Building a Daily Spiritual Practice
This article first appeared in RQ#98 (Summer 2005). | Download #98 and other back issues!
by Diane Baker
“What kind of daily, personal practice do Witches do?” my new friend asked, new-time Witch to old-time Witch.
“Good question,” I answered. “Why do you want to know?”
“I want to be part of something every day,” she answered. “To connect. I think it would feel good. And I need to practice my skills.”
The knowledge she sought about what Witches do was not readily available to me. First, aside from honoring Solstices and Equinoxes, Goddess Tradition has very little that is prescribed for all Witches. Second, we don’t have anything uniform in our faith, no prayers or ceremonies that Witches do the same way, even twice, much less every day. Lastly, when it comes to personal work, it’s private, and mostly unseen by others.
I poll my circle. “Do you have a daily practice?” I ask. After working together for two years, I don’t know this about my circle members.
“Every morning when I get up,” says Rebecca, “I ask the Goddess, ‘What do I need to know today?’ Then I draw a Tarot card. Sometimes it’s a message for me, sometimes it’s about someone else. It helps me recognize what’s going on.”
Kathy says that she chants daily, “Thank you for the bounty.”
Selene dances in a movement meditation.
They all find a daily practice important and beneficial.
Inspiration, Devotion, Meditation
I go to the internet and query Witchvox.com. Looking at the answers I receive, it turns out that what Rebecca, Selene, and Kathy do reflects three loose, often overlapping categories into which my correspondents’ answers fall: inspiration, devotion, and meditation.
Inspiration involves listening, opening for guidance. Rainbird reflects on the blessings and challenges of the day in the evening and asks for wisdom, guidance and inspiration through her dreams. Rowan meditates each morning and then selects which necklace she’ll wear throughout the day. Another, Victoria asks the same question every day, “I wonder what I’ll learn today?” and finds this as her best tool for battling lifelong severe depression.
For two years, Shelly drew a Tarot card daily and recorded it on her calendar using a mini deck on the bus on her way to work. During the ride she centered and recited a few lines from the Charge of the Goddess. She found this created daily direct contact with divinity. She stopped the practice when she got laid off, but the practice pushed her towards many positive life changes.
While most of the daily practices are not very demanding, devotional practices seem especially suited for quick interludes. Jen makes a brief devotional practice of squirting shampoo into her hands in the shape of a spiral while saying, “may peace fill my soul and the world.” She draws a spiral on paper money and prays, “may the lives of all those whose hands this money pass through have abundance.” Aviniana and her son light a candle every morning and speak a few inspired words which set the tone for their day. Jeni asks for protection every morning when she locks her door, and also uses her classroom’s moment of silence to ask blessings for her students and for her teaching. Rainbird offers a small cup of her morning coffee and rings windchimes.
When Morrigan lacks time or materials, she finds that visualizing her ritual works for her. She takes her practice to work with her, dipping a sponge in salt water and running it around her cubicle’s boundaries when work gets especially tense. She says, “We adjust the seat in our car before we leave. Why not perform a little daily devotional?”
Others practice devotion with a full daily ritual. Lavender Dawn, an active teacher and priestess, who runs a metaphysical gift store (Pelagia Mystica Gifts, Fort Bragg, CA) and works with people daily, creates a complete ritual every morning to sustain her vocation. She finds repeating at least one key phrase each time gives her a sense of continuity. When this phrase loses its meaning, she changes this aspect of the ritual.
Meditation occurs in many forms. Angela uses yoga and chakra alignment, and welcomes the sunrise. Dale meditates before arising and in odd moments throughout the day. Shawna incorporates grounding in meditation and brings this aspect to mundane jobs like composting and recycling.
Missing daily practice is usually taxing. Angela loses focus and feels disjointed, negative, and unappreciative when she’s not engaged in her daily practice. She’s observed that Pagans without this connected, daily practice can feel that something is lacking, a condition that leaves them seeking spirituality from external sources, and vulnerable to being taken advantage by the unscrupulous. Adrian feels more stressed, jittery and uncentered. But when a back injury halted Baruch’s yoga practice, the result was having “less to feel sanctimonious about” and free from yoga’s “oppressive quality.”
