practical spirituality

It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

Here you are, trying to build a meaningful and fulfilling life for yourself. But it seems like you’re forever caught up in the overwhelming minutiae of daily existence.

You want to start your mornings with some quiet reflection, but the dog needs to be let out, the kids need their lunches packed, and you can’t forget to stop for gas on the way to work.

You’d love to make time for reading inspirational books, but you’re perpetually behind on your e-mail.

You would definitely go out and connect with your spiritual community more (or maybe just find one) if it weren’t for the other relationships you’ve been neglecting. Not to mention the workouts you’ve been missing. And the laundry that’s piling up. And the roof that needs re-shingling. Oh, and you really should call your parents back . . .

In short, you’d like to make more room in your life for practical spirituality, but there are just so many demands on your time and energy.

But here’s the truth . . .

It’s not time-consuming to be spiritual

You can practice it, of course, but at its heart the spiritual life isn’t about ticking off a mandated list of to-do items. It’s about maintaining an awareness—while fully immersed in the outer life—of the subtler inner life.

Spirituality is about valuing and deeply connecting with whatever you hold sacred in yourself, other beings, and the vast, rich world you are a part of.

And here’s another truth . . .

You need not be religious to be spiritual

Spirituality can certainly exist within the context of religion, it doesn’t have to.

You can be agnostic and spiritual. You can be adamantly non-religious and spiritual. Heck, in my book, you can even be an atheist and be spiritual. You just have to feel that there is something out there bigger than yourself.

Here’s my own definition of spirituality:

1. You believe that something fundamental knits the world together, whether that’s God (by any name), some type of universal consciousness, nature, or the human spirit.
2. You’re generally self-aware and inwardly working on yourself.
3. You are doing something to improve the world around you.

That’s it.

Too simplistic? I don’t think so. I believe those are the basic ingredients of a spiritual worldview.

However, they don’t necessarily mean you have a spiritual practice, and I do think that’s important.

Why?

Because spirituality can offer you joy, peace of heart and mind, and a sense of meaning . . . but only if you stay focused on it. And with the way the mind works, it’s far too easy to lose that focus in the daily crush of events.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult or time-intensive to refocus yourself.

6 simple forms of spiritual practice

1. Meditate.

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “meditation is time-consuming.”

Let me clarify.

If you have been meditating regularly for a while, you probably will want to devote a decent chunk of time to it. By then, you’ll likely be getting so much out of it that you’ll feel the time spent is a great investment.

But if you’re new to meditation or just picking it up again after a hiatus, it’s perfectly fine to start with just a few minutes a day. In fact, many say it’s advisable. The only caveat is that to build the habit, it’s best to pick a specific time of day and stick with it. That’s easy to do if you link it with an existing habit, like . . . well, sitting up in bed in the morning. Or brushing your teeth or putting on your pajamas at night.

For some great tips on beginning meditation, check out How to Start Meditating: Ten Important Tips.

2. Check in with yourself regularly.

Be curious about what’s going on in your body, mind, and heart. Invite a sense of gentle self-exploration into your awareness, and let it expand naturally. This shouldn’t feel compulsive or forced, but spontaneous.

For instance, what does your mind feel like when you first wake up? Spacious and clear, or already thinking about everything you have to do that day? And how is that different from your baseline mental state around, say, lunchtime or in the evening?

What words do you tend to use in your mind’s constant inner dialogue? What makes you sad, frustrated, and genuinely happy?

What are your most common stress triggers? Where do you hold tension in your body? Does that physical tension feel different when you’re upset vs. when you’re excited about something?

What are the default ways in which you react to other people?

There is no right or wrong to any of this, and it’s very important to be compassionate rather than judgmental. You’re not looking for ways to beat yourself up, just to notice interesting patterns. Think of it as collecting “field notes” on yourself . . . you can even keep a journal if you like.

If you’re not in the self-awareness habit, just practice quick little check-ins like these whenever you happen to remember, and over time you’ll naturally do them more and more often without any extra effort. They can become a gold mine of helpful information about yourself.

3. Pick a tiny self-improvement goal.

No need to be a slave-driver here. Research has shown that starting with an incredibly small change and making it easy for yourself to succeed is what leads to lasting transformation over time.

