The question of what does the word “spiritual” mean and what constitutes a spiritual practice has been a point of inquiry my whole life. From my upbringing in the Episcopal church to my years of teaching yoga, I was confused until I realized that although we all use the term spiritual, most of us do not share the same definition, or have a definition at all. We may speak the word thinking we are communicating, but if your definition is “AB” and mine is “BC”, we really aren’t communicating. No wonder I couldn’t get a fix on the concept in my younger days.
I don’t use the word or phrase much because of the assumptions and tremendous variation in interpretation. If I do, especially in a class, I take the time to define them so others know what I mean when I say them.
For the record, I have very simple definitions. A spiritual practice is an intention, exercise or practice that brings us into the present. One can be taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, or practicing yoga and if the intent is to be present, to me that’s a spiritual practice. Such a practice creates the opportunity to be spiritual, or for a spiritual state to arise, which I am defining as being present. This leaves the door wide open, in my mind, for the full range of human expression, not simply a peaceful blissed out state. You can be angry, completely present, and I’d say that is a spiritual state. Agree with me or not, at least you know what I am thinking when I use these terms.
The question of how we recognize if we are “in the present” or not is challenging to say the least, but I heard a way to think about it a few years ago that has been very useful. On a scale of 1-10, if I’m having an emotional reaction above a 6, there is the strong possibility that I’m bringing past events into the equation, inflating my reaction to the stimulus in front of me. This applies to the “negative” emotions as well as the more pleasant ones. Ever have that feeling of falling in love, only to wonder later, “what was I thinking?”
The last two years I have been pondering another word. Pilgrimage. I have walked a pilgrimage route, often called a camino, twice in Italy, and this last summer walked the Camino de Santiago with my husband Sandy who is writing a guide book on this famous pilgrimage. We walked for almost five weeks, and when talking about this adventure-odyssey, invariably I get the question, was this a spiritual experience for you?
So what’s a pilgrimage? It’s worthwhile to define because like the word spiritual it means many things to many people. The element of spirituality is certainly in my definition of pilgrimage as is the element of time: there is a start and an end. It’s a finite journey. I believe it is most effective taken in unfamiliar lands because being out of one’s comfort zone 24/7 is a terrific way to bring up, and with any luck, allow one to observe what has become unconscious. Here then is an opportunity to decide if a thought pattern is serving or hindering you.
I’ve watched my mind through my yoga practice for years and I’ve gotten much better at realizing when I’m having an “elevated” response. I had a number of realizations while on this 500+ mile pilgrimage. Following is a FaceBook post describing one struggle I encountered while on Camino, and how I eventually realized a substantial error in my thinking that was not only making me miserable, it was greatly reducing my ability to be present as I fumed over the situation.
July 26, Sarria, Spain
“This photo shows a phenomenon on the Camino I was unprepared for. I’ve been contemplating it for the last few days as it has been my greatest challenge. Not a UTI, not a freakish heat rash or 32km days or bronco-bucking bikes. But this.
“To receive the coveted compostela, the certificate acknowledging your pilgrimage, one needs to document only 100km of walking to Santiago. This is where tours start: large groups, 20-30 people, move en mass on the Camino, corralled by shepherds with walkie talkies.
“These well Intended but often ill-prepared groups take on the feel of a noisy social club. Participants walk 2 – 4 abreast on the trail, ghetto blasters are common, and awareness of the surroundings, including pilgrims who are not part of the group, is not a strength.
“Support vans speed along the quiet roads, patrolling and picking up those in need, shuttling them forward, food and water available with a simple phone call.
“There is a longstanding discussion in Camino Land as to the difference between tourism and pilgrimage. It reminds me of the discussions regarding yoga as exercise or yoga as a spiritual discipline I’ve been grappling with for years.
“Here is what it took me two days to come to regarding the “Van-egrinos” who represent a difference of intention, two days that is, if you don’t count the 30 years of mulling it over in yoga: There’s nothing wrong with it. I just don’t like it, and that’s okay.
“Tomorrow morning we begin our final 40km walk into Santiago. It should take us 8-10 hours. It’s going to be crazy.”
There were many comments to this post. Some defending the pellegrinos, another name for pilgrims, some “hating on them,” to use a colloquialism. This was my response to clarify what had changed in me.
“By the time I wrote this post I was over it, and I’m going to take it a step further and say I’m grateful for what happened because I came to realize a fundamental error in my thinking: if I don’t like something, it’s because someone else is wrong. That’s a big turd to recognize and get rid of.
“From that place seems I have two choices, and since this is FaceBook and not a dissertation, I’m leaving it at just two.
“One, I can accept the situation with out the dog fight of blame in my head, which is awesome, and figure out how to make lemon-aid out of a lemon. That’s what I did and I gotta tell you, I met some great Van-egrionos yesterday.
“Or, two, work for change. If I lived here, if I were more invested in the continued success of this pilgrimage, which I have some concerns about (Sandy posted a similar photo to a camino discussion page on FB. Within 24 hours there were more than 300 comments), I would dive into it head first.”
I plan to write more about the correlations between states of being, yoga and walking a pilgrimage in an essay tentatively titled, I’m still walking. What are you still doing? 500 miles, the Camino de Santiago, and the pervasive smell of cow manure. In the mean time I will be offering a presentation on the Camino de Santiago Saturday, November 10 from 4:00-5:30pm at Taj Motion, complete with Sangria. See Workshops & Events for more information.