What Is A Nourishing Spiritual Practice?
Image: Calligraphy by TK Chiba
It's time to start preparing for the Saturn-Neptune co-presence of 2023—2028. Saturn is a big fat reality check, and Neptune is any sort of dissolution into nothingness. On a personal level, that dissolution could include both actual spiritual enlightenment and the illusion that you are already enlightened. I'm excited about this transit! It's a period of reality testing at a time when reality feels... well... so in need of testing! And it's an opportunity for building supportive structure for spiritual work. The next few years are going to be easier for folks who have a reliable, nourishing spiritual practice, and that’s not the kind of thing you just get up and do one day—it requires a little runway. So here are some initial thoughts to get you started.
Astrology is a wonderful adjunct to spiritual practice—it’s a way to witness and participate in the divine. It’s beautiful and awe inspiring to pay attention to this mysterious correlation between the movement of the planets in our solar system and what happens in our individual lives. In the coming years, it is going to become more and more important for astrologers like me to own that astrology is a great spiritual technology. It helps you see how, precisely, you are participating in the divine. But it’s not inherently a spiritual practice. We need to take responsibility for that, and be clearer about what we can offer, and what people need in order to receive what we're offering.
A good astrologer can affirm that a difficulty you are facing is part of something larger than you and help you tell a meaningful story about it. Astrology can locate where that difficulty is happening and point out where things might be easier. It can tell you when it’s going to change, and point to tools you might have at your disposal to cope. An astrologer with a lot of life experience can help you make a plan to address that difficulty. But an astrologer can do very little to alleviate suffering, and can do some things that create it, like deliver bad news! To address suffering, one needs a spiritual practice.
What is a spiritual practice, and what makes a spiritual practice work?
This is a big, important question, and it is going to become central to taking on the profoundly ungrounded years we have ahead from 2023—2028. Here are some points to consider about spiritual practice that are just me reflecting on my own life experience. They are conversation starters, not doctrine. I welcome your thoughts in return! They come out of almost three decades of serious yoga, Zen, and aikido practice. In that time, I have spent some good, engaged, productive time, as well as a lot of time farting around, frankly, and missing the point of spiritual practice in various ways. This list is written from that flawed, human perspective.
A Nourishing Spiritual Practice Is Something You Do
In the study of Budo, or martial arts, there is a concept called shu ha ri that I think helpfully exemplifies the problem of spiritual life now—which seems to be more about declaring beliefs than doing work. Budo, on the other hand, is endless work. This approach to learning begins with shu, or taking pains to empty yourself fully and receive the teaching, without adding any of your own opinions, flourishes, or “improvements.” This takes a lot of discipline, and it’s important because you are working to gain wisdom. If you do not empty yourself, you will only learn what you already know! You will never be able to see around your own endless and very human capacity for delusion. What I take from shu ha ri is that what you believe is important—it can get you started on a path. But it is so limited in its ability to deeply nourish you. Truly seeing through your own delusion takes work, diligence, endless practice. You have to do it, repetitively, so that you can see all the ways in which you aren’t doing it yet, all the time.
The spirit with which you hold this work is also important. It can’t be an unloving grind that separates you from life, or you will never progress to ha, which is simultaneously the finding of this new “you” that is more than your delusional ego and is more wise, and the expression of that truer, more expansive self in your practice—making it yours. And you certainly won’t get to real ri, which is transcending forms of practice, such as kata, or sitting Zazen, or doing yoga asanas.
You Can Apply It To Your Life
The thing I appreciate so much about aikido is the way you can always be doing it. Aikido training is a dynamic mindfulness practice within the dynamic of a partnership. And life consists of all types of encounters with all kinds of people. These encounters similarly benefit from that kind of awareness and presence. Any interaction, any email, can have more or less connection, more or less commitment, more or less conflict, more or less substance.
This moving back and forth between a separate, dedicated practice and life itself is uniquely generative, and I think it makes using a spiritual tool like astrology make a lot more productive.
