A Simple Guide to Practical Spirituality

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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  1. Douglas says:

    Michelle, what a great article. I must say we think a like. Kindred spirits. I designed a workbook — Kisses! (Keep It simple Steps to Evolving Spiritually) that support this article. Uncanny.

    I like to know what you think of it: http://amzn.to/1kxGdRe

    • Douglas, glad this resonated with you! Kindred spirits indeed. 🙂

      I took a peek at your book, and it does look interesting. Definitely along the lines of framing spirituality as something highly practical!

  2. Thanks Michelle for such a wonderful article!

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

    While I practice many things that you have covered in your article, I also practice the following:
    1. Silva meditation.
    2. Emotional Freedom Technique to diffuse negative emotion, that comes up when I check from time to time.
    3. Writing the conversation between me and my Higher Self ( Infinite Intelligence).
    4. Chanting hymns
    5. Exercising also is a form of spiritual practice for me.
    Lalitha Brahma´s last blog post ..Do You Struggle With Creating Credibility As An Expert In Your Online Business? Certification and Credentials – Are they Necessary?

    • Hi Lalitha! Those are all great practices. 🙂

      I’m particularly interested in the idea of writing out conversations between you and your Higher Self. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but it seems to me that this would be a really fantastic way of accessing your inner wisdom in a way that would also anchor it in the body (through the physical act of writing) and allow you to record it for later. Is that something you came up with on your own, or was it suggested to you?

      Exercise is a form of meditation for me, too. Sometimes I can focus better on what my body is doing than on trying to still my roving monkey mind. 🙂

  3. sumitha says:

    Wonderful article, Michelle. #3 in particular resonated strongly with me. I am firm believer of tiny habits. About 2-3 years back I decided to take on a tiny personal improvement goal – to create a short pause before I responded harshly to my daughter when she pushed my buttons. That one small change led to another small change and so on and I can see so much transformation in every walk of my life!

    Thank you so much for sharing this!
    sumitha´s last blog post ..How to Get Your Kids to Open Up to You About Their Fears and Worries

    • Thanks, Sumitha! As a recovering perfectionist whose default setting has always been “all or nothing,” I’m still very much working on the whole tiny habits thing myself.

      I think it’s great that you’ve used it with regard to your daughter. Because if there’s one area of life where tiny changes make a *tremendous* difference, I think it’s in how we parent our children. Your efforts will have an exponential effect over time because she has such a good behavioral model in you. 🙂

  4. Ash says:

    Hi Michelle

    What a brilliantly written article!…

    In the fifth paragraph, I really got her sense of things piling up as I read through all the tasks that compound on themselves through the day. I got a sense of urgency and a sense of things “speeding up”. you really do have a way with words!

    I found the questions in the ” check in with yourself regularly” section to be extremely useful. I’ve been practising mindfulness for over three years now and I know from experience that those questions are VERY powerful if used consistently over time.

    “Be humble — boldly” I love that! And this too :”Humility is a combination of recognizing where you’re lacking, knowing when you should defer to others, and assessing where your strengths lie.”

    As I said, you have a way with words. Can’t wait to read your next post!
    Ash´s last blog post ..Hello world!

    • Hi, Ash! I’ve tried replying a few times now, and for some reason it’s not coming through like the others. I don’t want to duplicate content, so I’ll send this through…and if it appears without my other reply, I’ll know to re-send what I wrote earlier.

      • Ash says:

        Hi Michelle

        Unfortunately your earlier reply didn’t come through. So please do send it through again because I am very keen to read what you wrote 🙂
        Ash´s last blog post ..Hello world!

        • I’ve tried at least a dozen times now, and for some reason the site keeps refusing to take THIS SPECIFIC comment. Very strange! In the meantime, Ash, we’ve connected elsewhere, so let’s continue the conversation there. 🙂

          • Ash says:

            Sounds good Michelle. Let’s keep the conversation going. And keep writing! You’re great at it and your posts are extremely packed with valuable information.
            Ash´s last blog post ..Hello world!

  5. The way I see it, life IS a spiritual practice. What makes us a quote-unquote “spiritual” person is just an awareness of that.

    I used to be a very skeptical and cynical person. Partly because of the way I was raised and partly just the difficulties I faced growing up. I became a very negative person. But somehow I always knew there was more to life than just the physical material world. There is something magical going on behind the scenes, isn’t there? What I’ve done is worked on cultivating an ongoing awareness of that unseen magic, even in the midst of sitting in traffic, catching up with email, doing the laundry, etc.

    And of course like you say in #6 – learning to appreciate in every moment. What we focus on does expand!

    Eric
    Eric D. Greene´s last blog post ..My Journey to Sobriety

    • Ash says:

      Hi Eric,

      Great point! I’ve been practising mindfulness for about three years now and I find it to be a very very powerful practice.

      Mindfulness has enabled me to turn my life into a spiritual practice. Every experience is an opportunity to go through it with awareness and attention to the present moment. Other time this is truly transformative.

