How to develop (or re-develop) a regular spiritual practice

One of the most consistent comments I hear from devotees is this:

“I would love to practice more meditation/yoga/puja/etc., but I just don’t have enough time/am too busy/have too much on my plate/can’t/don’t know how.”

The problem is the same for beginners as well as advanced practitioners. As we travel along any spiritual path and dive more deeply, things don’t get easier, they get harder. Yes, some things get easier – concepts become familiar, we might learn certain things more quickly or need less basic instruction as time goes on. But the deeper we go, the bigger the obstacles are. So what is the answer?

Well, there are many answers. But I’m going to talk about a novel one – falling in love.

Think about when you start a romantic relationship with someone who excites you. You are willing to move heaven and earth to spend time with that person. Even work is no impediment. You’ll stay up late or get up early, travel great distances, and even when you’re losing sleep, you feel alive and invigorated.

What would it be like to fall in love again and again with the Divine Mother? 

What would it be like to fall in love again and again with the Divine Mother?

Or, if you are not a devotee of the Divine Mother, to fall in love with whatever form of divinity or peace to which you dedicate your practice. Perhaps it is Lord Shiva or Lord Krishna. Perhaps it is Jesus, or the Buddha, any of the Bodhisattwas. Maybe it’s Brigid or Amaterasu, Oshun or the Great Spirit. Maybe it’s your own inner self, if you are averse to the idea of divinity. It could be almost anything, as long as it elevates your spirit and connects you more closely with that inner peace.

lord_shiva_in_meditative_dance_with_parvati_playing_hj62

Lord Shiva in Meditative Dance with Parvati Playing Vina, by Kailash Raj

Playfulness is important, as well as a willingness to be flexible and try new things. Perhaps to feel a little uncomfortable, but allow yourself excitement in that new unknown territory.

The form of the practice is fairly unimportant – you can be from any religion or spiritual tradition, or an atheist or agnostic. But regardless of what path you follow, regular meditation – regardless of its form – will reduce stress and increase mental and physical health. For those of us on a spiritual path, it also moves us closer to our goal of oneness. But when we are having trouble knocking through the wall of boredom, we have to take a simple, practical approach that reminds us of what we love about our chosen path.

The rest of it is strategic. These strategies are simple and effective (I use them myself, every day), but not always easy, because many of us have built up long periods of resistance or very effective ways of making excuses for not doing practice. Make a commitment to stop all that nonsense, and follow these simple steps, which apply to any tradition.

The word I will use for spiritual practice is sadhana. Sadhana is a Sanskrit word that means diligent spiritual practice. One who is a sadhaka (male) or sadhika (female) is one who has received initiation from a qualified guru, and is accomplished in their disciplined spiritual practice.

1. Keep it simple and realistic

One of the biggest pitfalls for beginners (beginner meaning one who is just starting, or one who is starting over after some time away from practice) is to try to do too much too soon. If you have been away from it for some time, be kind to yourself and set yourself up for success by simplifying. If you start with a practice that is very intense, complex, or requires a lot of time, it is usually a recipe for failure. Spiritual practice is no good if your ego gets in the way, and the ego hates failure!

Whether or not you’ve done lengthy sadhana in the past, if you are just starting (or re-starting) a daily practice, then start simple. The goal of daily practice is to do it every day, not to impress anyone with how long you meditated.

Think also about what your temperament is, and let that be your guide to where and how you should begin. Perhaps you have a guru who can give you advice on what you should start with. Maybe you love to meditate. Perhaps you like to do physical, practical things. You can sit and meditate for five minutes each morning. You could do five or ten minutes of hatha yoga. You could do a walking meditation, or a music practice. It should be something focused and with time spent only doing that. So for instance, while it’s nice to chant mantras on your way to work, or meditate on the train, the kind of practice I’m talking about is one that is in one place, at a particular time, every day. If you get used to doing your practice on the way to work, then the days that you don’t work, you will often forget to practice.

But above all, keep it simple. A simple, five-minute meditation that focuses on your breath, clears your mind, and releases stress is sufficient to begin with, regardless of how experienced you may be.

2. Make time and space for sadhana

At the most basic level, the sadhaka (practitioner) has to make time for sadhana (practice).

Our mother Kali is the mother of time. Her name itself means “She Who is Time” or “She Who Is Beyond Time,” or even, “She Who Devours Time.” Time consumes us day by day, marching on toward our inevitable demise – but Kali devours time itself. She is more powerful than the most powerful, inevitable, most unrelenting force in the universe. With Her help, we can conquer time in a small way – to make time for sadhana.

The first thing you need for a spiritual practice is time. Not a lot of time – just whatever is realistic for you. Don’t set yourself up to do an hour of practice if your mind or your body is only ready for five or ten minutes. Start wherever you are, and be honest and non-judgmental about that place.

Everyone – even busy parents – has five minutes. Where are your five minutes? Okay, forget five minutes. Where are your three minutes?

When I say make space for sadhana, I mean space in terms of time, but also physical space. Create a space in your home that is just for meditation. It can be as simple as a small corner of the room with a pillow to sit on, or it can be as elaborate as a whole room. Both are equally good, as is everything in between. But you must make both mental and physical space for the practice. Seeing that space every day will remind you and motivate you to continue your practice.

3. Make that time (and space) a priority

We all have busy lives. But we can’t do anything well if we are not healthy. We can’t take care of others if we don’t first take care of ourselves.

Stop making excuses for why you can’t practice, and start making reasons for why you can. It’s that simple. Not always easy.

Banish “I can’t!” from your vocabulary. Replace it with, “How will I make this work?” As long as you keep telling yourself you have no time for a spiritual practice, that is exactly what you will get. But as soon as you break out of that illusion, you will see that there is actually lots of time in the day for it. The resistance you feel isn’t an inherent inability to do it, it is simply the resistance of the ego, which doesn’t want to go through the inevitable transformation that will happen through the practice.

The fact is, we all make time to brush our teeth and bathe every day. It is not difficult, when you look at it that way, to think about making space for five minutes of practice every day. Some people I know work it into their morning and bedtime routines. They will get up, bathe, brush their teeth, then sit for five minutes to meditate, perform japa (repetition of divine names or mantras with a mala or prayer rosary), or perform a simple puja (worship). In the past, I have printed a beautiful picture of Devi along with mantras and posted it on the wall next to my bed, so that it is the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning, reminding me to do my personal sadhana when I wake and before I sleep. Be creative in how you remind yourself and prioritize it. Let the process be fun rather than a slog.

And that’s it. Those three steps will help you develop a spiritual practice. At the end of the day, the person you have to answer to is yourself. You can get guidance from teachers and gurus and friends and family, but in the end, you have to learn to listen to your own Atman – your own Divine Self. To develop the ability to listen, you have to practice. Developing that sense of peace, awareness, and trust is vital, and the only way to do it is through regular, diligent practice.

Questions for you! Respond to them in your own journal, use them to help develop or affirm your daily practice.

1. What kind of meditative or other spiritual practice can you commit to doing every day?

2. Everyone has five minutes. Where are your five minutes?

3. Where in your home can you set aside for this practice? Be creative – the space can be indoors or outdoors, but should be available in all seasons.

4. What excuses have you made lately for not doing a daily spiritual practice? How will you transform each of those excuses into creative solutions for diving back into practice?

Photo credit: Jungle Steps, by Kulasundari Devi