3. Spiritual Practice

Christian churches talk about "making disciples." What they mean by this, when the particularities of Christian doctrine are removed, is a process for helping people become more mature:
  • spiritually;
  • emotionally;
  • ethically.
Unitarian Universalists are interested in this, too!

The path of transformation entails spiritual practice.

We might start a spiritual practice wanting our spiritual muscles strong, toned, trim, and limber. If we do keep at it, we might gradually come to see that there's nothing to attain – except the knowledge that there’s nothing to attain. A visitor to a Zen center heard the master give dharma talk. In the talk, the master spoke of how Zen really about being ordinary. Afterwards the visitor asked the master, “Ordinary? So, then, what is the difference between you and me?” The master said, “There is no difference – only, I know that.”

We do the practice not to attain something. We do the practice just to do the practice. Dish-washing becomes spiritual practice when it is done just to be doing it. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:
"There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes."
With the second way, dish-washing is a spiritual practice; with the first way, it is not. There are many, many forms of spiritual practice. The traditional idea of spiritual practice in the West has been Bible study and prayer. Possible spiritual practices also include:
  • yoga
  • martial arts
  • social action / charitable giving
  • vegetarianism
  • living simply
  • cooking
  • eating
  • not eating (fasting)
  • quilting or knitting
  • painting or sculpting
  • dancing
  • gardening
  • long-distance running
  • hiking in the woods
  • walking along the beach
  • playing a musical instrument or singing
  • listening attentively to music
This is only a suggestive "starter" list. Many other activities and intentional commitments might be spiritual practices. 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. If we invite ourselves to equanimity as we undertake the activity, or if the commitment brings attention to compassion, or if we find the activity a vehicle for self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification, then it can be, for us, a spiritual practice.

At the same time, none of these activities is necessarily or inherently spiritual. Bible study for the purpose of getting an "A" in a Bible class is not a spiritual practice. Nor is a "prayer" asking God for a Mercedes Benz.

Not Goal Directed. 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. Purpose invites judgment about accomplishment or not. Later on, though, it's OK for your practice to include a goal: as long as the goal isn't really the reason you're engaging in the practice. For example, it's OK to give some notice to whether or not the dishes are getting clean as long as your real reason for washing them isn't to get them clean . . . but just to wash them. Any hint of being upset or disappointed if the goal isn't met indicates the activity isn't a spiritual practice.

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 spiritual practice. If it helps you nonjudgmentally affirm and appreciate reality just as it is, then I'd call it a spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice is the place in your life where you are liberated from your own judgmentalism, freed from the pursuit of goals and purposes, and allowed to bask in just being.

Whatever you may choose as your individual spiritual practice, there are some supporting practices that will help infuse more of your life with more of the nonjudgmental feeling you have when you're engaged in that individual spiritual practice. That is: you might begin with a spiritual practice that few others have. One hundred members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation might begin with one hundred different spiritual practices. Spiritual practice can be highly individualized. The supporting spiritual practices, however, are for everyone.

We need habits. Habits are what guide our actions when we don't have time to think it all out from scratch and reach a calm, deliberate decision. The secondary, support practices help us develop the habits of equanimity, peace, compassion, wisdom, and insight. These five supplemental practices will provide a foundation for your "primary" practice.

Your "primary" spiritual practice might be unique to you. These five supporting practices are universal -- people in diverse cultures and times find that they strengthen and extend one's spiritual practice and increase "spiritual fitness." The five are: journal, read, be silent, go to group, and be mindful.
    1. Journaling. 15 minutes a day.

    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. (My further reflections on journaling: click here.)

    2. Studying "Scripture" -- with a very wide understanding of "scripture." Again, 15 minutes a day.

    Select a text of “wisdom literature.” The scriptures of any of the world’s religions are worthy texts for spiritual study. The Dao De Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hebrew Bible's book of Psalms are wonderful places to start. 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, 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. Another 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 is better. Go weekly, if you can manage it.

    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.
    "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." (John Lennon)
    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.

    These are not the practices that will make you and me perfect. We're already perfect. They might not change anything at all -- and that's going to be discouraging for that judging mind that wants results.

    My intention is for my Judging Mind to just do its job and stop being such a totalitarian tyrant. I can't make that happen, I can only keep inviting Judging Mind, over and over, day after day, year after year, to step aside when its work isn't needed.

    My faith is that an awakened life is possible. I am called toward that possibility -- not because it's better -- that would be a judgment -- but just because it is who I am. You?

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