It Helps You Hold Paradox
I think the best way to talk about this is to briefly synopsize what Christianity did to the teachings of St. Paul, who had a mystical experience about 100 years after Christ died in which he saw Jesus. He converted to Christianity, and went on to write most of the New Testament in the form of letters to small intentional Christian communities that he set up in specific cities—this is why much of the New Testament is named Romans, Thessalonians, Corinthians, etc.
Paul contradicts himself a lot in his writing. He declares specific spiritual laws, such as “divorce is bad,” to take one example. But then he goes on to talk about when divorce makes sense. What he was trying to convey is that life is deeply paradoxical. To keep going with this example, there are times when the most loving thing to do is destructive and hurtful and against our moral codes, and it is our responsibility as full humans to bear that difficulty. Perhaps the most basic way we all feel this is in terms of our own worthiness or closeness to the divine. It is so human to have moments when you feel deeply unlovable and unworthy. It is in those very moments of unworthiness that we are paradoxically most open to feeling held by… well, you can name this whatever you want. Since we are talking about Christianity let’s call it God. But if you never make room for simply holding paradox in your spiritual practice, that opportunity to give your feeling of unworthiness over and be held is sure to be missed.
Over a couple thousand years, Paul’s writings have largely been cherry picked for the parts that make linear sense—ie, clear recitations of laws. The dialectic nature of his writing and his desire to hold paradox did not survive. This took many Christians away from spiritual practice. And I think it helped a lot of people decide that they are spiritual and not religious. The good news is that there are more Christians of all kinds than you can shake a stick at working to revive this complexity and capacity for paradox that is at the heart of the Christian tradition. They are all on YouTube talking about Paul. It’s totally worth a deep dive.
It Hurts Your Ego and Feeds Your Spirit
There is no spiritual growth without constant, painful reminders that your ego does not have everything under control. A spiritual practice should humble you--in some ways it should even destroy you! If your spiritual practice is only affirming you, you aren’t working hard enough.
A nourishing spiritual practice does not punish or break your spirit, though. I have spent a long time using rigorous spiritual practice to damage my spirit, and bringing qualities like cynicism or self-hatred to my practice. This is actually quite common. I have created and maintained abusive relationships. I have punished myself with practice. I have withdrawn from connection from others and hid out in practice by myself. It’s easy to do this because a solid spiritual practice should be very challenging--I totally thought I was doing it right the whole time.
Look at yourself. Look at your spirit. If you have a history of getting by or making things easy on yourself, make sure you are doing the work! And if you struggle with finding a light, loving spirit and/or have a history of abuse and neglect, be careful to find a teacher and spiritual peers you can trust, and who can tell you when you are hurting yourself. And then listen to them. Trust me, it will take time to discern the difference between good practice and abuse if you have a history of abuse.
You Do It Accountably In a Community
Nourishing spiritual practice puts you out of your comfort zone, and it is so very hard to push yourself reliably and consistently. You need peers who are also showing up when it’s hard. You need people asking where you were when you don’t show up. If you are like me, you need the competition at first. You need a teacher or guide that you trust to make (appropriate, generative, respectful) demands of you, and tell you when you are phoning it in.
In addition to all this support, there’s an important conceptual side effect to being in a spiritual community. If you’re doing it with other people, ideally under trustworthy guidance, then you can be certain that you didn’t just make it up. The upcoming 5 years are going to be a sustained referendum on the value of everybody having their own truth and their own channel. I think it’s super interesting that a lot of people who are younger than I am are breathing new life into things like the Orphic hymns and planetary magic, and I am watching the magic-animist, vaguely western-Shinto flavored, totally decentralized protoreligion that is blossoming on astrology Twitter with great interest, because on an anthropological level it’s time for new religions. But on a more personal level, I'm suspicious. I would rather trust the development of my spirit to one of the hundreds and hundreds of longstanding wisdom traditions that have real depth of knowledge and have lineages and elders. Incorporating astrology into any of these traditions is going to be far more grounding than trying to make astrology into a religion. And it’s how astrology has been operating for thousands of years.