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Why Spirituality Matters and What You Can Do About It

Why Spirituality Matters and What You Can Do About It

Back when I worked for the Department of Human Services, I was part of an early intervention team focusing on mental health and young children. We helped families sort through resources and develop plans for issues ranging from the stress that comes when a sibling is born to situations of trauma. The beauty of the approach was that it was interdisciplinary. We had therapists, counselors, doctors, social workers and physical therapists on the team. Thanks to this network, we were able to tap into a wealth of experience and resources for families. It was fullfilling work and a pioneering approach and yet, I often felt like we were missing something.  While we were addressing physical, mental and emotional needs, we weren’t addressing the spirit.

Generally speaking, spirituality is perceived as “less real” than other human needs. Freud, for example, said that God was an illusion and that as people became more “psychologically mature” they would set aside their infantile faith in favor of reason and science. Whatever we might now think of Freudian psychology, he eloquently summed up a cultural view that pits science and spirituality against each other. While people aren’t always this extreme in their view of spirituality as a “real” thing, they’re often not much more complimentary, either. At best, spirituality is often viewed as a neutral element in a person’s life. It’s nice if it’s your thing, but not necessarily a benefit to overall health and wellness.

In more recent years, this mindset has began to shift. Researchers in the fields of psychology, education and health are investigating and taking seriously the benefits of spirituality. In America, this originally got a lot of momentum with the mindfulness movement but it’s exploded over the past few years as people have documented that various benefits of the spiritual life. Take these statistics from Dr. Lisa Miller, a psychologist and researcher whose book Spirituality and the Child curates her research as well as that of other medical professors and makes a compelling case for the importance of developing a spiritual life:

Drawing on a wealth of studies over the past 20 years, Dr. Lisa Miller says that spirituality “has a clear impact on our mental health and thriving…[it’s] associate with signifigantly lower rates of depression, substance use and abuse and risk taking…No other preventative factor known to science and medicine has such a broad reaching and powerful influence on the daily decisions that make or break health and wellness.” (I’ve cited Dr. Miller’s work before because her book is groundbreaking. She’s the only one doing research on spirituality and well-being but she does the best job of compiling and interpreting research data for those of us who love hard research and don’t have all day to sort through it.)

Although Miller’s work stresses the importance of spirituality for children and teens, it seems pretty clear that people’s spiritual lives change over time. James Fowler documented this well in his book Stages of Faith, which has long been the go-to book on the subject. However, in my work I’m particularly interested in how people of different ages support and aid one another’s spiritual journeys. For example, many teachers find great spiritual meaning in their work and report learning a great deal from children. (One reason I’m convinced that adults need to spend as much time as possible with the children, in relationships were the wisdom flows both ways.) Parenting, too, is often an amazing spiritual journey–which is why Christian tradition uses parent language so often as a descriptor for God.

At home, then, it’s particularly important that we find the spiritual practices that work for us and our families, whatever shape they take. The good news is that nearly anything can be adapted into a spiritual practice if we make the time and intention to do so.

So if you’re playing along at home, I’d invite you to think about what already has meaning in your life. What is it that you do that you find refreshing at the soul level? How can that be tweaked to be spiritually meaningful?

Here’s an example:

In my family, one tradition we developed is “family reading time,” which means that about an forty-five minutes before bedtime, my husband, daughter and the cats all pile onto a bed to read and unwind. This started several years ago, in the middle of winter when the days were short and we parents were exhausted from work and parenting and being cooped up. Inevitably, we’d look at the clock at 7:00 p.m. and wonder how on earth we were ever going to make it through the next hour before we could put the kiddo to bed and finally relax a bit. Luckily, our daughter loves to read so we the solution was obvious–we’d all just take our books for some quiet reading and cuddle time. It’s been a few years since we first started this practice and the purpose for it has changed. We no longer get to the end of the day and wonder how we’re going to make it through the next hour. Instead, we often get to the end of the day and realize we have way too much to do and we barely saw each other all day. Now, family reading time serves the purpose of bringing us together and provides the space we need to talk and share.