Everyone said that their practice made a critical difference in their lives. Victoria, who went on to say, “Because I’ve asked myself that question, ‘What will I learn today?’ I am on notice to connect with the world, observe what’s happening and how I respond.”
Not practicing also makes a difference. Dale reported feeling anxious, separated and lonely when he doesn’t get practice meditation. Jen worries that she has left her home unprotected, or shortchanged her work when she doesn’t follow her blessing practice.
Most religions have prescribed personal regimens, practices that are so well-known that people outside the religions can readily name at least a few. Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists have prayer beads. Judaism has Sabbath candles, morning prayers. Islam has prostration towards Mecca. Native Americans salute the sunrise.
What about Goddess Tradition?
Our religion is both the newest and the oldest of the principal faiths. Unlike the other major faiths, Goddess Tradition is not centered on an individual’s teachings. Nor are we a “People of the Book,” with writings to coalesce us. We do not have the benefit and resource of an unbroken tradition. We only have our instinct and intuition for our practice, for discovering ways of connecting to the divinity of nature, the nature of divinity.
Despite being an untidy and decentralized faith, Goddess Tradition shares the same components of every other religion, both mature and developing. I think of religion as divided into three parts, like a layer cake.
The bottom layer is the congregation practice. In Wicca this is our ritual groups. I also put solitary practice here, since solitaries do the same rituals as groups, but with a congregation of one. For other faiths, this may be church, temple, mosque, dharmasala, essentially observing rituals together.
The middle layer is the religions’ organizational aspect: the clergy, congregation’s administration, theology schools, Sunday schools, edicts, systematic ethics and enforcement of who’s in, and who’s out.
The top layer is the individual, independent practice of the faiths. Some is considered part of the faith, some is voluntary and self-created. This ranges from simple acts like grace and bedtime prayers, Catholic rosaries, to Jewish seders and Sabbaths, all the way to the global prostration of Moslem men towards Mecca.
Our Wiccan cake is especially rich and flavorful on the bottom layer. In this we excel. We honor and merge with natural cycles with an incredible variety of fresh, innovative rituals. Our middle layer is thin, but growing. Groups like Reclaiming, Covenant of the Goddess, and others are surviving and maturing. Being an especially computer-literate people, the internet has strengthened and linked us through websites like Witchvox.com. Our top layer, the personal practice, is skimpy, but dense. In Wicca, everyone is essentially on their own to develop individual, independent practice through their own personal need and instinct.
Spirituality and Religion
Starting this discussion, we need to realize that theology typically distinguishes between practicing spirituality and practicing religion. Typically, spiritual practice is what promotes awareness and insights, cultivating personal well-being. Spiritual practice gives a personal boost. It doesn’t require the precepts of faith to work. Religious practice is what orients us to our particular faith; religious practice nourishes both the practitioner and the body of the faith. One example of the spiritual/religious difference would be starting the day with meditation, or starting the day with the Jewish Modeh Ani, a prayer said upon awakening. The former enhances the individual; the latter also binds the person to a religion.
Witches know enough about energy to understand that focused religious prayers like the Jewish morning prayer, or the repeated Catholic Rosary, are ways of building power. The feed the religious entity, even the Gods of those faiths, energetically. Established religions understand this. Centuries ago, the Dominicans set up a “Perpetual Rosary,” organizing nuns, monks, and laity to recite rosaries 24 hours a day. That’s a powerful energetic dose to sustain their faith. Now, other groups have appropriated this potent tool. For example, Catholic anti-choice groups have used the internet to organize perpetual anti-choice rosaries.
What people get from their personal practices is very individual. Some find that their spiritual practice not only enhances their well-being, but it also creates an intense religious connection. The converse is true for religious practices. But there are major differences between spiritual and religious practices. Few maintain a spiritual practice from obligation, or in a rote fashion, while many go through a daily religious practice in a completely rote, mechanical way. But even without feeling or belief, religious practice still enhances religion and reinforces the participant’s religious connection.
Consider the most compelling example of individual religious practice, the Islamic five-times daily male prostration towards Mecca. The passionate connection to Islam felt in being part of a “never-ending wave of synchronized prayer” forms an Islamic bond that transcends individual and national boundaries, creating a continually experienced unity that non-participants can’t comprehend This bond is an immense power source that is propelling Islam’s global growth and influence.
