2012-02-12

Finding a Spiritual Practice

We might start a spiritual practice wanting our spiritual muscles strong, toned, trim, and limber. If we do keep at it, we might gradually come to see that there's nothing to attain – except the knowledge that there’s nothing to attain.

A visitor to a Zen center heard the master give dharma talk. In the talk, the master spoke of how Zen really about being ordinary. Afterwards the visitor asked the master, “Ordinary? So, then, what is the difference between you and me?”

The master said, “There is no difference – only, I know that.”

We do the practice not to attain something. We do the practice just to do the practice. Dish-washing becomes spiritual practice when it is done just to be doing it. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:
"There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes."
The second way is the way that makes dish-washing a spiritual practice. There are many, many forms of spiritual practice. The traditional idea of spiritual practice in the West has been Bible study and prayer. Possible spiritual practices also include:
  • yoga
  • martial arts
  • social action / charitable giving
  • vegetarianism
  • living simply
  • cooking
  • eating
  • not eating (fasting)
  • quilting or knitting
  • painting or sculpting
  • dancing
  • gardening
  • long-distance running
  • hiking in the woods
  • walking along the beach
  • playing a musical instrument or singing
  • listening attentively to music
This is only a suggestive "starter" list. Many other activities and intentional commitments might be spiritual practices. Any number of things can be spiritual practices if they are approached with a deliberate intention to get out of our judging mind for a while, and just accept, affirm, and appreciate. If we invite ourselves to equanimity as we undertake the activity, or if the commitment brings attention to compassion, or if we find the activity a vehicle for self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification, then it can be, for us, a spiritual practice.

At the same time, none of these activities is necessarily or inherently spiritual. Bible study for the purpose of getting an "A" in a Bible class is not a spiritual practice. Nor is a "prayer" asking God for a Mercedes Benz.

Not Goal Directed. If you're new to the concept of spiritual practice, I recommend beginning with an activity that is as utterly without a goal or purpose as possible. Purpose invites judgment about accomplishment or not. Later on, though, it's OK for your practice to include a goal: as long as the goal isn't really the reason you're engaging in the practice. For example, it's OK to give some notice to whether or not the dishes are getting clean as long as your real reason for washing them isn't to get them clean . . . but just to wash them. Any hint of being upset if the goal isn't met indicates the activity isn't a spiritual practice.

Think about something you do just to be doing it, something you do without thinking about achieving anything, without thinking about whether you're doing it the way you supposedly should be doing it. There's your primary spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice is the place in your life where you are liberated from your own judgmentalism, freed from the pursuit of goals and purposes, and allowed to bask in just being.

And then there's all the rest of life.

Tomorrow's Lake Chalice will look at five practices for supporting the Primary Spiritual Practice and gradually infusing "all the rest of life" with spiritual awareness.

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This is part 6 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."

Next: Part 7: "Stone Soup for the Soul"
Previous: Part 5: "Embrace Your Demons"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"