If you're new to the concept of spiritual practice, I recommend beginning with an activity that is as utterly without a goal or purpose as possible. Remember: it’s about who you are, not about attaining something. Only then, as the poem said, will you "attain the good you will not attain" ("The Envoy of Mr Cogito" HERE). Purpose invites judgment about accomplishment or not. So think about something you do just to be doing it, something you do without thinking about achieving anything, without thinking about whether you're doing it the way you supposedly should be doing it. There's your primary spiritual practice.
Any number of things can be spiritual practices if they are approached with a deliberate intention to get out of our judging mind for a while, and just accept, affirm, and appreciate: yoga, martial arts, social action, charitable giving, cooking, eating, not eating (fasting), quilting, knitting, painting, sculpting, dancing, gardening, long-distance running, hiking in the woods, walking along the beach, playing a musical instrument, singing, listening attentively to music. Any of these might be your primary spiritual practice – your initial doorway in to cultivating nonjudgmental acceptance and having a place of peace.
Whatever your primary spiritual practice is, I want to suggest five supplemental practices that will provide a foundation for it. We might, every one of us, have a different primary practice, and what works for one person might not for another. But these secondary supporting practices are universal. They’re for everyone. They will strengthen and extend your spiritual practice and increase "spiritual fitness."
- Be Silent
- Go to Group
- Be Mindful
There are many different approaches to journaling. Here's a simple starter plan. Six days a week, “just keep the pen moving.” Write whatever comes to mind for 15 minutes. Then, on the seventh day, list in your journal five things that week that you are grateful for. Noticing is the key to spiritual acceptance, and writing down whatever comes to your mind is helpful for noticing what is alive in you.
2. Studying. 15 minutes a day.
Select worthy texts of “wisdom literature.” The scriptures of any of the world’s religions are wonderful: the Dao De Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hebrew Bible's book of Psalms. Also worthy would be books like Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, or reflections like Thomas Merton's, or poems of Rumi, Hafiz, or Kabir, or writings by St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Any of these will do nicely. Choose works that resonate with you, that will coach you in the ways of wise and loving peace, and commit to study them a few minutes every day. Such study gives us concepts to knock out our concepts. Study of a spiritual text enlists your cognitive capacity to assist your spiritual. We live through our days full of ideas and concepts -- and most of them are connected to some form of judgment, some form of not wanting things to be as they are. Wisdom literature helps give us some concepts that can nudge some of those other concepts a little bit into the background more often.
3. Silence. 15 minutes a day.
I know this is adding up -- and, gosh, aren't we all too busy anyway? Who has time for stuff that has no purpose? If your quest for peace is urgent, you do. If it isn't, you don't.
Find a posture that will allow you to remain still. Bring attention to your breath. When (not if) your thoughts wander, simply notice where they wandered to and return to your breath. This simple practice begins to cultivate awareness of your own thoughts – and helps you get to know the true person you are that is so much more than just your thoughts.
4. Group practice. Monthly is good. Bi-weekly or weekly can be even better.
A group that shares in your primary spiritual practice, whatever it may be, is a great boon for deepening in that practice. If walking on the beach is where you have had the best luck experiencing serenity, get together a beach-walking group -- in addition to having some time to walk alone. If it's cooking, get in a cooking club -- only, be sure it's a cooking club that intentionally approaches cooking in a spiritual way. Just as study helped enlist your cognitive to assist your spiritual, the group experience enlists your social brain on behalf of the spiritual. And that helps invite the spiritual to infuse more of your life. It's so important to know that you're not going it alone!
5. Minduflness. Continuously.
You won't be able to be continuously mindful. Still, try. Resolve to be continuously mindful, and remind yourself of your resolve every time you notice it has waned. Develop the habit of bringing yourself back to the present moment whenever you find that you’re somewhere else. The mind loves to spend its time going back and forth between two places: the past and future. If you let it, your mind will spend all day alternating between dwelling in the past and projecting into the future. Your life, however, is RIGHT NOW. If you're somewhere else -- the past or the future -- you'll miss it. And most of us, most of the time, are somewhere else. As John Lennon sang:
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."In the children's story, "Stone Soup," a traveler comes to town. He claims to have a magical stone that, when cooked in water, will produce nutritious soup. "But it will be even better if we add a little potato," he says. The traveler proceeds to coax the villagers to add cabbage, onions, carrots, etc.
In the end, the stone didn't really add anything. Or did it? The stone was the starter without which the other ingredients would not have been brought to the pot. That's pretty potent magic.
Like that traveler, I suggested adding five "secondary, supporting" ingredients -- nice additional enhancements. Yet if you'll keep the pot cooking, over time, these "secondary" practices will make the soup. Your primary practice -- the first ingredient -- may turn out to be the stone. Its magic was that it got you started on a path of courage – courageously letting go of the addiction to accomplishing things.
From the standpoint of the world’s usual way of valuing things, it’s "a city of ashes." Yet it is also "the kingdom without limit." Go into that dark realm from which you may yet bring forth the light that matters behind all the glitter that doesn’t. Go because only in this way can you be a "defender of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes."
"Be faithful. Go."* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Spiritual Practice"
Previous: Part 3: "A Bit More Accident Prone"
Beginning: Part 1: "Courage and Uselessness"