Q: Any advice for the spiritual practitioner who may be stuck or who needs to dust off their practice?
A: Keep your practice simple and portable. Travel lightly.
I asked the question above of Matthew Fox while talking to him about his latest book, Essential Writings on Creation Spirituality. Fox is one of the greatest living spiritual practitioners and academics of our time, with a robust CV that includes writing a total of 37 religion and spirituality books, gender and ecological activism, and a leading role as a priest within the Episcopal church.
Fox’s answer to the question above, keep it “simple and portable,” is telling. It shows how often we can tend to complicate matters, especially when it comes to our spiritual practice. The author went on to offer several pointers, techniques that are both easy to do and can be done anywhere. No special rituals or exertion required. And you can engage in any of these practices right here, right now.
The first bits of advice center around meditation which Fox sees as “vacationing time, time off for the soul.” In his current book, Fox talks to two different types of meditation, an “emptying” kind and a “filling” kind. They both have merit. Here’s a breakdown of each:
- Filling Meditation. You fill your soul by focusing on something of beauty. You might gaze out at the beauty of the ocean for example or look in awe at a colorful sunset. Whatever lights your fire. In these moments, “your senses blossom” as you move into a state of silent awareness and appreciation.
- Emptying Meditation. You empty your mind and yourself, letting go of all images, distractions and personal goals. It’s the equivalent of a mental cleansing of the palate. Once complete, this emptying then allows for a greater appreciation of the world around you.
Fox points out that in the West, with our hectic lives and busy schedules, we “are more drawn to the emptying kinds of meditation.” But whichever type of meditation you choose, Fox tells us they have the same effect: to “see reality as it is in all its clarity and radiance and truth.” He continues:
Jesus called it recognizing that the domain of God is among us. (Buddhist monk) Thich Nhat Hanh describes it as developing our capacities for deep looking, listening, and awareness of the present state of things beginning with ourselves. Quoting Nhat, “When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.”
During our conversation, Fox added a few additional “no fuss, no muss” spiritual practice techniques. What they have in common is their ease of use. You can use any of them right now or as soon as you get to the bottom of the page.
- Recite a mantra. Like meditation, this practice helps stop the overanalyzing mind from thinking so much, “numbing the left brain, allowing the right brain to prosper.” A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated over and over. Fox advises us to “think bumper sticker: shorty pithy statements like “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Jesus) or “Goodness is God” (Julian of Norwich). My personal favorite: “God is Good.”
- Use breath work. It’s as easy as focusing your attention on the breath. Breath in. Breathe out. Once your attention is focused on the breath, try this: Breath in joy, breathe out sadness. Breathe in hope, breathe out despair. Breathe in peace, breathe out conflict.
- Discover “the sacred.” No research required. Fox points out that “holiness and beauty can be found all around us.” In the tall trees outside your window or in your neighborhood park or by simply looking up into a star-filled night sky. The sacred also can be found in art, in music, in architecture. Any environment or setting that soothes the soul.
I’ll add one additional tip that was provided by another living spiritual master, Father Richard Rohr. In his weekly newsletter, Rohr discussed contemplation and the writings of James Finley. Personally, I think of contemplation as sort of a wordless meditation, in which we allow ourselves to be fully in the present moment.
- Engage in contemplation. Don’t think of anything. Wordlessly rest in the presence of God. It is a presence that is beyond all thoughts and images. Allow it to intimately access your heart as you intimately access it. Rest in the oneness that ties all of life together.