Theory vs Practice

When it comes to religion and/or spirituality (take your pick) I’ve been struggling between theory and practice. These two poles seem to exist as twinned but opposite towers. One is removed and cerebral (theory), the other messy and personal (practice). Both are informative and educational in their own ways. In the best of all possible worlds, a person is informed of their tradition, perhaps informed of others’ traditions too, but also experiencing what they talk about and connected into something larger than themselves.

For too long I’ve privileged theory over practice. For me, it’s been the safe route and the path to a couple of degrees. I love the theory; I love the knowledge I’ve gained about the rich and bizarre world of religions. But practice is scarier. I’ve long kept my practice to myself. Practice involves commitment. It allows space for disappointment, embarrassment, perhaps even ridicule. But by keeping it to myself I lose out on community, depth of understanding, experience of and relationship with the Divine.

I’m hoping to break this pattern of duality between theory and practice. By diving into practice I am going beyond my theoretical knowledge of my chosen traditions. I’m going to find out how the practice feels. How does it affect my perception of the world, the Divine, myself?

I admit that it feels rather…foolish, fake, silly, to think of myself as Hindu. I know that Hinduism isn’t just about being South Asian, though it is the main religion of India. Hinduism considers itself, like all major religions do, a source of universal wisdom. But unlike the Western world’s big three (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) Hinduism is far more flexible about truth, gods, and belief. One can fold in much that is not explicitly Hindu or Indian. But still. I’m as Western world, white British Isles descended as they come.

Which raises another interesting point for me. All the traditions I’ve been engaged with, with the exception of Judaism (which I’ve never practiced, but worked for several years in the larger Jewish world), have been focused on the mystical, more inwardly turned aspects of those traditions. To see me on the street is to see just any other average white Westerner. You cannot identify my faith or practice by anything external.

I respect those who wear their religion openly. I’m thinking of Orthodox Jews, whether it’s the beards or hats or the large amounts of black or the women’s skirts and all around look. I’m thinking of Muslim women and the many ways they cover their heads. I’m thinking of Sikhs with their turbans. Every day they leave the house and people can identify their faith. Sure, Christians might wear a cross around their neck, but that’s much more subtle (most of the time) and easy to miss. I notice that I’ve not chosen any tradition that requires me to look any different than I normally do. Unless some one reads this blog or asks me what I’m up to these days, there’s no way to know that anything is different with me.

So far I don’t think there is anything discernably different about my life, other than my morning devotions.

A Hindu. A yogini. For now, that’s me.

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About Niki Whiting
  • http://www.projectconversion.com Andrew Bowen

    Great post. As social creatures, we seek belonging. There is comfort in the identity markers of one’s faith, philosophy, or social standing. This is one reason we create motifs and symbols, they marks us with a chevron of place.

    Hindus in particular, from my experience as temporarily being one, can be highly visible. Many women wear the bindi on their forehead. I wore the three-stripe tripundra, which gained wonderful stares around my small Southern town. On the other hand, once you read the Upanishads, you discover that spiritual progression leads one to shed these markers. Eventually, meditation and contemplation leads one to identify with Brahman as everything so that complicated rituals and outward signs become superfluous.

    As for you, only time and practice will lead you in the right direction. Or it may lead you to be still, right where you stand, and realize that you are everywhere at once anyway.

    • Kerry W.

      “As social creatures, we seek belonging.” That’s one of the reasons I do not show outward signs of my religion, or sexuality, or . . . anything that might make people think i’m weird. It’s a life of perpetual passing — passing as nice, passing as “like you,” passing as white-bread-mayonnaise. It’s not really working for me, but it’s hard to let go of the desire to please, the desire not to be somehow, unwittingly offensive. It’s getting easier to let go of it — and more urgent — the more I do IP.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

        So are you passing in order to belong? It sounds like passing only deepens your feelings of separation.

        In regard to my explorations of Hinduism, I think changing my dress and wearing bindis would be far less authentic than NOT wearing those things. But it is interesting to see recognize the lack of obvious difference and what I perceive that to mean.

      • Kerry W.

        I’m saying it’s a paradox — we try to “pass” to belong, but if we erase ourselves to do it, there’s nothing there to do the belonging. At the very least, any connections made that way are more shallow than they ought to be. It is something I struggle with personally, but I think I’m far from the only one — I think it’s an easy trap to fall into.

        OTOH, there is power in keeping some things private. I think it’s a matter of how you conceive of the silence, and what your motives are behind the silence. Safety’s a good one. Employability might be another. Not quite being up to feeling “foolish, fake, and silly” might be another — it’s been one of my motives, though it’s one I’m working on getting past, because it saps your strength, your ability to exists as yourself in the world.

        I think that’s one thing it gets down to: what helps you to be yourself in the world, and what doesn’t? The answer to this question shifts through time.

      • Kerry W.

        Also, I think this calls for an experiment. :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Much of what we identify as Hindu is actually culturally Indian and not directly related to the religion.

      ‘Eventually, meditation and contemplation leads one to identify with Brahman as everything so that complicated rituals and outward signs become superfluous.’ This is why it’s hard to be ‘strict’ with certain aspects (post on this forthcoming). Is strict the same as discipline? Does it matter? So many questions!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

    Kerry, I agree about the passing. I also believe that we do need to keep ourselves safe in some circumstances; passing has its purposes. I try to go forward in my life just being who I want to be and letting out details as they become necessary or relevant. But again, I recognize the privilege that I have as a cisgendered, femme-ish (by that I mean, socially acceptable female gendered), white, middle class, educated, married (notice I did not say heterosexual!) person. If people don’t like aspects about me I remain relatively safe.

    This blog is a way to explore many of those dis/comfort zones. I look forward to hearing about your experiments!

  • Genevieve

    Theory vs. Practice

    I’m definitively theory oriented, not only with my spirituality but other aspects of my life as well. Example my herbal studies I realized a few months back that I had tremendous knowledge but when it came to application and experience I realized I wasn’t walking my talk as much as I want to or even as much as others might have perceived or assumed I did. I have made efforts in the last while to taste, apply transform, wildcraft, grow a new plant or remedy. It’s the same with yoga, I’ve read books, watched in awe videos but when it’s time to get onto the mat….I don’t know if you can call it lazy but there something about taking physical action that creates resistance, where as geeking out with books, notepads, computer comes easily (on the other hand some are always in action but can’t sit still two seconds to read, relax, write or meditate). I’ve been able to commit and practice the grounding/kala/meditation/prayer as I wake in the morning bu the mat is harder, on my trip I was up and at yoga at 7am, at home the kids make it difficult and I know that getting up early is the solution but I feel so tired lately, so I choose sleep. I really admire you for getting up earlier to create that vessel.

    As with everything it’s a balance, there is definitely something to say about theory and knowledge but it will NEVER replace hands on experience and practice, which becomes imprinted much deeper into our being than just hanging out in the mind.


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