Self Awareness II: How to Start or Deepen a Spiritual Practice

Self Awareness II: How to Start or Deepen a Spiritual Practice

on Apr 19, 2011 in Spirit | 3 comments


Enlightenment is an accident.
Practice makes us accident-prone.
—attributed to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Last week I wrote about the necessity of knowing ourselves as a prerequisite to living a liberated life. I believe the best way to do this is to have some kind of a vehicle for self-awareness, a “practice.” Here’s my personal definition of practice:

An activity that you do on a regular basis (ideally each day)
that helps you to cultivate a sense of self-awareness, joy,
equanimity, resilience, and compassion for yourself and others.

Why the word practice? Think of sitting down at a piano and working on the same scale over and over. The idea is to get the feel of those notes in your bones so you get to a point where music flows out of you rather than having to think of what you’re playing. In the case of a spiritual practice, the intention is to become so attuned to our inner wisdom that we’re living from a place of awareness.

The other reason why practice is such a great word is that it reminds us that this is something we need to do throughout our whole life – there is never an endpoint. We are really practicing the art of being human.

There’s a wonderful saying: “Enlightenment is an accident, practice makes us accident-prone.” Don’t get too hung up on that word enlightenment. It may sound mystical or magical, but I love this description from Buddhist teacher Norman Fischer: “The enlightened person is simply the person who isn’t selfish, who sees things as they really are, loves them, and acts out of that love.”

So that’s what we’re after here – something very simple and yet highly transformative.

If you’re like most folks, you probably fall into one of these categories when it comes to spiritual practice:

A) You think it would be good for you to meditate or do yoga or some other kind of practice, but you don’t know how to begin.

B) You started to meditate (or yoga, or etc.) but it really didn’t do anything for you. It seems like a good idea in theory, but…

C) You’ve started a practice and found it beneficial, but haven’t been able to keep it going consistently.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

A) If you don’t know where to begin…
Take a look at the image at the top of this post. Along with a few other folks, I envisioned this “Tree of Practices” when I worked at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. The Tree gives you an idea of just how diverse these practices can be, ranging from things you might usually think of (meditation) to things that may surprise you (storytelling and dancing).

(By the way, if you click on the image above, you should be able to view the Tree in a slightly larger format.)

The “what” of these activities is not so important as the “how.” Here’s the key: instead of doing this activity as distraction or busy work, bring your full heart and awareness to it.

Take gardening, for example. You can engage in a morning of weeding and planting without it having a whole lot of meaning. On the other hand, you can set your intention to cultivate your awareness as you’re out in the garden. Carefully track the movements of your hand as you move along the rows; keep your senses sharp and notice all the sights, sounds, smells, and textures as you make your way through the garden; notice the beauty of that worm as it burrows down into the soil, the miracle of a seedling making its way up toward the sun, the pattern that water makes as it nourishes the plants. There’s a whole inner and outer world that unfolds as you take part in the simple act of gardening, if you’ve tuned your mind and body into it.

There will always be a reflective element to a spiritual practice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do it alone. You might begin a silent sitting meditation practice in your own home, but find a whole new dimension is added when you begin sitting with a group of people.

So take a look at that Tree and notice which of the practices you feel most drawn to. Begin there. Make a commitment to yourself to start with this practice every day, even if it’s just for a few moments each day.

B) If you’ve started a practice but it just didn’t work for you…
There could be a few reasons why this was so.

Sometimes it takes a while for a practice to “root,” as it were. There’s often a honeymoon period when you first start a practice, and when that dissipates it’s easy to come to a stopping point. Just like with any relationship, there is so much more to discover if you keep going. See what happens if you return to this practice, knowing that you may be in a stretch where “nothing is happening,” at least on the surface. Sometimes it can be helpful to get more direct instruction or practice with a group of people rather than on your own.

It’s also possible that you’re trying to fit yourself into a practice that may not resonate with you. This is where the Tree of Practices can help. It may be that you are doing something in your life right now that could be “practice,” in the spiritual and contemplative sense, given some fine-tuning in your intention.

