By Reverend Tom Capo
Ok, so, those are some purposes, but what the heck is a spiritual practice? Well, let’s start with characteristics and then consider a definition that might be useful, that might help us to decide what spiritual practice we could incorporate into our lives or what characteristics we might add to our current practices.
Not too many years ago, I attended a spiritual practices group at the church I served. One man in the group got up each morning and meditated, prayed, sang, juggled, and walked. Each night before he went to bed he repeated this pattern, but backwards, walking, juggling, singing, praying, and meditating. A woman in the group practiced the Japanese tea ceremony three times a week. Another person said they had no practice, but wanted to start one; he committed to Zazen meditation at least three times a week. Another person said she was unsure if this was a spiritual practice, but she ran three miles a day. She felt she had to do this to cope with the stress of her life. And one other person in the group said that his practice was to spend time with friends at least twice a week; during this time, he talked with them about his experiences and insights. Another member of the group said that their spiritual practice was working for social justice—signing petitions, attending rallies, lobbying their political leaders. And one other person said that their spiritual practice was painting and sculpting. Would you consider all of these spiritual practices? If so, what makes them a spiritual practice? The following is adapted from Satipatthana-sutta and translated by Thich Nhat Hanh and Annabel Laity: “Monks, how does a practitioner remain established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings? Whenever the practitioner has a pleasant feeling, one is aware, 'I am experiencing a pleasant feeling.' Whenever one has a painful feeling, one is aware, 'I am experiencing a painful feeling.' Whenever one experiences a feeling which is neither pleasant nor painful, one is aware, 'I am experiencing a neutral feeling.' When one experiences a feeling based in the body, one is aware, 'I am experiencing a feeling based in the body.' When one experiences a feeling based in the mind, one is aware, 'I am experiencing a feeling based in the mind.'”
This passage alludes to two characteristics of a spiritual practice: it involves self-reflection and discernment, and it is interlaced with daily life. Often you will hear from spiritual teachers how important self-reflection is, but why is it so important? You might say that the purpose of self-reflection is to correct our mistaken thoughts and actions, and learn from them, thereby creating a more constructive life. But the purpose of self-reflection is not just the simple act of discovering past mistakes and learning from these mistakes, it is the development of a more positive self.
“Once in India there lived a family which consisted of a man, his wife and their son. The parents were very rich; they owned many acres of land and had a large sum of money in the bank and great quantities of gold and jewels. However, their son was not very intelligent. The parents often worried about what would happen to him after they died, for he was so simple-minded that they did not think him capable of managing his own affairs. Then one day the father had an idea. He gave his son a precious jewel of inestimable value and told him to keep the jewel tied up in his clothes. He was never to take it out until they died. Only then could he remove it, sell it in the marketplace and use the money he received to support himself. The son bore his father's words in mind and kept the promise. Then one day, as the years passed by, his father died; several years later his mother died, and the son came by his full inheritance. In his ignorance, however, the young man foolishly squandered his wealth on fruitless pursuits. He sold the furniture, the houses, the rice fields, the granaries and all else, but while he spent, he did not earn. Thus, before he knew it he found himself a poor man, without a penny to his name, without even a roof over his head. He was reduced to the state of a beggar, wandering from house to house and from town to town begging for his meals. Some days he got enough to eat, but on other days he got no food at all.
One day, overcome by hunger and exhaustion, he lay down in the middle of the street, too weak and tired to move, reflecting on his choices and thinking about how he could have done things differently. Just then a monk walked down the street and saw the young man lying on the ground. The monk began to help the man to his feet when suddenly a wonderful precious jewel fell out of the shredded clothing. ‘Why are you begging for food," the monk asked, "when all the time you have had this precious jewel? Go sell it, and use the money to support yourself.’ The young man was struck with wonder and amazement at seeing this jewel he had forgotten about for so long. He sold it in the market, and with the money he got for it he was able to buy back all his former possessions. Never again did he have to suffer from poverty, [for he had found the true jewel that his father had given him: wisdom.]” We can each find the jewels within ourselves and within our experiences as well. We all carry the potential for wisdom, insight, enlightenment, and the potential for a more positive self within us. Unless we stop in our rush through this life long enough to reflect upon what we have experienced, we will not gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world. That is why reflection must be interlaced throughout our lives, must be part of how we live in the world. And here is that word “practice” again. A spiritual practice is an intentional discipline (I know “discipline” is not an easy word for Unitarian Universalists, perhaps “routine” would be more acceptable) and it is long term. Unity minister and student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Joan Gattuso in her book "The Balancing Buddha" wrote: “Without spiritual discipline we are never going to wake up or advance on our journey through this life. But our discipline must be wedded to joy, and we must find pleasure in the myriad wonders that this life offers.”
