There’s a kind of magic that can happen after a few days on vacation or on retreat. It doesn’t happen automatically, but the fact of being away from ordinary circumstances opens up the possibility. The pressures and pace of ordinary life fall away. It becomes possible to breathe deeply, to think spaciously. For those of us who treasure spiritual practices like meditation and yoga and prayer, it becomes possible to go deeply into those practices. Our shoulders unclench. The pace at which we speak slows.
And then we return to “normal life,” and all of that vanishes in an eyeblink.
The lives moderns lead are increasingly not conducive to doing anything slowly — nor, for that matter, doing anything by itself as a single focus. This is an era of multitasking. I make my child’s breakfast while scanning email on my phone. Facebook messages buzz at me while I’m pausing at a traffic light. While I’m in a meeting at my workplace ten new emails and text messages come in, half of them relating to work I do as a volunteer, several labeled “URGENT” in all-caps.
The laundry, the bills, the phone calls to return — the logistics to organize, the committee meetings, the errands to run — these are things that appear to have no limit. Who has time for spiritual practice when life looks like this? Of course, it’s because life looks like this that we need spiritual practice most.
I love the deep dives I can take on vacation or retreat, when I have the profound luxury of being able to set “normal life” and its pressures aside. But these are rare, tiny islands in the sea of stressors and obligations. How can I maintain enough of a spiritual practice in the midst of life’s chaos to keep me stable, sane, on an even keel, even joyful?
One answer is to rejigger what I think “spiritual practice” means. Yes, it’s wonderful to settle into a yoga class or sing my heart out at services that someone else is skillfully leading. But those aren’t the only forms of spiritual practice available to me.
When I wake up in the morning and remind myself to murmur Jewish tradition’s one-line prayer for gratitude, that’s spiritual practice. When I’m hastily applying lotion to the summer’s first sunburn and I pause to remember to be thankful for the fact that I have a body and it works as well as it does, that’s spiritual practice.
When I say a short blessing before and after I eat, that’s spiritual practice. When I dip into the thundering waterfall of Twitter and post 140 characters of kindness or wonder to mitigate the negativity of today’s political discourse, that’s spiritual practice. When I pause before sleep to set the intention of forgiving anyone who hurt me that day, that’s spiritual practice.
My cellphone is almost always with me, a tether connecting me to work and obligations. A few years ago it occurred to me that the very tool that most often sparks my continuous partial attention could become a tool for focus and spiritual practice. Now I keep a kind of commonplace book on my phone — a collection of things that connect me, whether I think of that connection as being “up” (to God) or “in” (to my deepest self.)
The items in that commonplace book change over time. Right now my list includes the ee cummings poem i thank You God for most this amazing, a translation of psalm 27 as rendered by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, a poem written for me by a dear friend, a couple of Nava Tehila mp3s, and a handful of photographs of loved ones. It’s hard to make time for substantive spiritual practice during the workday, but it’s not hard to take two minutes to listen to a song or to sit with a piece of poetry that soothes or enlivens me.
These moments of recognition and gratitude are small, but that doesn’t make them insignificant. They aren’t “less than” intensive spiritual practices that require lengthy immersion. They work on me in a different way than do long slow spiritual practices. Part of what makes them work for me is that they are short and they are portable.
It can seem easier to be kind and compassionate when on vacation or retreat. It’s easy to feel connected with God, or holiness, or with whatever source of integrity is meaningful to you, after a relaxing morning of yoga and meditation, or Torah study and prayer, or communing with nature in the woods or at the beach. But the real test of equilibrium and equanimity comes when we return to ordinary life and have to maintain compassion in the face of things that are frustrating, upsetting, and overwhelming.
That’s when I turn to my micro-spiritual-practices: three deep breaths before answering the phone, a blessing over my afternoon coffee, my digital commonplace book, a pause to gaze at the summer sky and cultivate gratitude that I have eyes that can see clouds scudding across the blue and a nose that can take in the sweetness of freshly-mown hay.
These practices don’t keep me from getting spun up by the frustrations of ordinary life. But they do give me a way to spin myself back down again, to re-center and remember that I’m connected to something bigger than my frustrations. I do so knowing, of course, that another frustration is inevitably right around the corner! But so is another opportunity for gratitude, or for mindfulness, or for joy.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).