Spiritual practices

There are many, many possible spiritual practices. You can even make up your own! The key is to do them mindfully and consistently. Many of the programmes listed on our web site teach specific spiritual practices, but for those who just can't wait to get started, here are some ideas:

A Unitarian Universalist Prayer Bead Practice

What follows is not intended to dictate how to pray, but rather is a suggested structure onto which you can hang your own developing prayer practice. It draws upon the prayer practices of a number of religious traditions and seeks to put together a pattern of prayer that you can tailor to your own needs and understandings. This practice uses the image of a journey, one form of prayer moving into the next.


Preparation: The first, largest bead provides a way into this prayer journey. While touching it, you might gently breathe in and out a few times, sing a favorite hymn, or recite a passage of scripture that centers you and creates a space within for the prayer that is to follow.

Entering In: With the four small beads at the beginning of the prayer circle, you enter into this “journey” of prayer. With each bead you might recite the verses of a Buddhist gatha, such as:

Breathing in, I relax body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I realize this is the only moment.

You might call on the spirits of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Or you can create your own entering prayer. I say:

Open my eyes, that I might see your face in everyone I encounter this day, myself included.
Open my ears, that I might hear your voice in whatever forms it takes.
Open my hands, that I might freely give whatever is mine to share.
Open my heart, that I might live and love more fully in you.

Take the time here to be fully intentional about this time.

Naming: The first medium-size bead is for naming the sacred and the holy as you encounter it. In traditional prayer terminology, this is praise and thanksgiving. You can think of it as naming the places in your life where miracles abound, a chance to “count your blessings,” or a way of beginning your prayer centered in the awareness of the ways in which the holy is happening in your life.

The Small Beads: The three sets of five small beads between the medium-size beads are for “breath prayer.” Many of the world’s religious traditions encourage a short, repetitive prayer tied to the breath. You say one line on the in-breath and a second on the out-breath. You can use two lines from tradition or scripture—the classic from the Christian tradition is “Jesus Christ / have mercy on me”—or you can create your own. Once you settle on a two-part phrase, keep saying the same thing. Part of the power of a breath prayer is its repetition. Live with it long enough for it to become a part of you.

Knowing: The second medium-size bead is for giving voice to the broken, wounded, worried places in your soul. (Traditionally, this is called a prayer of confession.) It is the chance to take a “fearless moral inventory” and to give voice to what lurks in the shadow. Prayer calls on us to be authentic, whole people, and knowing where we are weak and wounded is essential.

Listening: The third medium-size bead is for listening to “the voice of quiet stillness” within. This is a chance to sit in the Mystery, gently breathing. (Depending on the tradition, this is called meditation or contemplation.) Far too often, people think of prayer as “talking to the sacred,” forgetting that in any good conversation we must make room to listen as well as speak.

Loving: If your prayer journey is just for your own sake, then it is ultimately hollow. The fourth and last medium-size bead provides a place to bring the concerns of others—family, friends, communities, the world—into your prayer. These prayers of intercession, as they are traditionally called, are a chance to encourage your prayer to move outward. Call to mind people and situations you know who are in need, or sit quietly and see who (or what) comes to mind.

Closing: Whatever you said to enter into your prayer time, repeat with the four beads at the end of the circle.

Putting It All Together: You can take the journey of this prayer practice all at one time (expect to spend at least 30 minutes), or you can spread it out during the day (for example, Naming after breakfast, Knowing at lunch, Listening before dinner, and Loving before bed). Some people carry their beads with them everywhere, like “worry beads,” and find that simply touching them—while in line at the bank, or when waiting for a friend—brings them into a prayerful place.

This practice is expanded—and a Unitarian Universalist perspective on prayer is more fully explored—in Erik Walker Wikstrom’s Simply Pray: A Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life (Skinner House Books, 2005).

by Erik Walker Wikstrom

Link: UUA Tapestry of Faith Lifespan Curriculum

Tradition: Unitarian Universalist

· spirituality · spiritual path · spiritual practices · prayer · bead · UU

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

The Japanese tea ceremony is the ultimate form of this spiritual practice; in it each movement is choreographed, and the tea is prepared and served mindfully and gracefully. The ritual has deep meaning and resonance for the participants.

However, the preparation and drinking of tea has a restorative effect on many people. The fragrance of the tea, the effect of drinking it, and the relaxation of sitting and being focused on the pleasure of tea, is all good for you. Its even better if it is accompanied by conversation with a friend.

