It occurs to me that I spend a lot of time around this place talking about spiritual practice, as though everyone knows what that is, what counts, or what it’s for. I’m sorry. I have exhibited bad manners in this regard. Allow me to correct my error.
When I began what I think of as my “adult” spiritual quest, I was eighteen. I had just left the Roman Catholic Church (not exactly because I was a lesbian, but partly. more because I no longer believed in the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), and I was looking for something deeper, more personal, where my deep self could be together with God. I knew I was bound for God. I knew I was a child of Spirit. But the rituals and doctrine of the RCC had ceased to feed the sense of closeness I had always yearned for.
Spiritual practice takes the stage
Into my life came The Spiral Dance, second edition. The Spiral Dance, published in 1979 by Starhawk, née Miriam Samos, was a formative text for many of us who were or became EarthReligious/witchy/Pagan. The Spiral Dance was the first place I ever heard of something called “spiritual practice.”
In that book, Starhawk discusses various practices—meditation, physical activities, reading, and imaginative inner journeys. They are all spiritual practices. They are all activities one does or conditions one inhabits in order to develop spiritual muscles.
What are spiritual muscles?
Spiritual muscles are those parts of us that access wisdom, good judgment, compassion, integrity, and authenticity—especially when it feels hard to do so. Spiritual muscles are the parts of our minds, souls, hearts, and bodies that help us be our best, most loving selves.
Spiritual practice is exercise for these muscles. Practice strengthens them, conditions them, and increases their capacity and endurance. And yes, physical activity is part of spiritual activity. Starhawk remarks on the importance of physical activity in The Spiral Dance, as have spiritual teachers over millennia. Another teacher of mine, T. Thorn Coyle, also focuses on the importance of physical engagement. Tradition after tradition calls for the empowerment of the mind-body connection. We are, after all, embodied beings, and when our bodies suffer, so does the rest of us.
Practice isn’t easy
Physical activity as a spiritual practice has been hard for me to learn, and it is something to which I still have to bring heaps of gentle discipline. Meditation? Got it. Altar building and engagement? Got it. Singing? No problem. But getting regular, sustainably joyful physical activity has been a challenge for me for most of my life.
I am also fat and have joint injuries, so certain kinds of physical activity are more possible for me than others. Other folks I know have other physical limitations, limitations related to injury, fatigue, or other invisible conditions, as well as visible ones. Physical activity should no more be a cause of judgment and disdain than any other part of spiritual practice. We are all doing our best, trying to be happy.
Not only that, but we each have our strengths. As I say, I am a better musician than I am an engineer. I find singing at my altar easier than going to swim every day. Nonetheless, I aspire to do both regularly and well. Engaging our strengths while consistently working our growing edges: This is the life of the Spirit. Bringing what you know you can do and also encouraging yourself to strengthen new muscles along the way: This is the task.
As I’ve said before and will say many times again, the task is not to jam yourself into a wrongly shaped space.
Furthermore, I used to think that unless I engaged cushion-seated, breath-counting meditation, that what I was doing “didn’t count.” I thought that unless it was really HARD WORK it didn’t count. By hard work, I don’t mean the discipline of “getting to the mat” or sitting at my altar every day. I mean the hard work that feels yucky, that feels like you’re trying to be someone else.
And by “count,” as in “didn’t count,” I meant that it wasn’t meritorious, that it wasn’t earning me any points in Heaven, that the Great Judge in the Sky wasn’t going to give me approval for doing it. Aie. The sooner you can get over this one, the better. It took years for me, and it’s a place I still visit sometimes, just to remember I don’t want to live there. There is no judge that matters but your own heart. Your authenticity, integrity, and compassion are your business. Taking on others’ judgments is a choice you can make, but it is not a choice you must make. Your judgments are your own.
And so I invite you not to judge yourself harshly for your attempts with spiritual practice that you have called “failures.” I invite you to take the tiniest step you can think of towards dailiness. I invite to do one thing. Just one thing. Drink one cup of tea with attention and intention, listening to your own heart. And perhaps you do it again tomorrow. But for now, just drink the tea.
There is time, Goddess willing, to try different forms of practice, and to return to ones that once didn’t fit, to see whether they might fit well later on. I do seated, breath-counting meditation now, but it took years for it to feel like the right thing to do, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay; it’s just right.
Discovery and Deepening: a class in spiritual practice
This trying on of practices, or deepening of practices you already have, is at the core of what we will do in Discovery and Deepening, the class that begins this October 22. Learning the relationship between gentleness and discipline, hearing from others what has worked for them in our shared seeking after Spirit, and taking the time to learn what practice—both content and style—work best for you right now: These are our tasks.
Join us now by going to the Discovery and Deepening page to learn more and claim your place!