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Introduction, Workshop 2: Personal Spiritual Practices

In "Spirit in Practice," a Tapestry of Faith program

There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word. Certainly there is a right for you that needs no choice on your part. Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into your life. Then, without effort, you are impelled to truth and to perfect contentment.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

This workshop looks at the solitary component of the practice of spirituality. There is a Zen saying that no one else can eat your food for you, no one else can go to the bathroom for you, and no one else can live your life for you. And, of course, no one else can do your practice for you.

When the subject of personal spiritual practices comes up, one word seems to rise above all the rest: prayer. Prayer is an expansive concept that can be practiced in an endless variety of ways. Contemplatives and mystics have always argued that the real purpose of prayer is to quiet the chatter and remove the distractions that keep us unable to hear the "still small voice" that is within each of us. That voice can be called various things—God, Spirit, Life, our inner wisdom, our higher self. But many of us live in such a tumult of inner and outer noise that if such a voice were speaking to us, we could hardly hear it.

Prayer, then, can be understood as a tool by which we learn to quiet the noise and listen. What are we listening for, or to? That needn't be known at the outset. If something is speaking to us—if there is a spirit singing in us—then we will know it when we hear it. The problem with telling people what they should be listening for, as some institutional religions do, is that when we don't hear what we're expecting to hear, we may give up listening altogether. Ironically, one of the few things that all religions seem to agree on is that when the sacred speaks, it is usually in an unexpected way. This workshop teaches that the first thing to learn is to listen, and only then to discover to whom or what we are listening.

This notion of listening is also central to many "mindfulness" practices taught by various Eastern traditions. For in fact, all of the great personal spiritual practices can be seen as aiming toward the same target. They are all ways of putting us in touch with ourselves at our deepest, with what the poet Mary Oliver calls our "one wild and precious life."

Our better selves, our higher wisdom, our inner knowing, the collective unconscious, the Spirit of Life, deity—whatever we call it, it is forever speaking to us, encouraging us to make healthy choices, to live up to our ideals, to take the way of the greatest good. All of the various practices that our human family has created are merely ways for us to discover this "voice" so that we might benefit from what it has to say.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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