So pick something about yourself that you’d like to work on—something that doesn’t feel too difficult. What’s the smallest step you could take today to move yourself forward?

Do you find yourself getting angry often? Practice taking a deep breath and counting to three before saying anything. Do you want to be a better friend? Give your best buddy a call tonight.

An interesting question here is whether or not “outer life” changes count as spiritual shifts. I think it depends on your motivation.

Take physical fitness, for example. If you’re simply trying to look like a supermodel, then probably not. But if you view your body as a vehicle for getting good things done in the world and you want to keep it healthy and strong, then I’d say yes, that’s spiritual.

And because we’re all beautifully mixed-up works in progress, you probably have some of each type of motivation. Don’t sweat it. :)

So start with just one or two small self-improvement goals, until you don’t have to think much about them anymore. Then either increase them incrementally or pick something else to work on next. Keep it simple, and you’ll soon find your confidence and sense of self-worth growing.

4. Look for little ways to serve others.

For most people, the desire to do good in the world is a strong component of their spirituality. And the natural impulse is to go big with this, so you can help as many people as much as possible. But you’ve got to consider your own bandwidth. It is not wrong to put yourself first. Do whatever you are inspired to and capable of, and trust that it makes a real difference.

That $5 donation to your favorite charity? It helps. So does a hug and a listening ear for a friend who’s having a rough day.

Volunteering for an evening at your local soup kitchen? Even one hot meal in one stomach makes a positive difference to the owner of that stomach.

Did you let someone merge in front of you during rush hour today? I guarantee you made them feel better about their fellow humans. :)

5. Be humble–boldly.

Many people misunderstand humility, thinking it means taking a back seat to others. But true humility isn’t self-effacement. It’s having a clear understanding of what you have to offer, without getting caught up in the ego about it.

Ego is a funny thing. Many traditions disparage it as something to be avoided or transcended, but it has a positive side, too.

You actually need a strong sense of self in order to make progress in any aspect of life, including the spiritual life. If you think of yourself as insignificant or unimportant, you’ll lack the motivation to strive for things—or you’ll think of that as a selfish and unworthy goal.

But you can’t give what you don’t have. It’s like trying to save a drowning person—you can’t help them unless you’re planted firmly on the shore first.

Are you a great peacekeeper? Do you know a particular software program extremely well? Do people come to you whenever they need creative ideas, or maybe just good old-fashioned, common-sense advice?

If you can help, don’t parade around acting like you’re the best thing since sliced bread, but don’t hide your light under a bushel, either.

Humility is a combination of recognizing where you’re lacking, knowing when you should defer to others, and assessing where your strengths lie. When you’re clear on these things and offer yourself humbly but without shame or shrinking, everyone benefits.

6. Appreciate.

Finally, be on the lookout for things, big and small, to be grateful or glad about.

Actively cultivating appreciation keeps you focused on the positive. Your experience
of life becomes more joyful, and this carries over into everything. Which, once again,
benefits not just you but everyone.

So stop and smell the flowers, but not as a cliché. Do it because they really do smell
good. Savor your next meal, and feel thankful that it’s there to be eaten.

Appreciate the support of friends and family, and the thoughtfulness and generosity of strangers. Be glad for the things you learn from experience.

And be glad that you’re alive to experience them.

the spiritual life in a nutshell

Spirituality isn’t something that’s separate from the everyday world—it’s an extremely practical self-training system.

The internal focus it provides will help you live more happily and effectively in the world.

To artificially wall off spirituality from the rest of life is doing it—and yourself—a disservice. To make it overly complicated does the same.

You may find great strength and comfort in a spiritual practice, but that doesn’t mean it has to be lengthy or difficult.

It can be as easy as spending a few minutes a day in meditation (only extending the time when it feels right), checking in with yourself whenever you think of it, appreciating the goodness that life brings, and doing kindnesses to yourself and others.

All very simple and “real-world.” And if you can do these things, trust me—you’re doing a lot. You are making a real difference.

It all counts.

What small step can you take to bring a spiritual focus to your day today? Please share in the comments.

About the Author: Michelle Russell is a long-time meditator and self-proclaimed “enoughist” who blogs about what that means and why it’s so important to happiness at (surprise, surprise) Enoughist. :)

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