Spiritual Practice When You Don’t Feel Like Practicing

Spiritual Practice When You Don’t Feel Like Practicing May 12, 2024

One of the reasons I wrote Walpurgisnacht In The Infirmary was to be honest.

Too much of what is shared on the internet – especially on social media – is carefully curated. We share the things that are going well and skip over the things that aren’t. While the old saying about not airing dirty laundry in public is still valid, there’s a fine line between maintaining your privacy and presenting a false front.

Being honest means making it clear that there are times when life is too big for me. If I’m in the infirmary on Walpurgisnacht then some of you are too. We need to be honest with each other – but mainly honest with ourselves – about doing the things we need to do to get better. To get well.

I’m not well, but I am better. I want to acknowledge that improvement. And for the sake of honesty, I want to talk about what I’m doing now – and what I’m not.

If we stop practicing whenever we don’t feel like it, we’ll never get anywhere. On the other hand, if we insist on “powering through” all our injuries, illnesses, and complications of life, we’ll find ourselves crashing hard – and that’s not a good thing either.

What can you let go and what must you do no matter what? You must answer these questions for yourself. This is what I’m doing.

The Black Forest - photo by John Beckett

Maintain your daily office

What is your core spiritual practice? What are the things you do every day, every week, every season, no matter what? Keep doing them.

For me, this is my four daily prayers and my four weekly offerings. I’ve been doing my four daily prayers for 13 years. One of my weekly offerings is almost as old – the others are newer. They’re not “practices” anymore – they’re part of who and what I am. They keep me connected to my Gods, my ancestors, and the spirits with whom I share this world. They remind me of what’s most important.

Now, when I’m very sick, do I occasionally sleep through the afternoon prayer and catch it up just before I do the final evening prayer? Yes. Are there days when I simply cannot pour a libation and offer a brief prayer instead? Also yes. I’m not perfect, and my Gods don’t expect perfection. But I can’t not do these things.

The time to build this kind of practice is when you’re feeling fine. When you start out all full of enthusiasm and look forward to each repetition. When it’s inconvenient but you do it anyway, because you said you would. When you really don’t feel like it but you know you can, and so you do.

In her excellent book Blackthorn’s Protection Magic, Amy Blackthorn says that in times of stress, we do not rise to the occasion. Rather, we fall back on our lowest level of training. What is true of self defense (both magical and mundane) is also true of spiritual practice. No matter how tired I am, no matter how sick I am, my daily spiritual practice is a benefit and not a burden, because I’ve done it so consistently for so long.

Whatever your core spiritual practices, keep them up even when things are going badly. Especially when things are going badly.

Keep commitments, cancel plans

As I was reminded on Walpurgisnacht, when your capacity is lower your workload has to be lower, or you’ll break down. Something has to give.

Keep your commitments, but cancel plans when necessary. What’s the difference? A commitment is something that involves someone else, where canceling would cause them significant difficulties.

I committed to lead our Spring Equinox ritual – I did it. I committed to lead the Sunday Service at Denton UU on June 16 – I’m going to do it (I got the first draft of the sermon done this week, which was very encouraging).

On the other hand, I had a major class I planned to teach earlier this year and I had to cancel it. I had a shorter class planned for this summer. I haven’t completely canceled it, but it’s definitely not going to start in June. Maybe later in the summer. Maybe later this year. Maybe not till next year, or beyond. We’ll see how things go.

As the calendar progresses, I’m reviewing plans and if I don’t have the bandwidth, I’m canceling them.

Unless you have to cancel a commitment

A few years ago I was scheduled to lead a UU Sunday Service. I had everything ready to go, and then on Saturday night I got sick. After the third time throwing up I realized two things: one, I had food poisoning, and two, there was no way I was going to be able to lead the service the next day. I texted our minister and fellow CUUPS leader Cynthia Talbot, explained and apologized, and then went back to bed.

They managed to put a service together on the fly. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked – and it worked a lot better than me trying to “power through” in the aftermath of being violently ill. Sometimes you have to cancel a commitment.

I had to cancel a podcast interview earlier this year because I could not get into the necessary frame of mind to talk for an hour about spiritual matters.

If the Sunday Service I’m working on now had been on Walpurgisnacht I would have had to cancel. Thankfully, it’s not.

Doing what you have to do to keep your commitments is one thing. Trying to do what you can’t do at the moment is another thing entirely. If you have to cancel a commitment, then cancel it.

Don’t skip the things that feed your soul

I made a commitment to be at Mystic South in July and I’m going to keep it. But Mystic South could do just fine without me. I’m not sure I could do without Mystic South. I’m doing one presentation, and it’s something I’ve done before. Mainly, I like being there, going to presentations and rituals, and having all the conversations you just can’t have anywhere else. Mystic South feeds my soul, and I would be doing myself a disservice if I canceled.

I have to be careful here. As came up in the Walpurgisnacht conversation, this work brings meaning and purpose to my life. I would get a lot out of teaching that big course. But I don’t have the physical and emotional resources to teach it at the moment, so it has to wait.

I’ve had people – who I love and respect – tell me to “just drop everything.” I hear what they’re saying, but while my capacity isn’t what it was five years ago, it’s not zero either. I can do some things, and I want to make sure I keep doing the things that feed my soul.

Ease back into things at your own pace

One of the best things I’ve done over the past few years is to walk more. It’s good exercise, and it’s a good opportunity to think and meditate and write (or at least, to plan out what I want to write). I try to do a short walk two or three times during the week, and then a longer walk on the weekend.

It’s been difficult to hit my usual pace this year. And it’s been impossible to do anything ever since I came back from Europe sick.

This week I started feeling better, and decided it was time to start walking again. I did two miles before work on Friday. I made four miles yesterday. I was as tired after that four miles as I was after six or seven a couple months ago. I’m taking today off.

And I’m not diving back into my previous schedule. I like to think I could do that, but I know I can’t. I have to ease back into things.

I see too many people who cut back for the reasons discussed in this post, get to feeling a little better and try to dive back into the deep end, and then crash again in a week or two. I don’t want to do that. I especially don’t want to turn plans into commitments and then have to cancel them because I wasn’t as well as I thought I was. As I hoped I was. As I knew I wasn’t.

I know that some of the issues behind Walpurgisnacht In The Infirmary aren’t over with. They’re quiet at the moment, but they can jump back up in my face at any time. Even as I start feeling better, the possibility of a relapse remains.

And so I’m going to ease back into my “normal” activities at a pace I’m sure I can sustain.

The journey is long

Or at least, longer than I wish it was. But the process is simple, even if it’s anything but easy.

Keep doing the things that feed your soul. Keep doing the things that move you in the direction you want to go. Make sure your workload doesn’t exceed your capacity, even if you have to drop things you’d rather not drop. Give yourself the time you need to get better, and to get well.

That’s what I’m doing – what I’m trying to do.

We’ll see how it goes.

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