The Year of Spiritual Practice

sunset-691848_640Around Yule last December, I decided to try an experiment: some form of spiritual practice every day in 2017. Despite being an ordained minister twice over, I have always struggled a bit with the discipline of regular practice. In general, in my life, I am better at things that can be done intensely for a period of time and then neglected for a while, without consequence. This is why I make a much better quilter than gardener. The quilt won’t mind if you ignore it for months at a time; it will still be waiting just as you left it when you return. The garden, not so much!

Similarly, I can do the work required for, say a degree in ministry, or to advance through the training for the Temple of Witchcraft, especially when I have some sort of external accountability. But my many attempts at daily spiritual practice have often faltered. What would happen if I got really serious about it for a year? I wondered. So, I decided to give it a try.

I also know that one of the things that gets in my way is getting bored with a practice or set of practices as soon as they become routine, so I decided to commit to some form of practice every day, with the understanding that it wouldn’t be the same practice every day.

A good start

All went really well for about 3 weeks. Then there was a day when I realized I had forgotten. But thinking back through the day, I realized I had done some things that were spiritual practices if approached with that intention, even though that hadn’t been my intention at the time. On the one hand, this felt like cheating. On the other, it helped me to notice all the various ways I tend to my spiritual life but don’t actually notice or give myself credit for on a regular basis. I recommitted, and decided to expand my definition of spiritual practice to a pretty wide number of activities.

Things went smoothly again for a few months. But then I started pushing the practice later and later in the day, eventually going for a number of weeks with all the meditations being in bed at night. The quality of my focus is dramatically less when I do it that way, I noticed, and decided that it had to happen before I got into bed to count.

Then I heard a snippet of a TED Talk by Matt Cutts who talked about his own practice of trying something new every month. Whatever the thing is (cooking one dish, exercise, play the ukulele, express gratitude to someone, for example), he does it every day for 30 days, long enough to have it become a regular part of his routine, but short enough to be an attainable goal. If he hates it, it’s over relatively soon; if he loves it, he can always keep going.

That struck me as an interesting model, so for several months, I chose a particular practice or family of practices to do every day for the month. One of these was a commitment to intentional exercise every day for a month. These were fairly successful, but in October, I realized that I was falling down on actually recording what I had done every day, which dramatically undermined the accountability structure for the project.

If it’s not written down, it doesn’t count

So, in November, I decided that my new mantra would be, “If it’s not written down, it doesn’t count.” I also decided to do an end run around the perpetual problem of getting around to practice at the end of the day when I’m already totally exhausted by getting up an hour earlier to practice in the morning. I have had this idea so many times in my life, but I’ve never been able to maintain it for more than a week or so. But throughout November and December, I did, in fact, get up earlier 6 days a week to practice in the morning (I still need one day to sleep in!). I was surprised at how good this felt and how well it worked.

At the end of the year, here are the things I’ve learned, which might be of interest to others. The morning really is just the best time for me, before I’m distracted or tired or tempted to do other things. I am much more consistent if I write it down. The mantra of, “If it’s not written down, it doesn’t count,” has served me well. I do better when I allow myself to change up my routine on a regular basis, as long as it stays within the very broad realm of intentional spiritual practice.

And 2018? My intention is to continue, but a nasty virus/sinus infection this past week has made it impossible to get up early. So, I’m taking it down a notch, counting really simple, easy practices, and resting up. Once I feel better, morning meditation, here I come again!

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  • maggiebea

    Thanks for this look at a struggle lots of us can share. I particularly appreciate the observation — which sure does match my experience — that it doesn’t count if it isn’t written down. And of course the need to change it up whenever daily practice gets stale. Many Blessings for your clarity on this stuff.

  • Grendl Riverstone

    I am SO happy to hear from someone with the problems about ongoing, daily practice that I experience; and it was quite helpful to have some of that articulated “In general, in my life, I am better at things that can be done intensely for a period of time and then neglected for a while, without consequence” I have also found that taking a course in something is much easier for me than a commitment to self-study, for the simple, stated reason of “external accountability”.
    Thanks for sharing your experience (it helps me not see myself as deficient to know that others struggle in the same way), for your suggestions, and for the encouragement that this is. Blessings.

  • JA Myer

    I too struggle to make a steady and daily spiritual practice part of my routine. I’m wondering how you maintain a sense of the sacred as a UU with it’s willingness to play down and in many ways look down on the spiritual. I know the range of different UU churches is wide and the level of spirituality found in different churches is broad. But how does that work? and if you alter your personal practice so much what are you receiving from it? When I attended cuups years ago I found the constant shifting “worship ritual” so scattered that I got nothing from it and no one else seemed to either so the group disbanded. and ultimately I left the UU as well it just seemed like a social group that used words like worship, church, service, choir etc but really wanted nothing to do with spirituality. But I very much miss the community.