Once upon a time there was a woman who decided to train for a triathlon. After years of struggling with her health and self-image, she gathered the courage to drive to the local fitness center to get some help. The fitness staff greeted her warmly and invited her into a classroom. For about ninety minutes, she read books about how to train and different training philosophies and then a charismatic personal trainer gave an inspiring talk about fitness.
The woman left encouraged and couldn’t wait to go back. Over the next couple of months, she attended a class every week and learned alot about health and running. The problem is she didn’t get in shape. Why? Because she didn’t step foot on a track. She gained a mind full of great information, but no skills or practices to bring the knowledge to bear on her body. Her thoughts about running changed, but the legs that would need to do the running remained exactly the same.
I have a lot in common with this woman’s story. I love to read, and over the years have become really good at learning, talking about, and sharing important truths that I take in from people who write books. This gives me the benefit of having a vast amount of head learning. But what I’ve come to find out is that it’s more important to not just be informed by what I read, but to be formed and transformed by what I learn. The goal is to move what I’ve learned from my head to my heart and my actions. And that takes actual practice.
In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habits, James K. A. Smith asserts that we change when our hearts change. Information alone does not transform people; we need practices that shape our desires. Then can we take what we’ve learned and apply it to create something new.
There are a few ways that we can put what we learn into practice in our spiritual lives.
HOLD SPACE FOR RITUAL
A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed in a specific place and according to a set sequence. Ritual can be something specific from your faith tradition or something that you create. Having a ritual that you do regularly helps make spiritual concepts more tangible through symbols, objects, words, or actions.
I have an altar set up in my closet with different objects that help me remember the qualities I want to embody in my life, work, and relationships. I have a ritual of standing before the altar and take a moment to pray and set intentions around those qualities as I start each day. Whether you listen to a podcast, attend a weekly spiritual service, use prayer beads, or light a candle at the end of the day while reciting a poem or prayer, rituals are a meaningful way to embody and enact the qualities we want to cultivate in our spiritual lives in a very intentional and purposeful way.
TRY CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER AND MEDITATION
One of the simplest ways to cultivate a spiritual practice is through regular prayer and meditation. I’ve found these disciplines help me return to the current moment and root myself in the present (the “what is”) rather than the past (which I can’t change) or the future (which I can’t control). Prayer may make more sense if you subscribe to a higher power(s), while meditation and mindfulness are sacred, time-tested rituals that can be experienced by anyone.
GIVE TIME OR MONEY
You can grow in your spiritual development by helping and giving to others. Interacting with and serving others is an effective way to practice what we learn about spirituality. It’s common in religious traditions to donate time and money, whether to faith-based institutions or nonprofit organizations. But these practices aren’t reserved only for those belonging to a specific religious community. Anyone can donate to social justice organizations, NGOs, environmental efforts, and community initiatives. Through making a contribution, you can connect with groups in your community and support impact-driven initiatives you believe in.
Likewise, consider implementing a volunteer schedule into your spiritual practice. Spend one afternoon a month serving with a local organization or participating in sustainability projects. Giving back with our time and money expands our worldview and invites us into collective spirituality.
PARTICIPATE IN A RETREAT
Now and then, it is worth taking time away for a spiritual retreat—whether at an organized institution or for a solo getaway. Creating space for reflection, mentorship, and education is essential for spiritual growth and continued transformation, and by getting outside of our routine and familiar environment, we can more easily recenter ourselves. Retreats are also excellent for engaging with and learning from others on similar spiritual paths.
EXPERIENCE JOY AND DELIGHT
I consider Anne Lamott one of my spiritual guides. Her writing and thoughts on faith have always met me in ways I didn’t know I needed. “Laughter is carbonated holiness,” she says. I interpret this to mean that, through laughter and light-heartedness, we can connect to the sacred in ourselves, in others, and in the divine. A profound thought, especially as it relates to our society’s emphasis on success and productivity.
Laughter, play, tenderness—these things can be a part of our spiritual practice, too. (How beautiful is that?) We can connect with something outside ourselves and return to the innocence of youth. For me, this looks like creating time for embodied and playful activities, like games and puzzles, creating art without judgment, and just being silly. It’s learning how to let go and laugh more often. Goofiness is some sort of magic, and the most transformative spiritual discipline is the one where we learn not to take ourselves so seriously.
So choose one of these practices or another that makes sense to you. But don’t just read about spirituality in books or scripture. Don’t just attend services or listen to sermons or the words of wise teachers. Instead, practice and live your spirituality. Dig into it, make it tangible and real, and bring your spiritual beliefs and thoughts into the everyday ebb and flow of your regular life. That’s how you get the most out of it.