From a very practical point of view, the evolution of religion has produced a rich array of skills for relating with the transcendent aspect of human experience. In spite of the many atrocities religious leaders have committed against vulnerable followers and outsiders alike, as in all aspects of evolution, there has been incredible progress along the way. Profound events of facing “the Beyond”-- from the days of the struggling caveman to the now of a hospitalized engineer-- tend to yank human beings into stark realization that powers far beyond the human impinge, on our sense of control, sometimes uncomfortably and sometimes unconsciously. What our ancestors have found to do in order to cope with transcendence-made-obvious, with the help of the spiritual geniuses who led them, (Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Leo Tzu, and others) has resulted in a number of spiritual skills that work. They help the human spirit rise, survive and even thrive amidst the profound vulnerabilities that come from experiencing our abilities pale against the forces of nature, the magnitude of the cosmos, unstoppable aging decline, chronic illness, medical tragedies, the miracle of birth, our inhumanity to one another, and even this morning’s weather. The following 22 skills stand as some of the primary best efforts that have arisen from religious history as eventually made relevant by tragic failures in addiction defeat and hospice dying.
53. BASKING IN NATURE – Bringing yourself face to face with the splendid miracles of the natural world – and quietly staying there
Naturalist and author Sigurd Olson used the phrase “Listening Point” referring to a place immersed in the natural world – a forest clearing, a bubbling brook, or even a large tree for example—in which one could go frequently to simply be, relax, receive from the transcendent by simply taking in the magnificence around. Taking a few minutes or a few hours to simply bask, adds depth to any hiking, backpacking, camping, hunting or exploring excursion, and even in a walk around the block during an awful day. You can do those things with little cognizance of the awesome beauty, but an actual decision to bask for a while brings a spiritual gravity with it that changes you.
54. SURRENDERING - Letting go when holding on no longer fits the situation
The very term “Islam” means submission, the heart of any faith tradition. Evolutionary biologists have suggested that all religious behavior is derived from the animal world phenomenon of a smaller or weaker one rolling over at the approach of a larger or stronger one. Both then go their way, reducing conflict, maintaining peace and moving the evolutionary process forward. Eventually most all of us surrender to the powers that be in our dying, whether slowly from illness or quickly from disaster. Learning how to give in to life’s major losses, failures, disappointments and tragedies frees us from piling up resentments at not getting our way and looking for someone or something to blame.
55. ACCEPTING -- Making peace with what you don't like but cannot change
Accepting goes beyond surrender in that it adds elements of greater willingness and receptiveness. Surrender to the Beyond at the death of somebody you love can sometimes be followed much later by accepting the loss. Realizing the gift that person was to you only comes sometime after the necessary giving in to the tragic fact of having her no more. The origin of the word “accept”, is “to take what is offered”, or “to receive willingly”. Whatever we accept that we don’t really want to happen but cannot stop, no doubt prepares us for further engagement with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.
56. WORSHIPING - Authentically and openly appreciating Power(s) far superior to the human, in word, action or thought
The word worship has been largely ruined by the shaming manipulation of people who cannot stop referring to it as obligation to gather together, to comply, and to pay, in church organizations. The genius of worship, probably created by several or many astute ancient people, is that it turns the awful into active appreciation of the awesome. When religions personified transcendence by naming it and conversing with it, by that very fact they came closer to it and could gradually see it as actually understanding and even caring for us. When a person accustoms herself to actually lifting her mind and heart to such a benevolent understanding of a transcendent being, whether alone or communally, she is placing a persistent buffer against the difficulties that pervade human existence.
57. SILENCE AND SOLITUDE – Being happy alone in silence for a few minutes or a few hours at a time
Churches were traditionally quiet places when we Catholic school students in the 1950s were taught to make “visits to the Blessed Sacrament”. Those were brief times when we would take ourselves into a church for a tete-a-tete with God present in the Eucharist communion always reserved in the Tabernacle. Regardless of your theology or your spiritual beliefs, that time of silence was probably good for our souls, at least mine. We would quiet ourselves in reverence and just sit or kneel there, sometimes creating dialogue with a good and personal God, sometimes not. Solitude differs from loneliness. It is positive, enriching, and soul-restful. Whether imbibed in a beautiful natural landscape or the privacy of a bedroom, solitude without noise or even soft music, pushes you to find the depth of your soul.
58. SINGING/CHANTING - Expressing your soul with words put to music
Singing differs from reading poetry in its greater potential for heart felt expression. Of course one can sing without expressing oneself in the words, mindlessly, or for image management. But singing as you feel it adds energy and soulful benefit. Singing has a history longer than knives because it works so simply to buoy up the soul. Any level of singing, shower blaring, quiet humming, or canting opera arias, naturally raises the human spirit almost immediately. Even singing the blues does that. As Neil Diamond crooned in Song Sung Blue, “Me and you are subject to the blues now and then. But when you take the blues and make a song, you sing 'em out again.”
