Maybe you, like me, are trying to figure out what “spiritual practice” is all about. My Unitarian Universalist congregation and faith strive to be homes for spiritual sustenance; yet I’m often at a loss for how to nourish the spirit outside of Sunday services. I show up to the Women’s Ritual Council full moon circles when I can, light a candle before bed, write gratitudes in my journal. These seem worshipful. So too do yoga, meditation, singing, gardening. But not every stretch or song turns the heart toward Beloved Community.
What makes an activity a form of prayer? And when is it simply self-care?
The overlap makes differentiation tricky. Mindfulness practice, for example, can focus attention, reduce stress and improve overall health. Schools are integrating its methods; so are parts of the military. Mindfulness keeps students and soldiers more focused and better able to make decisions. In “The Militarization of Mindfulness,” Ronald Purser warns, “Mindfulness as a spiritual practice is easily subordinated for military purposes when viewed as a decontextualized, ethically neutral, attention-enhancement technique.”
What are the ethics and context of our practice? What calls to us when we engage in it? It’s all too easy to mistake the siren song of self-improvement for a deeper voice. When I go to a dance class determined to sweat so that I can keep the dark mood at bay and perhaps slow the midlife weight gain, I am taking the bait of the wellness-industrial complex. It woos me with its 10,000 brands of self-care. Massages and facials, retreats and pilates. It caters to my appetites and my desire to feel OK in what is often a not-OK world.
Many of the activities mimic spiritual practice, but whetting an appetite falls far short of nourishing the soul’s hunger. Seeking connection to something beyond a narrow conception of self opens us to a deeper longing for justice, healing and love. Maybe it’s in that seeking, in that reach for connection, that our practice becomes spiritual.
And maybe spiritual practice doesn’t always feel good.
Heeding a deeper call carries us into places that those who profit from our disconnection would rather us not go. The path may be difficult or even dangerous. Spiritual practice leads us to where corruptions of power hurt the most vulnerable, and commits us to upending systems of white supremacy and economic injustice. Attending to the spirit invites us to unwrap from the blanket of self-care and bare vulnerable parts of ourselves while engaging in collaborative work with people who live very different lives. It welcomes us into joyous, complicated solidarity as we follow the lead of youth, people of color, people with disabilities, queer folks, poor folks, immigrants. It compels us to surrender our resistance to being decentered when we have believed so long that our values were good and right. Or it might pull us to the center to lead with boldness despite the clanging determination of those who want us to stay at the margins.
Learning the histories of resistance movements might show up as spiritual practice. As we pursue the education that the school system was never going to provide us, we might find that we have within reach what it takes to join the struggle and write a new story. We might grow in courage to act against the pervasive sense that we are imposters not cut out for bold work. When we engage in spiritual practice, we invite love and justice to call us into their service.
Even when we live our values in what seem like smaller ways – in our homes and our friendships – we nourish the spirit. We heed the deeper call when we honor the brokenness in us and try to rectify corrosive dynamics within our families and intimate relationships. We may find ourselves rebuilding bonds, boundaries, care and sustenance. Our practice has become spiritual when it commits us to disrupting stuck patterns and healing the old wounds.
And, yes, spiritual practice can also be meditation. When we meditate with the awareness that the universe has a purpose for us, we are choosing connection, life and love over “ethical neutrality.” We allow ourselves to listen for the call. We commit to answering it no matter how frightening, no matter how much it might change our plans.
Wellness and self-care will always weave through this work. Engaging in things that comfort and enliven us are necessary to keep us believing in ourselves and each other. It’s when we deepen those activities and allow them to nourish our connection to what’s within us, among us and beyond us that they become spiritual practices.
As we continue on this sacred journey, let’s ask ourselves – and help each other – to find courage in love’s invitation. Let’s keep making room to fulfill our soul’s purpose together.
This post first appeared on the Faith Matters blog of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax on November 18, 2019.
