What are Spiritual Practices?
First things first. What is spirituality, and what are spiritual practices? Spirituality historically had to do with practices that sought to reshape, or reform human beings into either their original form (harkening back to the Jewish story of creation), or their telos (the fulfillment of their nature.) But most modern people, when they talk about spirituality, are referring to anything and everything having to do with their spiritual, emotional and even mental health and well being.
Spiritual practices then, and now, are basically exercise. They are the ways we strengthen, renew, or otherwise shape our inner spiritual landscape. You could (if you like) think of them as practices that uncover your original nature (my tradition says we are all made in the image and likeness of God), or perfect and shape your soul/spirit. Spiritual practices, like any practice, will hopefully lead us to spiritual growth. To becoming more spiritually mature human beings.
There’s evidence that ancient people with their spiritual practices knew what the heck they were doing. Neuroscience has confirmed that the things we do, over and over again, actually reshape our brains. Physically our behavior rewires our brains, spiritual development changes us.
Spiritual Growth & Modern Life
Spiritual practices are important. Strengthening and stretching our bodies as best we can helps keep them healthy. And strengthening and stretching our spiritual selves is also importance for our long term fitness.
But, if you are like me you might want to be spray, meditate, or do other spiritual practices; but your busy hectic life makes that seem impossible. I hear you. Or maybe you’re sick and tired of new age bullshit, or of traditional narrow practices (both have their issues). I feel you. Starting a spiritual practice isn’t always easy but it is rewarding and there are ways to getting started that will set you up for success in the future. And the good news is, there is something for everybody.
Step One to Add A New Practice: Put Things Down
So first things first, there’s something you really need to do before you start anything else. Put down the guilt. If you’re like me you’ve tried some sort of spiritual practice in the past. No matter how successful you were for a while it eventually fizzled and died.
You’ve likely also got lots of cultural stuff telling you what you should be doing.
- You should be reading scripture everyday
- You should be praying for everyone who has ever asked for it
- Meditation should start and end your day
- Hey, why are you reading that romance when you could be deepening your faith?
- You get the idea.
I find guilt to be a lousy motivator, I’ve talked about that before and I’ll say it again: guilt and shame don’t actually lead to transformation. They might give us a short term kick in the pants, but once we’ve gone numb to them, or the immediate issue is past, they lose their power. So let go the guilt, it’s not doing you any good.
Make Room for Spiritual Disciplines
Here’s the other reason you need to set things down: to make room. If you want to start a new thing (any new thing) something has to give. Either you’ve got to give up an episode of your Netflix show each evening, or get up ten minutes earlier but you absolutely need to make intentional time in your schedule for the new thing. If you just try to jam something new into your life without making room for it you will fail.
I’m a planner, if something isn’t on my calendar it isn’t likely to happen. I suggest that as you start a spiritual practice you schedule it on your calendar for at least the first few weeks. This keeps you accountable, keeps it in the front of your mind, and ensures that your full and crazy life doesn’t take over. I created a checklist for use in planning to help me remember!
Step Two: Take it Slow
Don’t be like me, don’t dive into the deep end of the pool and just assume you’ll be able to swim. Start slowly. One of my most successful spiritual practices was when I added meditation to my evening routine. Part of the reason it was so successful is that I started slowly. I used a timer app on my phone and started with just three minutes of meditation. Let me tell you, for the first few days those three minutes lasted forever.
But soon five minutes didn’t feel that long, and then ten, and finally I was spending twenty minutes meditating. It happened naturally, over a few weeks. My evening just sort of adjusted without much interruption. When you are thinking of how to start a spiritual practice think about how you start an exercise routine. You don’t go from couch potato to running a marathon in one day. The same truth applies.
Step Three: Play to your strengths
When trying to decide how to start a spiritual practice think about what you enjoy, what you are good at, and what comes easily to you. If you love to read, consider making spiritual reading your first practice. Does that sound too easy? Spirituality doesn’t have to be hard, it’s not about making ourselves suffer! There’s nothing wrong with doing things you enjoy, or that come easily to you. Your chances of sticking with it are much higher, and you will get something out of it. (Continue reading about spiritual practices and personality types right here.)
On the other hand you may want to think about what’s hardest for you. If you are someone who struggles with silence because of what it forces you to face internally then silent sitting meditation might be what you need. Here’s the caveat that goes with that: you may need help. If you’ve got serious trauma in your past, or other issues you haven’t dealt with pushing yourself may bring them to a head. Get help if needed. Find a trusted friend, spiritual mentor, or a counselor or therapist to talk to. There is no shame in having help along the way, it’s part of being human.
And be gentle with yourself. If you have never been able to sit still to meditate start slow and give yourself a lot of grace. And again, look for help if needed. Sometimes I simply cannot sit still and meditate or pray. I need to move, I need to burn off anxious energy. Yoga helps me do that, by the end of a good yoga session I can meditate in shavasana without issue. There’s no shame in that either!
