One of the biggest challenges about being on an undefined spiritual path is that you end up essentially alone on that path. While I have a lot of people in my life who I consider like-minded and extremely knowledgable, their paths are not precisely the same as mine. When I’m down to the real substantive part of my spiritual life, I’m in it alone.
Because of that, I would say this particular path isn’t for everyone. That’s not because it’s particularly lonely or difficult to practice alone — most spiritual traditions encompass some element of personal observance and practice. Solitary prayer and study are parts of just about every religious tradition out there.
But most traditions also have the social elements, the public roles to play for those who wish to play them. There are gatherings and services, leaders and those who contribute as featured participants in rituals. When I was in the church with my family as a kid, I was expected to attend two services on Sunday and one on Wednesday, plus summer events and special holiday services. I chose to sing in choirs and play the organ. My siblings led groups and taught Sunday School classes. Those events and roles are important parts of spiritual expression and development to a lot of people, and when you’re going off the beaten path they simply don’t exist.
On the other hand, for some people this solitary, off-the-beaten-path form of spirituality is enticing. Where there are events and roles to play there is also pressure to participate. Not everything asked of you in an established, community-based spiritual practice will be within your personal comfort zone. I remember being asked to lead prayers without warning, which was definitely beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone. Practicing alone allows you to build your spiritual traditions well within your comfortable boundaries.
I admit, I do sometimes miss that opportunity to be a valued participant in a spiritual community. On the other hand, without a well-defined spiritual tradition, the idea of a spiritual community can be extended to include a lot of things. For instance, although I don’t share specific practices and beliefs with everyone there, participating in a pagan discussion group fills part of that missing space for me. Finding extensions of my practice in the form of charitable work or community activities which are expressions of my spiritual goals and values also result in finding roles to play within groups.
At the same time, the freedom to write my own practice, to do my own study and come to my own conclusions is immensely more spiritually satisfying than my previous spiritual lives have ever been.
In the end, if our spirituality is really all about nurturing that part of ourselves which seeks to understand and create and connect, the extent to which we balance communal practice with solitary practice is a matter of personal determination. We don’t all need the same things, and we don’t all thrive in the same environments. Our minds and hearts aren’t inspired by the same experiences, and it is those experiences we should be seeking in our spiritual lives.Tags: personal essay, religion, solitary practice, spirituality
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