What Matters Beyond the Physical Details of Your Life
The consolations of meditation, prayer, and ritual
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There are long-established practices that help people ground themselves according to their particular beliefs and ideals. As with all practices of any kind, however, there are more effective and less effective ways of pursuing them.
We are not looking here to judge the validity of these practices, in terms of whether their implicit assumptions (about belief in God or in a spiritual plane of reality, where applicable) are literally true. But if your own beliefs and your personality allow you to participate in contemplative, spiritual, or religious practices, then the question we do want to address is: how do you make them work for your benefit?
If your beliefs dictate that you abstain from these practices, of course, then by all means do so. Or if you think that some of them simply do not suit your personal style or temperament, then focus on the ones that do. Studies consistently show, however, that people who are able to seriously engage in spiritual practices tend to benefit in terms of their overall health and happiness.
Spiritual Practices relate to other areas of Spirit:
- Beliefs and principles, because our practices work best when they reflect our beliefs; and because our beliefs in turn are reinforced by our participation in appropriate practices.
- The meaning of life, because our sense of meaning may be enhanced by contemplative, spiritual, or religious practices.
- Dealing with aging, because practices that increase our sense of peacefulness, belonging, and well-being allow us to age more gracefully and to deal more constructively with the downside of aging.
- Dealing with death, because spiritual practices may help us cope with the prospect and the act of dying, and with dealing with bereavement when loved ones die.
Spiritual Practices relate to other areas besides Spirit:
- Purpose, because spiritual practice can renew our sense of purpose; and because some people want to direct their purposeful activities toward spiritual ends.
- Love, because spiritual practices often have a communal element; and because they may enhance our capacity to take others into our hearts.
- Avocation, because spiritual activities can be occasions of joy, sharing, and even fun; and because the attitudes we adopt in our spiritual practices can be incorporated into ordinary secular activities.
- Security, because we can never be completely secure, and spiritual practices can increase our acceptance of that remainder that is always vulnerable.
- Health, because there is evidence that spiritual practices tend to correlate with mental and physical health.
Spiritual Practices Sub-Topics and Resources
The Tree of Contemplative Practices, an illustration on the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website, includes essentially all spiritual practices, but also others such as storytelling, calligraphy, martial arts, and volunteering that are not normally lumped into this group. This is valid, in that nearly all activities, when performed with discipline, mindfulness, centeredness, love, gratitude, devotion, or other conscientious virtues or emotions, can have spiritual benefits. Rather than try to deal with all these many possibilities, however, we will limit ourselves to three main groups and even within these, there exist far more varieties and useful resources than we can begin to name.
And as a bonus, three books and two websites (only one of them free) that cover wider ground: first, Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind, by Roger Walsh, who draws on all the major religious traditions to advise us on practical steps toward reducing craving, cultivating emotional wisdom, living ethically, meditating, awakening the senses, growing intuition, and pursuing spiritual action (rating = A+). Second, Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life , edited by Scott W. Alexander, with brief essays by 40 different writers covering both religious and secular practices, including somewhat surprising ones like vegetarianism, quilting, and art (rating = A). You can also try Spirituality for Dummies, by Sharon Janis, which is a bit random in its organization but full of solid information and interesting surprises (rating = A). Spirtuality and Practice offers a free e-newsletter along with its extensive website discussing 37 spiritual practices, plus info about books, audio tapes, and many other resources (rating = A). Finally, the Spiritual Strengths Finder, from the Body Mind Spirit Healing Academy, which for $29.95 will produce a moderately useful 20-page booklet outlining your spiritual and personality strengths (and also what could block you spiritually) after asking you some 120 mostly easy questions (rating = A-).
When we speak of meditation, explains Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of one of the books recommended below, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, 'space cadet', cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life...[that] is always unfolding, moment by moment; and that what happens now, in this moment, influences what happens next.
Meditation may not be for you, but if you don't really know much about it, you might look at some of these sources and find that it isn't what you perhaps thought it was, and that it might indeed be for you after all.
- Free resources:
- For starters, Meditation, a webpage from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, of the U.S. National Institutes for Health, offers a reliable overview of the health benefits of meditation (rating = A).
- Meditation Station, sponsored by the Meditation Society of America, offers information and guidance for both beginners and more advanced practitioners. Particularly intriguing is their list of over 100 meditation techniques, almost half of which are described in detail (rating = A).
- Learning Meditation offers some basic advice, recommended reading, and links to other sites, but is best for its online Meditation Room with 17 sets of soothing pictures and guiding audio ranging from about 3 to over 10 minutes, though you will need RealPlayer or a compatible video utility to play them (rating = A).
- Meditation resources reflecting specific religious traditions include:
- Buddhist: How to Meditate, which also offers some helpful videos (rating = A).
- Hindu: Yoga and Meditation, from the Sanatan Society, with information about many Hindu meditation techniques, and links to other resources (rating = A).
- Catholic: Catholic Meditation emphasizes that in the Catholic tradition meditation is more about actively contemplating religious mysteries than about emptying ones mind. Links to specific meditations are provided (rating = A-).
- Jewish: The Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism, highlighting information, events, resources, and links to other websites (rating = A).
- Islamic: Sufi [Islamic] Meditation Muraqaba a seven-step process for practicing this Islamic meditation technique (rating = A-).