The title of this article is taken from the excellent website entitled "A nice cup of tea and a sit down" which extols the pleasures of this activity, or should I say inactivity?

Details on the Japanese Tea Ceremony can be viewed here

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· a nice cup of tea and a sit down · Buddhist · everyday spirituality · mindfulness · spiritual practices · tea ceremony · Zen ·

Building a meditation hut

The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids suggest building a meditation hut. The actual process of building the hut could be a mindful and meditative process, using recycled and sustainable materials. The Order’s founder, Ross Nichols, got the idea of his hut from the poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Yeats was inspired to write the poem by Henry David Thoreau’s account of how he retired to a hut beside Walden Pond, there to contemplate the wilderness, be self-sufficient and find himself.

Ross Nichols suggests that one of the benefits of living in a hut is that there are fewer distractions there; no electricity, no running water, only yourself and the wilderness (or your garden) for company. It was important to Nichols that the hut should be a semi-permanent structure, so it felt safe and secluded.

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· Druidry · Henry David Thoreau · hut · meditation · Ross Nichols · spiritual practices · William Butler Yeats

Centring prayer

Many people do not believe in a personal God or in miraculous interventions, so we find it difficult to pray. But prayer is not just about asking for things. It can be contemplative. It can be about communing silently with the universe, or self-examination, or holding loved ones in your thoughts, or increasing mindfulness. Centring prayer is a spiritual practice that was developed by Christians in response to interfaith dialogue with Buddhists.

Link: Read more about Centring Prayer

Tradition: Christianity

· centring · centering · Christian · Buddhist · contemplation · meditation · interfaith

Gardening

Gardening is well known to be therapeutic, but it is also deeply spiritual. It is a process of fostering life, of working with the land and Nature to create beauty – what could be more spiritual than that? Embodied spirituality is about responding to the world with wonder, creativity and joy; it is not some abstract process – it is about connecting the inner with the outer. The planting of the seeds in the ground teaches us hope and care for small growing things. Watching the seeds come up is an experience of hope rewarded. Then we must care for the tender seedlings, watering them, planting them out, protecting them from being eaten. We create patterns in the garden – arrangements of plants that flower and fruit in their season. The plants might be herbs that heal, or flowers with scent and colour, or leafy trees, or fruit and vegetables. Plants have symbolism and mythology and folklore associated with them.

The word paradise means an enclosed garden; the earliest gardens were oases of fertility in the desert, such as the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which must have required considerable watering. The fabled Garden of Eden was the mythological model for such gardens. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ uncle Zovár said that the Garden of Eden was really the whole Earth, because everywhere on Earth is capable of flowering like a garden, and is full of the divine presence if you know how to be aware of it.

Composting (an essential aspect of gardening) is a wonderful metaphor for the process of change and transformation. We compost our dead matter (past experience) and it helps to fertilise new growth (the wisdom that comes from experience).

 

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· change · everyday spirituality · gardening · spiritual practices · transformation

Generosity

Give to others regularly - it brings joy and satisfaction. Our giving need not be of material things - our time and attention are among the most precious gifts we have to give.

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· generosity · mindfulness · connection

Gratitude

Keep a gratitude journal: At the end of each day, list three to five things for which you are grateful. This practice of gratitude will help you find more joy in the small everyday happenings of life. Whether or not you send it, write a letter to a someone who has had a positive effect on your life describing what they did and thanking them for it.

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· gratitude · journal · journalling · mindfulness · awareness

Grounding and centring

Many rituals begin with this simple practice, especially Pagan circles. It comes from the Taoist tradition originally, I think. There are several different versions of it.

Its purpose is to allow you to feel connected to the Earth (grounded), not floating away into fantasy-world, not obsessing about the past or the future, but being present in the now. The centring part of the practice allows you to feel connected to the cosmos and the four sacred directions, which are associated with the elements.

Begin by focusing on your breathing. Don't breathe in any special way, just notice how your breath comes in and out of your nostrils, and how your belly rises and falls.

As you breathe in and out, feel your feet planted firmly on the ground. Relax your hips and your knees and imagine a thread extending from the top of your head to the centre of the sky (this helps to align your spine with the axis of the Earth).

Imagine that your feet are tree roots, and extend your roots deep into the earth. Your roots push down into the earth, through the rich soil, finding their way among rocks, and down deep into the molten core of the Earth. As you breathe out, extend your roots; as you breathe in, draw up energy from deep within the Earth.

As the energy makes its way into your body, draw it up through your legs and feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus. Note the colour of the energy.