Step Four: Just Do It (And Do It Again)
It’s tempting to put off starting a new spiritual practice until the time is “right.” Until your schedule is clear, or you’ve finished a big project, or your health gets better, etc. But the truth is the right time won’t come. There’s always a reason why now isn’t a good time. So just start, wherever you are and however you can. Your practice will never be perfect, neither will your life so do what you can now.
The same is true when it all falls apart. You’ll forget to pray for a week, you’ll get busy and not do your daily reading, you’ll get a cold and won’t make it to yoga for two weeks. When you realize what has happened just start again right wherever you are. You are human, you will fail. Start over, learn something, and keep going. You win every time you start.
Spirituality & Practice: The List
There are as many spiritual disciplines as there are people in the world. You could do something different every day, but you won’t reap as much benefit as devoting yourself to a single practice. A spiritual life is not about a one off experience, but about a life long journey. The path is different for us all, but it is still a path!
I’ve listed below some of the most popular (as well as some you might not have heard of) spiritual practices. Pick just one for now! You can always add more practices to your life later.
- Daily scripture reading (mix it up, try reading from another tradition and get together with a friend of that faith to talk about it.)
- Spiritual reading daily (similar to the above but not necessarily scripture.) Read spiritual books. Read biographies, read history. Expand your understanding, be curious. A great one to do with a friend or two.
- Morning prayer. Start your day with thankfulness, attention to the needs of the world, and listening to the Holy.
- Evening Prayer/Compline. Try ending your day with set prayers that help you set things aside, find peace, and rest.
- Meditate. Take quiet time to listen and grow still. Get comfortable in your own mind. You may have to extend yourself a lot of grace but that too is a spiritual practice.
- Yoga or other Movement Meditation. (Walking, hiking, martial arts, the sky is the limit.) Let exercise move your body to help quiet your mind. Also: offer your bodily work as a thank offering for the One who gave you that body!
- Visual Journaling or other Spiritual Journaling. Explore your own interior life, and write your prayers. A Journal can be a divine love letter, a spiritual advisor, and more.
- Doodling or Coloring. That’s right, with crayons (or markers, or pencils). A great way to make your prayers seem more concrete, take your doodle with you as a visual reminder of what is on your heart.
- Make Art. Making beautiful art (not I didn’t say good, this isn’t a contest, it’s holiness) is a sure way to connect, and help others connect to the divine. (Anything goes, finger paint, photography, brush work, have fun!)
- Cook/Gather. There is little as close to the Holiness at the heart of all things as feeding people. Cook something for yourself, for others, and not only do you create but you share that creation. Gather together, spend time, what you eat or how fancy your table setting is doesn’t matter.
- Write poetry. Seriously, write bad poems. Poetry frees you from things like sentence structure, punctuation, and just about all the rules. Or if you chose something other than free verse it gives you rules that might help you say what you don’t know how to put into words.
- Fasting. Nearly all spiritual traditions use fasting in one form or another. It is often a misunderstood practice, the goal of fasting is not to punish the body.
- Arrow Prayers. Make it a practice throughout your day to stop and lift up the needs and concerns of that moment. Make it something easy to remember like every time you unlock your cell phone, or every time you get into or out of your car. Just little bits of mindfulness and offering throughout the day.
- Dance. Yes, dance. People have been expressing themselves and connecting to Mystery for thousands of years through music and dance. No need to be a ‘good’ dancer, it’s about movement, feel, and expression.
- Sabbath. I’ve written about this one but it’s an absolutely essential spiritual practice for me and many others. There’s nothing quite so counter cultural, quite so powerful as stopping for a whole day (or even just a few hours to start.)
- Nature. Get out into the natural world, even if it’s just sitting in your garden or starting some plants in a windowsill. Spend time with things that grow toward the light, with the seasons.
- Praying the hours. This comes from the Christian monastic tradition but most religions have a similar practice. At set times throughout the day you pause and pray. You can use the same set prayers for each time of the day, or you can use it as an opportunity to pray whatever is on your mind at that moment. Set a reminder on your phone, or block out time on your calendar to make it as easy as possible. (I suggest starting with morning, noon, and bed-time.)
- Incorporate mindfulness activities into your everyday life. Mindfulness doesn’t have to take up time, it is instead a way of doing things that can be woven into everything we do. For the busy person mindfulness is one of the best practices out there.
- Christian Meditation. Yes, Christians can meditate! (Heck meditation is really for any and all and my article on it is applicable to everyone so if you’ve thought about starting a meditation practice now is a great time to start.
- Six spiritual practices derived from Christian worship, specifically the Eucharist (or communion).
- Seeing beauty (in everything). This is another sort of mindfulness practice, one that fuses wonder and gratitude into our daily life and changes the way we see the world.