59. SIMPLY SEEING - Letting yourself simply sense and enjoy what is around you
Jolting life experiences, such as being clean and sober for a while, new realization that your dying is fast approaching, falling in love, release from imprisonment, and major loss, tend to enhance our noticing more richly whatever is around us. One can then learn to look more closely. The skill of simply seeing the beauty and pain that is right in front of us then deepens. The relevance of George Orwell’s comment emerges: “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.”
60. MEDITATING - Quieting your person long enough to find oneness with yourself and with the universe
The diversity of methods that are called meditation by various traditions, practitioners and spiritual leaders render it difficult to define by favoring any of them. The word’s roots mean to think over, to reflect, and to consider, rolling something over in your mind for whatever new might be generated in your soul. The popular collections of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies have shown that meditation does improve memory, relaxation and imagination. That study also shows that those who meditate well, i.e., skillfully, show even greater benefit.
61. PETITION PRAYING -- Requesting your own will in Deity conversation
Perhaps the first thing we humans want to do when we get convinced that transcendence can be seen as a person (since persons are the most advanced beings we know about) is to ask for things. That is most prevalent when we are in some kind of intense felt need. Our natural self-centeredness nestles closely with our natural altruism. We may want to ask for some observed need of other people we care about. And when there is trouble that suddenly seems insurmountable, a great majority of us will quip something like, “God help us”, “Oh my God”, or simply “Oh God”. That doesn’t mean we buy into the God taught variously by religions, but that we may be apprehending transcendence as personal and entreating her for help. Asking for virtue for oneself may be the most noble form of this petitioning behavior. And asking for the wellbeing of other people from our very guts does seem to change things for us and sometimes them as well, regardless of belief.
62. EXPRESSING GRATEFULNESS – Uttering the appropriate response to our recognizing beauty in awe or somebody’s kindness to you
The experience of awe has baffled and energized people since they first developed the ability to reflect on themselves and their surroundings. The sun, the storm, the ocean, the fog, the mastodon—any face of the magnificence and dreadfulness of the natural world must have stirred the hearts of cave folks even before they found language to express it. The recognition of the mixture of feelings that arise in the face of awe prods many people to express gratefulness to either named or nameless transcendent powers. Those expressions no doubt eventually build into the virtue of gratefulness.
63. CONVERSATION PRAYER–Persistently expressing yourself to a chosen Ultimate Power
The character of Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof epitomizes the best use of conversational prayer, a skill that most of us never achieve, nor care to try. The playwright Joseph Stein depicts Tevia as passionately sharing his convictions, hopes and especially his complaints to the transcendent power he has come to know as person. There are a few dedicated spiritual people who approach that kind of conversation frequently. Most of us do so mostly when things go bad, casting us into the place of boldly recognizing our natural vulnerability.
64. PRAYING FOR FORGIVENESS –Requesting pardon for failing, in some major way, yourself, some person, a specific group or the entire universe
Guilt is natural. It is sometimes neurotic, but not typically. Like pain is to the body, guilt is to the soul, a gnawing of regret for something wrong in our behavior or for our neglect. It signals to our depths that something we did or spinelessly or cluelessly avoided, was reprehensible. When confessing to a person or a community seems truly impossible, entreating transcendence, either named or un-named, with passion and specificity, for forgiveness will more than suffice. It likely won’t be needed more than a few times in a lifetime, but this skill treats guilt with soothing balm.
65. PIOUS PRACTICE -Devoted performance or observance of rituals or postures that feed your soul
When I was ordained I agreed to read several pages of what is known as the breviary, a special book for the regular spiritual nourishment of priests. For me it quickly became tedious. I complained about that to one of my former professors, and he said, “Perhaps it is simply not your kind of prayer.” The various major faith groups all recommend repetitive practice of specific actions to gradually deepen insight and to inspire and sooth the soul. For some people, and especially in specific eras of life, these nourish their human spirit like nothing else. Devising your own regular practices that fit you, perhaps including some of the traditional practices and texts, is also likely to do so.
66. TEACHING –Assisting others to encounter, enjoy, appreciate, and master the new
Various cultures revere the teacher or “sense” above all others. An exceptional teacher may use dozens of various established methods, such as instruction, Socratic query, group encounter, assigned exercise, critiqued writing, and public presentation to bring what is new and pertinent into the souls of her students. Whether you are a university doctoral professor or simply assigned to orient a new employee to the culture of a specific hospital workplace, you know that teaching benefits both teacher and student. It simply feels good to help somebody learn, even if you don’t think you do it well.
