When I was a kid, we were fairly active in the Catholic church. I attended weekly mass and was a member of the youth group, and went on a retreat every year or so. I spent months preparing to be “confirmed”, and when the day came I had a beautiful new dress and my mom had tears in her eyes and many pictures were taken. I always felt safe and close to God during church, I didn’t feel like I was ever judged, and I always left feeling like a slightly better person.
When you grow up, things change. It’s much harder not to be cynical. And I don’t mean because so many bad things happen that it’s hard to believe in a God who doesn’t intervene more. That’s such a tiny way of thinking. Even as a kid, I understood that there is a bigger picture, and the interventions of the Creator of the Universe are too complex and methodical for our tiny human brains to comprehend. It’s the Butterfly Effect, if you will. No, it’s harder not to be cynical because of humans. You start to realize that some of the most caring and compassionate and brilliant people you know are self-proclaimed atheists. You start to think, out of the thousands or religions that exist, the different stories and different deities, can I really be so arrogant to assume mine is the only true one, when my beliefs were really shaped based on the era and region I was born in? And then when it gets personal, when you witness love in its purest form, and “religious” people try to convince you that the love is a sin because it’s between two members of the same sex. Or when you see movies like Spotlight. Or when you start to wonder how much of your weekly tithe is actually going to help the world.
As my head started to slowly fill with doubt and unease about my Catholicism, I felt incredibly guilty. I had even been the girl who wanted to wait until marriage to have sex at one point (maybe that’s a different blog entry), I never lied to my parents and snuck out to party in high school, I had never tried drugs. I pushed these doubts out of my mind as fast as I could. But one day I had a revelation. You could even call it a spiritual awakening. My relationship with the God I believe in hadn’t changed. I still prayed every day and knew someone was listening. I realized I don’t need to know all the answers. I believe in something, a Force who guides me, loves me, forgives me, and has a plan for me, along with everyone else in the world. And I could go to a church if I ever wanted to, and view it abstractly. A place for me to go with some good music, a helpful lesson, and a bunch of other flawed and confused humans. But if I didn’t, that was okay too. There are plenty of ways to feed your spirit, so I’ll go ahead and get to the title of this entry:
10. Gratitude. I know that there are plenty of blogs and lists that mention this, so sorry for being repetitive but that’s how important DAILY gratitude is for your spiritual and mental well-being. This could go hand in hand with meditation, but if you’re as terrible at meditating as I am, you might prefer my method of expressing gratitude, which is physically writing down at least one thing you are grateful for every day. I’m a very visual and tactile-kinesthetic (thanks, 8th grade) learner, and if I write things down I’m 1000 times more likely to absorb them.
9. Exercise. Again, this has been mentioned many times, but nearly every religion refers to the human body as a temple in some way. I will stress that the only way this particular task will increase your spirituality is if you find a physical activity you enjoy. The days I used to force myself to go to the gym and lift weights to stay in shape were draining; I felt better physically but I wasn’t fulfilled in any other way. Finding Kung Fu changed my life, and has done more for me spiritually than I ever would have thought possible. There is an activity out there you will love this much, if you haven’t found it yet keep searching. My dad discovered his love for mountain biking a few years ago, and it’s like it was the puzzle piece that had been missing all along for him.
8. Nature. I need to take my own advice more on this one, and if fact I think we all could afford to spend more time closer to nature. You can’t stand next to a giant Redwood tree or look down from the top of a waterfall or gaze out over the Grand Canyon without feeling God.
7. Animals. Being around creatures incapable of hate, judgement, or cynicism always works wonders, especially after a particularly rough day. Dogs are my go-to (I’m still not convinced cats are actually non-judgmental), but if you have the ability and are really down in the dumps, go hang out with some horses. You don’t even have to ride, although that’s even better, but every time I stand in front of a real horse it takes my breath away. They’re magnificent, and so very smart. They can pick up on emotions the way dogs can, but what’s even more interesting about horses is that they also pick up on character. So if you’re a good person, a horse will be more open to you and he will also remember you forever, so they say. So if you are a good person and the horse gets along with you, you’ll feel validated. If you’re not a good person this might be counter-productive, stick with the dogs.
