What are the components of a good spiritual practice?

That’s a question ShamanGal and I have been talking about.  She once told me that she was never going to beat herself up again.

I laughed.

“Of course you will beat yourself up again,” I told her.  “People and events will beat you up too.

“The question isn’t how you avoid challenges, the question is how you can use your practice to get over them quickly and gracefully.”

The ultimate paradox of a practice is that by giving us a bigger context of our lives, it allows us to stay more in the moment.

Our practice takes us out of the moment so we can be more in the moment.

Freedom exists in the moment between stimulus and response.   That moment, between when we twig to an event and when we respond to it is The Moment, the one we need to stay in to make better choices and feel more centred in our lives.

The only way we can make better choices is to make conscious responses in that moment rather than unthinking reactions.     If we just do a kneejerk reaction when our button is pushed, we will get the same results as we have in the past, surrendering our freedom to the habits wired into us, losing control of this moment to our old training.

There is no way to do all the work to consider other choices in The Moment, so to stay in it, rather than being jerked out of it by our own habits, fears or triggers, we need to do the work before that moment.

To me, that’s what spiritual practice is, the work that prepares us to make better, more centred, more spiritual choices in The Moment, allowing us to stay in The Moment.

The first component of that work is re-centring.  Unless we are able to find our own centre, away from the commotion and turmoil of our feelings, fears and expectations, we can never even start the work.

Usually we do this by invoking some kind of ritual that brings us back to our centred place.   It could be prayer, going to a service or a class, taking a walk, having a bubble bath or any other behaviour that lets us be with our own quiet self, ready to see and hear something bigger.

Distraction behaviours can be useful in this process, but they aren’t really the same, no matter how virtuous they may appear.   Just watching TV, for example, doesn’t usually get you to a place where you can hear yourself, even if you watch someone who claims to be spiritual.

Once you get to that reflective place, practice leads you to look back on what stimulated you in the past, usually just today, and consider it in some context.

This meeting of real stimulation and spiritual context is at the heart of practice.   I just don’t think you can one without the other.    Just getting into teachings can lead to spiritual bypassing,  and just going over what stimulated you can lead to aggrandizing emotions.

When I go to a service, I love a good homily, a nice meaty sermon, after some ritual.   When a pastor takes time to help us think through how our spiritual beliefs can affect our choices in everyday life, we get more than just affirmation of belief, we get support in growing more centred and more spiritual in our everyday choices.

Practice is best when it take us out of the moment to give us context for better choices so we can stay more fully in The Moment.

ShamanGal often feels pulled by her emotions.  That leaves her feeling off-balance and unable to stay in The Moment.

We talked about rituals she could do to get her more centred, and she’s trying various to see what works for her.

Getting to a broader context, though, seeing the big picture, is the next step.

“I just don’t like where I am today,” she told me.  “I should be better, farther ahead, more successful.  I’ve just failed, and when I see other people around me doing so much better than I, I feel horrible about myself.”

“Does that self-loathing help you make better choices in The Moment?” I asked her.

“No, not really.”

“So,” I asked, “Where were you last year at this time?”

“Well, last year I was just going back to school,” she told me.  “I was an old woman in a sea of teenagers.  It was so hard.  I needed so much sleep and worked to make sure I looked cute everyday.”

“And now you are a working woman, with a paycheck, people who value you and new friends,” I said.   “But you still complain you aren’t where you want to be yet.”

“That class was good for me.  We had a segment on sexuality and I asked the professor if I could speak on trans.  He had no idea I was a trans woman.  They taped me and people loved it.  I got applause and one gal said she was going home to tell her parents she was a lesbian.”

“And since then, you have gotten two more standing ovations when you spoke on trans to professionals, each time with a different presentation,” I reminded her.

“And two years ago this time, well, that was hard,” she told me.  “We had a big family meeting where I came out to everyone, almost 40 people.  They were great, well, all except the religious uncles, who said they would pray for me.  My family has been great.”

“Two years ago you were just out.  A year ago, it was school and really wearing.  Now you have a good job and are still growing,” I said.  ‘Do you think a year from know will be better?”

It’s amazing how your life is different when you see it in context, the context of growth and development.  That growth may be social, may be spiritual, may be intellectual or any other form, but the more clear you are that every step, even the missteps and errors move you forward, the more you can be aware and centred in The Moment.

I suggested that ShamanGal honour the milestones in her life, the good and the bad.  Doing something like writing a two year status report to an extended family that supported you so well doesn’t just help them feel connected to you, it helps you understand your life in a context greater than the pressures of The Moment.

Good practice takes us out of the moment so we can be more in the moment.  That means honouring the milestones of our life, seeing how far we have come, and identifying where we still have work to do that will let us stay more in The Moment.

Freedom only exists in the moment between stimulus and response.  Being better prepared to make good choices there means we are better prepared to live a more exemplary life.