"Whether...to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts...from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit...Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired." —Martha Graham
The practice of spirituality
Creating a spiritual life is something like writing a story. Ultimately, it is a mystery—one that will not unfold unless you go into the workroom and make an effort, however banal and humdrum it feels. In other words, you have to practice.
All spiritual traditions show you ways to do this, like attending services and participating in religious rituals. Some practices involve consistently performing a physical exercise, such as yoga and tai chi. Many people find great spiritual value in walking regularly, especially while using breath-control techniques.
The practice of mindfulness
Mindfulness is another example. When we learn to witness ourselves, we stand outside our feelings and thoughts and observe instead of judging, analyzing, or denying them. This practice allows us to become less attached to our dramas, less victimized by our moods, and more aware of what is driving us.
The practice of love
A committed relationship is another form of practice. Many of us think of love as something that should be effortless and constant, not something that requires serious work. The inevitable struggles and disappointments of relationships can help partners develop acceptance, honesty, flexibility, empathy, patience, and self-awareness. To do so, though, we must move off the path to some sort of abstract happiness and get on the one headed toward awakening.
Ironically, when we relinquish the requirement that our partner be the source of our well-being, the relationship can become a wellspring of sustenance and nourishment.
Life as a practice
Some philosophies suggest that life itself, like relationships, is a practice. Ordinary challenges—growing a garden, raising children, or working a job—can be invitations to soul-work. Our daily lives offer us constant opportunities to increase compassion. Many religions have designated days of the week and times of the year for fasting, praying, and reading scriptures. Muslims bow in prayer five times a day. The Balinese Hindus offer baskets filled with flowers and rice to their deities thrice daily, and the Benedictine nuns sing Gregorian chants.
Establish a schedule for your own practice—it doesn't have to be perfect or make you happy—but make it good enough to get you to show up and stay grounded. Mysticism causes us to soar; an ongoing practice keeps us rooted to the earth.
Becoming spiritually literate is about paying attention to what is in front of your eyes at each moment. Thinking about what was, or what could be, diminishes what is happening right now. If we do not pay attention to now, we may never recognize our true prayer or song, the connection to the spark we seek. When we pay attention, we may be surprised.
When her sons were 4 and 7 years old, Lily went to a spiritual retreat and made a recommitment to meditation. When she returned home, she carefully set up an altar in the corner of her bedroom. She found a perfect candle and a meditation cushion with Sanskrit phrases on it. Then she announced to the boys that she would be spending 30 minutes each day in her room meditating, during which they needed to be very quiet.
The day she began her practice, they stood outside her room, compliant and quiet. After about 10 minutes she heard a quiet buzzing, which began to increase decibel by decibel. She tried to ignore the sound, meditating with her special mantra, but the noise grew louder. Soon she could hear the boys hitting one another, then crying and yelling. In exasperation she jumped up, opened the door, and screamed at them, "You two better stop it right now. I mean, stop it, damn it! I am working on my spiritual practice!"
Her sons' faces fell at the sight of their raging mother, and Lily was struck by the absurdity of this scene. Her spiritual practice was hurting all three of them. What her true practice should be, she realized, was to use every event in the day as an opportunity for kindness and patience to emerge. Nowhere was this practice more important than with her children.
Spiritual ideas can be exciting to learn and talk about; so can fitness and learning Spanish. Practice is the bridge that takes us from thinking to becoming.