Beyond the emotional and cognitive elements that connect us with our spirituality, practice is the most obvious. Practice externalizes our spiritual experience and at the same time, is a portal through which we walk deeper into our lives. Practices connect us to significant memories, to fellow sojourners, and to our higher power. At its most common form spiritual practice is religious in nature, though doesn’t need to be for its authenticity.
I’ve met a lot of people, particularly those who come from a purely secular background, who try to stay clear of anything that smacks of religion. Indeed, many I’ve spoken to reject the notion of a “higher power” because they don’t believe that spirit can or does manifest as a being or an entity. For them spirit is pure, resides within each being, and unites the universe as one.
Many others rely on the notion that there is a least one, if not many, higher powers in the universe. Major religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam all posit a single God that is the source of all matter in creation and has a personality that communicates with humanity. Around such a god has arisen a myriad of practices that deal with matters such as what to believe, how to put it into practice, and how to transcend this earthly life in order to achieve eternal life.
Religion has gotten a bad rap in part because history has proven that people can corrupt the most pristine concepts, beliefs and ideas. Religion is usually burdened by multiple administrative and bureaucratic layers. Its leaders often hold singular points of view regarding teachings and moral disciplines and require the faithful to jump through many hoops in order to be in right relationship with God and the religious institution. In addition, religious leadership has had a long history of showing itself to be intolerant of other points of view to the extent of persecuting, killing and subjugating people in God’s name. Hopefully we are past all of that (I say “hopefully” with reservation given evidence of extremist groups doing their dirty work in the name of almost all major world religions).
Another paradox of religion is that as soon as a person discovers a perfectly wonderful spiritual teacher or method, it seems there are 100 others waiting in the wings to analyze it, tear it apart, argue about it and write endless tomes reinterpreting it. At times the source of a religion, such as holy writ, clearly sets forth the external requirements of faith and worship. We see this as regarding dietary laws and the Jerusalem temple requirements set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches have retained some of these elements in their own religious structures as they “enhanced” the theology undergirding them, based in Jesus’ teachings as found in the New Testament.
“Religion” has many definitions, most having to do with showing reverence for God. One meaning made popular in the Middle Ages meant “to bind.” Thus, that which we use to connect or bind us to others and to God is the essence of religion, creating a supportive faith community to take care of the needs of members and beyond.
Religion without individual and heart-felt spiritual practice is pretty empty, so teaches Jesus and the experience of multitudes. True spiritual practice must move beyond the externals of religious structures and traditions. At its best, spiritual practice will promote attitudes and activities that move us from the head to the heart or gut, where we find the most powerful rewards: feelings of connection, significance, serenity, and acceptance. Thus practice can be very personal, and unique to each individual. Even within the same religion, each person will have a slightly different spiritual practice based on his or her journey with God.
What are some examples of practice leading to deeper spiritual transcendence? Prayer (speaking our hearts desires), meditation (allowing a free flow of thoughts through the mind without interruption, focusing on the present moment), contemplation (focusing one’s mind and heart on an object or word as a conduit of the spirit), spiritual reading (allowing the words of scripture or sages to communicate to the heart), singing/dancing/chant/yoga (allowing the body to manifest the moving of the spirit), community service (joining others in experiencing the transcendence of work), environment/nature (hearing what the created world has to say), sexuality (experiencing union with God through union with the beloved), religious rituals/ceremonies (finding the deeper message behind the external celebration).
What is your spiritual practice? How do you access transcendence, whereby you move beyond the confines of your material self? What inspires you to be a better person, a more loving individual? What part, if any, can religion play in your spiritual transformation? Share your thought in the comments section of this blog.
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