7 Spiritual Practices for Difficult Times

A few weeks ago, Morgan Daimler asked her Facebook friends “what’s your go-to for spiritual renewal during difficult or stressful times?” She got a lot of responses ranging from trite to powerful. I gave a generic answer (long walks outdoors) but also noted that the proper practice depends on the circumstances.  “Difficult or stressful” can mean different things, which in turn require different approaches.

I’d like to expand on that. I’ve experienced my share of stress and difficulty over the years. I’ve tried a lot of things – some of them have worked and some of them haven’t. These are the things that have helped me.

The usual disclaimers apply: I’m a Druid and not a psychologist. Spiritual practice is no substitute for mental health care. If you have depression or other mental health issues, get professional help. But if you’re going through life’s ordinary difficulties (which often feel anything but ordinary) here are some suggestions.

dark clouds 01.17.17

Urgent stress

If your “fight or flight” instinct has been triggered, I recommend flight, at least at first. Reactive, aggressive responses are rarely helpful and often make things worse. Getting yourself away from the source of the stress lessens the urgency and gives you time to catch your breath and think clearly.

I’m not talking about a panic attack (which is out of my area of expertise) or an actual physical attack (which, depending on the circumstances, may require fighting). I’m talking about situations that feel demanding and oppressive, where you feel like a gun is pointed at your head even though it isn’t.

Go for a walk. Preferably in a wild or at least a green setting, but through the neighborhood will do. Don’t try to think, just walk. Get your blood flowing and your muscles working. Breathe. After a while your adrenaline levels will start to drop, and you can start to see things as they really are. That helps you think clearly as you try to figure out exactly what’s wrong and what’s your best course of action.

What if you can’t get up and go walk? What if the source of urgent stress is a sick child or some other emergency that requires your continuous presence? Step away mentally – go on a walk in your mind. Move your concentration to somewhere peaceful and restorative, then start working through things.

That’s not easy and it’s virtually impossible to do without practice… which reinforces the need for regular spiritual practice, day in and day out, even on those days when you’d rather not. Regular spiritual practice builds a foundation and a reserve we can draw on in times of need.

walking in nature

Overloads

You have 25 hours of work and only 24 hours in the day, and you really need to spend some of those hours sleeping (seriously – lack of sleep is a killer). A project has a deadline that’s rapidly approaching. You don’t know how you’re doing to get everything done that needs to be done.

Make a list. What all do you have to do? Look at it again – what do you have to do, and what can wait till later? What’s easy and can be cleared out of the way with little effort? What’s most important and deserves the bulk of your time? Start working the list and checking things off.

What can someone do to help you? All those times when people say “just let me know if I can do anything to help” – take them up on it. Your good friends don’t want to see you overloaded, and most will help if they can. But you have to ask them… and when the situation is reversed, be there for them.

Making a list doesn’t sound very spiritual to you? Haven’t you heard of the 42 Negative Confessions? The 12 Labors of Hercules? The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism? The Ten Commandments? Ever read the Mabinogi? Read Culhwch and Olwen and look at all the lists in the story. Making lists is a near-universal religious practice – put it to use in your life.

Despair

Things are bad and you can’t see how they’re ever going to get better. Intellectually, you know you’ll manage one way or another, but right now you can’t see that far ahead and you’re not in the mood to listen to anyone’s cold hard logic.

Pray and make offerings. You can’t control how you feel, but you can control what you do – and it is always good to worship the Gods. Giving to Them reminds us that there’s something bigger than ourselves. And giving promotes reciprocity: we give to Them and trust that They will give to us.

Give thanks for what you have, even if you don’t feel very thankful right now. Speak the yearnings of your heart, even if they’re clouded with pain. Don’t know what to say? Find an ancient prayer to recite, or perhaps a modern one.