As you will hear me say from time to time, you will only get the blessings or gifts or insight or joy of a spiritual practice if you practice it for a long time. As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to sample belief systems or spiritual practices, like we are at a huge religious buffet. As we nibble at all of these spiritual treats, we find them unsatisfying because we are only snacking. We try a little bit of everything, getting just a taste before moving on to the next tidbit. Should we avoid buffets? Of course not. They’re fun and a great way to try new things. But they’re not often that nutritionally satisfying and, depending on the selection, they are not often that nutritionally balanced. Spiritual practices can be like that Wednesday night roast chicken and vegetables you mom or dad used to make—a balanced, satisfying meal you looked forward to each week. Whatever it was in your family—the pot roast or meatloaf or enchiladas—the very regularity of that meal week after week was comforting, grounding.
Blessings, gifts, rewards are part of a spiritual practice. Some of you have heard me talk about my prayer practice; I open with a number of names for the divine, because none of them are really adequate for what I believe in. You see, I believe there is divinity in all things. I do not think divinity is a god that is out there somewhere on a throne looking down on us. After that I list the many blessings that I have in my life and I focus on gratitude. Finally, I offer the blessing of loving kindness out into the world, believing that this blessing will have a positive effect on the world around me. I started this practice years ago just as I was starting seminary. And while I had a passing thought that perhaps taking quiet time for prayer would lower my blood pressure, I didn’t really consider what my reward for practicing would be. I realized at the onset that a spiritual practice is not some sort of vending machine where you put in your payment and out pops the brand of reward you want. After several months of praying, I reflected upon my prayer practice. To my surprise I realized that I had become less pessimistic. I have always been a sort of glass half empty kind of person, but after months of spiritual practice, I received any unexpected and unintended gift, optimism. This is the way a spiritual practice works. The rewards we receive from the practice are not necessarily what we expect, hope for, even pray for. I believe the insight, the change, the transformation we experience, are the jewels that have been hidden within ourselves.
American sociologist Robert J. Wuthnow, widely known for his work in the sociology of religion, has listed several characteristics of a spiritual practice, two of which I want to touch on before closing. A spiritual practice has a social dimension and leads to a life of service. What is the social dimension of a spiritual practice? Well, we talk about that all the time here. We share what we practice and what we have learned/gained with others. You will hear me encourage you many many many times to share your spiritual experiences. It is through this sharing that we enrich each other connecting, vulnerable heart to vulnerable heart. And it is through this sharing we deepen our care for one another. And the caring we actively practice here in this congregation, we begin to practice outside these walls. Thus a spiritual practice has a social dimension that leads to a life of service.
Robert Wuthnow states: "The point of spiritual practice is not to elevate an isolated set of activities over the rest of life but to electrify the spiritual impulse that animates all of life." And for me, here is our definition: a spiritual practice is a set of behaviors done intentionally and routinely to electrify the spiritual impulse that animates all life. Given this definition, I encourage you to consider what practice you will choose that will electrify your spiritual impulse. All those ones I mentioned from the spiritual practices group are ones you can choose from and there are many more out there. Your practice should be intentional, disciplined, and long term. It should involve self-reﬂection and discernment. It should be interlaced with your daily life. And my hope would be that you share your practice and what you experience from it with us. Through this deeper level of sharing and the resulting deeper level of caring for one another, I believe that this practice lead to a life of service. As you practice do not look for rewards, but months or years after your practice, reflect back and notice what rewards you have gotten. But I realize this long term commitment can be difficult. As you begin a practice it can feel like the Israelites waiting for Moses while he was on Mount Sinai. You might begin to complain that nothing is happening even after a few weeks of practice; you might begin to feel disillusioned, even if you notice some benefit early on; you might be tempted to turn to another practice, but my friends, trust the process, stay committed to the practice that you choose.
One last thing I have learned from my practice: for change to happen you must be open, you must be patient, you must be mindful and you must have a grateful heart. Only then may your spiritual impulse be electrified.