Person doing spiritual exercise

Spiritual Exercises

This page may have been reached from the "Acts of Love" pages of those concerning my philosophy and religion, The Quest. However, the contents of this page are neutral as to the purpose for which the described exercises might be done. They can be approached in any spiritual context, or for purely secular reasons such as relaxation or counteracting stress.


There is a broad collection of activities that are often called "spiritual exercises." I have taught some of these in person, and in the pages reached from this one I try to do so again via this medium.

It turns out to be convenient to organize my material around the traditional basic questions of journalism; and I'm going to place first in the list a link for the question "how?" I do this because, in my early attempts at drafting this header page, I found myself doing something I've often seen in various relevant books, namely carrying on at great length intellectualizing about what I think is really among the most pragmatic of arts before finally getting around to that art's practice. So:

How are spiritual exercises done?

Which spiritual exercises should you try?

Where (and when) should spiritual exercises be done?

What makes an exercise spiritual?

Who am I to tell you about spiritual exercises?


How to do spiritual exercises

The exercises I'm going to write about fit under a few broad headings (some fit under more than one).

Before I supply links to the exercises' individual pages, there is one note of caution which at first I found myself putting in those pages over and over again. Let me instead voice that caution just once: some individual people find doing certain things, such as for example paying close attention to their breathing, brings on feelings ranging from unease through distress to the beginnings of panic. My pages aren't about dealing with different levels of distress. That's the field of responsibility of psychologists, pastors and other professionals, and such professionals should be consulted for help with that kind of problem. I write for people who feel at ease with trying the exercises I describe, and who realize that they should quit an exercise which sufficiently makes that ease depart.

That caution having been issued:

Exercises using harmonious sounds
Meditating with a mantra

Chanting

Exercises using breathing

Using your breath

Chanting, again

Your interior rainbow

Exercises in contemplating things and images

Just looking

Your interior rainbow, again

Using mandalas

Exercises with the body

Just sitting

Posing and moving
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Which spiritual exercises to do

You may have heard of other kinds of spiritual exercise than those I describe. There are in any case many, many of them. I've restricted myself to some basic exercises, of varied types, that can be imparted relatively easily, in a short while, with words alone.

Among these, I suggest reading my descriptions and instructions, and seeing if a particular exercise fits your outlook and inclinations. Try it for enough time, say about six weeks, for you to get an idea of whether it is doing something for you (but quit early if what it is doing feels bad). If you're not getting anywhere, consider moving on to another choice. But if you feel good about continuing, do so. You may find yourself doing that exercise then for a long time, perhaps for the rest of your life. For example, I've been doing a mantra meditation for decades now, and I'm not inclined to stop. I have some other exercises I do on occasion because of issues like convenience, and again I'll probably go on doing so indefinitely.

There are many teachers who take a similar approach to mine. I've had the privilege of learning from some of them. The field is also loaded with teachers who insist that there is just one valid technique, namely their own. I respectfully disagree with them, and advocate curiosity, exploration and an open mind. I would, however, counsel against a smorgasbord approach of trying an exercise a time or two and then moving on to try something else. My experience is that testing an exercise takes time, attention and patience.

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Where (and when) to do spiritual exercises

There are places, such as monasteries of various religions, retreat houses, and pleasant places used for weekend workshops, which feel really good as locales for spiritual exercises. However, unless you're a monk, nun or hermit, you will need to practice any exercise you learn in such a good place, or here, in your workaday world, and you will need to choose appropriately a place or places in that world to do so.

The most common place to choose is somewhere quiet in your home. If your whole home is noisy, this likely won't work. Or, you may find your schedule and habits point you towards some other choice. For instance, before I retired I commuted on public transport and got in the habit of meditating in a bus seat. Buses aren't as quiet as monks' cells, by any means, but the sounds were rarely directed at me, and I found I could just set them aside. I still meditate on buses sometimes, and I continue to see many other people on buses who look as though they are meditating. Another place for the early arriver at work can be your own desk; this can be a great way to prepare to launch into your working day. A seat in a park (but not in the sun) can work, or it may fail if the sounds of the outdoors intrude; personally, I find childen playing, birds singing and miscellaneous distant noises in an expansive three-dimensional outdoor environment distracting in a way that the sounds on a moving bus are not. In the classic phrase, your mileage may vary.

Such places work well not only for meditation, but also for interior contemplation of images and for breathing (but yoga breathing with the hand movements is a bit conspicuous in a public place).

