How To Be Spiritual
by Jamie Lauren Keiles
You don’t need to pick a god, but it might make things less awkward. For those of us who are used to working or playing with a goal in mind, the action of being spiritual can feel corny if it happens in a vacuum, and so choosing a god will help you to ground things a bit.
If you already have a god, you can go ahead and use that one. If you don’t, you might become comfortable with the idea of a benevolent or neutral higher power by working backwards from a place of evil. Perhaps you have experienced a sense of powerlessness before, maybe at the whim of opaque bureaucracy, arbitrary-seeming rules, faceless systemic injustice, or the impenetrable press-one maze of a toll-free number. If you can accept your inability to access meaning in these cases, you might try playing with a positive variation on that theme. Begin by appreciating the mundane or profane rhythms of daily life — the improvised jazz of cars merging on a highway, the decentralized flow of global currency, the invisible overlapping maps drawn by people moving between work and home and school. Search out intersections of rhythm and pattern and randomness and force, and there you might find for yourself a suitable deity.
If you aren’t afraid to skew granola, you can build your god from nature, with its relentless risings and settings and sprouts and decay. You might find comfort in rolling with the tides of the zeitgeist, a perfectly suitable god, controlled by the diverse and mysterious moons of trend and cool and corporate interest. Dress yourself in the fashions of the era and pray to the holy spirit of the times. You can even be your own god, so long as you can access a version of yourself capable of transcending the sum of your parts. Do not feel pressed to choose the same god or gods for all occasions. The purpose of the god is to give an object to your spiritual practice in the exact moment you want to try to be spiritual. If it makes you feel better, you can contextualize your god as an exercise or tool or functional delusion meant to help you explore and consider the possibility of a spiritual self. The is no reason to be dogmatic, emotional, or sentimental about the god you choose, unless of course you find this satisfying, in which case go ahead.
Once you have selected a god, a good thing to try is praying to it or engaging with it in some other meaningful way. For the same reason many people find letter writing easier than journaling, prayer should feel less corny or arbitrary with your god(s) of choice as an audience. If you are unsure what to pray about, consider the sorts of things you might stop yourself from posting to social media. In the privacy of your own god, there is no such thing as narcissism or selfishness or oversharing. Prayer is a good place to articulate goals, admit shortcomings, complain, or brag openly. Nothing is too dumb or too big to pray about.
Results-oriented prayer will probably be disappointing, but you can work around this obstacle by praying for clarity or reason or self-forgiveness or the strength to overcome something difficult. If you skew cinematic, you might even ask for a sign, and then go out in search of one. When you are in the market for a sign, one can usually be found without much difficulty. Your prayers don’t have to be fancy, and you probably won’t want them to be, because fancy prayer words like grace and salvation are so well-trodden they can often seem meaningless.
Feel free to pray in writing, by talking, by thinking, or in song. If you aren’t terribly creative, or aren’t in the mood to be, go ahead and plagiarize your prayers. Existing religions offer a wide library of convenient and ready-made texts for prayer-sayers, but you can also make bibles and psalms and mantras from any words that sound or feel good to you. Let the sad teen listening to music on the school bus be your cantor. When you were younger, you probably experienced words and music in a far more transcendent and affecting way than you do as an adult. Seek prayer that nurtures this relationship. Jenny Holzer truisms, advertising slogans, and exceptional tweets can all make for great prayers, as can great works of literature and hackneyed self-help. Look up to the heavens in a moment of ponderous frustration and think to yourself, “WHERE’S THE BEEF?” Repeat aloud in the morning and again at night, “IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER.”
