Maintaining a Spiritual Practice in Difficult Times

Maintaining a Spiritual Practice in Difficult Times February 11, 2021

Another question from the latest Conversations Under the Oaks is something I think we can all relate to.

How do you keep up your spiritual practice when you generally feel stressed and overwhelmed every other week due to life’s circumstances?

I know the simple answer is that that is exactly the reason it is important to keep up the work, but sometimes you get to a point where even simple prayer times seem like too much and you just want to watch YouTube or go to bed.

As the questioner says, the simple answer is that this is why we do these things in the first place. It’s easier to start and solidify a spiritual practice in ordinary times. Not necessarily good times (those can be rare and fleeting) but the times when life is going as life usually does. Build a solid foundation that will support you when times get hard.

But what if you didn’t? Fundamentalist religions like to scare people by telling them to adopt their religion “before it’s too late.” It’s never too late to do the right thing, or to start doing the right thing. If you just started a practice before the pandemic hit, you haven’t had much time for it to develop.

Or perhaps you’ve had a regular spiritual practice for years, but you’re overwhelmed anyway. Daily prayers and meditations are helpful, but they can’t prevent bad things from happening to us.

Perfection is not required

Life happens. As I often say, it’s hard to be spiritual when your roof is leaking. The urgency of a leaking roof overwhelms your desire to meditate and pray and do all the things you usually do. Even when you’ve done all you can do to mitigate the situation, it’s still there and it’s hard to get in the right frame of mind for devotion and other spiritual practices.

It’s OK to not be perfect. It’s essential that you take care of your physical and emotional needs, otherwise you won’t be able to do much of anything, spiritual or otherwise. Early last year I wrote The Morrigan Demands Persistence Not Perfection. That’s true of most other deities as well.

We’re still in a pandemic. The real economy is still struggling. Fascists, racists, and other bigots didn’t disappear on January 20. And the ordinary difficulties of life are still very much with us. Dealing with all these things takes time and energy, and our time and energies are not unlimited. If you have to skip something now and then, that’s OK.

Pick it up again right away

The problem with setting something aside is that once we do, our normal state of affairs goes from “doing it” to “not doing it.” After a while, it no longer bothers us that we aren’t doing our spiritual practices anymore. That makes it that much harder to pick it up again when whatever got in our way is lessened.

It’s like exercise. We know we need to exercise, and once we find something we like doing it’s fun, even if it’s sometimes challenging. If we’re sick or injured we can’t exercise, and that’s OK. But it’s one thing to pick it up again after a day or two off – it’s much harder to get back to walking or running or lifting after two or three weeks, much less two or three months.

So skip a day if you have to. But pick it up again the next day, or the day after, or as soon as you can. Because the longer you go, the harder it’s going to be to get going again.

Will is required

As some point, going with the flow is no longer sufficient. At some point, will is required.

“This is what I’m called to do.” “This is what I need to do.” “This is what I want to do.” “This is what I will do.”

And then you do it. It may be difficult. It may unsatisfying. It may be a 20 second rote prayer instead of a five minute heart-felt communion with your Gods. But it’s something. The people who say “if you can’t do it whole-heartedly don’t do it at all” are wrong. That’s a recipe for giving up. Better to do it halfway than to not do it, because it’s a lot easier to get from partial practice to full practice than to get from no practice to any practice.

And if you do some practice, you’ll get some benefits. No practice means no benefits. Something is better than nothing.

Stick to the basics

I can’t tell you how much I’ve fallen back into familiar and comfortable things over the past year. I’m watching the same movies and TV shows over and over again. I’m listening to the same music. I’m eating the same food and drinking the same drinks. In a time when nothing is familiar, I want familiar comforts.

My daily prayers haven’t changed. My weekly offerings haven’t changed. My Gods have asked me for a few new things from time to time, but mostly what I hear is “just keep moving.”

Or try something new

Sometimes starting something new requires energy and commitment that are in short supply. But other times starting something new provides inspiration, which raises energy and enthusiasm.

Is there something you’ve been wanting to start? Something you’ve been wanting to try?

Go say prayers in a city park. Make offerings to the land spirits at the largest tree you can find. Find a labyrinth and go walk it. Get a new statue or other artwork to serve as a focus for prayer or contemplation.

This is usually easier when dealing with stale devotion rather than being overwhelmed. But if you have the time and other resources, trying something new can help you deal with stress as well.

Some people don’t have a choice

Most times for most people, our Gods are understanding. They are wise and They know what we are and aren’t capable of doing. They aren’t going to get angry if we skip a day or two.

Most times. Most people. But not all.

Some people have made commitments – or had commitments made for them – that require them to perform certain practices every day, every week, every month, without exception. Sickness, stress, leaky roofs – none of that matters. They do what they’ve committed to do without fail.

If you’re one of those people, you don’t need me to tell you what to do. You know, with clarity and with certainty.

If you know one of these people, support them if you can. But do not feel like you must live up to their standards. You are responsible for keeping your own oaths and promises, not the oaths and promises made by someone else.

The benefits of spiritual practice come from repetition

Christian philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said “prayer does not change God, but him who prays.” As a Pagan and a polytheist, I have issues with the first part of that quote. But the second part of it is unquestionably true, no matter what your religious persuasion.

Spiritual practice changes us. These changes are slow and gradual – usually so slow and gradual we don’t notice them until we’ve been doing them for a long time and then look back to see how far we’ve come. I’ve been doing this consistently for 19 years – my practice has been a source of strength over the past year. And even with all that, there have been times when it’s been a struggle. I haven’t always done everything I planned to do, and sometimes that’s been because I was overloaded and just needed to rest.

And so I rested, and then I picked it up again the next time.

I wish you well in your spiritual practice, no matter how hard or easy it is at the moment.

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