What is spiritual practice? Spiritual means relating to spirit. Practice means doing something. Spiritual practice is the art of actively paying attention to your spirit.
Why call it an art rather than a science? Scientific practice relies on clearly defined terms, uniform procedures for all practitioners, and objectively valid results. Spiritual practice explores ambiguous terms, through a variety of procedures, aiming at subjectively valid results.
What is spirit? Spirit is an ambiguous term. Spirit can include your emotions, character, ideals, moods, motivations, attitudes, beliefs, sense of God.
Why pay attention to spirit? Spirit expresses itself through our bodies, thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions, dreams and more. Its constant hum, and occasional explosions, inform everything we do. When we look at it directly, we gain insight and, gradually, mastery.
What counts as practice? Any ongoing, structured activity that shifts our attention to spirit. In my own life, I have written reflectively in journals, breathed deeply through hatha yoga postures, walked in beautiful outdoor places, read and re-read traditional poetic prayers, prayed through structured forms, analyzed metaphors in my dreams, sung along with devotional music, studied philosophy and Torah, drawn with crayons, sat in silence, set aside a Shabbat day, and talked directly with God.
Should I think of spiritual practice as a discipline? Yes, if discipline means something like an academic discipline: as a beginner, you learn basic terms and activities; as you master them, you develop your own unique insight and style. No, if discipline means you punish yourself for skipping a session.
How do you learn a practice? I have learned the basics from communities, teachers, and books. As a learner, I seek both experiential understanding and background knowledge. At times, I have simply encountered new practices; at other times, I have sought them out.
How do you choose a practice? Some practices have been part of my life for decades. But I also add and subtract new practices every few months or years. When life events grab my attention, I choose a practice that can help me respond. For example, I may need to develop conscious body awareness and take up a walking practice; forgive more, and work with a forgiveness meditation; connect with my Jewish tradition and add a study practice. Research and consultation help me find the right practice.
Must spiritual practice be daily? It should be regular, if you want to learn it well, practice it creatively, and use it to know your spirit. But the definition of regular depends on the practice, how well you know it, and on how your time is structured. Some regular practices aren’t daily, e.g., praying for healing as you light Shabbat candles. Other regular practices, e.g., yoga, are done safely by beginners only when a teacher is present. Others, e.g., mindfulness meditation, require attention and quiet you might be able to arrange only twice a week.
Should I choose a practice that feels comfortable or challenging? Both. Find an ongoing practice that uses activities you enjoy to focus on spirit. Enjoyment will entice you to return again and again. But when an urgent problem of spirit grabs your attention, know that exploration of it might challenge your ways of thinking and feeling.
Can you give some examples? For the last two months, I have been praying in my own words, three times a week, using a structured five step process: acknowledging awe, confessing worries, seeking spiritual development, asking for healing, and offering gratitude.
On Monday, I prayed: God, I am in awe of the mystery of consciousness, an amazing continuum in which creatures reach out, across space and across species. I confess, God, that I don’t want to see the world through the veils of my own consciousness. And especially not through the lens of my own guilt, measuring my impact by how badly I feel. God, please grant me the ability to see differently. Please bring healing to political leaders so that they, too, no longer act out of their pain. Thank you, God, for this limited human body that structures my consciousness — until the day it merges with yours.
On Tuesday, however, I was exhausted, too distracted to follow a form. So, I sang my favourite poetic prayer Adon Olam, and let my mind touch the “indwelling elusive matrix of bliss.”
Photo: Laura Duhan Kaplan by Hillary Kaplan. Caption: “It elevates your mood!”