Lifting the Eyes: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

Lifting the Eyes: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

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by Karen Hering

A lot of people I know consider their writing to be a spiritual practice.  It might be journal writing or poetry, fiction or nonfiction; or writing prayers, or blessings or any kind of reflective writing, for publication or not.  It’s easy to see how writing and its insistence that we slow down and pay attention can qualify as a spiritual practice. But what is it that makes it so? And is every form of writing, potentially, a spiritual practice?

I take a pretty wide view of what qualifies as a spiritual practice. I also believe it’s one of those things best known in the eye—and the heart—of the practitioner. No one gets to say whether someone else’s practice qualifies as a spiritual one or not. However, neither do I believe that all forms of writing – not even all the ones that are spiritual or reflect on the meaning of life – merit the label.

Maybe it would help to consider what makes anything a “spiritual practice.” I define “spiritual practice” as something that awakens us to the ground of our being and to the pulse of life within us and around us. Spiritual practices take many forms, on and off the page, but they are often best identified by their fruits, or the effect they have on us. Generally speaking, spiritual practices will deepen our relationship with the sacred source of life—by whatever name we know it—and our relationship with ourselves and others.

The ancient Chinese poets used to say the writer’s task was to describe their lives and the world around them and then, within their writing, to lift their eyes. Or as one of my Tai Chi teachers advises, to participate in the connection between earth and heaven. Isn’t this, simply put, what spiritual practices are meant to do, regardless of our definition of heaven? They embrace all the peculiarities of our individual lives and then, in a profound move of connection, they draw all of that, and us with it, into a larger, wider, trustworthy net of life and meaning.

It’s a marvelous but demanding thing, connecting earth and heaven, which probably has something to do with why we use the word “practice.” It’s not likely that we will ever get it down entirely. We practice, not seeking perfection, but rather to make it easier, and to experience its fruits. Like the Poulenc clarinet sonata I learned as a teenager, practicing day after day without ever completely mastering it. I don’t remember a single time when I played the song all the way through without some muffled or muddled note; but in time, I did become nimble enough that my recital audience could hear its music and, I hope, a hint of its beauty.

So how do we each determine whether our writing is a spiritual practice or what might nudge it toward becoming one, if we want it to? Here are five questions to consider:

  • Is it something I do frequently – if not daily, at least often enough that I will miss it when I stop doing it? If I don’t miss it when I stop, I might well wonder whether I’ve ever really tasted its fruits in the first place.
  • Do I intentionally name and approach it as a spiritual practice? I know it’s been said that doing the dishes can be a spiritual practice, but for me, because I don’t typically approach it as one, the only transformation likely to occur is in the dishes, not my heart.
  • Do I prepare for it by taking down my defenses? Wise guides tell us that spiritual practices require a receptive heart, one unguarded enough that it can be touched – and changed – by grace.
  • Does it sometimes surprise me and take me places I had not expected to go? In creative writing, we know we have to make room for the Muse to join us; in spiritual practice, we have to make room not just on the page but in the core of our being as we invite something other than ego to stir in us.
  • Does it connect me to others – other people, including those I know and those I don’t, those I love and those I don’t, and also other beings? Like the Chinese poets, we are invited to engage our words in connecting earth and heaven, and connecting each of us with all of us.

Of course, not everyone wants a spiritual practice. In fact, we are bombarded by messages that discourage it. Spiritual practices require that we slow down. That we pay attention. That we be willing to let go – of who we think we are and what we think we know. In a culture that values working and living faster and the multi-tasking required by an accelerated pace, and one that encourages consumption and possession, as well as knowledge and achievement, spiritual practices are truly countercultural.

Why do it then? Perhaps because we find in it a welcome antidote to what ails our hurried, clutching world. When I ask people about the fruits they’ve enjoyed in their own spiritual practice of writing, the list they name is long and compelling: joy, peace, healing, community, inspiration, understanding, awareness, outside-of-the-box thinking, energy, surprise, nourishment and clarity. However demanding it may be, with fruits like that, I will keep at it, still writing, still practicing, still lifting my eyes toward a wide and welcoming horizon.

© 2013 Karen Hering

Karen Hering is author of Writing to Wake the Soul: Opening the Sacred Conversation Within. A writer, teacher, chaplain and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, she leads guided writing sessions, retreats and other programs described at www.karenhering.com.

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