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.