Pour libations and make food offerings. Making offerings in a fire is a powerful act at any time. If it’s part of your tradition and appropriate for the deities you’re approaching, make your offerings to the Gods, and then after a suitable period of time, revert the offerings and consume the now-sanctified food and drink. As you eat and drink, you ingest the blessings of the Gods.

altar and offerings

Difficult decisions

Should you move to another state for work or should you keep trying to find something where you are? Should you go back to school or would your time and money be better spent elsewhere? Should you say yes to the Goddess who wants an oath from you, or are you better off unencumbered?

Long walks outdoors, making lists, and prayer and offerings are helpful here too. But there is one spiritual practice especially suited for this difficult situation.

Divination. Tarot, runes, scrying – pick your favorite method. Divination can’t make your decision for you, but it can show you where a particular path will take you and what things will be like when you get there. Does that place sound good? Keep going down that path. Not really what you wanted? Better make some changes before it’s too late.

Divination will show you things you aren’t seeing, whether those things are hidden from you or whether you’re just not paying attention. Divination allows you to ask questions of Gods and spirits and many times, to get answers that are more specific than you might think.

Divine for yourself if you can, pay an experienced diviner if you can’t – or if you just want an objective reading. Regardless of who does the divination, making difficult decisions is easier when you’re forewarned.

Hard situations

Your financial situation is difficult and getting worse. Your job is creating dangerous levels of stress. You need a better place to live. You have dealings with a court and you need justice.

There are numerous mundane actions you can take to make a hard situation better, and sooner or later you’ll need to take some of them. But sometimes things are so hard you can’t figure out where to start, and even if you could you’d never get there on your own.

Sigil magic. Any magical system can help – sigil magic is my favorite. It’s simple and flexible, and it doesn’t require a lot of expensive and hard to find ingredients. Most importantly, it’s fast – you can create and fire sigils, see the results (after an appropriate time, of course), make adjustments, and then create and fire some more.

The Chaos Protocols by Gordon White is the best reference for learning sigil magic. If you don’t want to buy the book, read Gordon’s Rune Soup blog post Sigils Reboot: How To Get Big Magic From Little Squiggles.

“Magic is always the tactic of last resort for those who refuse to give up hope. You do not summon Cthulhu to help you find the TV remote.” – Gordon White, The Chaos Protocols

Aimlessness

Your magic doesn’t feel very magical anymore. Your spiritual practice used to be a source of power – now it’s just work. You feel like you should be doing something more, but you don’t have a clue what that would be. You’re not hurting, but you’re stuck.

Call it a plateau, call it the doldrums, call it aimlessness. It’s not a horrible place to be, but you don’t want to spend any more time here than you have to. There are two practices to recommend in this situation. They’re very different on the surface, but they bring similar results: rewiring the way you think.

Meditation. I often eschew Buddhist-style “empty your mind” meditation in favor of meditation focused on Gods or spirits, or on ideas. But this is a situation where mindfulness meditation is very helpful. Focus on your breathing, or on a candle flame. If thoughts pop into your head, acknowledge them, let them go, and return to your breathing. Just sit. The physical and psychological benefits of meditation are clear – the spiritual benefits can be every bit as dramatic.

Mystical experiences. “One of these things is not like the others…” All the other practices in this post are things you can just do. They may work quickly or slowly, but if you do the work you’ll get the results. Mystical experiences cannot be commanded. They happen in their own time, or not at all. But there is nothing – nothing – as effective for getting you off a plateau than the first-hand experience of a God, a spirit, or the immensities of Nature.

Fortunately, while we cannot force them to happen, there are things we can to do make them more likely to happen.

Build a foundation of regular devotion. Do the necessary prep work. Do your rituals in wild places and in dark places. Be patient, but be persistent. Be open to the workings of the Gods, and be receptive to Their call.

These are the spiritual practices that work for me in difficult times. They won’t prevent bad things from happening – nothing will do that. They don’t keep me from getting upset or stressed or stuck. But they help me regain my center faster and they help me respond to difficult times in the ways I want to respond.

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