Does Practice Make Perfect?

Does Practice Make Perfect?

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,  

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

That is from a poem by William Wordsworth, written some 120 years ago.  “The world is too much with us.”  We wait in the quiet for some centering moment – if we can find quiet.

The New Year, after the rush, the “getting and spending” of the holiday season, can be a time for reflection.  If we can find time.

Following a spiritual practice may help with finding both time and quiet.  Spiritual practices come in many forms, from many different religious traditions.  The reasons to practice differ somewhat, across traditions.  But I think they have a common core.  At their core is a hunger for connection and meaning, and a hunger for release from our psychic or spiritual anxiety, what Howard Thurman calls “the little anxieties that beset us.”

There is spiritual practice, and there are spiritual moments.  Sometimes they overlap.  Sometimes not.  You may have had spiritual moments – trumpet sounding ones, even.  I had one on a beautiful June day in 2010, on top of Skinner Mountain.  I was doing a wedding ceremony for Cheryl and Sarah, who had come here from Ohio to be legally married.  It was just the three of us.  The wind, the view over the valley, and the joy of the occasion all combined to make us want to send our sense of wonder and peace out across the universe.

It was the kind of moment captured in Hymn #335, Once When My Heart Was Passion Free.  Please rise as you are willing and able, and we’ll sing it together. ***

“For a moment’s interval the earth, the sky, the sea – my soul encompassed each and all, as they encompass me.”

Standing on a mountain top, or holding a newborn can be special moments that are memorable and full of meaning.  But mountain top moments come as gifts, unbidden.  A spiritual practice is an activity that a person engages in regularly, down in the valley.

Again, its purpose may vary, depending on the person and his or her tradition and beliefs.  The Buddha taught spiritual practice as a path towards becoming awake.

We may bring a hope of centering, of achieving greater awareness and greater inner peace.  We may hope to know and feel, wordlessly, our place in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

We may hope to connect more deeply to whatever it may be that is our Ground of Being, what some call God.

So what is a spiritual practice?  I’m defining a spiritual practice as an activity that a person engages in regularly, with the intention of centering, of achieving greater awareness, perhaps to know and feel, wordlessly, his or her place in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

A spiritual practice is something you do, and a spiritual practice is regular.

My favorite critic asked me if going for a walk in the woods could be a spiritual practice.  A walk in the woods is a good thing.  It can a heighten awareness and sense of connection.  It can help a person center.  But in order to be what I’m calling spiritual practice, it needs to happen on a regular basis.

Here’s a partial list of things people do as spiritual practices, or activities that could be part of a spiritual practice.  You can begin to find out about most of these through tapes and books, through lectures and seminars and classes and Facebook and u-tube.  Spiritual practices include:

Affirmations, Alms-giving, Altars, Body Prayer, Centering Prayer, Chakra Work, Chanting, Conscientious Examen, Dance, Fasting, Feasting, Forgiveness, Icons, Playing Instrumental Music.

Also:  Journaling, Labyrinth Walking, Lectio Divina, Mandalas, Meditation (many kinds, including guided meditations like our story this morning), Pilgrimage, Reading or Writing Poetry.

And: Use of Prayer Beads, Prayer Bowls, Prayer Flags, Prayer Wheels.

Plus:  Communal Prayer, Private Prayer, Scripture Reading, Singing, Sweat Lodge Ceremonies, Ta’i Chi, Taizé Prayer, Tantric Sex, Tea Ceremonies, Tonglen, Vision Quests, Visual Arts, Communal Worship, Yoga.

That’s just a partial list.

My own first experience with spiritual practice, as an adult, was through a class in Insight Meditation.  I knew nothing about meditation, or Buddhism, at the time.  Over time, through meditation, I discovered a developing awareness that there might be a difference between what I thought was happening and what was actually happening.  I experienced tiny steps towards awareness free from judgment.  (Very tiny steps).  I summoned the courage to leave the corporate world for a while and go back to school, where I got a masters in education.  That was over 20 years ago.  Now, I still turn and return to Buddhism and meditation practice, and especially loving kindness meditation.

There are different ways to practice loving kindness meditation.  It may come at the end of a session of meditating by watching the breath, or focusing on a word.  The meditator begins with him or herself, with an affirmation.  The way I learned it, in that class years ago, was:  “May I be happy. May I be free from pain.  May I be peaceful.”

First, the self.  Then outward to include others – geographically, maybe, starting with the other people in the room, then people on the same block, in the same city, state, making a wider and wider circle that finally encompasses all people, all beings.  Or, after self, I often begin with those I love best, expanding the circle outward from family and friends to those of you I know are going through an especially hard time, to all of you, to acquaintances to people who touch my life in other ways, and so on outward, again in a wider and wider circle that finally encompasses all people, all beings.

