When somebody wants you to do something, it all boils down to a couple of simple questions:
Why should I do that?
How do I do that?
So let’s get straight to it. There is something I think you should do. I think you ought to have a spiritual practice. By this I mean that I think meditation and other contemplative actitvies ought to be a part of your life. I have a sense about one effective way to do this. I built my own spiritual practice and helped countless others do the same, through my website, The Faith-ing Project, dozens of email explorations, and a handfull of books.
These practices lead to a way of living in the universe that changes everything. In some ways, it’s analogous to living healthily. On one level, living healthily might be defined as doing the right exercises and eating the right foods. But of course, it’s not really about the specific diet or exercise. Exercise and healthy eating are gateways that give us access to living longer and feeling better.
It’s worth noticing that there are lots of healthy ways to eat. There are many effective physical fitness exercises. After a person learns a few basics, they are prepared to begin choosing meals and exercises that are best for them. It is not different when it comes to building a spiritual practice.
In this book, I will do my best to explain why a person ought to build a spiritual practice.
And I will do my best to explain how a person could build a spiritual practice.
This book is organized this is like a sandwich. The bread? That’s the question of “why.” I will address the question of “why” at both the beginning and the end of this book, much as a sandwhich has bread at the top and the bottom. I will do this because the question of ‘why’ is a complicated one.
As a person builds her spiritual practice, she might, early on, answer that question in a certain way. The opening of this book will deliver some introductory answers to that question. It will hopefully deliver on some reasons to get this process started.
The bottom piece of bread will delve a little deeper. It will explore some answers to the question “why” that I personally would not have been able to come up with when I first started down this path. Some of these will be an explanation of who I am becoming and how I view the world. In some cases it might be hard to see this stuff at all. I hope that by the time we get there, I have earned a little trust from you. It might be that you will take my word for it on some of these things.
(I will probably have lots of this stuff wrong by the way. I imagine if I wrote this book at some point further along in my journey, my ways of looking at the “why” will be quite different.)
Of course, a couple pieces of bread are pretty boring without something to go between them. And it would be a bit of a tease if I shared with you why I think you ought to do a thing with out explaining how it is that you ought to do it. So in the middle of this book, you can expect to find an exploration of how you can build a spiritual practice.
This exploration will address some things that are relevant to nearly every kind of practice. It will also feature a brief exploration of a number of different spiritual exercises a person ought to consider. I don’t think your spiritual practice should look exactly like my spiritual practice. It also shouldn’t look like your neighbors, your spouses, or your parents.
I will do the best I can at exposing you to a number of different possibilities. But humanity has been at this for thousands of years. This book is a place to begin. It is the very first steps. I will offer you a few observations about where and how I think these practices might be effective. But mostly, you will learn what works for you by trying them out.
After you take these first couple steps, you might take a third and a fourth step with the other Faith-ing Project Guides or website. But this is still just the first few steps. I hope, sincerely, that you go deeper. There will be truths I fail to convey. There will be critical details I miss. As you begin to discover the practices that work for you, I hope that you will explore the rich and varied sources that inspired my attempts at potraying them here.
Before we go too much further lets spend a few minutes with some of the words that are likely to pop up along the way. These are words that are often used in these kind of endeavors. It is probably helpful to understand a little something about how I am using them.
Let’s begin with one of the more general terms: contemplation (and of course, all of the related forms of the word like contemplative.) I was thrilled, recently, to discover that the term ‘contemplation’ is related to the word temple. It is obvious once it is pointed out. Most of the letters are sitting there, right in the middle of the word. The prefix, “con” means “with.” On a basic level, then, “contemplation” is related to the way a person might look at the world from inside a temple. The wonderful thing is that the temple is already within us.
More specifically, I will use the word “contemplation” to refer to a broad category of ways of seeing the world, a way of progressing, a way of seeing. There are many ways to contemplate. Two that concern us here are prayer and meditation.
