Okay, this title is somewhat misleading, as rather than being a helpful list of spiritual practices that actually work—which is something I’m still trying to figure out—it’s an attempt to start a conversation about the subject. I’d love to hear people’s ideas and experiences about what’s worked for them. I find that I love the idea of spiritual practice in theory (and my therapist, of all people, is constantly telling me I need to incorporate more of it into my life), but I run into a lot of obstacles. (In my case, the challenge is often How to Be Spiritual When You’re Neurotic, but I’m interested in how people have addressed other issues as well.)
1) Prayer. Perhaps the most basic of all spiritual practices. I think it can be a powerful thing, but sometimes it goes awry. Something I’ve wrestled a lot with is the fine line between prayer and rumination. When my prayers start slipping into circular thinking about all the things I’ve done wrong (because you’re supposed to reflect on and repent of your sins, right?), I think it’s maybe time to quit. Lately as part of my adopting Episcopal practices, I’ve been doing more set prayers. I learned as a child that these were evil due to their vain repetitions, but I’m liking the practice surprisingly well; the structure keeps me on track, and the rumination at bay. What I like best right now, I’m finding, is some kind of combination of the Mormon-style prayers that are my native language, and selections from the Book of Common Prayer. Another challenge, of course, is to get around to prayer before I’m falling into bed in exhaustion and just saying “Good night, God, I’ll try to talk to you more tomorrow!”
2) Scripture study. This has been very mixed for me. One of my early challenges with the scriptures was to move beyond the way they’re so often presented in church, in which every story has a moral and every symbol has a secret meaning waiting to be decoded, and dig into the text to give them a real chance. It also took me a long time to realize that I maybe just shouldn’t read the scriptures when I was depressed, because all the stuff about wrath and judgment and punishment would inevitably overshadow everything else and plunge me deeper into despair. There have been times in my life when I haven’t read the scriptures for years, and I think it’s been the right call. I had a bishop once who suggested that I just focus on the stuff about the love of God and ignore everything else, and I appreciated the thought, but I didn’t find it doable. I want to like the scriptures, and sometimes I’ve caught a real glimpse of how rich they can be, but I’ve had enough traumatic experiences with them that I’m often wary. I’m finding some hope, though, in noticing that I like them better when they’re used liturgically (which to me is resonant with reading them in a similar way to poetry).
3) Church attendance. Even when I’ve been doing the active Mormon thing, I’ve really had a hard time with this. A major challenge I think for Latter-day Saints is that church is generally pretty boring. Not always, certainly, and I can see how for many people there are enough good moments to outweigh the bad. But I’ve regularly struggled both with the mind-numbingness of all too many sacrament meetings, and with the offensive comments, which in my experience happen often enough that I find it difficult to really let my guard down in an LDS setting. Everything will seem to be going swimmingly, or at least tolerably, and then someone will start explaining how we need to make sure gay people know how wicked they are, or rail against the evil feminists or Democrats, or talk about the superiority of the church to everyone’s favorite straw man: “the world.” I find that it rather wears you down after a while. (Though sometimes I’ve sat in the pew and asked myself: would I rather be bored, or offended? At least with the latter, something exciting is happening.) My latest answer to this has been to try out a different kind of church altogether, but I realize that’s not the right answer for everyone. When I was more actively attending Mormon church, I found that having poetry on hand to read if necessary was sometimes a major life-saver.
4) Meditation. I hear that this does wonders for some people, but it’s never quite clicked for me. I don’t know if I haven’t tried it enough, or I’m coming at it wrong. But like its cousin, prayer, it often lands me in Rumination Land, and that’s pretty much the opposite of helpful.
5) Relaxation exercises. I have a ton of experience with these, because I’ve been in many, many therapy groups in many settings, and they almost always end with a relaxation exercise. I find them tolerable at best. For a long time I diligently followed all the instructions and progressively relaxed all my muscles, or imagined I was a tree turning toward the light, or whatever they had on the menu that day. Then I finally got exasperated and just did my best to sit patiently while everyone else worked through the exercise.
6) Reading. There are certain books, like say The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, which really do have at least the potential to get me out of a funk and re-ground me. You have to find the right books, of course, ones which speak to you, and sometimes that can mean wading through a lot of nonsense on the way. But when you find something that feeds your soul, it’s so worth it. I recently decided that I wanted to make it a priority to do 15 minutes of reading books related to spirituality a day, and I checked out a stack of interesting-looking books from the library to try out. All my selections thus far have turned out to be fantastic: Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans; Take This Bread, by Sara Miles; and Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor.
7) Poetry. This is perhaps a subset of #6, but I thought it worth its own place on the list. I recently wrote a ridiculously long post on the subject, so I’ll leave it at that.
8) Nature. I feel like this is kind of The Thing to Do in contemporary American spirituality: you find God while walking through the woods, or along the beach, or looking at the stars. But this is another one that I feel like I don’t quite get. I don’t dislike nature, not by any means. I actually love walking through the woods and along the beach, and going out at night and seeing the stars. But it’s never been a transcendent experience, or anything that speaks to me much spiritually. And I’ve actually found that I enjoy my experiences of nature much more now that I’ve dropped the pressure I was putting on myself to feel something deep about it.
9) Music. I would say I kind of understand this. There are people in my life who are wildly passionate about music. I’m not one of them. But I have had at least occasional experiences of feeling like music was contributing to my sense of spiritual connectedness, and that’s been cool. The music at my local church is usually outstanding, and I do love what that adds to the worship experience. We had a Taizé service on a recent Sunday evening that really moved me; the repetition of simple chants can be pretty amazing. So maybe I’m clueing a bit more to the potential of this one.
10) Kindness. I’m not so good at this, but I nonetheless like the idea of adopting an attitude of kindness, both toward yourself and others, as a spiritual practice. I need to do it more, I think.
What are your experiences with these things? How have you made them work for you (or alternately, what’s gotten in the way?) What would you add?