In this series, I want to strip away everything non-essential from pagan ritual and build it from the ground up–literally, starting with our interaction with the earth and the other-than-human beings who we share it with. I previously wrote about the process of creating a ritual, starting with listening–to nature, to our own bodies, and to our unconscious. I have described ritual as a conscious structure applied to an unconscious response to the more-than-human world. And I focused on using simple gestures and poetic language, inspired by the practice of deep listening.
In this part, I want to talk about daily practice. We’re coming up on the New Year, which is the time when people traditionally recommit to healthy, life-enhancing practices that they have let fall off over the course of the year. Many years, my resolution has been to recommit to my daily spiritual practice. And many times, I have quickly fallen out of practice soon after recommitting.
Before we get into the what of a daily practice in the next post, I want to talk about talk a little bit about spiritual discipline.
1. Daily practice is important, but …
As I said earlier in this series, I believe successful religions–and I think healthy spiritual people–need “practices, rituals and observances which saturate everyday life.” The key word here is “saturate”. Celebrating the Wheel of the Year every six to seven weeks in just not enough. Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day. Many Christians pray morning and night and over every meal. It’s a fact that less demanding religions are less “successful” (on the macro scale)–and I think less impactful (on the micro scale). However …
2. Guilt has no place here.
Because of my Christian upbringing, I have a guilt reflex every time I “fail” to do my spiritual practice consistently. Even if you weren’t raised in a conservative Christian religion, you may have still picked up this guilt complex from our Christian-dominated culture. But, as Pagans, there’s nothing to feel guilty about when our spiritual practice drops off. We’re not earning a place in heaven with our spiritual practice. It doesn’t make us good people if we practice or bad people if we don’t. So there should be no judgments.
It’s called a “practice”, and not “perfection”, for a reason.
3. It’s natural for spiritual practice to wax and wane.
We should expect this. We’re human. Just about everything else in our lives waxes and wanes. Unless you are one of those people with a gift for consistency, and it is a gift (I’m not one of those people), then you can expect that your enthusiasm or energy for spiritual practice will wax and wane too. It’s ok to work with your energy level.
4. Stepping away from your practice periodically is itself a good practice.
Taking a time-out from your spiritual practice can be a good thing. It can give you the perspective to reevaluate your practice. Much like stepping away from an art project or a writing project, you’ll find that, after stepping away, you can come back to it with more energy and new insight.
Spiritual practices can become stagnant over time, and stepping back also allows you to assess whether the practice is still working for you and if there is something you might want to change about it. If you find that your practice is starting to feeling like an externally-imposed obligation, then it’s probably time to change it–or maybe scrap it and start fresh. On the other hand, after stepping back from your practice, you may actually start to miss it and to feel the desire for it again. This will remind you why you’re doing it in the first place and restore your missing motivation.
5. It’s not about willpower.
I was never what you would call a “good Christian”. I never managed to meet all the expectations of what I was supposed to be doing (and not doing). When I left Christianity behind, I started to question the whole concept of willpower, this idea that one part of us can or should dominate the another parts–kind of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. I decided that, even if I succeeded in doing this in the short run, it was a recipe for failure in the long run–not to mention a schizophrenic self-image, chronic shame, and a pattern of acting out, as the repressed parts revolted.
I decided that, rather than trying to use one part of myself to force another part to do something it didn’t want to do, what I needed instead was to try to bring all of these parts into some kind of unity–not a homogenized oneness, but a multifaceted harmony. I work toward this harmony by honoring all of my parts, each in their time and place. This is part of my spiritual practice too.
This is not to say we should acquiesce to every impulse when we feel it. When I say that all of our parts should be honored in their time and place, that “time and place” isn’t necessarily right now. Finding the right time and place to acknowledge all of our parts may help us to make a kind peace with them and help us to act from a place of centered wholeness.
If your spiritual practice is dropping off, rather than trying to force yourself to do it, it might be an opportune time to ask yourself what parts of yourself you are neglecting. If you’re lacking motivation for your spiritual practice, it may be because your practice isn’t an expression of your whole self.
5. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
When I’m not feeling the motivation to do my practice, it sometimes feels like I’m caught in a Catch-22. If I skip the practice, I won’t get the benefit, and eventually I’ll start feeling the accumulated disenchantment of my life. On the other hand, if I force myself to do the practice when I’m not feeling it, I risk the practice becoming a mere routine and disenchanted itself.
But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. When I am exhausted and want nothing more than to crawl into bed, in lieu of doing my full evening devotional, I can perform a truncated or shortened version of it. Even a simple one-line prayer may be better than nothing. Sometimes, what matters most is that you are doing anything at all, that there is a break in your mundane routine which draws your attention, even briefly, to the sacred.
In the next part, I’ll talk about how to create a daily practice.
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.