Developing a reference of spiritual resources can be a slippery slope! One person’s must-have list of spiritual resources might be another person’s list to dump altogether. So much depends on your own seeking, your intensity and longing for more, and your own early exposure to religious traditions and denominations, etc, or the lack (or luck?) thereof. But because so many people have asked me over the years about how to go about exploring spirituality, etc, I’m crazy enough to offer something here in spite of all the variables. So here goes!
First, Ask Yourself These Questions
(Consider writing your responses down…it helps!)
- As a child while growing up, I remember fondly the following “good” feelings of being in a spiritual community: _____________________ (This, of course, is hugely important.)
- As a child while growing up, I remember the following negative and unpleasant feelings of being in a (so-called) spiritual community: _____________________ (This may be difficult, even painful for some people to ponder, but it’s helpful to be as honest with yourself as possible here.)
- As a child, my spiritual and religious foundation as provided by my parents consisted of ____________ ? (If your parents and family traditions provided early exposure to a religious practice, that experience can run the gamut from joyful to dreadful. And the same can be said for having been raised with little or no exposure to religious traditions, etc.)
- Am I seeking to find a religious denomination or a spiritual practice? (Having a sense of your needs here is helpful. A religious denomination and spiritual practice could be the same thing, or totally different, too, depending on what you seek.)
- If I am seeking to be in a spiritual community, what do I envision that community looking like? (Such an affiliation can range from the traditional places of worship found in most communities, to the lesser known and sometimes obscure spiritual communities that can be every bit as nurturing, enriching, and spiritually grounded as the typical “main-stream places of worship (if not more-so!).
Taking a few minutes to reflect and write down your responses to the above questions can really help you to know what you’re seeking, and not seeking, spiritually.
A Word About the SBNR Movement
A rising number of people globally, and especially in the US, identify themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Some religious leaders, not surprisingly, have taken a negative view of this self designation, suggesting that it leaves one devoid of community and a foundation that is rooted in time-honored sacred texts and scripture, etc. But in my mind that might be precisely why people may be attracted to SBNR in the first place.
Just preferring to identify with this movement might, in my view, provide an individual with some structure of being in a loosely knit community. In addition, I personally know several people who are themselves “card-carrying” members within an existing religious denomination (including my own) and yet firmly feel that they too are spiritual but not religious in the least.
Exploring a Personal Daily Spiritual Practice
This isn’t rocket science! You just have to begin. And I know, for many, that can be the hardest part too…just beginning. So keep it simple. Start with a consistent place and time. Start with your breath, and stillness. Just sit there. Just breathe, release and let go of what tries to come in to your mind. Do this for five minutes, then ten minutes tomorrow and each day for a week. Out of this something will happen, something will come and a way can be opened. Don’t worry about who or what to pray to or for. That’ll come too, in time.
Some ideas to assist you in your daily practice:
- Try to keep your place and time consistent whenever possible
- Wash your hands gently with intention before beginning, being mindful of the water rolling through your hands.
- Pay attention to your light source, and where you’re sitting in relation to it.
- Notice where you place your hands during your practice. Some prefer placing their hands gently on their laps, others their abdomen and some people find it helpful to begin with a prayer pose, with both hands palm-to-palm together.
- Having a brief reading, prayer or reflection on hand during your centering time can be useful. You may not need it, but it’s there if you’re coming up dry, etc.
- For some people, playing soothing music, (as opposed to rock, etc!), or something with a gentle beat that you listen to as you center in can be helpful. Others prefer total silence, so it’s up to you.
- For those who prefer to have something to focus and meditate on, consider developing a small pile of 3 by 5 index cards with one contemplative word on each card to ponder. The words could be collected over time and put away for use during your times for spiritual practice. Sounds simple…but it works.
- If you prefer centering on Scripture, consider exploring the practice of “Lectio Divina”, (a Latin term that means “divine reading”) and describes a way of reading the Scriptures in such a way that the reader lets go of his or her own ideas and even previous beliefs about the passage to focus prayerfully on what the reading actually says. Lectio Divina is a Benedictine practice that strives to move the reader/person closer to God by approaching the Scriptures not as texts to be studied but as the living Word of God. Lectio Divina works best in groups and with leader that is experienced in the practice.
