Beset as we are by the increasing demands of family and career, not to mention the horrific events in the news that we must somehow digest, our lives often lack flow and we can feel drained and perhaps even somewhat defeated by all that is seemingly asked of us.
Having a regular spiritual practice is the most effective thing we can do to offset the noise and arm-waving of daily life and to even make real gains in our joy, effectiveness, and inner capacity to dance with what life hands us. The Sufis liken this to “winding the clock.” Once a day the clock is wound and this daily gift of energy carries us until the next winding.
How is a “spiritual” practice different from, say, quiet moments reading a good book or the self-care of going to the gym? It is this: There are in all of us untapped wellsprings of intelligence, joy, healing and renewal that are only available when we become really quiet inside and allow them to unfold. We experience life as draining because our accustomed and conditioned felt-sense of “myself” actually pushes this away. Many of us are addicted to “doing” and to seeing “results” in the form of a certain predictability of feeling or form. The root of this is often some argument we have with Reality about how it is. The cost of this “efforting” is masked by the attainment of the “result,” and then it’s on to the next thing — in many people to cover the unconscious sensation that while the result may be momentarily satisfying, it isn’t really fulfilling at a deep level.
Spiritual practice is different. We may need to activate the “starter motor” through our familiar sense of intentionality, but after that, in seconds or months, must come a fluid beingness that unfolds the practice in us/AS us, newly in each breath. In a real spiritual practice there is the sense of a living boundless depth that effortlessly draws us into it and renews us from an inexhaustible source. If you have a “should” about doing a daily practice, that may help you to get it established in your routine, but it’s a false (egoic) motivation. It’s not real Will and it lacks staying power. What will really help you keep it up is the feeling of it sustaining you.
A regularity of time and place for our practice is very helpful, not to say necessary. Having a regular chunk of time that is just for ourselves is a kindness which will, in time, extend its benefits to everyone around us. (This is especially important for those of us who are “givers,” because we are always giving away the things we unconsciously want for ourselves.) After a few weeks of doing our practice at the same time and place, we may get the sense that there are unseen agencies gathering to support us at that time. A special garment such as a shawl, or a rosary for counting repetitions of mantra or breaths, can be extremely helpful as a focusing device. Some people set up a small altar with a bud vase and perhaps a candle or some incense. However, it might be better not having pictures of partner or children on it; this time is for YOU, not your role or who others need you to be. After your session, move slowly; this is the best way to help the effects integrate themselves into your being.
Some practices are better done in the morning, to carry their effects into the day and integrate the upliftment we get into our life. Practices done in the evening or just before bed will carry their effects into sleep, transforming our dreams and purifying the unconscious.
The best meditation is the one we do continually, at every moment and every breath. It takes time and it takes persistence to keep the effects of our practice with us through the day and build upon it. This is where regularity is necessary, plus firm intention coupled with a lack of judgment on ourselves. Berating ourselves is just reinforcement for that facet of our personality that is eroding our happiness. Most of us have a lifetime of being pulled off our center and kept ignorant of our true self. Just as the whole pool of water must adjust to accommodate the volume of our body when we step in, so our whole being must adjust to accommodate this new and profound element of our life. We must be gentle with ourselves, but also persistent.
What practice — or practices — should you do? If you have a mantram or other practice that was given you by a teacher in one of the world’s wisdom traditions, put that at the top of the list — not necessarily the first thing you do but the most central. The teachers who have attained something and consecrated their lives to the planet’s unfoldment can carry a spiritual power that is very great, and a practice given you personally by one of them is “invested” with a certain potency that is far greater than even the very same practice undertaken on your personal initiative, even when it is exactly the right practice for you.
It is often helpful to begin the session with some light yoga stretches or qigong, and perhaps a breath practice. Don’t get these from books; find an authorized teacher who will show you how to do them correctly, or you can hurt yourself. They will help enormously in quieting the mind and clearing the deck for your deep inquiry.
If you do not already have a practice, you may wish to investigate the different spiritual schools in your locale to find a technique and framework that are alive for you, and someone who can mentor you and help you through the inevitable hard parts of the practice actually changing you.
Whatever you do, there must be at least a few moments, and the more the better, when you enter into the boundless silence that is between the thoughts and at the depth of the heart, where there is nothing to do, you are no one, and you know nothing. It is this that transforms spiritual practice, of whatever kind it may be, from entertainment and maintenance to the portal to Reality Itself and the truth of your real being. It is through this that seekers become finders.