2 thoughts on “The Spirit Calls Us to Liberation”
the spirit seems to be quite in tune with liberal/communitarian politics…
a poem by Lotte L.S.
Twelve Days of 21st Century Rain
A voice rang out from the boiler in visceral encounter:
“You must change your life.”
The hibiscus moved in the breeze,
everything else staying still.
Well: the seagulls, the seagulls.
Carbon monoxide had already claimed the last inhabitant —
as if to misread sleep
like to think of myself high up at the window
imitating crown shyness
continually changing faulty light bulbs
at the ends of summer
hesitating to thrust myself into others’ lives,
other lives. A life,
all £430 worth of it. Dangerous
to draw parallels: tried the detectors,
tried the weekly whole-building alarms,
tried to imagine I could change my life —
her dancing beneath the pines, told me:
to love without doubt
is to fuck without desire,
and yet the nectarines are still ripe and juicy on the table
at this time of year
but I want them hard as can be,
actualised at the ends of a midnight-blue corset dream —
hands enough to touch yourself
and watch the starlings murmur,
a whole host of fish
unionising at the same time every year
a full circle and disappear,
if time is just perspective, and
It touched me where it hurt,
but the hurting felt good —
seagulls watching from each rooftop,
St George’s Cross flags razed across every allotment plot
long road of curtains
rippled open, crystallise my senses
alone with a boiler
that doesn’t emit a smell or sound or sight
and all the windows are open —
miniature ballet dancers twirling off the sill
in small succession
someone screaming, “I’m gonna fucking kill you
you motherfucking son of a bitch”
cries streaming over from the dark-bright street below,
weekly Tuesday fireworks
jacked-up and disseminating in rounds from the beach.
In the almost darkness
we cannot delegate “our” desire,
seagull shit dripping down the windows
in hot, thick tangles
of a flat last inhabited, and I would have to say
“OK, thanks. I didn’t know.” Why is this night
different from all the others?
The emphasis to fall on the asking,
the making of an unchanged life
awake until sunrise —
avoiding the surprise of sleep
gave me dreams:
trees lining boulevards in the south of France
you absentmindedly on your knees in the corner
tipping something softly down the back of your throat.
Do you know it?
I tried to laugh and understand
the pieces of human movement,
one glance capturing a shape that emerged from them all:
the fascist compost of the allotments,
green was the forest drenched with shadows
of my own lack —
I decided I’d rather throw every broccoli head in the bin.
And my own: a tenant to evict, landlord
a penis to guillotine,
police sirens ricocheting across the curtains
unduly feminised in their flutterings,
pink lilies bursting from the vase on the floor
telling me: “I want to live deliberately” —
“I want to live alive”
means I can’t hear them
coming down the boulevard
coming down the high street
the road I inhabit that leads so clearly to the sea —
striding their guillotined dicks
down the deserted streets.
A woman was arrested the other morning,
I saw it from the window: cops cuffing her to the car,
miniature ballet dancers
spinning from the windowsill
gliding through the soft lace of the air
to pinch cop tyres flat
with their tightly pricked slippers.
He literally wrote a worldview
wherein she “went” out the window
of his thirty-fourth-floor New York apartment
in a blue bikini
and a judge signed off on it.
Awareness, or blossom:
an archived commodity
perspective is the removed corset
often police ourselves
to take off our clothes —
but what’s another way to look at this?
could you have asked?
If you don’t recognise me
among the treed-up, jacked-up roads
the logical supposition
of boulevards I have never been
it is because I took off all my clothes
in my most confrontational
means I can’t hear them
edgelit and hooting in the trees
a politicised people
suddenly and casually
wondering if you were going to take your socks off
before you came.
These days I am trying hard not to come so consistently —
instead asking my mother, “how are you feeling today?”
wondering if I’ll ever see her
dance beneath the pines,
fantasise about suffocating my landlord
with deliberate marmite: a whole feast of mugwort
on the bedside table; gave me dreams of killing children, told me
to dare imagining
it’s not a thing you can touch