- YouTube now offers many many free videos that discuss meditation, mindfulness, and related topics, or that provide guided meditations for your use. Use their search engine to find items that exactly suit your needs or your taste (rating = A+).
- Contemplation Quotes and Meditation Quotes from ThinkExist.com (rating = A-).
- Other resources:
In addition to the excellent books recommended below, there are innumerable home courses, sets of CDs, and meditation retreats available, representing many different varieties of meditation philosophies and techniques. If you do a web search on Meditation, you will receive literally millions of hits. So you should narrow your criteria, if you are looking for something in particular. What follows are some more widely applicable and appealing items.
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Meditation, by Joan Budilovsky and Eve Adamson, is not idiotic at all. It packs a great deal of information, and will help you determine what kind of meditation is likely to work best for you (rating = A).
- Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan monk, comes highly recommended by its many readers for its wisdom and its ability to explain the concepts behind the practices (rating = A+).
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, takes a non-religious but well-informed and wise approach to meditation, emphasizing how we can use it as part of our daily lives (rating = A+). Or try Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh, who takes a more Eastern approach with a more pronounced philosophy (rating = A+).
- Opening to Meditation: A Gentle, Guided Approach, by Diana Lang, a book and CD set that takes a Western point of view on meditation techniques, and provides information as well as two guided meditations (rating = A+).
- Autumn Years: Taking the Contemplative Path, by Robert H. and Elizabeth M. King, provides guidance on contemplative practice specifically for older people, drawing on both Christian and Buddhist traditions (rating = A).
- 365 Tao Daily Meditations, by Ming-dao Deng, conveys Taoist ideas in small bites, suitable for daily contemplation (rating = A+).
- See also:
- Prayer: Reaching out toward a higher power.
- Free resources:
- WorldPrayers is a site where you can find prayers by religious tradition, author name, scriptural source, type (blessing, praise, teaching, etc.), keyword, or phrase. Or you can ask for a random prayer, invocation, adoration, or meditation (rating = A).
- AllAboutPrayer.org discusses many aspects of prayer, and provides many prayers and references to (Christian) scriptures that can be used for prayer (rating = A). From a Jewish perspective, try Judaism 101: Prayers and Blessings (rating = A). For over 3,000 Catholic prayers, visit CatholicDoors.com (rating = A). For Greek Orthodox prayers, see the Orthodox Prayer page (rating = A-). Regarding Islamic prayer, see the About.com site on Prayer (Salat) (rating = B+).
- Many groups accept prayer requests. To find a compatible group that will pray on behalf of your concern, Google: [denomination] prayer request (for example , Jewish prayer request, or Catholic prayer request).
- Other resources:
- Prayer: Finding the Hearts True Home, by Richard J. Foster, a Quaker theologian, offers a comprehensive but accessible understanding of prayer from a strongly Christian pespective, but with insights that mostly are applicable to other faiths (rating = A; or A+ if you yourself are a Christian).
- A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, by Paul E. Miller, provides a guide to prayer that takes account of the realities of our daily life (rating = A+).
- The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, focuses on Solitude (learning not to be alone but to be alone with God); Silence (the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive); and Prayer (standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart). (rating = A).
- Pocketful of Miracles: Prayer, Meditations, and Affirmations to Nurture Your Spirit Every Day of the Year, by Joan Borysenko, a multi-disciplinary primer that offers practical applications and meditations along with calendar-appropriate suggestions for spiritual practice. (rating = A).
- See also:
Sources relating to specific religious denominations are easy to find, but are too numerous to list on this page. Here are sources that address the topic in a more general way.
- Free resources:
- Spiritual Rituals on RealMagick.com links to a variety of articles on this subject (rating = A-).
- 9 Mindfulness Rituals to Make Your Day Better, from ZenHabits.net, discusses how we can benefit from ritualizing some of our everyday activities (rating = A-).
- Daily Rituals To Keep You Balanced, from WholeLiving.com, offers five simple daily rituals to help reconnect us to the sacred aspects of our lives (rating = A-).
- Liturgy, the Wikipedia article, provides a general explanation and links to a modest number of outside sources (rating = B+).
- Other resources:
- Sacred Ceremony: How to Create Ceremonies for Healing, Transitions, and Celebrations, by Steven D. Farmer, gives advice on creating ceremonies for both customary and special situations (rating = A+).
- Ceremonies for Spiritual Healing and Growth, by Henry Close, covers guidance on both public and private ceremonies (rating = A).
- The Joy of Ritual: Spiritual Recipies to Celebrate Milestones, Ease Transitions, and Make Every Day Sacred, by Barbara Biziou, discusses practial ideas for using ritual to recognize situations and events in our lives, including those often neglected, such as grieving an unborn child (rating = A). Or The Art of Ritual:Creating and Performing Ceremonies for Growth and Change, by Renee Beck and Sydney Barbara Metrick (not rated).
- If you are interested in spiritual retreat opportunities, visit Retreats Online for access to all kinds of retreat opportunities (rating = A), or the Spiritual Retreat Center Directory at SpiritSite.com which provides a listing more purely focused on spiritual retreats (rating = A-).
- Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, by Brett Scott Provance: just what you expect it to be (rating = A).
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