Has the time come for our faith to pay more attention to this layer of our Wiccan cake? This is an important question we should raise and consider.
We face an interesting dilemma. As a faith we are too early in our development to have any casual members. Nobody’s a Witch because their families expect it of them. Because Goddess Tradition is an entirely self-motivated religious tradition, we’re very likely to have a membership motivated to have some sort of personal practice.
Witches are intensely religious and spiritual. Without any requirements or prescriptions, many diligently practice daily sacred time. Every bit is voluntary and sincere, high quality stuff.
At the same time, we’re not a people who would take kindly to any type of prescribed and scripted requirement of our faith. We’re overwhelmingly independent, non-authoritarian, individualistic, and basically cranky; we’re not likely to engage in the consistent, conformist religion-wide daily practices that could create the huge power source that fuels many world religions.
We do not do anything that is consistent, either in form or at the same time. As a result, our combined power is never misused, but it is also never harnessed to work for our sacred intentions. Essentially we have a faith filled with devout, trained religious people who create their own, regular, fulfilling daily practices. While other faiths take this energy and focus it on their intentions, we don’t.
We also miss the benefits of shared traditions. Recently, a friend and I spoke of how celebrating Chanukah brought a feeling of comforting familiarity that Goddess Tradition never does. “These prayers have been said for at least a couple of thousand of years, by millions of people.” he agreed. “Nothing else really compares.”
This raises powerful questions. We have infinite reasons to fear abusing focused powers, but we also have a crisis of the earth’s very survival pressed up against us, right now. We need to consider the potential that gathering the power our faith could generate through a consistent daily practice. This would be an experiment in unity by people who distrust organization. There is always the risk that such a step might be starting down a road that would turn us into what repels us about other faiths that have turned into abettors of oppression. This is an ancient dilemma.
Our fears are robbing us of tools for harnessing energy, force, faith, power, to awaken and strengthen the Goddess, who is more beleaguered by the minute. We’re not in much danger of becoming an authoritarian enforcer of a rigid, daily practice. Let’s try out creating a voluntary, consistent practice that will strengthen us at every level, and nourish Goddess Tradition. Perhaps this will be the catalyst, the jolt we need to effect the transformation our sacred planet needs.
Robert Aitken and David Steindl-Rast, The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian
T. Thorn Coyle, Evolutionary Witchcraft
Dianne Sylvan, The Circle Within
Maggie Oman Shannon, One God: Shared Hope
Maggie Oman Shannon, The Way We Pray
Dale recommends Ken Wilber’s books and tapes, available online
Shelly recommends Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, and Mary Greer’s Tarot for Your Self
Susan’s practice, which revolves around music and dance, has spawned a community: www.snakesrising.com
Morrigan finds the books of Silver Raven Wolf a good starting source. Also: patience, perseverance, trial and error, the loss of parents, poverty, an excellent yoga teacher, a Goddess who inspires me.
Author Diane Baker is a founding member of Reclaiming, living in Seattle.
New Thoughts on Daily Practice - 2018
by Diane Baker
Starhawk sent me a copy of the above article I wrote perhaps ten years ago about daily practice.
I barely remembered its writing, but I feel that my thoughts had held up pretty well. I questioned whether my views and my practice have changed, or perhaps evolved. No surprise that the answer is yes, and plenty has changed along side of me.
Ten years down the line, fact-based evidence tells us that practicing gratitude is good for our well-being, as is awe, connection with nature, prayer and habits. These goodies add up to the purpose of daily practice: experiencing gratitude, connecting to faith, meditation, cultivating daily habits, and leaving a space open for inspiration and guidance.
We’re no longer woo-woo, we’re scientists.
But as a faith, we have still not developed, as other faiths have, the discipline of a daily practice. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, make this central for their adherents, reinforced by their institutional theology. But hey, it’s not a competition. The fact is, a daily practice is life-enhancing and we can learn from our companions in faith.
Does daily practice benefit more than the individual? Is there a beneficial ripple effect? My intuition says yes. My unscientific experiential opinion tells me that when we practice any form of worship, this strengthens our divinities, not just within ourselves, but our Goddesses and Gods directly. I’m not alone in this, read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. (Read them anyway.) This effect is impartial, for better and for worse, but no judgment, but I’d like our faith feeding our divine. It can only help.
