What is a Spiritual Practice Anyway?
In a world of instant communication, modern medicine, and scientific discovery you might ask: why spirituality? Might we not (human beings that is) be ready to leave behind such fuzzy things and get on with provable facts? Spirituality and practice might seem outdated. But while our world has changed, human beings still have the same innate needs we always have.
Spirituality, and it’s practice is not a relic of a former age, but an intrinsic part of what makes us human. We humans make meaning. We cannot look at a field of flowers without making connection to something greater than just a field of flowers. We write poems and essays about them; we close our eyes and recreate the summer breezes in our heads through the dark days of winter.
Spiritual practices are like that field of flowers remembered in the winter. They are actions we have taken so many times, meaning we have incorporated into ourselves so often, that when winter comes we still have the field, if in a different way. In other words, spiritual practices change us; they shape us into different kinds of people. And they carry us through the dark winters of our lives.
Foundations, Scaffolds, Ladders
There is an old story about someone who built a house (no, this is not the three little pigs) on sand. When heavy rains came the sand shifted and the house collapsed. Another person, however, build their house on bedrock and when the rains came it stood strong because its foundation was secure.
This could easily be a story about how we build our spiritual lives. Your brain, much like a muscle, can be trained and strengthened through regular practice. This is true of most of what we do, the more we do something the more automatic and easy it becomes (usually).
If you had meditated only once, years ago, and you sat down in the midst of a crisis to meditate you would probably find it no help at all. In fact you might find the experience frustrating and unhelpful. But to assume meditation isn’t helpful from that experience would be misguided.
If instead you had meditated everyday for the last ten years then when that same crisis happened you would probably find your meditation practice gave you a still calm space in the midst of it. Perhaps from that long practice you would be more comfortable waiting, you would find it easier to be quiet and listen. Your practice would have built into your mind/body/spirit certain ways of being that could help carry you through the crisis. (They don’t prevent it, and they probably won’t solve it, but they do give you a solid and familiar structure in the midst of crisis.)
Spirituality practices then have a twofold purpose.
First, they reshape us in the same way any practice does. If you practice the cello for ten years you will learn a new skill, create manual dexterity in your hands and arms, and other lasting changes in your brain and body. Similarly spiritual practices change you. Regular meditation has been shown to have lasting impacts on us, both physically and mentally.
I can tell you that regular meditation practice helps me sleep better, it gives me a quiet ground that makes creativity come more easily, and it changes my relationship with my own inner landscape. In my case it helps me get quiet enough to hear the heartbeat beneath everything, the Divine with whom I am in a constant dance.
And this is the other intent of most practices: to help us connect to something greater than ourselves. Different traditions call this differently. It could be God, or your own original nature, or becoming One with all that is. Either way, somehow, certain practices help us transcend ourselves and connect with something greater.
Spirituality & Practice In Daily Life
When I ask folks what a “spiritual” person looks like a lot of answers lean heavily on our ideas about monks and nuns. We picture the Dalai Lama in his saffron robes, or a nun (in full habit) praying in an ancient church. And while those people are absolutely spiritual, spirituality isn’t for only the isolated professional.
Human beings are spiritual creatures. And whether your know it or not you practice your lived spirituality daily. The question isn’t: are you spiritual, of course you are. The question is: are you awake. Regular intentional spiritual practice helps us wake up, it helps us see the world in a deeper and more authentic way.
If you have ever found yourself wondering if there’s more to life than a job that makes you tired, overscheduled kids, and unending chores (and bills) then you are not alone. Most of us have at least one moment in our lives where we are given that precious chance to break out of the every day and wake up to the ordinary beauty of our lives.
That moment is when we can choose to live out a spirituality of busyness and numbing; or something else.
That doesn’t mean that living an authentic spiritual practice in the midst of a modern life is easy. It isn’t, and there are no shortcuts. There is no crystal that will effortlessly align you with the universe, no workout routine that will conquer your monkey mind.
But it is essential. Not only for ourselves but for our world. We live in a world in which corporations have figured out how to use our own internal reward system against us, how to train us to buy more, and work more, and run more seeking those momentary endorphin hit. The problem of course is that it doesn’t last. The newest gizmo satisfies us for seconds and then it is just one more buzzing reminder of how far behind we’ve fallen, and how much work we have to do.
Here’s the thing about spirituality and spiritual practice: it costs nothing. You don’t need anything but what you were born with. Now, it probably won’t make you any money, it won’t hide your wrinkles, it won’t win you awards or accolades. But I have found that those things pale in comparison to becoming a person at home in my own skin. They are meaningless compared to touching the face of God. They become unimportant when you can see in the world and people around you, Divinity.
Practice, Practice, Practice
And here’s the kicker. Reading about spirituality, and wanting to practice won’t move you a single step down the road. You have to actually sit down on your meditation cushion, or prayer station, or pick up your pen, or your tarot deck, or your prayer beads and practice.
And that may be the hardest part of all. I have written a fairly comprehensive article about what spiritual practices are, and how to take on a bunch of them. And if you explore the Spirituality area of this site you will find weeks worth of reading to enjoy.
But as I have said in other places, the key is to start. You won’t be perfect, that isn’t even the goal, but you have to start. And I know how hard that can be, with all the pressures of modern life. So if you are still struggling to really integrate your spiritual life with your everyday I also offer a course (launching fall 2019) that will walk you through exactly that. Step by step, with a plan to keep you on track and to help you recover when you lose your balance. Click the link here to be the first time know when you can enroll.