If you drive, and find (be careful about this) you can do so safely, your car can be good as a place to chant (this is something you should not do on a bus or -- unless you work out of a trailer office -- at your desk).

If you do contemplation of a physical object, you of course have to do it where that object is. But being receptive about what object to contemplate can open you to many more possibilities. For instance, I've passed time waiting (for a bus, a date, and so on) by contemplating a pleasantly colored store sign, or a few times a traffic light (while holding the thought of, given a conventional Western red-amber-green light, the brief and golden moment between green and red).

If I have an insight to offer which sums up the above and other possibilities I haven't mentioned, it is this: one way or another, everything is an opportunity.

The answer to "when" is, in most cases, twice a day, preferably on an empty stomach such as before breakfast and before your evening meal. But your schedule may make one or both of these difficult or out of the question. A long and early commute may leave no room before breakfast and a convenient gap, with breakfast mostly processed, at the end of your commute and before work, for instance. Or you may find yourself, after an early supper and an evening's entertainment, on a bus or at home with a handy and at-last-quiet time before retiring. Depending on what exercise you do, leaving it late may either put you to sleep or make it difficult to fall asleep, however; your reaction to these hazards will be personal and you may need to adjust your practice with experience. My guiding overall principles are regularity but not rigidity and, as I wrote in the preceding paragraph, that "everything is an opportunity."

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What makes an exercise spiritual?

What is a spiritual exercise? We do physical exercises to improve the strength and efficiency of our bodily muscles. We do mental exercises to make the most of our rational minds. If we do spiritual exercises, we do them to improve, to make the most of, to optimize ... what?

Whether or not you have something that can be called a "spirit" is debatable, and the debate immediately opens up a can of worms that would call into question in your mind my claim of neutrality here concerning philosophy and religion.

But the great bulk of these exercises originated with people engaged in enterprises they thought of as spiritual, as having to do with something essential to human nature but different somehow from human day-to-day endeavors (and, in their view, partaking of the holy).

However, an important aspect of these people is that, though they may have been deep into various religions or related philosophies, and though their writings may have been thoroughly infused with the principles and vocabularies of those organizations, they tended to be quite pragmatic about their practices, their exercises.

Whatever they may have believed, they also knew that there was ... something ... to reach to, something worthwhile, and that there were things to do to reach to it. Contact with that something was what they sought to improve, to make the most of, to optimize.

And so do I.

What are the words to use to name the "something" at which these exercises are aimed? "Spirit" obviously is one. "Soul" is another, but puts off people who don't believe in souls as religions tend to conceive of them. "Inner consciousness" is a good term, and I could very well have used it instead of "spirit" but for its greater length and for its perceived association with latter-day psychology rather than with the much older traditions out of which come most of the exercises that try to reach and improve such interior, quieter regions of our minds.

And what do the spiritual, the inner-consciousness exercises themselves have in common? Simplicity, generally speaking. Repetitiveness, stilling, quieting. Paying attention. Turning off the hurry, the multi-tasking clamor of competing activities that occupies our surface minds most of the time to such an extent that the "still, small voice" at the spiritual core of each of us cannot make itself heard.

If there is one simple theme, it is doing just one thing, whether that thing is to repeat a mantra, to look at an object, to make a sound or to breathe attentively (okay, maybe sometimes a couple or so of things are done together, such as posing while breathing or paying attention to your breath while visualizing an image; but the principle is the same). Gentle discipline is used to bring you back from the many distractions which pull you away, and you keep reminding yourself to do just the one thing. The one thing may not make much sense in itself; but, like the weightlifter's repeated lifts or the student's series of mathematical solutions, it will, if it fits you and you remain patiently diligent, attending to the task rather than to your goal, eventually produce its result.

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Who am I to write about spiritual exercises?

As I write, in 2003, I'm a 69-year-old retiree from a life of mostly desk work. I'm not pastorally trained, or educated in any field of personal realization or therapy. My degree was in mathematics and my last career was in computing.

I did, however, study the field of spiritual exercises and pass some of them on for eighteen years in programs connected with a religious organization in which I hold membership. (Material about my religious and philosophical beliefs or affiliations doesn't belong on this page -- which is supposed to be spiritually neutral -- but can be found elsewhere in this website).

What I've written in these pages is a distillation of various things that I found, during this experience, worked: for some people, if not for others; sometimes for me, sometimes not.

A bibliography can be found at the beginning of my general bibliography (click here to access it) on my "news and miscellany" page.

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2007 Anthony Buckland, anthonybuckland@telus.net
Link to Anthony's home page

last modified: May 12, 2007