Stumbling Mystic Podcast – The Inner Dimensions of Spiritual Practice

It seems like the demands of work and the pace of technology are ever-increasing, adding pressure to accomplish more, process faster, and run madly just to stay ahead of the game.

A spiritual practice with a contemplative component slows the pace of daily living. If we can lift our awareness out of the fog and flailing of activity, we can attune to the dimensions of life that are resting just below the surface. The key to practice is to make it a habit so that its qualities can permeate.

Choosing spiritual practices that work for us is a personal decision. My conversations in this week’s episode show a variety of approaches to practice, including:

  • Differing views on whether meditation is “mandatory” for modern mystics;

  • How to use the body as the grounding vehicle for practice;

  • Use of a tantric sexual practice to circulate energy within the body;

  • Practicing in nature as a way to restore strength and balance;

  • Service as a spiritual practice;

  • Songwriting as a spiritual practice.

You can listen below to Episode 5 of the Stumbling Mystic Podcast, “The Inner Dimensions of Spiritual Practice.” Or, visit the podcast page, or listen on your favorite podcast platform.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Wise Words – We Are All Creators

As spiritual seekers, we are all creators.

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”

Robert Henri

It’s funny, but I don’t think this quote is about art. It’s about the larger container that holds art but holds everything else as well.

When I sit down to write, I try to settle into a relaxed state that is connected to Spirit and open to guidance. If I don’t drop into this space, I am writing from a part of my brain that feels like the thin outer shell of who I am. The words might be organized, articulate, well-informed, they might even sound good, but the writing isn’t coming from the truth. At some level, it isn’t honest.

To drop into this state, I have to let go of my expectations about what my writing should be. I have to face and walk through the fear that my writing will expose me as idealistic, deluded, ego-inflated, or just plain silly. When I can do that, my consciousness shifts, and I enter the “wonderful state” Robert Henri is talking about. And then I can write.

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Cultivate a Calm and Healing Presence

I know people who can walk into a room and bring a sense of calm. Others might be nervous or upset, but these people seem to bring a peaceful presence just by showing up. 

I want to be more like them.

If I’m agitated, other people pick can up on my emotions and become agitated too. We humans tend to do that because we are socially attuned to each other’s moods. Likewise, if I can center myself, others can sense that and become more grounded.

When I’m open enough to listen deeply to someone without agenda or needing to counterpoint or defend, I create a space where they can feel heard, and they are more able to release their need for agenda or counterpoint or defense. Creating a space of deep listening brings the healing quality of connection, but it is not easy to do in stressful conversations.

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Momentary Awakenings

I have momentary awakenings throughout the day. These are not dramatic bolts of enlightenment; they are small moments of expanded awareness when I lift my head from the daily details that absorb my attention and see the world from a broader perspective. I become a witness to my experience as well as the actor in my experience.

These awakenings happen in planned and unplanned ways. When I sit to meditate or pray, I am intentional about settling into my body and opening to my inner and outer surroundings. At other times, the expansion happens spontaneously, when my attention is pulled from the fog of ordinary consciousness by something I hear or notice or remember.

The shift to expanded consciousness brings me into a more intimate contact with the juice, texture, and vibrancy of life. Things feel more intensely real, an intensity that is dimmed when I operate in the fog of ordinary consciousness. This intimacy can be peaceful, a sensation of breathing and merging with direct experience in an exquisite beauty of stillness. But it can also be uncomfortable, bringing up the urge to flee.

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Wise Words – The World Is Full of Magic Things

“The world is full of magic things waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

William Butler Yeats

I can’t be sure this quote belongs to W.B. Yeats, but it certainly fits with how he saw the world, as a place of enchantment.

It places the source of wonder not in our powers of vision, but in the things around us. It is the world that is alive and we who are the dullards. If we can look up from the mental whirlwinds that absorb us and drop the preconceived packaging we use to keep the world safely in place, we can awaken our senses and see where magic is afoot.

For most of us, our perceptions are dimmed because we look at life through the same old, tired filters. These filters fog our perception like glasses made from Coke bottle bottoms. But we can revive our senses by dropping our filters, even briefly.

I will make you a promise. Try this experiment of attention and attitude for 30 seconds, and your senses will awaken to things you have been ignoring.

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My Mother Is in Hospice

On a normal morning, my regular practice made sense. Stretches and meditation were part of a comfortable routine. The world seemed stable, perhaps hinting that small corners of life were controllable.

But since mom fell, nothing has been normal.