      The important thing is to practice mindfulness consistently and sincerely. For me one of the hardest things is remembering to be mindful. But as the years (of practice) go by I “remember” more often.

      🙂
      Ash´s last blog post ..Hello world!

  6. “An ongoing awareness of that unseen magic”–I like that a lot, Eric!

    Kudos to you for choosing to focus on the positive rather than getting stuck in blame and negativity based on your past. That takes true strength and courage.

    And your comment about doing the laundry, catching up on e-mail, etc. makes me wonder if we need to update the classic Zen saying “chop wood, carry water” for the modern world. 🙂

  7. Sandy says:

    Great post Michelle. I love tip#5. I agree that our ego serves a purpose as part of our spiritual practice. It lets us step up and be bold, especially when we are pursuing our soul’s passion. The journey may not be easy but our ego keeps us moving forward. That said, it must be partnered with humility so keep our ego in check.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Sandy–yes, #5 was a real surprise to me as the realization slowly dawned.

      “You mean it’s okay not to hide? To say I’m actually GOOD at this and step forward to claim it?”

      And then of course the ego’s overcompensation–“Darn RIGHT I’m good at it! Everyone, look at me! Me! Meeeeeee!”

      And then, “Um, wait. I don’t think that’s quite the idea…”

      It’s a constant balancing act, isn’t it? 🙂

  8. John Yeoman says:

    Thanks, Michelle. That’s a great post. You’re spot on that little things can reach out and make a difference. I run a fiction writing program for debut authors and it humbles me (to use a phrase too often used) how often I’ve been able to make a critical difference in someone’s life, just by a word of advice or congratulations. Three years ago, one lady was about to abandon a career in novel writing, after endless rejections though her work was excellent. I pointed out to her that agents reject great work nowadays, not because it’s bad, but because they’re running out of publishers who’ll accept debut authors.

    The fault was theirs, not hers.

    So Joyce Mackenzie persisted and her novel The Gold Mohur Tree is now riding high at Kindle. Joyce is 83.

    • John, what a fantastic story! Of course I had to check out The Gold Mohur Tree, and it’s now on my to-purchase list. I love historical fiction that gives me a window into places and times that are not my own.

      So glad she persisted . . . and that your encouragement helped her do so.

      And yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean. Although it doesn’t always result in something as concrete as a published novel, we all have such a powerful effect on each other through the little things we do and say. Even, sometimes, when we’re not fully aware of it ourselves.

      That’s a big part of why wrote this post. I’ve heard so many people with wonderful intentions and generous hearts say, “But I’m not spiritual!” that it absolutely stymies me. Do you care about others and want to make the world a better place for everyone? “Spiritual” or not, all semantics aside, that’s what really counts!

    • Ash says:

      Wow! John. That’s a very powerful story. Thanks for sharing it!
      Ash´s last blog post ..Hello world!

    • Pooja says:

      That’s a touching story John. Love your work!

      Pooja
      Pooja´s last blog post ..How to Write Awesome Copy for Your Business

  9. Diana says:

    Hi Michelle, I loved this article! All 6 forms of spiritual practice on point and very important indeed. I like the way how you explain spirituality doesn’t have to be about religion. A great informative guide for anyone who wants to improve their life.
    Diana´s last blog post ..A Proven Way To Finding Purpose + Living a Life That’s Possible

  10. Dr Gulam Mohd Chinchwalker (Qadri) says:

    Russel nice of you to touch the subject of spirituality when everthing has become mechanical and materialistic . You have made spirituality very simple to follow but spirituality is also not very simple either just as the world as some pupose spirituality also has some purpose .World and spirituality are interdependent every one must start spirituality as you have thought them in your article but the greater meaning of spirituality is also to be understood there are three type of spirituality
    a) Working spirituality . It mean we continue our life on earth working normally but honestly without attachment to the world that it the spirituality of Gautam Buddha and Prophet Mohammad for working people b) Service spirituality this mean to serve all other being of god including animals this is the spirituality of Mother Terresa and others
    c) Egoless spirtuality in this type one forget oneself in love of god in meditation and experience spiritual world . We are living spirit , love is our address , purity is our country , freedom and happiness our goal .

  11. […] A Simple Guide to Practical Spirituality […]

  12. Dr Gulam, thank you very much for your thoughts! You bring up an interesting point that spirituality can also be viewed as complex, and in some ways I think you’re correct.

    We can divide it into categories [such as your a), b), and c)] to talk about how spirituality looks different for different types of people–the laity or “householder” vs. the ordained clergy, for instance, or people with different temperaments such as someone who prefers active service work vs. someone who likes to spend more time in prayer or meditation.

    And for many, as you state, the simple practices I’ve described here are only a starting point. The sea of spirituality is vast, and some people aren’t satisfied until they plunge all the way in and find their home in its depths.

    But my concern is how so many people think that because they DON’T do that–because they don’t quit their jobs, move to another country, and devote their lives to serving the poor, or spend hours a day doing devotional or inner-focused practices–they then think they’re not worthy of being called “spiritual.”