Now extend a tendril of energy up your spine. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a tree, and extend your aura at the top of your head, growing branches. Extend your branches up into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, and reach for the energy of the starlight. As you breathe out, extend your branches; as you breathe in, draw the energy down from above. Feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus, mingling with the energy from below.

Now draw energy from both above and below at the same time, and let the energies mingle in your solar plexus. As you breathe in, draw in the energy from above and below; as you breathe out, feel it spiralling and swirling.

Now allow the energy to fill your whole body, extending out to your feet, your fingertips, the top of your head. Feel how you are aligned with the cosmic axis.

Now acknowledge the four directions: North for Earth, representing the body, sensation, physicality, and structure; East for Air, representing intellect, thought, inspiration and breath; South for Fire, representing passion, intuition, and spirit; and West for Water, representing emotion, the Moon, dreams, and the blood that flows in your veins.

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Eclectic Pagan

· Wicca · Pagan · meditation · Taoist · grounding · centring · centering

Haiku writing

The haiku is a Japanese form of poetry which evolved out of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Traditional Japanese haiku have 17 syllables, but it has been suggested that English haiku should have more syllables, because English is a more long-winded language than Japanese, and you can pack a lot more concepts into 17 Japanese syllables than you can into 17 English syllables.

However, I tend to stick to the 17 syllable structure, divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Haiku also traditionally include a kireji, a ‘cutting word’. The cutting word divides the poem into two contrasting sections with imagery that adds a surprising twist or contrast to each other. It’s difficult to find ‘cutting words’ in English, so haiku writers in English use a dash to separate the two sections of the poem.

Haiku are essentially poems about Nature, so Japanese haiku also have a season word, to indicate in what season the action of the poem takes place. The season word does not have to be the name of the season; it can be something that is obviously associated with that season – for example, plum blossom would indicate that the poem was describing spring. The imagery of a haiku is simple and unpretentious, and generally does not use similes to achieve its effects. The natural phenomena described may very well be metaphors for something else, but the haiku may also be enjoyed for the images of natural beauty, and the human response to it, that it conjures up.

Haiku poets would often gather together to compose haiku on the spot. One poet would begin, and then another poet would respond with a haiku of their own, and in this way a series of linked haiku (known as haikai-renga) would be composed by the group.

Sometimes haiku would be combined with travel writing or other prose. The most famous example of this form is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho, which describes Basho’s travels to the far north of Japan. The combined haiku and prose form is known as haibun.

Writing haiku teaches one to strip things back to the bare essentials, to distil experience into its pure form, and to observe Nature closely. It is a very satisfying process, because haiku are so short, and so complete in themselves.

 

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Buddhism

· Buddhist · everyday spirituality · haiku · Matsuo Basho · mindfulness · poetry · spiritual practices · Zen

Journalling

Keep a journal of what you have noticed each day. There are many ways to do this, but the important thing is to notice your thoughts and feelings. At the end of each day, record at least one thing that surprised, moved, or inspired you. This will help you find greater meaning in everyday life.

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· journal · journalling · mindfulness · awareness

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina has four steps: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. The reading stage involves critical engagement with the text, analysing its meanings and metaphors. The meditation stage involves dwelling on the images that particularly resonate with you. This could be developed into a visualisation or journey into the scene described.

Link: Read more about Lectio Divina

Tradition: Christianity

· Christian · contemplation · meditation · reading · lectio divina

Loving kindness meditation

Many Buddhist traditions practice Metta Bhavana, or loving kindness meditation. (Metta means loving-kindness.) The meditation is in several stages (the classic version has five). At each stage, silently recite a mantra, linked to the breath. The first line is said on the inbreath, the second on the outbreath, and so on.

Link: Read more about Loving Kindness Meditation

Tradition: Buddhism

· Metta Bhavana · meditation · mindfulness · loving kindness · relaxation

Making a mandala

The idea of the mandala comes from Hindu and Buddhist tradition. In its most developed form, the mandala is a diagram of the inner world. Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas depict temples and palaces where particular Buddhas dwell, and pathways between them. A sand mandala is carefully and painstakingly constructed by pouring sand through special pointy tubes onto a surface, and after a certain amount of time, the sand is swept up and poured out as a blessing into a river, or given away to pilgrims.

Mandalas can also be drawn or painted. Carl Gustav Jung (the psychoanalyst) drew mandalas representing his inner states, and encouraged his clients to do the same. Other Jungians also did this. Drawing a mandala can be a very satisfying experience  it doesnt have to be great art; its the process of creating a picture of your inner world that is important. You can also make mandalas from seeds, pebbles or shells.

