As the COVID-19 quarantine began, I found myself in conversation with a colleague. He asked how I was coping, and I truthfully answered, pretty well. “It helps,” I said, “that I am an introvert.”
“It helps,” he said, “that you have a strong spiritual practice.”
For much of my life, I associated the term spiritual practice with an image of monks chanting prayers. Lovely as it is, it did not resonate with my sense of self or my sense of spirituality.
I suspect that my association with the term comes from the fact that through my 13 years of Jewish day school, additional yeshiva study, and even rabbinical school, I never heard the term associated with anything I did or learned.
We prayed daily in my elementary school. Rarely a day went by, through my many years, when I did not study Torah. Sometimes I enjoyed it, but often it was simply the fulfillment of an obligation, religious or curricular. No one ever called it a spiritual practice.
Far too often the term spiritual practice is deeply loaded or limited.
A few years back I participated in a spiritual program for rabbis. I learned to chant, meditate and do yoga. I found meaning in each of them. But the bigger takeaway and the one that transformed my life was the understanding that I developed about term spiritual practice.
Spirituality is one of those things that manifests differently for each one of us; connection, flow, belonging, escape, meaning, joy, transcendence, being, presence, stillness, grounding – any one element on its own or any in combination with others. A spiritual practice, then, is any regular or repeated activity that helps induce spirituality.
Armed with this understanding, I began to see the religious routines of prayer and ritual as potentially falling into that broad category of spiritual practice, whether or not there are monks involved. More than that, I learned that, done with intention and attention, many things can be transformed into a spiritual practice.
To prove the point to myself and out of curiosity, I posed the question on social media, do you have a spiritual practice, and if so what it is? Many people said prayer. Others wrote about yoga, gratitude and meditation. Additionally, there was an array of answers: making the bed, painting, morning coffee, marksmanship, reading, gardening, walking, sitting in the backyard, and even laughter.
Many of these are things most of us do already, all it takes to make them into a spiritual practice is intention.
Chanting, yoga and meditation work as spiritual practices because they center our focus, body and soul. The activities themselves demand our full attention. But we can actively choose to give our attention body and soul to any other activity. That intentionality and focus is where possibilities emerge.
When I make challah, I don’t use a mixer, even though that makes a better dough. Kneading with my hands demands standing with feet firmly planted on the ground and allows me to feel the miracle of the ingredients transforming into something wonderous. I connect with generations of Jewish women and take time to pray. I know that there are many for whom making challah is a challenge or even a chore, but for me, it is a spiritual practice.
What differentiates a spiritual practice from a spiritual moment is the repetition. The repetition solidifies our ability to connect spiritually with regularity. With time, that capacity extends out beyond the practice itself. When my spiritual practice is strong, I see the impact in so many aspects of my life. I am more grounded, patient, aware and deliberate. I am able to exist despite the chaos that is the human condition.
The next months will be hard. I have no idea how I will react or respond, what the impact on my mind and body will be. Like many, I am concerned for myself, my loved ones and my communities. And at times fear and grief are overwhelming.
And so I will continue to strengthen my spiritual practice in its many forms.
Making challah, active listening, morning prayers, my gratitude practice, Shabbat observance. It will not cure COVID or heal the political divisions in our country, but it will give me moments of peace, clarity and strength that I need now more than ever.