What is a Spiritual Practice?
All cultures and civilizations around the globe have some form or expression of Faith contained in them. Spirituality is clearly a component of being human. But what does it mean to be spiritual? More importantly, at least in the context of this blog/conversation, what does it mean to have a Spiritual Practice?
Here are some common questions I hear about Spiritual Practice:
- Does it require a belief in God?
- Do you have to be religious or a part of a religious community to engage in one?
- Does it have to include prayer, meditation, or mantra? What about an exploration of scripture, devotion, incense, chimes, crystals, ritual…etc.?
- Can I swear, hunt or eat meat, or maybe even go to war whilst maintaining a spiritual practice?
- Does a Spiritual Practice have to look a certain way or can anything be “Spiritual?”
For me, the answer to these questions is both yes and no. In other words, it depends.
An exploration of “What of Me?”
For something to be considered a Spiritual Practice, for me, it must invite and support the exploration of the question “What of me?” That’s it. It must both invite and support the exploration of “What of me?” If that sounds overly simplistic or unclear, let me explain in greater detail.
The statement “What of me,” at its core, is an invitation to open, to contemplate, and to explore expansion into the present moment. There are many ways to ask the question “What of me?” In the context of Spiritual Practice, you could ask it in any of the following ways:
- “What is this circumstance asking of me?”
- “How can I meet this challenge with an open heart?”
- “What would expanding into this moment look like?”
- “If I surrender to what is, how will this move me or change me?”
- “What is this situation evolving in and/or through me?”
If you read the language in these statements carefully, you’ll notice that they are all open-ended questions. In other words, they don’t have a clear or exact answer. You may also notice they imply there is a response to the question. That they imply a response, to me, is connected to the foundation of what makes this a “spiritual” practice (as opposed to just a practice or a good strategy for dealing with any circumstance). One could also start to include the word “faith” in the description of a Spiritual Practice when implying there is a response, although I’m not convinced that it’s required (more on this later).
Being a Victim of Life vs. Surrendering
What you’ll also notice in the statements above is that they totally lack of expressions of “Why me?” At its essence, “Why me?” is a victim statement. Other ways to say “Why Me” could include:
- Why is this happening to me?
- Why am I not as good/attractive/influential as others?
- Why is life unfair?
- Why can’t things be easier?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Why? Why? Why?
Part of the problem with these questions is they are seeking answers to questions that can never truly be answered, at least not in a satisfying way. “Why me” asks for an explanation or for a reason as to why things happen, whereas “What of me” invites exploration: A contemplation of what quality of engagement is being invited in this present moment. Answer/explanation vs. Quality of engagement. “What of me” is what I like to call a radical affirmation of reality. It invites you to develop your understanding of how to meet this moment in a way that makes life meaningful and gives it purpose. By developing the practice of asking “what of me” in response to life circumstance, you are developing a mechanism of Spiritual inquiry. I would call this a mechanism “devotion.” I’m not sure if devotion is required to engage in a Spiritual Practice, but for me it is.
A Fall Not From, But Into Grace
Let me give you a personal example to illustrate what I am talking about.
As a bold and adventurous 4-year-old, I thought it would be fun to climb on the railing of my porch – to feel the excitement of being high up, and maybe to show off a bit. The result of this decision was while standing on the railing, I lost my balance and fell on my head, which resulted in a brain injury and a fractured cervical spine. In that brief moment, life went from “full of possibilities” to “painful and disorienting.” Life became a blur for me. From age 5 to 25 I was in constant pain. I struggled to be able to focus, I did poorly at school and in sports, and worst of all, I had no idea I was suffering. When I started practicing Yoga at age 25, I became aware of the pain and trauma I was holding in my body, and once again my life changed.
If I was to have explored falling on my head from a “why me” perspective, I would have probably had thoughts like:
- “Why did this happen to me?”
- “Why didn’t my parents take better care of me?”
- “Why would God let such a young person experience so much pain and suffering?”
- “It’s not fair that this happened to me, and that others don’t have to deal with so much pain.”