Once you have created your mandala, you can use it as a focus for meditation, following the patterns you have created, or meditating on the meaning of the symbols within the mandala.

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· Buddhist · everyday spirituality · Hindu · mandalas · meditation · spiritual practices ·

Making an altar

An altar is a focus for devotion, prayer or meditation. It can be simple or complex, small or large. It can have no images, a single image, or multiple images. It can be themed around a particular idea, deity, holy person or festival. You can have more than one altar or shrine around your home.

If your altar is for meditation or prayer, choose a spot in your home that is quiet and peaceful. Consider how you will use your altar. If you are going to place flowers on it, or use it in ritual, make sure there is space for everything you need, and that the altar is easy to keep clean. Some people like to light a candle or ring a bell before they start their ritual, meditation or prayer.

The typical altar might have a bell or singing bowl, some holy pictures or statues, some natural objects such as pebbles, shells, feathers or wood to make a connection with Nature, a candle, prayer beads, and perhaps a holy book. It may be a shrine to a particular deity, saint, Buddha or bodhisattva, or to multiple sacred foci.

In Orthodox Christianity, the shrine at which the family prays is known as the Beautiful Corner, and is decorated with icons of favourite saints. Icons are seen as windows into Heaven, and depict the transfigured face of the saint. Before praying, people will light a candle and cross themselves.

In some traditions, people build altars or shrines at particular times of year. In Mexico, people build shrines for El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to commemorate their loved ones who have died. There might be photos of the loved one, together with their favourite foods, and flowers. Many Pagans around the world have borrowed this idea. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her classic book Women who run with the wolves, describes how women built altars to commemorate losses in their lives, and how this helped them to grieve properly and to recover from the trauma. You could also build altars for particular rites of passage, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, or for marriage or divorce. The altar might include symbols of the phase that is coming to an end, and symbols of the new phase to be embarked on. You could even build one altar for each phase, and then have a ritual progression from one phase to the next.

Another way of making an altar is to find a special tree or rock, and decorate around it with found (but biodegradable) objects arranged in a pattern, such as twigs, leaves, berries and feathers.

There is no right or wrong way to make an altar. Each altar is personal and special. If you are following a particular spiritual tradition, it may have particular ways of making altars, but even within that, there is plenty of scope for creativity.

 

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· altars · Clarissa Pinkola Estes · everyday spirituality · icons · meditation · prayer · spiritual practices

Meditation

Sit quietly and comfortably keeping your back straight if possible. Focus your intention gently on your breathing. Do this for a few minutes a day at first and then keep extending the time. Do not worry when your attention wanders and thoughts intrude. When you notice this, simply draw your attention back to your breathing. This is the basis of meditation practice.

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· meditation · daily · spiritual practice · Buddhism

Meditative walking

There are several different types of meditative walking, from various different spiritual traditions.

The theologian St Augustine famously wrote “Solvitur ambulando” (It is solved by walking), by which he presumably meant that as you walk, the problems that were at the forefront of your mind are put on the back burner and there solved. I have experienced this process myself.

Walking is also more environmentally friendly than other means of locomotion.

Eastern Orthodox Christians practice the prayer walk, which is a form of processional walking, with stops for prayers at various intervals.

The practice of walking labyrinths is a very ancient practice dating from pre-Christian times, but also used by Christians in labyrinths such as the famous one at Chartres. In a Chartres-style labyrinth, you never know quite how near or far you are from the centre, so as you twist and turn through the labyrinth, walking slowly and meditatively, you are reminded of the twists and turns of life, and sometimes solutions to problems come to mind as you walk.

Buddhists practice the walking meditation, which is where you walk slowly and mindfully, place one foot in front of the other in a slow and deliberate way, silently reciting a mantra as you walk.

Another way of walking mindfully is to walk in a garden, and walk towards the first thing – perhaps a plant, perhaps a stone, or a leaf on the ground – that attracts your attention, and then really look at it. What colour is it? What is its texture? How is it structured? Is it growing or decaying? Smell it, touch it. Does it make a sound? Follow the patterns on its surface. When you have really observed it with all of your senses, thank it and move on to the next thing that attracts your attention. At the end of your walk, you might like to draw what you have seen, or write a poem (perhaps haiku) about the experience.