By itself, this practice is a lovely family rhythm and its important all on it’s own. However, in the interest of bringing more spiritual intention into our lives, we’ve tweaked this time in several ways. For example, it’s often the time when we practice meditation or centering prayer as a family. We’ve also used it as a time to explore sacred reading, a practice I invented/borrowed/modified from Faith Five. And sometimes we still just read together, which brings valuable connection time and the space to practice being unhurried, one of the hardest spiritual skills.

The point is, start where you are, whether you’re beginning your own spiritual practice, looking to deepen practices you already have or trying to figure out how to raise children to be spiritual. I know from experience that it is unsustainable to try to institute a completely new practice and expect it to be perfect from day one.

Looking forward to hearing more about what rituals and rhythms you’re tweaking in your life–and what meaningful practices you already have!

Is Spirituality for Everyone?

Is Spirituality for Everyone?

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.

Spirituality has no place if it is not applicable to our daily lives. Click To Tweet

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!

Why I Make My Daughter Go to Church

Why I Make My Daughter Go to Church

countrychurch“Why do you like going to church?”

The question was an earnest one from my daughter, as opposed to the “WHY DO WE HAVE TO GO TO CHURCH?” battle we sometimes have. I wanted to answer her question with equal honesty but the truth was, I didn’t have an answer. I was dragging myself out the door that day and the idea of “liking” felt pretty foreign.

“Ummmm…I don’t always like going to church,” I said slowly.

“Then why go?” She countered.

Well that was quite logical wasn’t it? I thought about all the things I do that I don’t want to. Like exercise. Or cleaning. Or volunteering. Or writing. It hit me that most of my life appears to be made up of things that I don’t necessarily like to do.  Perhaps I should simply give all of them up and live for the moment. You know, YOLO and whatever else the kids tweet these days.

She looked expectantly at me as I framed my answer, “Well, church is good for me. I feel better afterwards.”

“Do you really feel better?” This question came from my husband. “Or does it just alleviate feelings of guilt? Maybe you would also feel better if you stopped expecting yourself to go.”

Well, that’s a worthwhile question, too, isn’t it? (I swear, I would not have any deep spiritual thoughts without my family to prod me along.) Could I achieve the same level of satisfaction by not going to church as I did from going to church? Was it really just about perceived expectation leading to perceived guilt leading to perceived satisfaction? It’s always a possibility but I didn’t think so. There have been long periods in my life when I didn’t go to church. Most of my childhood and teenage years. Long stints in college. Years in sleep-deprived young motherhood. I didn’t feel particularly guilty during those times and yet something always called me back. Something deeper than guilt but also much harder to explain.

I was still pondering this discussion, still trying to put my finger on the reason for attending church, when this devotion came to me via email. In the wise words of Br. Robert L’Esperance:

“ There is a value of actually going through the motions of something – whether you have your heart and soul in it is actually immaterial to the practice… There is actually a value in ritual. There is actually a value in doing something – that’s immaterial whether you can rationalize it, whether you can understand it, whether you can put your heart and soul in it – there’s actually a value to just going through the motions, through the steps.” He goes on to offer this heart-stopping advice. “it’s in the doing that we are transformed and we are shaped and we are renewed”

It’s in the doing.

We are so self-conscious of our time. We are so aware that it is fleeting, that it is limited, that we have to make every single minute count, that we must achieve something, that we shouldn’t waste time, kill it or let it slip away. We are so conscious of this that we forget that some things aren’t fun but they are good. Some things are worth spending time on not because we can measure their immediate value but because we feel their effects in the days, months and years to come.

So I’ll continue plugging away, hoping that the rituals and words of church will shape me into the person I want to become. I will also invite/coerce/drag my daughter to come with me so that she, too, might be shaped more fully into the person I see in her future.

Now, if anyone knows how to explain all this to a 7 year old, I’m open to advice.