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:
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 is 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.
The Innumerable Possibilities for Spiritual Practice
Here's a partial listing of activities that could be spiritual practices:
- using prayer beads;
- attending peace vigils;
- listening to music;
- serving on the congregation’s Board of Trustees;
- walking a labyrinth;
- antiracism work;
- writing letters to the editor;
- cardio kickboxing;
- bath time with your kids;
- taking a bubble bath by yourself;
- saying “hello” to cashiers and clerks;
- teaching RE;
- washing dishes;
- creating sacred space;
- tai chi;
- going to an art museum;
- making pottery;
- attending worship;
- caring for an ailing parent;
- writing haiku;
- playing an instrument;
- playing with children;
- hosting coffee hour;
- having dinner with friends;
- studying astronomy;
- singing in the choir;
- nature walks;
- going to a beach;
- martial arts;
- marching for social change;
- reciting mantras;
- e-mailing your governmental representatives;
- studying evolution.
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.
Four Ways “Something I Do” Becomes “My Spiritual Practice”
- Engage the activity with mindfulness.
- Engage in the activity with intention of thereby cultivating the hallmarks of spirituality. As you do the activity -- or just before and just after -- reflect on your intention to manifest those symptoms of spiritual development in your life.
- Engage the activity with a group that gathers expressly to do the activity in a way that cultivates spirituality. Group members share spiritual reflections before, during, or after doing the activity together.
- Establish a foundation of spiritual orientation through the Three Base Spiritual Practices (below).
Whatever else you might do as a spiritual practice, it will benefit from also taking up these three practices to provide a solid foundation:
- Study. Daily. Choose writings that seem to you to offer spiritual wisdom and insight. Spend some time studying them every day for at least 15 minutes.
- Journal. Daily. Journal about your reflections on spiritual subjects, your experiences of the last day and what they meant to you, and what you're grateful for. Journal every day for at least 15 minutes.
- Silence. Daily. Sit still and quiet. Bring your attention to the sensations of your breath coming in and going out. When thoughts arise, make a note of what sort of thought it was, and then return to awareness of the sensations of breathing. Set aside some time -- at least 15 minutes -- every day to experience stillness and silence.
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.
These three "base practices" are like the soup's 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?
Please see our growing list of good spiritual practices at "Practices of the Week" index: HERE.