Advancing on the Spiritual Path 3: Secular Spiritual Practices

Faith development may be the only essential purpose in life.

Posted Aug 19, 2011

In the 1960's, psychologist Richard Alpert left Harvard, became a Hindu, took the name Ram Dass, and soon became known as a respected spiritual teacher. In Australia in the late 1970's, I heard him describe a public talk he had given in the USA. Mostly young people were attracted to his teachings in those days, but this time he also discovered an elderly woman in the front row, rapt in attention, hearkening to his every word.

Ram Dass

Intrigued, Ram Dass approached the woman afterwards and asked how come she was there. "I knit", she told him. "I love to crochet." This repetitive, rhythmical, creative and useful activity had become for her a transformative spiritual practice.

According to spiritual principles, faith development (in its broadest sense) is the only essential work and purpose of a lifetime. It is unsurprising, then, that many people intuitively engage in regular activities that fulfil the function of a spiritual practice without necessarily identifying it as such.

It might help us understand ourselves better, and so promote our progress along the spiritual path, to be more conscious of this and deliberate in going about it; and we can start by examining and reflecting upon a list of spiritual practices that are not necessarily religious in nature.

A list of secular spiritual practices:
  - Contemplation.
  - Yoga, Tai Chi and similar disciplined practices.
  - Maintaining physical health.
  - Contemplative reading.
  - Engaging with and enjoying nature.
  - Appreciation of the arts and engaging in creative activities.
  - Co-operative group or team activities involving a special quality of fellowship.
  - Maintaining stable family relationships and friendships.
  - Regular acts of compassion.

Contemplation. (Deep reflection.)
Contemplation involves thinking continuously about something, studying and musing over it, usually something worthwhile and important, pertaining to life and meaning. When this kind of reflective activity goes very deep, when a person becomes still and highly focused as they ponder, the ego dissolves temporarily and contemplation becomes increasingly like meditation. Solutions to life's problems sometimes appear spontaneously at such times.

Contemplation, however, may be less of a deliberate and regularly performed activity. It may just happen; when we are taking a bath, for example, or going for a walk. Sometimes it is triggered by an event, something someone says or something we read, by a dream or a memory. Contemplation is a common activity, and supports the idea that everyone, religious or not, engages with the spiritual dimension from time to time.

Yoga, T'ai Chi and similar disciplined practices.
There are five types of yoga, each representing a major path of spiritual development. In western society, hatha yoga especially (physical exercises and postures), also t'ai chi and martial arts like judo, karate and taekwondo are increasingly popular. These martial skills combine exercise and the sport of combat techniques with a philosophy emphasizing meditation and self-defense. These practices are therefore both disciplined and devotional.

Karate master

Karate, in particular, is a deeply philosophical practice that teaches profoundly ethical principles, with strong spiritual significance for many of its adherents.

Maintaining physical health.
For those who do not engage regularly in yoga or similar physical disciplines, maintaining physical health through other methods can be considered good spiritual practice: through exercise and diet, by avoiding toxins and intoxicants, and through seeking appropriate health checks, advice and treatment when necessary.

Contemplative reading.
The secular equivalent of reading scripture involves a similarly contemplative and devotional attitude to reading great literature, biography, drama, poetry and philosophy. Reading about science counts too. Reading and applying oneself to the more enlightened self-help literature may equally prove beneficial.

Engaging with and enjoying nature.
We all need reminding occasionally of the benefits of regular and frequent contact with diverse, beautiful, awe-inspiring landscapes, growing plants, animals, waterfalls, sunsets, snowstorms and similarly evocative objects, suitable for direct experience and contemplation. Flowering plants, shrubs and trees inviting cultivation offer the added opportunity for beautifying the home and managing a personal garden, however small and modest, or grand and spacious.

Appreciation of the arts and engaging in creative activities, including craftwork and artistic pursuits.
Other creative activities echo the benefits and blessings of gardening, whether pursued professionally or as a regular hobby. Listening to and making secular music can have similar benefits, as can painting, sculpture, craftwork, even humble activities like needlework. Critically, these creative processes require close concentration.

Knitting

Joining clubs and societies.
Being part of a club or society involves a degree of commitment, and there is a social aspect to the kind of sports, hobbies and other activities already listed as secular spiritual practices. Friendships and a special quality of human fellowship often exist within such groups, clubs and societies.

Co-operative group or team activities, sporting, recreational or other, involving a special quality of fellowship.
The same dynamic interplay arises involving a higher level of commitment and cohesion when people come together to form a group or team with a specific purpose; to produce a play, sing in a choir, for example, or play competitive sports. Personal goals must be subordinated to those of the group for the success of the enterprise, providing a learning experience that may carry over into everyday life.

Maintaining stable family relationships and friendships. (Especially those involving high levels of trust and intimacy).
We can relinquish group, team or club membership whenever circumstances change and the time feels right, but family relationships and some friendships are commonly lifelong. They require working at if they are to be maintained and stay rewarding. Keeping in touch; being available, ready to listen and console during periods of hardship; being there similarly to share in celebrating joys and successes: these are among the privileges and duties of such relationships. The devotion involved hints powerfully that a spiritual quality is needed for their sustenance and success.

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In the next post I will discuss the last on my list of spiritual practices, acts of compassion (which includes work, especially teamwork). This will get us started on a discussion of ten ways of giving, based on the work of researcher Stephen Post.

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).