On Spiritual Practice
I used to teach a course called Psychology, Spirituality, and Human Transformation. The title itself drew popular interest from college students, especially seniors looking to fulfill their religion course requirement for graduation. Over the years of teaching this course to students whose actual level of interest in religion ranged from -10 to maybe 3 (out of a possible 10), I learned that talking about spirituality is a better bet to get students engaged. Mention religion, and students tune out.
I distilled a description of spirituality this way: it is how one breathes this life.
Of course, students always want a concrete, bullet-point kind of definition they can copy down from the board, so I came up with: an intentional living and daily practice of one’s beliefs about human nature (and the divine).
Satisfied with the more explicit yet roomy enough latter description, students are willing to consider my invitation for them to observe their lives in order to decipher their spirituality—even if they didn’t realize they had one or like the idea of having such a thing.
Answering the question, What is my spirituality? is an elusive, blurry task. So, we ask a different question: What do I do?
Observing one’s activities is an accessible path to discovering one’s spirituality. One spiritual teacher phrases this practice this way: let your life speak. You may not call it spirituality or recognize what you observe as anything remotely religious. Yet, under all of our energies are roots bearing traces of motivations, desires, and commitments.
What emerges from an attentive observation of what we do, what we have done, and what we plan to do, is a representation of our beliefs about our self and the world (for some: self, world, and the divine).
My students and I emerge from this observation exercise with stark clarity about our disconnections. And we are generally dissatisfied by what each of us decipher.
We think we hold a generative value to certain worthy ideals and honorable purposes—at the very least, a philosophy persuaded by desires more noble than, “I just want to make a lot of money and be happy” (which, as you may surmise, is a commonly deciphered spirituality). However, the reality of how much we give our energies to activities other than what we think we value, awakens us to see who we really are and what we are really about. The honest mirror reflection can be harsh.
Lest you get discouraged, I share here the same counsel I give my students and myself:
If you regard compassion as an essential value (or endeavor to be a compassionate human), do a small act for another’s benefit, write a poem for the world. If you believe in fairness, get involved in an expression of societal justice, read about all kinds of inequities hurting people everywhere. If love is a vital necessity to uphold, then love—with deeds, by thoughts, in a note. If you believe in God, see the hues of the dusk sky and say thank you out loud, sit still long enough to feel your need for grace, love someone not so lovable.
Begin somewhere, anywhere.
Begin not knowing where you will end.
Begin without a plan
outlined and organized.
Do one intentional action—an action that bears a subtle trace or a glaring, bold reflection of what you believe, what you desire to believe, what you had believed you believed. Your life will begin to breathe an intentional breath, and then another. This is spirituality—spiritu, Latin for breath.
Your belief—for some: your faith, your convictions, your theology and hermeneutics(!)—will be transformed by what you do and by the wisdom you acquire from all that doing. In turn, the next practice you begin will be guided by your growing and intensifying belief. This is spiritual practice.
My cliff notes for the spiritual journey?
Extra credit: Be still in between, for grace.