For the past month, my days have turned upside down. My mother, 86, has not recovered well from her broken hip and pneumonia. Despite steroids, antibiotics, and respiratory treatments, the infections worsened, her lungs filled with fluid, and her breathing capacity eroded to a shallow spot at the top of her chest.

The fall and the hip surgery were traumatic; the struggle with pneumonia has been tortuous; and now the decision to enter hospice has been a gut-punch, hitting my father the hardest as he watches his sweetheart of 70 years slowly recede. This family emergency has me flailing to find a handhold.

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Thirty Dollars and Forty Cents

“Thirty dollars and forty cents,” the checker tells the couple. I’m third in line, and the carts are backing up behind me.

“Your debit card is declined, balance too low.” The couple is using the state system for food assistance. The woman looks at the ground and shakes her head. The man offers his card instead. We wait for the checker to reset the system. His card is rejected too. We wait for the reset again.

People are being polite, no one says anything, but I feel an impatient tension rising. I only have three items. The young man in the jean jacket in front of me has one.

A tangle of emotions forms a knot that threads back and forth in a small loop between my shoulder blades. I feel empathy for the couple who don’t have enough money to buy a meager parcel of groceries. And I have to admit, I’m irritated at the delay. And, I’m also a little ashamed that I’m irritated. But I know you can’t unfeel emotions that are present, so I stand there and try to pay attention to my knotted shoulders while I wait.

The woman starts pulling items from the bag, picking out what to return. The knot at my shoulders sinks lower like a lead weight. I take a long breath and try to soften the knot, but it sits there, prickly and heavy. I wonder if I should pull out my wallet and pay for the groceries. Would the couple be grateful or offended? I would have to squeeze past the guy in the jean jacket. Would that call more attention? What’s more important, saving embarrassment or providing food? Am I doing it to relieve my discomfort, or to hurry things along? I stand there watching, stuck.

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Wise Words – Enlightenment Happens by Accident

 “Enlightenment happens by accident. Practice makes you accident-prone.”

Robert Aitken*

There is a natural paradox stitched into the fabric of spiritual practice – it requires both effort and non-effort.

We have “goals” on the spiritual path, but we hold them loosely. We want to be more conscious, enlightened, and open to the sacred experiences that crack the facade of our outer shell, but we know these can’t be reached by willful pursuit. The achievement-oriented skills we’ve learned to use in the outer world don’t work in the inner world. Trying harder makes us, well, hardened, and less open to receiving. Holding the reins too tightly keeps the horse from moving freely.

Our awakening comes in spurts, unexpected flashes sprinkled over time. By accident, so to speak. Spiritual growth is not a linear process. It is subject to our care but not our control. It’s more like preparing a field and waiting to see what sprouts. Things progress below the surface if we cultivate an openness to spontaneity, a receptivity and close listening that allow the alchemy to work at its own pace.

And, on the other hand …

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I’m Not a Very Good Mystic

I’m not a very good mystic.

I spend most of my time absorbed by the tasks and routines of the day. I would call this my ordinary state of consciousness, where I am focused on my perspective as an individual, moving through the world as a separate being. Periodically, something shifts my state. It could be a passage I read, even a single word, like “grace” or “love.” It could be a comment I overhear about someone’s troubles, or a patch of color that catches my eye from a flower bed or a shaft of light.

In these small moments, I shift into an expanded consciousness. My senses widen and I drop into a more vibrant world. I feel the current of life pass through me as everything becomes unreasonably simple and clear, and I remember I am part of something larger. The shift sometimes feels abrupt, leaving me amazed at how I could have been satisfied with the shallow perception that filled my attention just a moment ago. I wonder, “How could I ever leave this more expanded, peaceful, connected space?”

But leave it I do. I am usually pulled back into ordinary reality fairly quickly.

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It’s the Small Things That Support a Steady Practice          

There’s a funny thing that happens when I sit to meditate. 

All by themselves, my hands find a familiar spot at my waist, one atop the other, turned upward like an open cup, middle fingers nested together at the first knuckle, the tips of my thumbs barely touching, as if they could lightly hold a piece of paper.

I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind when I started to meditate years ago, and that was how Shunryu Suzuki said to place your hands. Now, my hands take this position automatically, almost unnoticed. When I sit, this habit sets a quiet mood. Subtle signals to my brain remind me to relax and open.

This is one of the quiet advantages of keeping a routine in our practice. Our minds like the familiarity of patterns and will draw cues from repetition. Small routines work better than willpower in maintaining a spiritual practice. Setting up an environment that nudges our behavior is more effective than grit.

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