6. Praying. I pray every night before I sleep and say thank you and also ask forgiveness for my sins. I don’t go through them individually, I’m sure God knows what I need forgiving for. This habit is a carry-over from my Catholic days, I also occasionally say the Lord’s Prayer if there’s too much on my mind and I don’t want to go through it all individually. This was kind of taught to us in Confirmation class as the “cheat prayer”, if you don’t have the time or energy to be original it hits all the important points. But over the past few years I’ve taken this a step further. I talk to my deceased loved ones. Sometimes even more than God. I talk to my Papa, not just before bed, but constantly. I don’t know if God actually approves of this, but hey, that’s why there’s forgiveness, right? It seems a little silly when I actually type it, but many times I’ll ask my Papa for help with things I feel God might be too busy for. Petty money problems, fights with my fiancé, someone hurting my feelings. This helps me sometimes when I feel like nothing else does. I swear in some of these moments I can feel his arms around me. I also talk to Chris’s dad, much more than I had the privilege of doing when he was alive. I will ask him to comfort Chris in hard times, and sometimes I will ask him to help me understand Chris. If Chris actually realized how much I talked to his dad he might actually think I’m a tad crazy haha. Regardless, I love this practice. This is something I would suggest to someone tentatively exploring their spirituality, especially if you are new to praying.
5. Tithing. If you grew up religious, you are well acquainted with this practice. The Bible dictates giving away 10% of your annual income to the church. I love this concept and have practiced it for as long as I can remember, although I’ve modified it since I stopped regularly going to church. I strive to give at least 10% of my income away to my favorite charities, random people on the street asking for money, or occasionally by doing small things like paying for the meals of the cars behind me in drive-thrus. This will make you feel good, first of all, but it also helps to remind you that your money isn’t YOURS. Money is a tool, it comes and goes, you lose it all, you can get it back, there’s a million ways to make a million dollars yet we form such a personal attachment to it that it starts to damage our soul. I have found that even when I genuinely believe I can’t afford to tithe one month, when I do it anyway I never go without.
4. Working with your hands. I only recently realized how good this felt and how it fed my spirit. When I was a kid, my stepdad had us work outside a lot, helping him with various projects, and even though it felt very laborious at the time, there’s almost no sense of accomplishment like physically building or fixing something. It wasn’t until I spent an entire day helping my moms build shelves in the garage recently that I felt the spiritual connection, and I realized how much I missed working this way. So try something new, build shelves, a park bench, paint a room–your body, mind, and spirit will thank you.
3. Forgiving. This one is probably the toughest for me. I’m terrible at apologizing and I hold grudges, not a good combination. That being said, it’s easy for me to forgive someone who has hurt me if they sincerely apologize. But as I can personally attest to, this doesn’t happen very often. The real key to a spiritual cleanse is forgiving someone who is not sorry, someone we may feel doesn’t even deserve forgiveness. But forgiveness isn’t really for that person, it’s for you. Anytime you can identify anger inside you and replace it with love, gratitude, or at least understanding, you grow as a person. You can start small. As my Sifu taught me, if someone cuts you off in traffic and you feel the road rage coming on, tell yourself that person probably has diarrhea. Instant empathy. Which brings me to…
2. Laughter. One night in college (I’ll admit there were a few drinks involved), I had a lengthy philosophical discussion with a friend where I admitted to being worried that Heaven might be boring. My favorite entertainment was all pretty sinful, I lamented. All my favorite movies and books were filled with sex, violence, curse words, and inappropriate humor. I love gambling. What were we supposed to do up there? These things made us happy. My friend really didn’t have an answer except to say that we’d be so spiritually evolved at that point that we wouldn’t miss those sinful things. I had my doubts and still strive to see absolutely as many movies as possible before I die, just in case. But I’ve digressed a little here…I don’t know what Heaven will be like but I’m positive that anything that makes you laugh, even if it’s inappropriate, is good for your soul.
1. Reading. When I was brainstorming this post, this was going to be more specifically reading other classic religious texts besides the one you know. I believe that’s very important. No matter who is “right”, can’t we all agree that loving one another is the most prominent theme? The key to loving someone is understanding them. The key to strengthen your soul is to understand other people and their beliefs. So that’s important, but I’ll expand this even more, there are so many things you can read that will feed your soul. When I was talking to my mom earlier she mentioned Emerson, great reading for spiritual growth. My Sifu has also introduced me to a few awesome books, namely this one, that have changed my life. Anything by that educates you, inspires you, introduces a new concept or point of view, or makes you laugh or cry feeds you spiritually.