Of course, practice and ritual are no substitute for action, but a daily practice will make us more fit and energetic to do our work on our precious planet.
Is there a way in which a daily practice in Goddess tradition should differ from other faiths? My opinion is that the answer is both yes and no. Most faiths have worked hard to find a practice that works, and we are free to borrow. Some are not possible for us: the power of Islam’s continual global joining of men’s prostration is surely out of our reach, as are the Catholics’ endless perpetual rosaries.
So what works for us? These are my suggestions.
The question of why we don’t do what we enjoy, and what’s good for us has perplexed me and the rest of the world forever. Ten years after writing about daily practice, I’m now in my sixties, and I no longer have the luxury of skipping self-maintenance. I have to take pills every day. I have to exercise daily to keep up my bone density and to loosen my crabby hips. I no longer have any slack, and for this undisciplined person, that has meant cultivating habit. The popular book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg helped me understand how to link a new habit to a smaller, easily achievable action, for example, I don’t tell myself that it’s time to do yoga, I put my yoga mat on the floor, and doing yoga follows. I don’t tell myself to take my pills, I brush my teeth, and I don’t allow myself to do anything else…check the text that just pinged…before I take that pill.
I see two kinds of daily practice. One is time set aside for that purpose. This requires seclusion and usually a place, whether in one’s home, or getting outdoors. The other is integrated into daily life, but under reliable conditions, for example, while walking to or waiting for a daily bus
Time set aside has never worked for me. I am a family woman. My husband and adult children have no respect for boundaries. I’d have to turn into a shrieking harpy to carve out undisturbed space, (which would hardly cultivate a moos for worship) and even then, it wouldn’t work for our dogs. For me, my daily practice happens on my feet while I’m making coffee, waiting for the water boil and straightening out the kitchen. Oddly, during those moments, nobody ever comes close to me.
I have to keep it short, and so I’ve evolved a very simple prayer. Once completed, at least I’ve done something, and something is always better than nothing.
May me feet walk Your path.
May my heart know You.
May my hands do Your work.
May my lips speak Your words.
May my ears hear You.
May my eyes see You.
The simplicity is deceptive. My urge was to create some qualification, such as, “May my eyes see Your beauty,” but my purpose is openness to what the Goddess wants of me, which may not be seeing beauty. All presupposition of what my perceptions should be have been removed. I also find working with my physicality important. By working my way up from my feet, I settle in physically.
My practice also purposefully does not include anything of what I personally want, other than being Her instrument. Sure, I pray for lots of reasons, but I try to keep praise separate from prayer.
Daily devotion accomplished, then during the day I try to fit in meditative practice as well. My mind is constantly cluttered with the detritus of my shortcomings. When I’m not occupied with something productive, I’m all too often mulling over grudges, past failures, and other mental grunge. Instead of blocking these thoughts out by gaming on my cell phone, I’ll start a Goddess mantra, either a favorite chant or just mentally repeating a name. Choosing which name for active meditation is fun; I’ll fit the Goddess or God to my current circumstances: Hermes if I’m struggling with a new computer program, Sedna, when I’m worried about the rising ocean temperature.
Finally, there’s the daily practice of action. I try to embody our Goddess in the world, in simple ways which are available to me. This means picking up the trash on the sidewalk when I can. When someone is struggling with a baby carriage, I’ll hurry to open the door, or help lift it up the stairs. As a daily practice, I’ve developed patience with incompetent sales help and wait staff; I say ‘thank you’ a lot and when I encounter praiseworthy people, I give specific, appreciative compliments.
I also listen for inspiration about when to speak out. Am I a busybody or am I wise? That’s for others to decide.
Last thoughts: I still believe that we should build ourselves institutionally, whether at a physical or spiritual level. In our faith this is rather like herding cats, with all the faults and failures of liberal organizations which cherish individuality and self-expression. This should be our strength, not our source of fragmentation.
Give daily practice a try. New habits take two or three months to take root, try it out for a season. Give yourself a space every day to connect with divinity. Give yourself daily time to be open for inspiration.
Nourish yourself, nourish our Goddess.
Author Diane Baker is a founding member of Reclaiming, living in Seattle.