You might also try ritual. If you eat breakfast every morning and wash your face at night, you are already well-poised to leverage the concept of repeated, ordered actions for spiritual ends. Rituals are an effective way of marking a noteworthy occasion, observing the passage of time, giving extra attention to a thing long neglected, or putting an outgrown emotional reservation to bed. Populate your ritual with gestures and words and objects that feel symbolic and circumstantial with respect to your broader spiritual goals. Obviousness and heavy-handedness will serve you well in this practice. Build a fire from the clothing and gchats of your former lovers. Mark the end of an illness with a ceremonial baptism in the hose. You might consecrate your ritual more effectively by producing alongside it some arbitrary rules, suggested readings, or the mandate of a witness. If the Catholic Church is any endorsement, a little bit of window dressing never hurt the project of manufacturing drama, so wrap your ritual in bolts of velvet, add a wine pairing, and infuse the surrounding air with the smell of blown-out candles. Repeat your ritual at specified intervals and soon you will have formed for yourself a holiday.
If symbolic ordered actions feel arbitrary and disordered, consider formulating your ritual in the framework of a pilgrimage. A journey of any length from one place to another will lend your ritual meaning by way of providing narrative structure: a beginning, a middle, an end. The in-betweenness of the journey offers a suitable time for reflection, growth, and the abandonment of old ideals. Where you go doesn’t matter so much, but there are metaphors waiting in high peaks, low basins, and childhood homes. In a pinch, however, the second-closest corner store will do.
If you are too busy or too dizzied by the frenzies of life to idle in a circle of votives, do not be dismayed. There are many spiritual moments to be found in the profanity of the everyday. Perhaps the most meaningful type arises when we are able to extract sensations of newness or weirdness from mundane routines. Travel is a luxurious exercise to nurture this way of perceiving. Experiencing a different configuration of daily life will help you to develop a lens that can see beyond the constructedness or contingency of practices in your own life you once considered irrefutable. If the (arguably imperialist) eat-pray-judge mode of inquiry isn’t within your reach, or just isn’t for you, exercise the muscle of relativism on home soil by applying mindfulness to the things you already do. At your next meal, eat slowly, or quickly, or with your hands, or in the dark, taking time to experience commonness as novel. Go for walks in the parts of your town or city that aren’t scaled for walking — industrial parks, train depots, places where density is thin. Seek out experiences that help to determine the boundaries of context and perhaps you will be left with a sense of truth that feels unshakeable and supernatural, if only for you in that particular moment.
A spiritual practice can be a good solution to the supposed problems of loneliness or FOMO. It’s easy when you’re home alone to wallow endlessly in the thought that the rest of humanity is out falling in love, seizing the day, or running into Katie Holmes in a Whole Foods, but a spiritual practice allows you the option of manufacturing a sense of meaning or intention in moments when meaning or intent is not immediately evident. People and drama and movies and work imbue our lives with easily accessible narrative structures. Get fired, get engaged, or get a raise and notice how the discrete incidents of your life will suddenly arrange themselves into a causal chain. A spiritual practice is a great way to reckon with the moments in life when a satisfying narrative fails to produce itself. Some enemies of spirituality might regard this mode of coping as intellectually lazy or willfully anodyne. I sympathize with the siren song of wake-up sheeple, but the inevitable fact of life is that sometimes we will encounter moments where mystery and anxiety transcend our available tools of reason. A spiritual practice is not a quick fix to explain these moments away, but rather a tool for observing them, marking them, and finding a satisfying way of sitting with them until, if ever, meaning becomes evident. Wherever you are at any given moment is exactly where you need to be, because the inevitable truth of the matter is, that is where you are. A spiritual practice might be a good way of helping you to internalize this fact.
As you conduct your spiritual experiments, keep in mind that your god is not an assignment. There is not pursuable end to any of this (well, except maybe death), and you should relieve yourself of any stress to produce a unified theory of everything or even package your understanding of the world in a way that is intelligible to someone else. If you do find a spiritual practice that is satisfying, consider resisting the urge to become evangelical. The logic of your spiritual life is likely contingent and specific to a degree that selling it to another human, in all of their own specificity, is often a risky gamble with an unsatisfying payout. If you do manage to find someone that inhabits your same supernatural paradigm, then by all means consecrate your love using the ritual of your choice. But remember, an authentic spiritual practice is not the same as a new age brand aesthetic, a touchy-feely dating strategy, or macrobiotic-tinged conversational affect. These spirituality-adjacent interests are each valid in their own right, but will probably not do much to help you contend with your protracted crawl towards death.