and behaviors will reflect and appreciate the simple yet profound joy of this truth.

* These guidelines were first published as part of other articles in Marsella, A.J. (1994).  Making important new year resolutions.  Honolulu Star Bulletin, December 30, p. 10; Marsella, A.J. (1999).  In search of meaning: Some thoughts on belief, doubt, and wellbeing. The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 18, 41-52, and finally in March, 2011 in TRANSCEND Media Service-TMS.


Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a  member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Dec 2013.

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