Spiritual Wisdom for Secular Times

The search for meaning and faith.

Advancing on the Spiritual Path 2: Religious Spiritual Practices

Many people engage in spiritual practices without formally identifying them

Life-affirming spiritual practices
Spiritual skills increase when someone engages regularly in any form of spiritual practice. This can cover an emormous range of activities, religious and secular. Even grass-cutting or washing dishes might count, as long as you undertake them mindfully.

Many people engage in spiritual practices without formally identifying them as such. They make pledges and do things that contribute to their lives in a spiritual way, giving them meaning, adding to a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging. In this way, they maintain an attitude of living a wholesome life and working towards being whole.

For example, an elderly lady I know spends many hours working in her garden. She often tells me she loves it, feels happy and at peace there, and feels deprived if she is unable to get out regularly in the open and work with nature. For her, the garden is hallowed, like a temple; and I would say gardening is one of her main spiritual practices.

Finding joy, purpose and peace in the garden
Other spiritual practices might include saying prayers, for example, or shopping each week for a disabled elderly neighbour. Such activities often form an important part of someone's daily or weekly routine. Impulses of devotion and duty arise from within, from one's spiritual essence, often accompanied by a willing sense of personal dedication, of deliberately making space and time to honour them. This is one way for us to recognize aspects of our true self. Worthy impulses feel agreeably life-affirming when we honour them. Try to ignore them, and they tend to persist or recur.

These practices tend to reinforce each other, so the more of them a person engages in, the more they - and those around them - are likely to benefit. With increasing spiritual maturity, devotion and duty come to feel less like burdensome servitude, more like joyful liberation; but these rewards are not always felt. Routine activities sometimes seem less meaningful and more of a chore than a delight. The temptation naturally grows to abandon them; and this is especially so at the beginning. That's why commitment and discipline are required.

Regular meditation, for example, starts as a practice, as simply an exercise, before becoming a skill. Patience and perseverance are necessary, and both come more easily when a person finds faith in the process. Spiritual practices do work, and we can be confident that they will eventually bear fruit. We can begin by considering some mainly religious practices. 

Some religious practices
Researchers have found that belonging to a faith group or tradition, and participating in associated community-based activities, has significant health benefits. It does not matter which religion is involved.

Recommended scriptures from different faiths
Holy scriptures from different religions comprise a rich treasure-house containing abundant folk histories, illuminating human stories, and much timeless wisdom. Reading scripture is a second form of religious spiritual practice.

Examples of religious practices

- Belonging to a faith tradition
- Reading scripture
- Worship (and other forms of ritual practice
- Meditation and prayer
- Going on pilgrimages and retreats
- Listening to, singing and playing sacred music

The word ‘worship' is a contraction of ‘worth-ship', and implies an activity honouring God, a Supreme Being or deity, with thanks and praise. Repetition, ritual and symbolization are common aspects of church services and other forms of religious worship, often incorporating prayer and music (see below). Acts of worship can be satisfying in a number of ways, enabling the mind of the worshipper an opportunity to commune with the spiritual dimension in a deeply personal way.

When two, three or more people are gathered together in worship and prayer, a deep, satisfying and often enduring sense of fellowship and mutual support can develop. This kind of spiritual camaraderie has also been linked to physical and psychological health benefits.

Regular meditation practice involves stilling the mind in a way that eventually results in ‘mindful' attention to the arising and ceasing of thoughts, emotions, sense perceptions and actions. Mindfulness facilitates the faculties of intuition and creativity. As the self-seeking ego quietens, the true self emerges in communication with the spiritual dimension, the personal soul makes contact with the universal spirit, and this forms the basis also of prayer. Giving thanks and praise, asking forgiveness, and making requests depend first for many people on developing this level of communion with the Absolute, with the Almighty.

A pilgrimage is a journey in search of meaning, understanding, beauty and blessing, to (and back from) a place that is both sacred and significant to the pilgrim. It is often undertaken in the company

An excellent book on pilgrimage
of others with whom one often establishes a deep sense of fellowship. Other people are met and befriended similarly, in passing, on the way. There are similarities to pilgrimage when people go on a planned retreat. The main opportunity is for a period of silence and solitude. Leadership and guidance may also be available, and the company of others. Many retreats involve periods of meditation practice. There is usually a tranquil setting with food and accommodation provided, allowing the retreatant to settle and focus with a clear mind both on the surroundings and their inner, mental landscape. These spiritual practices are not usually undertaken frequently, but can provide turning points, opportunities for making significant progress along the path towards spiritual maturity.

Listening to, singing and playing sacred music (songs, hymns, psalms and devotional chants) in a religious context, as part of regular worship or on special occasions, both solemn and joyful, like funerals and weddings, can open us up. It is capable of transporting us in mind and imagination to sacred realms, both hellish and sublime. It may help develop in us the capacity to view pain, cruelty and destruction without flinching and turning away, with a degree of calm detachment. In times of sorrow, music can offer great consolation. In times of joy, it can help us feel and express a heavenly degree of bliss.

Secular music can have a similar capacity, as we shall see when turning to secular spiritual practices next time in ‘Advancing on the Spiritual Path 3: Secular Spiritual Practices'.

Copyright Larry Culliford

Larry's books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).

Larry Culliford, M.B., B.Chir. (Cantab), M.R.C. Psych. (UK), is the author of the Psychology of Spirituality and a psychiatrist in Sussex, England.

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