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· everyday spirituality · meditation · spiritual practices · walking · ancient paganism · Christian · Buddhist · mindfulness

Mindfulness

Walk in the woods or any quiet place and focus on noticing everything that is coming to you through all of your senses. Notice the sights, sounds, and smells you encounter as you walk along. Feel the air on your skin and your feet on the ground. When you notice your attention has shifted to something outside of the present moment, gently bring it back. Be present in your daily chores. For example, do the washing up while focusing on nothing but the dishes, the water, the soap and your actions. Do art, such as drawing or painting. Be present to this activity and, if you notice your mind wandering, gently bring your thoughts back to the present moment and what you are doing.

Tradition: Buddhism

· meditation · daily · spiritual practice · mindfulness

Monthly spiritual practice newsletter

A free, monthly email newsletter, with spiritual practice examples and suggestions, and news updates from ahamsa: being peace, serving beauty. Sign up and get ahamsa's Pocket Guide to Silent Meditation absolutely free. 

The sign up form is on the right hand side of the website. You can also find reflections on spiritual practice in the blog on the same website, including a weekly 'Spiritual Lessons from Science Fiction' series.

 

by Elinor Prdota

Link: ahamsa: being peace, serving beauty

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· spiritual practice · spiritual lessons · newsletter · meditation · science fiction

Shared meals

Many religious traditions have shared meals as part of their practice.

Jewish tradition has the Seder or Passover meal, in which specific symbolic foods are eaten, representing different aspects of the Passover story. The youngest person present must ask, "Why is this night more special than all other nights?" and various other symbolic actions are performed, such as leaving the door open for Elijah, and raising a toast to the idea that one's next Seder will take place in Jerusalem.

Christianity has the Eucharist, which commemorates both the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples, and also the meal he is said to have shared with them at Emmaus after his Resurrection. The meal consists of bread and wine consumed in a sacred manner. There has been much conflict throughout Christian history about what the Eucharist means, who is allowed to partake of it, and what its effects are. Nevertheless it is a powerful ritual. Stephen Lingwood, a Unitarian minister, suggests that communion represents Jesus' radical hospitality – his willingness to eat with people marginalised by society, such as prostitutes, tax collectors and publicans.

In Wicca, the shared meal is known as cakes and wine, and is usually consecrated by a woman and a man (or a same-sex couple), and then shared among the participants in the ritual. A portion is kept for offering to the deities as a libation.

In some Hindu traditions, a portion of the food is offered to the deities while it is being cooked, and blessed food is known as prasadam.

The ancient Greeks had a ritual of sharing bread, which is where we get our word symposium, which literally means ‘together bread’. In ancient Rome, there were dining clubs devoted to the god Bacchus (god of wine), which presumably had a ritual or spiritual aspect.

Many religious traditions (including Buddhism, Christianity and Paganism) give thanks for their food before eating. Typically, the meal blessing might include thanks to all the beings and processes that went into creating the food, and a wish that everyone in the world might have enough to eat.

Cooking can also be a spiritual practice. It is in many ways akin to alchemy (the transformation of one thing into another); indeed, a cooking vessel invented by a medieval female alchemist – the bain-marie – founds its way from the laboratory to the kitchen. In Jewish tradition, the preparation of food has special rituals associated with it. The magic of a lovingly prepared meal is powerful stuff, restoring both body and mind.

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· alchemy · ancient paganism · Buddhist · Christian · everyday spirituality · Hindu · Judaism · Pagan · shared meals · spiritual practices · Wicca ·

Storytelling

Most spiritual and religious traditions have a corpus of stories which transmit their values and beliefs, and the stories of their saints and heroes. It is also good to create stories. In his essay, On Fairy Stories, JRR Tolkien expressed the view that when we create stories, we are exercising a gift from the Divine, the gift of ‘subcreation’.

One way of creating new stories is to practice storytelling in the round. One person starts off a story, and then when they have run out of ideas, the next person in the circle takes over. You can augment this practice by using cards with images or words to suggest ideas to the participants.

Storytelling is an art which it is very satisfying to learn. To make your story come to life, include details of colour, taste, smell, sound and texture; imagine how the characters in the story feel about their situation. Traditional storytelling does not go into much detail, but it gets across the experience with directness and immediacy. You can also add your own personal twist to well-known stories, such as telling the story from the point of view of another character – how about the story of Little Red Riding Hood from the point of view of the wolf, for instance? Try to find and listen to traditional storytellers and learn from their technique.

by Yvonne Aburrow

Link: UK Spirituality blog

Tradition: Multiple traditions

· everyday spirituality · JRR Tolkien · spiritual practices · storytelling

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