    We are ALL, as you say, living spirit. 🙂

    And I really appreciate what you wrote next: “Love is our address, purity is our country, freedom and happiness our goal.” What a lovely thought to end on!

  13. Ellen says:

    I think this is a beautiful and powerful post Michelle. Sometimes we do indeed get involved with busy-work, and forget to step back and look at the big picture – whilst at the same time remembering that life is made up of the tiny touches. 3,4 and 6 can all be small things, little things – but these can really add up when we practise consistently.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Ellen´s last blog post ..7 Great pieces of advice from Global Nomads on living and working in a foreign country

  14. Thanks for your comment, Ellen! Yes, Tiny + Consistent = the key. As someone who is working on changing my internal programming to reflect this point of view, I’m finding it helpful to think of it in terms of compounding interest in a bank account. Those first few deposits don’t look like much, but as you keep making them over time, they really do affect your bottom line!

  15. Pooja says:

    Michelle,

    Great post!

    My personal fav. has to be #3. I can be very headstrong in business. If you know of DISC personality types, I like to play somewhat of a “D” or Dominant type. But when it comes to my social and personal life, I like to step back and play “S” or as they call it, Steady.

    If I don’t set goals, I feel like I’m “not doing enough”. It’s funny, because I’m also more spiritual and non-religious.

    At times the two sides of my personality, the spiritual loner and the goal-setter seem to conflict each other. I have to remind myself that it’s OK to slow down and still be “enough”, if that makes sense.

    I love how you connect goals with spirituality. I think it depends on the “why” of your goal. For example, why are you running this business? If the answer resonates with the spirit within you, then you’re probably on the right goal-track 😉

    But then again, there’s no right or wrong per say.

    Thanks for the share!

    Pooja
    Pooja´s last blog post ..How to Write Awesome Copy for Your Business

    • Hi Pooja!

      Yes, I’ve taken the DISC personality types assessment (my employer paid a consultant who came in and tested everyone) and found it very interesting. I rated highest on S, then C.

      But when it comes to goal-setting, I can get very “D” about it. In fact, I experience the same conflict you do between the idea that it’s all okay and I’m good enough as I am, and the very driven aspect of my personality that has very high personal standards.

      Part of me says, “It’s all okay–everything is for your own growth and learning. Be patient, trust that what you need will come to you, and allow everything to work itself out in its own proper time.”

      But another part of me says, “She who hesitates is lost. Get out there and WORK for what you want!”

      So I continue to set lofty goals for myself, stumble and fall short, get up, and keep on trying. I consider it a success anytime I continue moving forward without beating myself up too hard over what *hasn’t* happened yet.

      Being a recovering perfectionist is hard! 🙂

  16. Jessie says:

    I agree with this that self meditating and a moment of silence is not time consuming. I do this too before I go to work or before I go to sleep.
    Jessie´s last blog post ..Robert Kiyosaki Rich Dad Live Event In London 2014

  17. […] Michelle Russell for her guest post on Good Life Zen, A Simple Guide to Practical Spirituality […]

  18. Cherine says:

    Dear Michelle and all friends,

    I like very much the expression of ‘Lalitha’ : ‘Diffuse negative emotion’..I think this is a deep work and needs continuous check in. For we really don’t know exactly when negative emotion come ..It needs a technique to be aware of it when it comes and another technique to diffuse it. One of those techniques is ‘appreciation’, as you said Michelle..appreciating goodness that life brings..and doing kindnesses to yourself and others..even to animals as Dr.Gulam kindly said. Appreciating goodness is a way to diffuse negative emotion, for it means I can refocus on the positive sides of life instead of getting trapped behind the negative sides and wall myself off in a separative way.Appreciating goodness helps me stay connected to all aspects of life. Then, this opens the way for me to doing kindnesses in return, and move myself forward.

    Love to all,
    Cherine
    Cherine´s last blog post ..دعاء

  19. Hi Cherine–I like the way you’ve drawn the dotted line between negative and positive emotions by observing that if you focus on the latter, there’s less room for the former to get in. 🙂

    And I think you’re right that maintaining awareness of where we are emotionally is very deep work! Finding techniques we can harness to do this (including appreciation) helps a lot.

    It sounds like you’re actively keeping yourself connected to the positive side life, which is fantastic. Thanks for your comment!

  20. Stacey B. says:

    Thanks for this insightful article. I think these are some excellent tips for the everyday person to embrace their spirituality. I often find that books inspire and aid me in my spirituality. I would like to recommend a book I read recently called “The Bible of Mithra: A Book of Clarity” by author Andre Atabaki (www.PersianAstrology.com). Spirituality has always fascinated me and I love to see others perspective on it. This book was very enlightening and obviously very well thought out and researched. It is nice to engage in a deep and spiritual text without having the point of view forced upon you. Self help through conscious altering awareness, very cool. A very good read.

  21. […] Read the rest of this article: Goodlife Zen […]

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  23. Nice Blog…Thank you for sharing this information….
    Hemangi Kothadiya´s last blog post ..Mini Windows PCs Starting at USD 180 launched by Hewlett Packard

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