Possibility, Resistance, Spiritual Practice, Starting Over, Writing, Zen

What is “Spiritual Practice”?

Spiritual practice is like trying to open an endless set of matryoshka dolls.

Spiritual practice is like trying to open an endless set of matryoshka dolls.

When I began this blog nearly 18 months ago, I chose not to limit myself to a single topic or focus, curious to see what would emerge. Last week, buoyed by an increase in traffic, I redesigned the blog, making the home page more user friendly and dynamic. And I tried to look at my posts as if for the first time, to see which topics dominated. Some did, and these appear on the new top menu bar. While I still prefer a broader focus, I added a tagline: writings on spiritual practice and life. Just as you’d probably peek at a restaurant’s cooking before filling a plate, I imagined some readers might wish to understand what I mean by spiritual practice before choosing it from among my à la carte offerings.

There are probably as many definitions of “spiritual” as there are people who love or loathe the word. For some it means connecting with a higher power, cultivating an internal sense of wholeness or peacefulness, feeling interconnected with nature and the world, or recognizing an element of mystery or miraculousness to existence. For others, it connotes striving for higher or altered states that expand consciousness. And some just think it’s a lot of woo-woo.

“Practice” is a bit less ambiguous. To practice is to repeat an activity with the intent of gaining proficiency if not mastery. Practice suggests regularity and discipline, something you do whether you feel like it or not. In that sense, using psychedelic drugs or other substances to open oneself to an expanded version of reality is what I would call a spiritual experience rather than a practice. Religious ceremonies and holy days, which might help participants enter into a more contemplative, connected or receptive state, are what I would loosely refer to as rituals for the purpose of this blog. Spiritual experiences and rituals, valuable in their own right, might also inspire people to dedicate themselves to daily or weekly practices.

Traditionally, these include meditation, prayer, mantra recitation, chanting, yoga, fasting, confession, dietary restrictions, Sabbath observance (which might include rituals) and even martial arts. That many of these practices have been carried on for millennia is worthy of respect. But as my teacher Zen monk Cheri Huber says, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it.”  Even ancient sacred practices, if performed distractedly or halfheartedly, are no more a vehicle for transformation, growth or connection than doing the laundry. Meditating out of a sense of duty rather than devotion, hurriedly reciting prayers with an eye on the clock, or keeping kosher while kvetching about it might satisfy a religious obligation but without aligning with the underlying spiritual intent. But, deciding to hand-wash clothing with one’s full attention, love and gratitude just might help a person crack their ego open a bit or gain an insight.

In a world no longer as tightly bound to ancestral customs, we are free to modify and adopt spiritual practices and choose whether to do them alone, with a partner or in community. Ordinary activities – writing, running, making art, walking a labyrinth, hiking, cycling, gardening, playing an instrument, dancing, eating and even windsurfing – can be imbued with a high quality of attention and intention. Doing so allows these activities to loosen the ego’s defense mechanisms and bypass the personality so we can start to experience who we are beneath all of that.

But my own litmus test for whether something feels like a spiritual practice is whether it’s initially, occasionally, or even frequently a total bitch. This is why writing and accompanying doubts can be excruciating.  Ditto for meditating. When I first began a sitting practice, it was hellish to remain still as I believed that pausing for even 15 minutes was going to throw off my day (six years later, I’ve discovered that not meditating is guaranteed to throw off my day, even though I still resist it).  Eating mindfully, thoroughly chewing each bite before swallowing and only consuming what I need, has at times provoked anxiety in this gourmand.  And while I often enjoy silence, that practice could unnerve an extreme extrovert, just as slowing down and doing one thing at a time might temporarily unhinge a multitasker. For each person there is a practice that, at first, or maybe always, feels like an obstacle.

There is a Zen saying that the obstacle is the path.  In my experience the obstacle is like an infinite set of nesting matryoshka dolls. At first I only see the most obvious barrier, often a fear of some kind.  I might believe I’ve addressed it, only to take a closer look and discover another variation embedded inside. And on it goes, with each successive doll a bit harder to twist open than the one before. Many times, especially with writing, I’ve given up in frustration, stuck at some level of fear. Days, weeks, months or even years later, I begin again. Starting over is, for me, a huge aspect of spiritual practice. And it might be the very point of such practice, asking us to see each day, each person and each event with fresh eyes. This means approaching the next matryoshka doll with curiosity, even after umpteen attempts to open it, chanting a memorized blessing with the freshness of the first time, greeting familiar faces as if you’ve just met them, forgiving ourselves when we let ourselves down.

As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”  Spiritual practice, whatever its flavor or form, offers the opportunity to unlearn much of what we think we know or believe so we can open to what is here, whether it makes us feel good or not. Consider that to be one of the staples on the menu, with fare on other topics.

Bon appetit!

P.S. You can now subscribe via RSS to all posts, or à la carte to specific categories via links in the top menu bar. Since I often cross-publish, at times you might receive duplicates.


About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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