I will use the word “prayer” to mean certain types of contemplative activities which are more or less connected to connection with something bigger than us. Prayer can be a kind of conversation. Most forms of prayer assume a divine listener. A spirit-entity we might (or might not) call God.
I will use the word “meditation.” to mean certain types of contemplative activities which are less word-dependent. Often, in meditation, there will be no assumption of a force above and beyond us.
In a book focused on these two things, it can grow monotonous to use the same 2 words over and over again. As a result, I will sometimes use words like “spiritual exercise” or “practice.” But the word “practice” is a little tricky. I will follow the conventions of language and use it sometimes to mean one specific set of things to do, a form of meditation and prayer. Other times, it has a wider meaning. A practice is also an ongoing comittment to do the best we can. A medical doctor or therapist might discuss their private practice. As a Special Education Teacher, I might refer to my practice, too. By this, I might mean the collection of all the things I do in my class to ensure that students are learning and being safe.
In a wider sense, then, when we discuss a Spiritual Practice we mean something broader than one particular method of meditation or prayer. A spiritual practice in this broad sense is what the title of this book refers to. It is our ongoing promise to ourselves, our plan of which specific prayers and meditations we will engage in on a daily basis.
It is worth noting that reading this book is a bit like dipping a toe into the ocean. This is a vast and wonderful territory. There are some practices we will not explore at all because they are not the sort of things easily expressed in a book. Many of these are spiritual practice which help us to remember the body: dancing, yoga, drumming, and art for example.
There are other spiritual practices which are neither meditation nor prayer. Fasting, giving, and many forms of worship are also spiritual practices which I hope you will explore. But they will not be covered here, either.
In fact, even the practices we begin to explore here will only be introduced briefly. I hope that the brief introductions made here lead to a long standing relationship. Practicing these every day will lead to a deeper relationship. So will going to the source of these practices and exploring them in their spiritual context.
And so if the time we spend together on this journey is short of long, I am thankful for your time and trust on this part of it. Let’s begin with the question of why a person ought to build a spiritual practice at all.
The First Why
Let’s take a look at some reasons we might want to build a spiritual practice.
Last chapter, I shared the idea that a spiritual practice is a regular comittment to meditating and praying. At this point, it’s probably wise to take a closer look at this idea. It is all well and good to throw around those words. But it is worth wondering what this all actually means.
What that means is this: you should dedicate yourself to at least half an hour a day of doing nothing. I say that with my tongue only a little bit in my cheek.
In the west, we often throw around words like “meditation.” These words have a sort of mystique about them. We can say them and feel a little bit of pride in ourselves. In the east, the words they sometimes use is the language’s equivalent to simply “sitting.” No big ideas or navel gazing. Just sitting.
This is not as easy as it sounds. There are lots of ways to do it. Some of these different ways of sitting lead to certain positive results. Others lead to other positive results. Some are good for nearly anybody. Others are good for only a certain type of person.
We will explore these different options soon enough. The bulk of this book will be a survey of several different types of meditation and prayer. But let’s begin with a broad understanding of the goal. What we are talking about here is slowing down, releasing pretty much everything. Eventually, getting up to at least half an hour a day of it.
I am sure there are lots of things in your life that sound like they would be better to do than nothing. I am sure that the millions of different ways we entertain ourselves, the countless ways we want to be productive seem like much better choices than sitting.
This, then, brings us back to the “why.” Why would we want to do nothing when there are so many good things we could be doing?
This discussion of the “why” is going to be rather abstract and theoretical if we don’t root it in the actual practice of sitting. So before we take a deeper look at the question of “why.” I wonder if you might indulge me. Let’s give our first practice a try before we proceed.
Practice #1: Simply Breathing
Preparation: This practice is very, very simple. But before we begin, I would like to ask you a question: How long could you comfortably sit and do nothing? Perhaps it is only a minute. Perhaps it is thirty. However long you choose, could you try and push yourself? Would it be possible to add just a few more minutes onto whatever total you just decided?