- “Because of this fall, my life has been ruined…”
But I didn’t really explore any these thoughts. Because this accident happened when I was so young, I wasn’t aware of how much pain I was in or that life could feel any different. It just felt normal to be uncomfortable and unable to focus. As I have since learned, while pain is a part of life, it’s not “normal” to experience so much of it and at such a young age.
This experience had a profound and defining influence on my life. This is where my exploration of Spiritual Practice began.
By choosing to engage with my accident from a “what of me” perspective, my life has unfolded in wonderful and transformative ways. I don’t wish circumstances had been different. In fact, I’m grateful for what life has offered me. Instead of becoming a victim of my accident, here are some of the things I have accomplished:
- I got a degree in Physical Education and Education: to learn how to play sports and to find a way to make learning fun and accessible.
- I became a school teacher. School was the place I hated most in the world, and now I have experienced it as a place of learning, acceptance and connection.
- I became a Yoga Teacher.
- I opened several successful Yoga Studios and taught hundreds to become empathetic and skillful Yoga Teachers.
- Developed a comprehensive understanding of the human body and how to work with it skillfully. I also developed a deep empathetic understanding of physical pain and suffering in others.
- Developed a daily practice to deal with my chronic pain. This includes developing a novel approach to Yoga that has helped me to honour my body as it is rather than impose on it and demand it be different.
While the event of falling on my head and breaking my neck could have “ruined” my life, it instead inspired a life that I now love. It also inspired a life that I wouldn’t likely have otherwise explored. By embracing the healing opportunity presented through my accident, it has taught me the power of committing to and developing a Spiritual Practice. When you say yes to what is, when you explore practices that help you to meet and expand into the present moment, a new life and new possibilities are given space to emerge from what could have otherwise been a tragic situation.
The Paradox of Tragedy
That’s not to say there isn’t tragedy in life. There is, and that is part of the paradox of Spiritual Practice. Being in pain sucks and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies, and yet…I’m profoundly grateful for what this circumstance has offered my life. At the very least, surrendering to what is is a good strategy for finding opportunity in difficult situations. However, for me, Spiritual Practice is more than just a good idea. It’s an act of faith: A deep trust that there is meaning in life and a profound belief that there is a divine wisdom/intelligence inherent in all things. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure that that faith is required to call something a Spiritual Practice. However, faith moves me and helps inspire how I engage in each and every moment.
So, what is a Spiritual Practice? If sitting in contemplation and meditating expands your understanding of “what of me?” then I would consider that contemplation to be a Spiritual Practice. If meeting your body in Yoga, be it in an injured or energetic state, inspires the contemplation of “how is this moment offering me something valuable or of meaning?” Then it is a Spiritual Practice. If surfing through the waves or hanging on the side of a cliff inspires awe and a deeper connection to what is, then that, to me, is a Spiritual Practice.
Guidelines for Practice
While many things can be Spiritual Practices, there are a few guidelines I suggest to help support deepening your understanding of “what of me?”
- Solitude: while not always required, solitude supports a more intimate relationship with “what of me.” Solitude promotes introspection and finding the answers you have access to from within.
- Consistency/regularity: Doing something repeatedly over time helps to deepen the relationship and connection with what you are doing. Ideally, Spiritual Practice is a daily practice.
- Introspection and Contemplation: Be it active or passive, introspection/contemplation is also essential for creating space to allow for arisings in your awareness and in your understanding. Ask open-ended questions and then allow space for answers to come to you.
- Connecting to what is: Expressions in the present moment – Breath, physical sensations in the body and nature – are powerful ways to commune with what is. When you focus on what is present, you become more present.
- Prayer and devotion: While not required, prayer and devotion can support you to align and opening your energy to divine possibilities. When I pray, I don’t ask God to fix or give me things. Instead, I ask for support in meeting my present circumstances with an open heart, willingness and with an awareness of what will support the highest good for all.
- Be willing: Willingness, for me, is the most important ingredient in all of healing. You don’t have to know how, you don’t have to know why, but if you are willing you will find a way. I believe there is a famous expression that speaks to this.
Are there Spiritual Practices have you embraced in your life? Does devotion or belief in a higher power inspire you? Have you been moved or changed through the events that have happened in your life? Or do you get stuck in “why me” contemplations of life? I’d love to hear and know more. Comment below if you’re interested in exploring this conversation.