Hymn 1039 – “May I Be Filled With Loving Kindness” – gives a taste of the practice.  Please rise and join us in singing.***

There are many forms of spiritual practice.  Have you thought about communal worship as one?  If coming to worship is something you do regularly, with intention, in order to center and connect, or reach towards whatever for you is ground of being, then it is a spiritual practice.

Most of the groups and committees in this congregation engage in a spiritual practice in the way in which they start and end meetings.  Nearly every group starts with lighting a chalice and reading some opening words, provided either by the meeting leader or rotated among group members.  In addition, many then have a brief personal check-in, in which everyone present says something about what is happening in his or her life.  Most meetings end with closing words, as well.

If this happened only occasionally, it might feel awkward, or forced.  I wasn’t here when the practice started, but I imagine it might have felt that way at first.  It may still feel that way, at times.

But over time, the practice of lighting the chalice and an opening reading becomes part of the rhythm of coming together.  It spreads, from one committee to another, with resistance or skepticism on the part of some, and then, over time, it comes to be something people look forward to, and expect.  And the quality of what happens in those meetings – a quality of attention and intention – begins to shift.

Things begin to shift on a personal level, too, when we engage in a spiritual practice regularly and intentionally, in order to center, to become more aware, to connect, to know and feel, wordlessly, our place in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

For wordy types especially, spiritual practice may be about seeking and resting in emptiness – in that which cannot be said.

Workers rush toward some hint of emptiness, which they then start to fill. Their hope, though, is for emptiness, so don't think you must avoid it. It contains what you need!       (Rumi)

The emptiness, quiet, stillness – they contain what you need.  Over the years, off and on, I also practiced yoga.  I learned more from teachers who didn’t talk much.  For the past year or so I have done a form of ta’i chi, usually followed by a period of time when I light a chalice and meditate or pray or chant.

Does practice make perfect?  Is it ok to skip from one practice to another?  Are there right and wrong ways to do this?

I’m pretty sure that spiritual practice can’t make us perfect – or even get us close.  The books, tapes, seminars, lectures, classes, Facebook pages and u-tube videos devoted to a given spiritual practice will probably tell you that you need to stick to one, preferably the one they teach.  I can’t argue with that.  Everything I’ve read suggests that the more diligent one is in pursuing one particular discipline, the greater one’s sense of awareness,  connection, inner focus, gratitude and compassion.

I also have a wonderful mentor who says, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”  So I say, “practice as you can, not as you can’t.”  As with exercise, the effects accumulate, often without our being immediately aware of them.

When I am engaging in my own spiritual practice, regularly, I don’t hear trumpets sound.  But I do, often, feel calmer, more centered, more in touch with my feelings, more grateful, more connected.  My ritual helps free me from whatever it is that is restraining or constraining me, helps me live more aware and with greater equanimity and compassion. I miss that help when I slack off.

A spiritual practice is something you do, regularly, and with intention.

When our boys were two and four we joined our local UU congregation.  I didn’t think of regular attendance in worship as a spiritual practice.  Nor did I think of our daily ritual of bedtime story as one.  But as I look back, I realize both probably were.

At the time of year when New Year’s resolutions raise their pesky heads it’s tempting to give ourselves assignments.  If you are so inclined, I suggest that you pick something you can do, not something you can’t.  Notice what you do that is, or could be, a practice, with just a little more intention, or regular attention to doing it, even for 10 minutes a day.

And you might want to try not going it alone.  Find a companion.  Maybe he or she will take that walk in the woods my loving critic asked about, every Friday afternoon.  Or maybe you’re like me, with a practice or two you once learned and have parked on the shelf, ready to be dusted off.  Maybe there are things in your life you already do, like making the coffee early in the morning, that could be invested with a bit more intention, and quieting, and focus.

If you are too much alone, I’d suggest finding a practice that lets you be with others, maybe even one that lets you make a little noise.  And if your life is too frenetic, see if you can take a few moments on a regular basis to find emptiness.

We wait, says Howard Thurman, for some centering moment that will redefine, reshape, and refocus our lives, a path through the little anxieties that beset us.

If we can find quietness and time, this can become a spiritual practice that we have chosen, something done with intention, perhaps in order to brush up ever so gently against wonder and mystery, our ground of being, or what some of us may call God,

something done to center, to connect, reshape, and refocus.

And in so doing, each one of us may find ourselves moving closer to the person he or she is meant to be, to the person each one of us truly is.