- Create a calming space., Set your phone to ‘do not disturb.’ Light a candle if you would like.
- Place your feet flat on the floor. Sit in a manner that is upright but not uncomfortable.
- Inhale, through the nose if possible.
- Exhale through the mouth.
- With the next inhale, give some attention to really filling up the lungs. Place your hand on the belly. Feel the movement outward of your hand.
- Exhale, feeling the belly moving in toward the spine.
- Continue for the time you have allocated for this practice today.
Some final introductory throughts of ‘Why.’
I am of two minds about simplicity of practice. There is a way in which our mission is accomplished right here. With this simple 7-step series of instructions.
This practice accomplishes a tremendous number of things. One way that we might begin to explore the “why” of spiritual practice is to take a careful look at what we are accomplishing here. Perhaps the most important thing we are doing here—perhaps the most important “why” — is that we are facing our fears and worries head on. We are no longer running.
Almost every single thing we do is part of a huge pattern of denial and fear. We have been taught explicitly and implicitly to keep moving. To run from the fears that are chasing us. To drown out the voices that are whispering to us. We fill up our schedules. We turn on the radio.
We are so very afraid of silence and stillness.
This is a surprising statement for many. But to anyone who wants to resist this reality, I have a very simple question: If we are not afraid of silence and stillness, why is it so very difficult to sit quietly for any kind of length of time at all?
The glory of facing our fears by sitting with them is just this: we suddenly realize that there is actually nothing they can ever do to us. In fact, it is the denial of our fears are dangerous. Some of our fears are things we can do nothing about, but our failure to face them is what makes them grow large in our hearts. Other worries are things we can do something about. But we can only take action if we have stopped running long enough to identify just what they are.
Closely connected to this fear is the message that we must be productive at all times. By sitting, we (ironically) take a stand against this message. It is one thing to say, “I am more valuable than the things I produce.” It is another to actually take a period to stop producing.
If this is hard for you, you might find some solace in the possibility that this is a win-win. Anecdotal reports, research, and wisdom from the world’s spiritual tradition all agree: a time of rest is vitally important. There are many quotes from many directions which are variations on the theme “On a normal day, I meditate (or pray) for an hour. On the days when I know I am going to be really busy, I meditate (or pray) for two hours.” At least one of the things meant by these quotes is this: when we take a moment to be non-productive, we end up more than compensating for the so-called lost productivity. When we return to our work, we end up being much more productive.
The final “why” we are going to consider for now is the quieting of the mind. Our brains produce a cacophony of noise. The job of this organ is to think. From a certain vantage point, it is very good at this.
There is a limit to the usefulness of our thoughts, though. Especially when we stand in the middle of too many of them. Like a wise man standing in a crowd, our best thoughts can get drowned out from the babble coming from all the others. There are many sorts of things our thoughts don’t help us solve. There are some sorts of things that our thoughts in fact make worse.
There are many things in our minds which are difficult to notice when our thoughts are taking center stage. We have feelings, of course. These feelings are valuable guides as we become aware of them. Our mind is also where we become aware of bodily sensations. Sometimes this awareness is important on a sheerly physical level. We notice that our heel is sore and we need new shoes. We note a growing pain in our belly which requires medical intervention. But more than this, the body has its own wisdom. When we turn down our thoughts we tune into the things that the body is trying to tell us: the tension in our shoulders says, “don’t trust this person.” The quickening of our breath tells us that we were angry about something we aren’t having an easy time of owning. It is easy to miss these signals when the babble of our brains is uncontested.
Those of us who believe in something greater than us—call it God for lack of a better, more inclusive term—are generally aware that God speaks in a still, quiet voice. It can be difficult to hear this voice sometimes. When our brain is busy over producing, it can be even more difficult to truly discern what is coming from us and what comes from elsewhere.
There are a few common misconceptions to clear up before we move from the “why” to the “what.” The first common misconception is that the brain is bad and thoughts are not helpful.