67. RITUALIZING – Creating ritual space and using it to bring meaning or healing to yourself or a group
Artifacts that appeal to the senses, such as candles, music, aromas, and natural world vistas, can be configured and combined with words to generate boosts to the human spirit. Rituals can be designed almost on-the-spot for particular groups highlighting specific events, such as the death of a hospital staff member or the arrival of a new unit leader. They are characteristic of virtually all faith groups that perpetuate for decades and centuries. While the word ritualizing can be used referring to over patterning of spiritual practices so that there is little spiritual feeling left in them, still some rituals feed individuals all their lives. Using those rituals well, and even designing such practices for unique situations, remains a skill developed by only a few.
68. SOLEMNIZING - Formally or informally bringing reverence to the splendorous aspects of life
Common responses to awe—such as cynical humor, hyperactivity, theorizing, philosophizing, stunned silence, crying, and distancing oneself—can sometimes minimize the meaning inherent in most experiences of magnificence. Any of these can burgeon into avoidances, unconsciously designed to shield oneself from the unsettling feelings associated with awe. Solemnizing is the intricate skill of catching that avoidance happening, assessing that it may be excessive, and inviting an individual or group to re-connect with the awesome. As your teenager stands on the edge of the Grand Canyon chatting about the latest x-box game for example, a quiet but pointed comment that is not shaming, may interrupt the silliness, giving the kid a chance to not miss once in a lifetime grandeur.
69. PROCLAIMING – Bringing meaning through reading inspirational material aloud
Writing that has lived for centuries because it inspires people is often read by religious groups gathered in community. How it affects people in that context depends to a great extent on who reads it. Those who can do so as if it is really being spoken by the ancient author to them in present time can be called treasures for their skill at doing so.
70. CREATING BEAUTY -Artistically shaping something that is beautiful to you, and maybe to others too
When Orvid was five years old his older brother brought home a toy harmonica. Within fifteen minutes after getting ahold of it, Orvid began to delight his entire family by tooting familiar tunes. As children we are all introduced is some fashion to the arts—drawing, painting, paper cutting, vocal and instrumental music, theater etc. A few go on to enrich the spirit of their days by further developing one or more of the skills involved. A few of those become professional artists who can support their lives financially with their art. And a few of those become great artists enjoyed by millions over centuries.
71. ENJOYING THE ARTS - Deeply appreciating forms of human-made beauty, as in music, literature, theater, dance, film and other performing art
While the small bands and motion pictures are enjoying a run as the most popular media of appreciating art and story in this century, classic presentations of opera, theater, painting, and graphic art, continue to feed the spirits of others who dedicate themselves to appreciating them. Anyone can join them. Skills for deepening understanding of a given opera for example, can be developed merely by attending one and participating in the discussions often arranged after the performance, led by experts or the artist themselves.
72. GRIEVING - Sharing the feelings of a major loss enough to eventually bring a measure of closure to what was lost
Major loss makes transcendent powers beyond us as obvious as anything else. After a loss, and sometimes a bit before, a natural process activates itself somewhere inside us, to heal the hole resultant in our soul. One cannot stop, avoid, or even significantly accelerate that process. The pain cannot be removed. But specific skills can facilitate the grieving process some, and minimize the stuck-ness in resentment, remorse, regret, and other persistent returning ruminations that can result from necessary major loss. Only experiencing this mysterious process can help us to understand it at all. But doing so will likely teach the value of crying when it unpredictably emerges, reminiscing at key times, sharing specifics of your both positive and negative memories, and performing particular activities of saying goodbye.
73. SEEKING -Sustaining the long term project of looking for meaning in life’s inexhaustible mysteries
Seekers find. They may not discover what they expected, nor what somebody hopes they will uncover. But closing off the curiosity about life’s primary questions is inherently sad. Seeking is the skill of remaining open to the mysteries of the universe, fending off rigidity of thinking, fixed assumptions, frozen biases and overly patterned habits, to allow delight at the inexhaustible depth of both the ordinary and the crisis. Looking for patterns, creatively conceptualizing about complexities, wondering about better ways, all emanate from a seekers attitude. Similar to scientific theories and laws, our views of people and life itself are always temporary and open to change. Even religious conversion remains possible for the stoutest atheist. And the reverse, a new realization that religious constructs are just that, can refreshingly jolt a long standing church leader. The universe is far greater than any human perspective on it.
74. LAUGHING - Finding and expressing humor in the incongruities of life
Define humor? I don’t think so. But we know it when we see it. And we quietly yearn for it in those who live mostly without it, entrenched in overly serious pedantic rigidity. A laughter group attended our hospital one day, and invited groups of about 12-15 to spend a half hour laughing. They facilitated various kinds of laughter, from snickering, to tittering, to chortling, to giggling, to guffawing, to raucous laughter at nothing but one another’s efforts to laugh. It was hilarious. It clearly lifted the human spirits of everyone involved, absolutely everyone across all strata of employment status. If your laughing is thin, feed it.
The Spiritual Clinician For workshops on these topics contact Gordon J Hilsman, D.Min. firstname.lastname@example.org
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