- Be gentle with yourself….some days it just doesn’t“happen.” Don’t despair…tomorrow will likely go much better.
Resources on Spiritual Practices
Attend a Retreat
Attending a retreat to explore your spiritual condition can be enormously enriching. It’s difficult to overstate how helpful this can be. Finding the right retreat with the appropriate leadership though is key. There are many kinds of retreat programs and retreat centers to choose from too. Some are ridiculously expensive and others are moderately priced. Be aware that many of the pricier retreat programs, in addition to offering you a spiritual experience, are also by design offering you an experience of “place,” comfort and activities that amount to entertainment. Just be aware of what you’re being offered and ask yourself if this is really what you’re seeking.
Weekend retreats are among the most popular for obvious reasons. Some retreats, by design, are more intensive and list four to five days. If you can spare the time these longer retreats can be very transformative. Retreats lasting beyond a week are frequently called sojourning or residential retreat programs that are led by experienced staff and spiritually grounded leaders who are well-known within their respective communities.
Here’s a short list of things to consider when choosing a retreat to attend:
- Pay attention to who or what organization owns the facility. Does the retreat center generally express the views and practices of a specific religion or spiritual practice? If so, are you okay with that?
- Some retreat centers are known for exploring and advancing traditional religious and spiritual practices through rigorous and highly structured programming. Others are known for their support and advancement of alternative practices. What’s too “heady” and “stuffy” for you might be just right for another. What’s too “crunchy” and “out-there” for another person might be just right for you.
- Look for a retreat center that’s been around for a long time. Check out their mission statement and guest policies, feedback from previous attendees, etc. Determine their payment and cancellation policy. Do they offer a sliding fee scale or any kind of scholarship?
- Scan previous and future retreats and have a look at their leadership. Is it varied, in-house mainly, or do they offer retreats that are lead by qualified people who are well known in their field and who hail from near and far?
- Is the retreat being offered by an author of one or more books and publications? If so, that’s fine, as these kinds of retreats can be terrific. However, be aware and wary of a retreat where it seems to be mainly a promotional push for a book, period. Sometimes it’s just as useful, and cheaper, to buy the book and read it at home, yourself!
- The credentials of the facilitator is worth noting, but don’t be overly fixated by it either. Some highly credentialed facilitators are awful presenters. And many retreat facilitators with modest credentials are gifted facilitators who are blessed with spiritual authority, grace and knowledge that they share naturally.
- Plan ahead! The better retreat programs fill fast. If a particular retreat has been offered several times in the past with the same leadership, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s worth attending.
Resources About and Finding a Retreat Center
For some people, and usually after attending various retreat programs over a period of time, the retreat experience deepens one’s longing for more, which can lead a person to explore a discipline called spiritual direction.
Spiritual Direction is a method of personal spiritual inquiry and faith exploration between you and a highly qualified spiritual director. It may be a one-to-one program, or, you may be one of several people in a group with one or two spiritual directors who lead the program over an extended period of time. Being in a Spiritual Direction program can, if not should, be rigorous and demanding in which one’s assumptions and beliefs are examined fully and even gently challenged, which, when undertaken successfully, brings the student to a new and deeper spiritual place. These programs require a specific commitment of time and willingness to complete the program. Usually, a supervisor is assigned to each student as well. There is also a financial commitment too, as the fee charged is usually the bread and butter for the Spiritual Director.
Finding the right Spiritual Direction program and director is especially important. Some are offered within an existing retreat center but many are offered independently by certified pastoral counselors, clergy people and other religious leaders and seminary scholars. Local inter-faith organizations and chaplaincy centers are usually a good place to inquire about Spiritual Direction in your area. Some organizations that offer spiritual direction are specific to one faith tradition, while others are interdenominational by design, so keep this in mind, too.
Resources on Spiritual Direction:
Spiritual Directors International
The Haden Institute
Text and images by Kevin Lee