When on life’s path we are all likely to be blown off course by the myriad unsettling and distracting things in the world in which we live. By worries and stress to do with, for example, gaining social esteem, earning a living, keeping friends, or finding a mate. And so you may be thinking that you need a regular spiritual practice of some kind to calm your mind and discipline your life.
A spiritual practice is a repeated activity or exercise that re-awakens deeper experience and provides a connection to the energy in the universe – the higher power that revitalises us and sustains our journey.
Range of spiritual practice available
There are many kinds of spiritual practice available – each offering a sense of well-being and inner growth. For example there are several kinds of complementary medicine, meditation, and yoga which can incorporate a spiritual dimension. Also I could mention the spiritual disciplines taught by each of the world’s religions.
Whatever the beliefs associated with them, each spiritual practice claims to help us get in touch with what we are – spiritual beings. Underlying what seems to be differences, in for example schools of meditation, is a single aim – the realisation of a higher consciousness: one resulting from withdrawal of attention from distracting matters in the mind. This chimes with our deepest need to find a shift in attention away from the mundane and ordinary side of life to a focus on a source of energy that is timeless and profoundly satisfying.
“Once experienced it flows through our lives to heal, empower, and inspire creativity and wisdom. It gives us well-being and enables us to be truly alive.” (Paul Heelas, a British sociologist and anthropologist.)
But given all the demand on our time, we need to make a choice. Which activity is going to help the most?
Pragmatic choice of a spiritual practice
Each spiritual practice is related to a certain secular or religious belief. Ideas which you may be unsure about. Roger Walsh (Australian academic in psychiatry, philosophy and anthropology) has pointed out that religions contain an enormous amount of popular nonsense but they also contain a core of wisdom and spiritual practice of remarkable transformative power.
You may choose an activity on the basis of the spiritual teaching associated with it. But, on the other hand, you may pragmatically opt for a regular practice that bears the most fruit regardless of the tradition from which it comes.
Individual appropriateness of a spiritual practice
What helps one person most may not be what helps another. The question becomes what spiritual practice would work best for you? Although they all have a common aim each can be thought to help spiritual development in a specific way.
What follows are a few of the particular manners our spirituality can be fostered. I suggest examples of an applicable spiritual exercise or practice for each.
Of course, this short list just touches the surface of this fascinating field. However, whatever distance so far travelled on one’s passage through life, one can find the best spiritual practice. A regular activity that will catch the eye as being of particular personal relevance at this time.
Balancing bodily energy
Controlling the breathing as in Pranyama. Meeting and re-directing force with softness as in Tai Chi.
Gaining self-awareness and self-knowledge
Keeping a personal self-reflective journal. Attending a silent retreat. Undergoing a course of spiritual counselling.
Bringing to mind one’s ideals
Making a weekly written reminder of one’s principles, highest values & aims in life.
Disengaging from useless ‘mind chatter’
Emptying the mind of its clutter through a form of concentration meditation. Practising present moment awareness using MBSR (Mindfullness Based Stress Reduction) meditation.
Recognising the sacred in all things
Reciting daily affirmations concerning the good in nature or people. Religious believers could recite devotional prayers focused on their faith in creation and divine providence.
Making regular charitable donations. Committing oneself to working a few hours a week doing voluntary service.
Developing wisdom and understanding of life
Reading & reflecting on sacred writing on a daily basis. Concentrating the mind on and exploring a profound idea.
Accepting need for personal change
Undertaking self-examination and saying a regular confessional prayer.
Practising specific changes in behaviour
Each week trying out a different spiritual characteristic (such as gratitude, patience, forgiveness, or playfulness)
Co-operating with a higher power
Repetition of a divine name. Praying daily to God asking for help
Ascetic practices involve renouncing material possessions, bodily pleasures and fame. Fasting, sex abstinence, and living in very sparse conditions come to mind. I would challenge the extreme body-denying aspects of ascetic practices. Surely meeting our natural needs is only good as long as this does not mean over-riding the spiritual side of life. If so, moderation in all things seems to me to be a good motto.
An example of a straightforward spiritual practice
The way one eats one’s food can be viewed as a spiritual practice. There is an opportunity to pause before eating in order to offer thanks for what is received, to acknowledge those who grew and prepared the food, and to invite friends to share food with one. This is in contrast to the current culture with its hurried lifestyle encouraging drive through fast food establishments, greeting a cashier as a functionary, and devouring food in a isolation whilst driving to one’s next appointment.
Dietrich Bonhoffer (German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident) criticised ‘cheap grace’ i.e. grace and forgiveness without repentance and discipleship. In other words acknowledgement of one’s faults, without any heartfelt desire to change one’s behaviour or effort to do so, is no good. It is mere hypocrisy.
In cultivating deeper experiences and spiritual growth, the best practice is the one that is best for each of us. It depends on what we each need at any point in terms of developing inner peace, enlightenment of ideas, liberation or salvation from all that is bad that holds us captive, or communion with our Divine Source.
Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems