Spiritual Practices That Actually Work

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?

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I would add temple worship to the list as well. For me, the Temple has always been a beacon and a place where I feel a particularly strong connection to God. I generally am pretty sensitive to feeling the spirit in holy places, whether those of the LDS faith or others. I don’t think that everyone has that strong of a reaction, but I do for sure.

  2. Great list and insights. Here are some of mine:

    Loving-Kindness (Metta) Meditation – I agree that typical meditation practice can be overwhelming and distracting – especially as someone who is constantly bombarded with disturbing intrusive thoughts as soon as I try to “quiet” my mind (my mind is never quiet). However, at times I’ve found comfort and peace with a kind of meditation practice called loving-kindness meditation where you repeat the phrases “May I be healthy and strong. May I be happy. May I be filled with ease” and then direct these phrases to someone else: “May you be healthy and strong. May you be happy. May you be peaceful.” Repeating these words and phrases helps me focus my mind and remember how important self-compassion – and compassion in general – is to spiritual well being (if you’re interested – there are lots of great resources on this online).

    Gratitude Practice – I love the concept of gratitude and when it works gratitude practice is extremely powerful for me. When I’m at my lowest, however, I hate the world and my life and I can’t imagine why I would ever feel grateful to be alive – let alone grateful for anything else. This is when loving-kindness meditation is most effective for me. To remind myself to be compassionate with myself when I am suffering so much.

  3. How about gratitude? Sometimes it can take a more structured form (like, I dunno, writing a letter to someone telling why you’re grateful for them), but often for me it’s just a mindset I try to practice. Your # 8 (nature) is a big one for me also, but the times I feel the most spiritually-fed by a good hike is when I try to just observe-with-enjoyment-and-gratitude all the things. Only very rarely have I ever had some kind of transcendent experience, but it always makes my brain feel peaceful and calm.

    (it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway–gratitude is wonderful as long as you don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself up with. So, you know, let’s all not do that.)

  4. I don’t know quite what to call this, but it is something one of my grandmothers did. Background info: She had 14 children, so life was very busy. There were always 27 little dresses, washed by hand, out on the clothesline to dry by 7am (remember that baby boys wore dresses, then too). Her large garden was next to the clothesline, & she often weeded in the early mornings after the clothes were hung out. It also prevented mud balls from accidentally landing on the clean clothes, as her children played with what was available to them.

    Grandma was an Evangelical Lutheran. She read her Bible faithfully, then as she worked thru the day, she would think about what she had read, prayerfully, often while scrubbing little dresses or weeding. It wasn’t meditation, because she was working while she was thinking, but she was often outdoors at the time. I find that something similar works for me. If I read my scriptures in the morning, say for instance the section on prayer in Alma, about crying over everything, then as I am outside, working in the garden, I not only am prayerful about the garden, & the fruit trees, & the berry bushes, but as I weed around the currants, I think about the Lord as the Master Gardener, & if I am “becoming” what He desires. Pruning is actually a rather severe correction for a plant. Needed, but severe. The plant boots into “must survive” mode & grows/produces like crazy. When I am “pruned”, do I immediately boot into growth/production, or do I sulk & nurse my cut, oozing branches? I think I am more prone to do the latter than the former. How can I become more responsive to the Lord’s will in my life? For starters, by doing what I am doing right then – trying. For me it is important not to land in what you call “rumination land”, but since I enjoy gardening, that is less likely to happen to me while outside in the garden.

    Perhaps I could call it reflection, because it isn’t strictly prayer, or meditation. It starts with reading the scriptures, but then as I reflect on what I have read, there is an opportunity for the Spirit to guide me to what the Lord wants me to get out of what I read. Pondering is part of it, but not all of it.

  5. I would add “repentance”.

    If I set aside the problematic practice of confession to authority figures, I feel there is still something powerful and humbling about doing some introspecting on a problem, realizing there were things I was wrong about, and going to God or the person I wronged and asking for forgiveness.

    There is a danger of this turning into unhealthy rumination. I’m usually able to short-circuit that by moving forward to the asking-forgiveness part. While I’m still not 100% sure that God is there, I feel inside that God is quick to forgive.

  6. I have been hesitant to write in Mormon spaces about my Quaker experience, and vice versa. But, here it goes.

    I was a life-long devout-as-they-come member for about 45 years. Another story, another day, but now I attend a Quaker meeting. There are different types of Quaker meetings. My Mormon upbringing made me partial to one that does not have a pastor. The meeting I attend (and some pastored meetings do as well) practices open or silent worship for at least part of the meeting. My first time there, the closest thing I could compare it to was fast and testimony meeting, but where the expectation was that people would not speak and the exception was that someone would spontaneously speak. You know how in fast and testimony when there almost has to be an explanation for silence? This has been an amazingly comforting difference. I bring it up in reference to the scripture study and meditation. Long-time Quakers speak about silent worship better than I do, but there seems to be a pattern for people, a process for settling. What works well for me is to read my scriptures before meeting starts. Then, during silent worship, I let my mind meander over what I read or settle on a phrase before I eventually just settle into stillness and “waiting upon the Lord.”

    Another huge relief about silent worship: There is a stark contrast (for me) in mindset to the closest thing Mormons have regularly, which is during the passing of the sacrament. I was always taught that we were supposed to reflect on our past week, repent, reflect on the Savior’s sacrifice for us. I can’t even tell you the sublime lifting of a burden it has been not to have that expectation of myself during silent worship! I wish I could describe the difference. Not that those things are not important. But, if anything has deepened my spirituality, it has been the release of that expectation for myself.

    Regarding prayer, I don’t do this particular type of my practice of prayer as often as I would like, but I enjoy writing and I am a fast typist. My spiritual practice has been more meaningful if I type out my prayer on my laptop. When that is the plan, I don’t wait until I am falling into bed exhausted. As someone who likes to write, it focuses my thoughts somewhat but also lets me develop the thought and listen at the same time. The beauty is also that the prayers are a collection of electronic blips. I usually delete them about a month later, often never having read them again. But, I like the effects of the practice.

    As far as nature goes, it does renew me to be out in the woods. But, like you, I don’t expect it to be spiritual. I don’t expect anything of it. But, it does reinvigorate my soul.

    I love that you included books that you are enjoying.

    I am so glad you found your Episcopal space. I have enjoyed reading about it.

  7. Hmmm, you have mentioned elsewhere that you tend to suffer from depression if I remember correctly. So, nothing worked for me when I was depressed. Nothing at all. And from what you are saying in this post, it sounds just like my experience while depressed. I had to deal with the depression first, before I could feel any spiritual feelings at all. Depression makes it impossible to feel other emotions like joy or connection to God.

    So, after therapy and anti depressants, and getting away from some Mormon teachings about God that I personally found repeated the abuse and complicated the depression caused by abuse to begin with, now I find our Mother in Heaven in Nature and family. I probably still have issues relating to the Mormon Father God, so rather than trying to be spiritual with the Mormon Father God, I relate better to Christ. So, I find a connection to him by serving others, reading the New Testament, and celebrations of Christ.

    The Book of Mormon version of God who rewards good people with wealth and punishes evil by turning skin dark, just makes me throw up in my mouth. Oh, and I should add to my problems with BoM God, and tells Nephi to murder, when Laban was so passed out drunk that Nephi could just have stripped off his clothing. “better that one man lies naked and drunk in the street than that Nephi live with murder on his conscience.” So, I stick with the New Testament God of Jesus Christ and the Mother Goddess for my spirituality.


Leave a Reply