The Psychology of a Daily Spiritual Practice
How can a daily practice support your sense of mystery and your spiritual needs?
Posted Sep 25, 2020
This post is part 25 of a series of posts on the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice. In this series, I’ll explore the elements of daily practice, varieties of daily practice, challenges to daily practice, and strategies for meeting those challenges. Please join me in learning more about this important subject!
Whatever precise distinctions you might want to make between the two, religion and spirituality are two different things. Many people who have come to reject religion, either in part or in whole, nevertheless still consider themselves spiritual.
Each, though, likely means something quite different by the word. The amazing diversity of the New Age movement is a natural result of people meaning rather different things by “spirituality” and looking for “spirituality” in radically different pursuits and places.
One person sees it as spiritual to paint all-blue canvases. Another finds it spiritual to walk in nature. Another finds yoga to be a spiritual practice. Another finds the essence of spiritual practice to be manifesting a quality like compassion. Another sees angels as spiritual beings, another finds spirituality in channeled books, another in thousand-year-old mystical writings, another in a particular array of Buddhist practices. Then there’s the person who feels the need to walk on broken glass or charcoal embers as his or her spiritual practice.
If you feel moved to create a spiritual practice, yours will no doubt prove exactly as personal and idiosyncratic. It might include vestiges of your birth religion, elements of a religion or philosophy you studied as an adult, rituals and ceremonies you learned at workshops, creative activities like painting, writing poetry, or playing music, challenges and tests, like vision quests, that you set yourself, and other practices that help you feel more attuned to the unseen and more connected to the universe and to something bigger than yourself.
But creating a right-feeling, sustainable practice may not prove all that easy. Take Frank. Frank had grown up in what he described as a cult. He refused to talk about the details, although he let drop hints about physical abuse, sexual abuse, and ritual torture. What truly amazed him was that he came out of that experience relatively whole. “Some kind of resilience must be built into my DNA,” he said, shaking his head. “Because I ought to be really screwed up.”
He’d been taught all sorts of lessons about a punishing God, about how God looked straight into his soul and disliked what He saw, about how the cult leader was the voice of God, as perfect as God, as all-powerful as God, and, well, a God himself. Frank couldn’t manage to laugh any of that away. What he felt was fury. But at the same time, he felt something like nostalgia for the cult. A big hole remained where the cult had been.
“No religion for me, not ever again!” he announced. “But I feel very empty. I do believe in something. I don’t know what to call it, I don’t know how to talk about, but I feel it … and I feel very divorced from it. I need it but I don’t know how to have it.”
“Need it, how?” I wondered.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I need to be in touch with it. To not keep it at such a distance. To be … I don’t know … to be bathed in it.”
The very fact that he “believed in something” disturbed him. But he did. He didn’t believe in a God with a capital “G” but he felt no affinity for agnosticism and certainly none for atheism. He believed … in something. But how do you build a spiritual practice when you don’t know what it is you believe in and the closest you can come is wanting to be bathed in a certain light?
“I’m guessing it’s not about light fixtures,” I said.
Frank laughed. “No. Actually, I do love lighting. If I were some kind of designer, it would be a lighting designer. But, no, I don’t think it’s about light fixtures.”
I proposed that, as a place to start, he might hold his daily spiritual practice as a time to remain open to what his practice wanted to be. He agreed to set aside an hour each morning and, while there, to surrender to not knowing what he would do for that hour. “Maybe I’ll dream up a new lighting scheme for the apartment,” he said. “It could certainly use it.”
What emerged surprised him.
“I need to write about the cult,” he informed me. “I want to try to get at how something that horrible could also have possessed something so attractive, so magical. It was a terrible, terrible place but it also felt more ‘spiritual’ than everyday life does. If that was all just plain old-fashioned trickery, I want to get at how he pulled those damned tricks off."
“Are you sure that you want to spend time there again?” I wondered. “It’s not going to be very pleasant, conjuring that all up, is it?”
“That is exactly the thing I want to get at,” he replied. “Get at for my own understanding. Because I think that spending time there in memory is going to feel … wonderful. And I’m ashamed to say that. It makes me feel dirty to admit that I want to be there. I just may discover that I’m ruined. Or maybe I’ll discover something else. That’s what I’m hoping. I’m hoping that I’ll discover something that will let me come out the other side.”
“Into the light,” I ventured.
“Into the true light,” Frank agreed. “Hell is brightly lit, too, isn’t it? Maybe this will be a journey out from the fires of hell and into the California sunshine.”
If you crave a spiritual practice, you may first have to find your way to it. Be open, allow for your individuality to shine through, and see what transpires.
In this series, I intend to explain the elements of daily practice, the varieties of daily practice available to you, and what to do to deal with the challenges to daily practice that inevitably arise. If you’d like to learn more about the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice and better understand the great power of daily practice, I invite you to get acquainted with The Power of Daily Practice.