Why Follow a Spiritual Practice?
There are groups who follow spiritual practices together. Some people practice disciplines they have followed all their lives, but do not know why.
There are people who follow practices because “that is how we have always done it.” Some people were brought up with particular traditions and continue following them. They persist in practices their parents taught them even when they have little spiritual power for them. Other people explore new practices because they think they might be interesting, or comfortable.
I know people for whom their practices become burdens and obstacles. They may not want to miss a day or a week of one of their disciplines. Missing, or cutting time short, can be a source of guilt and shame for them.
The very behavior intended to strengthen spiritual life in them actually weakens it.
New practices emerge every day. Someone creatively decides acting in a certain way will help them, and they begin practicing.
Ancient Spiritual Practices
There are practices or disciplines which people have followed for hundreds of years. While ancient practices have varied forms in different religious traditions, some things are consistent. There are seven ancient practices in my own tradition. Three practices tend to focus on the spirituality of how we understand our physical needs. These are fasting, giving tithes and alms, and sharing a sacred meal. Three other practices focus more on how we relate to time and our schedules. These are prayer and contemplation at set times during the day, taking a Sabbath rest, and a liturgical year. The seventh ancient practice, pilgrimage, tends to bring our bodies and our time together.
Many more recent practices apply and combine these ancient practices in creative ways.
What is the Point?
People often become interested in a spiritual practice or practices to strengthen their spiritual life. They understand the idea of spiritual disciplines to be like physical exercise. People want to build up muscle in certain parts of their spiritual lives. They may seek out a spiritual director or mentor to help them get into better spiritual shape.
It is easy to approach spiritual disciplines like a checklist. We want to make sure we have touched all the bases and experienced all the practices. Some people see spiritual practices as ways to earn more spiritual points, boosting their scores. They see themselves as becoming more spiritual by following a specific set of practices. It is as if they see a range of spirituality with people following more practices getting higher scores.
There is value in developing and following spiritual practices. They do not, though, allow you to work your way through a series of exercises into spiritual power.
The point of spiritual practices is much deeper, and more important, than that.
Opportunities for Awareness
When I exercise, I might focus on finishing. My attitude is to complete exercising as soon as possible and go do something else.
People often approach spiritual disciplines the way I approach exercising physically. They have committed themselves to spending a certain amount of time, and they will. Their commitment is a promise to themselves, or God, they will practice so many times a week. They are determined to keep their promises, no matter how much it punishes them.
Their spiritual practices become things they are required to do. This may be the opposite of the point of spiritual disciplines.
Time spent on spiritual practices is intended to be an interruption, a pause in our regular schedules. We are not, though, committing ourselves just so we can make ourselves feel more guilty. Our practices are not time set aside just to make life more difficult.
We practice spiritual disciplines to remind ourselves we are aware. It is easy for us get caught up in meeting deadlines and accomplishing goals we set for ourselves. There are deeper truths to which we need to be reawakened.
When I focus my attention on staying on schedule, it is easy to forget how spiritual life works. Taking a scheduled break from that schedule to reflect or pray helps me stay awake.
Spiritual practices are how we restore awareness when we get too distracted by other things.
What Are We Searching For?
Some people assume spiritual life keeps us following “the straight and narrow.” They think strong spiritual life tells us the right ways to behave. Other people assume spiritual life is more about what we believe than how we act. People may be convinced spiritual life is how we discover the right answers to life’s questions.
Spiritual life, though, is not as simple as that.
Spiritual disciplines are more complex than checklists because spiritual life is. More than a set of rules about how to behave or how to think, spiritual life is a relationship.
It can feel extremely complicated to learn how to relate to someone else. In the same way, spiritual life can seem complicated. Spiritual life is a relationship between complex human beings and the deeply Sacred.
Whether you call that Sacredness God, or Allah, or hold it in silence, it is still with us. We are immersed in and saturated by Sacred truth.
It takes us years of study, trial and error, to learn how to relate to the physical universe. Some of us spend decades learning how to live our emotional or financial lives. There is a sense in which, when we get to a point where we think we understand, we just are beginning. Why would spiritual life be different?
We practice, building understanding and strength. Our disciplines give us experience and remind us we are aware. As we continue to practice we experience an assurance of spiritual life we cannot explain.
Spiritual life around us, and in us, draws us toward it. As we practice we grow into our awakening awareness. We are searching for our next step.
When do other things distract you from awareness of spiritual life?
How do you remind yourself to be awake and aware?
[Image by Gerry Dincher]