Collectively and individually, we owe our brains and thoughts quite a lot. We could not be where we are without them. Our brain is like a hammer. Our thoughts are like nails. There are lots of things that hammers and nails are good for. But a hammer and nails can’t do everything. They can’t turn screws. They can’t saw boards in half. The situation we find ourselves in is as if we have gotten very good at hammering and have now begun to try to use the hammer to solve all of our problems. It simply won’t work.
A related misconception is the idea that we are trying to turn all of our thoughts off when we meditate. This is not possible. Many methods of meditation employ one device or another when intrusive thoughts arise. This leads practioners to believe that the goal is to use these to eradicate all thoughts. When the thoughts continue to arise, the natural result is to experience feelings of frustration or even anger that it is “not working.” Or worse yet, to see the self as a failure at it.
These reactions create a viscious circle. They are rooted in a common misunderstanding of what we are trying to do. If you are engaged in a practice which asks you to use this or that device whenever thoughts arise, just give yourself a mental pat on the back for doing it correctly. Appreciate the opportunity to dismiss the thoughts.
Your mind will wander. That is what it does. It might be a few seconds. It might be most of the time you have devoted to your practice. When you find this is happening, return to the practice without hard feelings to yourself. As time goes by, this will become more of a habit. In a sense, it becomes easier.
One of the biggest realizations I have contended with recently is the profound gulf between “simple” and “easy.” My tendency is to view these two things as one and the same. But this is a great counter example. Meditation is a very simple practice. It is not, for most of us, easy.
Something stirred you to buy this book. And you read through the section on why you might build a spiritual practice. So it seems like we ought to take a look at how you will do it.
It is quite a lot like dating. Or choosing a job. Or selecting your favorite pizza toppings. The first step is to discover what is out there. The second step is to select what is right for you.
I suspect this will be a bit more involved than choosing your favorite pizza. Perhaps it will be a bit less complex than choosing your vocation. But in the broad strokes, it begins the same: read the menu (or consider all the potential people you could date.) Order the first pizza. (Or ask a person out on a date.) Reflect on what went well and what didn’t go well about your decisions.
On a more specific level: I would like to recommend you enter a time of playing the field, spiritually speaking. It is important to commit to the idea of trying new practices. The end game here is to select just a few. These will form the backbone of your spiritual practice. As time goes by, this regimen might shift and evolve. You are not committed forever. But a few things are worth noticing before we proceed further.
The first is that real spiritual growth has been achieved by people who had access to only one spiritual practice. It is entirely possible that those with out many resources have achieved more than those of us with access to dozens or even hundreds of spiritual practices.
The danger and temptation of too many practices is that we can hide behind the bells and whistles. The real growth happens when we face the monotony, fear, and baggage of our lives. Spiritual practice can become an ego game. We tell ourselves we are growing and facing our issues. But right when things begin to get uncomfortable, we put a new, different, exciting spin on the process. We lose ourselves in the minutia of the practice we just have switched over to.
This is most of the reason I advocate so strongly for the end game of settling into a schedule of practices. It is good to explore what is out there. It is also good to commit, to settle in and dedicate ourselves to those which work best.
This selection process is no easy thing. It is likely that the most challenging practices are the best for us. Just as it is difficult to choose the things we need the most (from a nutritional standpoint) at a buffet, it is difficult to commit to those practices which are the best for us. It is tempting, sometimes, to choose the ones which are the easiest and the most pleasant. The ones which leave us feeling pleasantly buzzed, which leave us feeling competent and profound and spiritual.
Even if we avoid this trap, we can so easily fall into the shadow of this ego game. We can choose things with an almost masochistic fervor, selecting the things which are difficult and unpleasant as if this makes us worthy of some sort of spiritual extra credit.
These struggles are compounded by the sad reality that we often times we are not particularly good at knowing what practices will work well for us over the long term. Just as we can grow infatuated with a person that is not a good long term decision for us, we can try and commit to a spiritual practice that we have no future with.
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