In order to discuss anything of a “spiritual” nature, I think we have to define what spirit is. It often means different things to different people. Merriam-Webster defines it as 1): an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms: 2) a supernatural being or essence: as soul; 3): the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person.
All of these definitions work for me. Regardless of how you define it, we all have a spirit. It’s deep within us, and it can be a great source of inspiration and strength – providing it is cultivated!
And that is the subject of my post this week – nourishing and cultivating the spirit. In order to do that, you need a “practice”.
That’s another interesting word. So let’s go back to Merriam-Webster and get some definitions: 1) to do or perform often, customarily, repeatedly, or habitually a: to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient b: to train by repeated exercises 2) to be professionally engaged in.
I love that second definition. It refers, of course, to “the practice of medicine” or “the practice of law”, but it can apply to any profession. The implication is that in addition to being work, there is implicit the idea that “practice makes perfect” – or more accurately, “perfect practice makes perfect”.
The fact is, when we do something repeatedly, we become better at it – eventually, we may become “proficient practitioners” or some art of science or skill. At that point, we can perform a task without thinking about it.
Think of learning to read – it’s hard to imagine the time when you could not do this, but try to remember the effort it took to memorize the alphabet, put the words together, and practice sounding them out until you eventually became proficient enough to read silently!
Or driving. Ever had that experience where you are driving and suddenly realize that you haven’t been “present”? Or better yet, do you actually remember putting the car in gear this morning to back out of your driveway – or putting the signal on to make a turn? Chances are you don’t actually recall doing it, but you know you did because it’s so habitual now, after years of practice.
My point is that there are many skills that we’ve picked up and now do without much conscious effort. They are important skills, yes. But there is a lot to be said for making the time to have a spiritual practice. Most of us don’t. At least not until later in life, when we begin to realize the value of “quiet time”, and “relaxation” – a maturity that recognizes the value of developing an “inner life”.
You can have a spiritual practice whether you believe in a God or not. I do believe in God, and I’m not shy about saying so. My belief is strong, so I also like to say if you don’t believe in God, that doesn’t mean there is no God. As the saying goes “There are no atheists in foxholes” and by the increased turnout in holy places after 9/11, I’d say that if people do not seek God in times of extreme stress, they are seeking something greater than themselves, even if that is the comfort of others facing the same stress.
But I am not writing this to convert anyone, because I also believe that spirit is a deeply personal thing. As a Christian, I’ve never been comfortable with the whole idea of “saving” people. Frankly, I have so many friends who are Jewish, or Buddhist, or Islamic, I can only imagine how insulted they’d be if I were to suggest that can’t get to heaven without Jesus. And I think my non-believing friends are entitled to believe as they see fit. As I said, it’s a personal thing.
However, I believe we all have a spirit and that it is one of the 4 primary dimensions of our lives. As such, it needs attention -and the best way to cultivate the spirit is to establish a regular spiritual practice. And by regular, I mean daily.
I can hear you groaning. “Oh no – not something else to add to my list of things to do!” Yes, but honestly, this “thing” doesn’t have to take more than 5 – 10 minutes. I am so convinced that you will see value in this that you will want to take something off your list to devote more time to a spiritual practice. To start, I’m asking only for 5-10 minutes.
If you don’t have a daily calendar, get one – remember I’ve said “Most people plan their vacations better than they plan their lives” and you don’t want to be one of those people! On your daily calendar, block off 5-10 minutes every day to sit and “meditate”.
Another groan! I know that some of you are thinking “NO! Don’t want to do that!” or “Can’t do that!”
I do NOT mean I want you to sit on the floor in the lotus position, chanting “OOOMMMM” and trying to empty your mind. If you currently have no daily practice, that would not be a good way to start one.
I would just like you to spend 5-10 minutes, sitting alone, quietly (no people, TV, other distractions) and…..breathe! Yes, that’s all I want you to do to start. Most of us don’t breathe properly. I want you to sit and take deep, long breaths in and out. Mentally, count slowly to 5 on the inhale and slowly to 10 on the exhale. Start with 5 minutes.
Remember, I said this is a practice, and that’s what you’re doing. Concentrating on counting and breathing will have a secondary benefit of “clearing your mind” – something that is incredibly difficult to do. If you don’t believe me, start now and think of NOTHING for the next 60 seconds! I dare you.
Having a regular, daily spiritual practice is a wonderful way to refresh yourself in this insane world we live in. It is clearing and grounding. I challenge you to just try this for a week – and please let me know what you think.
I do take the time to breathe consciously for 5 minutes every day. But I have other spiritual practices – specifically, I pray. I know there are some of you out there who know me and may find this hard to believe, but I do. I even have a prayer list!
In fact, for the past 15 years, every December I go to a Christian book store and I purchase a daily bible. I buy a different one each year. Some have been the kind where you read a passage from the Old Testament, the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs every day. Others have been start at the beginning and read through. Still others are the books of the bible arranged chronologically. This is a particular favorite of mine, except every time I read this version, I am amazed at how long it takes to get to Jesus!
So every morning, before I leave for the gym, I breathe, I read the Bible, and I pray for someone on my list. It takes me 15 minutes and I do it while I have my first cup of coffee. I also end the day with an entry in a gratitude journal and another prayer.
This year, I added yoga to my spiritual practice. On Tuesdays and Thursday, I take a basic yoga class at the fitness center where I work. I decided to try yoga because of my injuries earlier this year. My hips are a wreck and I needed something less vigorous than weight-training and high-intensity aerobics, but I found stretching on its own a total bore. So I decided to try yoga.
I have always eschewed yoga – I thought it was for whimps! I thought “If you don’t sweat, it can’t be exercise”. Boy was I wrong about that. After my first class, my core burned for three days! I was a convert – an enthusiastic convert. Yoga can be a workout, but it is also therapeutic, AND it can be part of a spiritual practice.
Why? Because like prayer and meditation, yoga is a very individual, personal practice. You are not competing – you are trying to get in touch with your own body. You need to concentrate on your balance and the muscles you are engaging. Yes, weight-training – done right – cultivates this skill with regard to muscles. But there is nothing like yoga to make you mindful of balance.
And as we age, maintaining balance is of vital importance. We lose the ability to balance easily as we age. The waning of this ability is exactly why I fell down the stairs – twice! – injured my hips, and got sciatica. I knew I was losing my balance, and if I’d been sensible enough to start my yoga practice ten years ago instead of waiting until now, I might have avoided both those falls and the resulting injuries.
So if you are like me and think yoga is too quiet and gentle and whimpy for a jock like you, take it from me, you could not be more wrong. Yoga is good for all dimensions of life – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In terms of balance, it’s a bonanza. I hope you give it a try.
But if you need some time to think about what you would like your spiritual practice to be, I hope you will simply take 5 minutes a day to sit and breathe!