Have you ever spent four hours in your garden and wonder how the time flew by so quickly? Do you love going out for the day with your camera and notice that taking photos gives you a sense of peace and clarity? These are indicators that these activities could be a practice for you.

You may find that some combination of practices works best for you. In my own life, I’ve found that I really need stillness, movement, and creativity practices. So I sit Zen meditation for at least 30 minutes each morning, take a daily walk, and try to write in my journal as often as possible (if not daily, at least weekly). All three help to keep me in balance and inform each other. Experiment to see what works for you, recognizing that your mind, body, and spirit must be engaged for a practice to really work its magic in your life.

C) If staying consistent is a challenge for you…
Try doing things in a more gentle, gradual manner. Here are some tips that might help you:

  • Create a space in your home that you use only for your practice and for nothing else. You might want to set up a simple altar in this space – some kind of small table or shelf on which you place objects that speak to your heart, like a candle, photos of loved ones, or a stone from a place in nature that nourishes you.
  • Set aside time to do this practice in this space the first thing in the morning, before you do anything else (other than your morning bathroom ritual). The more things you add into your day before doing your practice, the easier it gets to make excuses.
  • Frequency is more important than length of time. If you’re meditating, for example, it’s better to meditate 8 minutes each day than it is to try to do an hour-long meditation every once in a while. (I say 8 minutes because that seems to work as the best minimum amount of time—and there’s even a book about it.)
  • Don’t wait until everything is “just right” for you to engage in this practice. You don’t need to be an expert yogi to do three or four simple poses each morning. You don’t need to have the perfect meditation cushion or incense to sit. Over-ride your excuses and do the best you can with what you have. Focus on the practice itself and not on the accoutrements around it.
  • If you do miss a few days, please be kind to yourself. The biggest reason people quit a practice is that they become overly harsh on themselves. If you skip a day or more, just re-commit to yourself and make it happen, as best as you can. Remember – this is a gift you’re giving yourself. Don’t punish yourself.
  • Find a practice buddy – someone who is ready the make the same kind of commitment to their own practice. Get together once a week and share how you’re doing with each other. Be honest with what feels great and where you’re struggling. Be there for each other.

UPDATE: I’ve begun a series of posts that give you more perspectives and in-depth instruction on a variety of spiritual and contemplative practices:

I’d love to hear what your practice is…what have you found works for you? How has it made a difference in your life? What questions do you have about starting or maintaining a practice?


Waking Up to Your Life” is a 12-week program designed and taught by Maia and Katya Lesher…. Join us if you would like to start or deepen your own meditation practice!


  1. yes, maia, thank you for the tree. i find, like john, that i have a hard time maintaining practice. i think it may be that i have been trying to define my practice according to what i think i should do, rather than what feels most compelling and authentic, especially around the generative practices which i resist yet long for.


    April 19, 2011

  2. Excellent, helpful, inspiring post, Maia. You know I’ve had many good intentions, but not much practice. The Tree is a great antidote to one-size-fits-all spiritual advice. I always enjoyed the Tai Chi and Qi Gong I did a while back, and have found that a certain amount of physical or mental engagement is necessary for me before my mind can quiet and focus. I am reminded of Rothko Chapel, and a chapel in Zwingli’s Church in Zürich. Both had objects that could engage the eyes so the mind could be free to go quiet.

    Anyway, I have given up making promises to myself to do this or that. But you have given me some unconventional ideas to pursue. Thanks.

    John McAndrew

    April 19, 2011

    • Hey John, yes, unconventional ideas are good for getting us out of old beliefs and excuses! I really do believe that consistency and intention is the key here. And what I wrote about spiritual practices being like relationships is true. We get out of them what we put into them. So my hope for you is that whatever you choose to work with as a practice is something that you continue to dive into time after time in your life, and see what it has to teach you.

      Happy travels, my friend! Look forward to reading more from you on Uncommontaries!

      Maia Duerr

      April 22, 2011


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