As a child, my image of a spiritual person was stereotypical. I imagined a man in a turban sitting cross-legged on a beach, blissful smile on his face. If pushed to think of a woman, I suppose she was also in a turban sitting cross-legged on the beach. If this image tells us anything, it’s that we imagine spirituality to be something removed from our day-to-day experience. We tend to believe that the spiritual life happens in exotic places, to exotic people.
One of the key milestones in spiritual development is when we release this idea and embrace an integrated vision of spirituality–one that doesn’t require special clothes or far-away locations. While we might all benefit from an occasional retreat from the world where we can spend long hours communing with God in nature, the bulk of our spirituality must be lived where we are now.
I define spirituality as both the recognition and cultivation of the connectedness of our lives with each other and with something that transcends us, which I would call God or Spirit but others might call the Divine, the Universe or something else. Spiritual people experience deep connection with others. They recognize that all of our lives are interwoven. They also recognize that this same web of connectedness exists between humanity and the natural world. There is a sense that everything rests in something “bigger than us,” some Mystery that connects everyone and everything.
With a definition like this, the question then becomes, “who can be spiritual?” Is everyone spiritual? Are people born spiritual or do they become spiritual?
Research into spirituality is helping to answer that and the answer is “both.” Spirituality is inborn and nurtured. I find Dr. Lisa Miller’s analogy of spiritual development and physical development helpful here. Just as most people are born with the capacity to learn to walk, most people are born with some capacity for spirituality. However, just as people must develop the ability to walk, and then later to run, our natural, inborn tendency to spirituality must be cultivated.
This is where spiritual practices come in. Spirituality might be part of our wiring but it needs nurturing to develop to its fullest. Spiritual practices are the means by which we deepen our spirituality. Some traditions also call them “spiritual exercises,” vocabulary that reminds us that we get better at pursuing our spiritual lives. Just as a bicyclist may start with short races and advance from there, we do well to start where we are in our spiritual lives. That’s why it’s so important that spiritual practices be part of our day-to-day lives rather than some austere practice for the privileged few.
Often, people of particular religious tendencies want to place some qualifiers around spirituality in order to define which spiritual paths are valid. In contrast, at this point I’m particularly interested in how spirituality is practiced in a variety of settings. While I believe in my particular religious path (obviously, or I wouldn’t be part of it), I’m far less concerned with what someone believes intellectually than if they’re making time for spirituality. The reason for this is precisely because I trust deeply in God and God’s desire to connect with us. I’m a firm believer in “seek and you will find,” meaning that if we are cultivating our spiritual lives, God will walk alongside us. For me, this brings both a sense of grace (God is so big and comes to us in so many ways!) and a sense of urgency (our mission in life is to connect more fully with God and we have a limited amount of time to do it.)
The upshot of this is that it means that nothing is wasted when it comes to our spiritual lives. “It’s all grist for the mill,” as a spiritual mentor once told me. Which in turn means that we can have some fun with it. One of the things that gets in our way as spiritual people is the perception that we have to do it some certain way, or that it’s something we can fail at. If we’re not praying just like this, we’re failing. If we’re not meditating twenty minutes a day, we’re failing. If we’re not making a gratitude list every night, we’re failing. And since no one likes to fail, we just stop trying.
When we have a better understanding of spiritual development as a life-long pursuit, we can relax a little. Let’s embrace a playful aspect to spiritual practices. No one is yelling at a one year old that she didn’t take her first step perfectly, or at a fifth grader that they aren’t doing calculus yet. Spiritual growth starts in cutting ourselves some slack, and this is true whether we’re at the beginning or somewhere midway. So here are my rules for spiritual practices:
Start where you are A therapist once told me I had to meditate for 20 minutes a day or it was all just worthless. And since I couldn’t meditate for 20 minutes a day (yet), I just stopped meditating. Because anything less than that was worthless. Worst. Advice. Ever. You know when I started meditating again? When I saw the One Moment Meditation app because this cute little stick figure told me that even 1 minute of meditation was time well-spent.
Do what works for you Right along with “starting where you are” goes “end what doesn’t work.” For heaven’s sake, don’t torture yourself with a spiritual practice that doesn’t help you connect with God. The reason there are so many different styles of prayer and meditation and rituals and ideas is because people are different. We don’t all have the same style of relationship with our friends, coworkers, spouses or children, why are we expecting to develop the same relationships within ourselves and our souls?
…But don’t give up too soon This is the paradox of any worthwhile venture, isn’t it? You have to know when to keep trying and when to switch. I was trying to think of some guideline for this but the truth is, it varies. It might help to evaluate how you build habits in other circumstances. If you find it pretty easy to start a new thing and stick with it, then you probably need less experimentation time with a new practice before you know it doesn’t work for you. On the other hand, keeping in mind that it takes between 30-60 days to make a change, you might need to stick with something for a few months before you blow it off. And if you’re experimenting with family practices, chances are good that some things will be deeply meaningful for some of the family members and less so for others and that’s ok. You’ll balance that, too.
Having said all of that, and keeping in mind that I’m really on a pilgrimage of my own here, I’m curious about your spiritual practices as they are now. Where do you find Mystery and Meaning in your life? What things do you do to deepen your soul? You can comment here, as always, but feel free to message me directly, too–I love these conversations!