Have you ever walked away from meeting someone feeling like you’ve been on sacred ground? One time when this happened for me was when I met Brian McLaren at the Amahoro Conference of 2009 in South Africa. I have seldom met such a humble and joyful person.
Brian was gentle and quieter than I’d expected. He laughed easily, smiled often, and was equally comfortable on the sidelines or taking centre stage. One morning I came across him as he walked alone through the camp. In retrospect, he was probably enjoying some much-needed solitude. But he willingly interrupted his reflections to chat with me for a few moments. As I walked away my soul was filled with quiet joy, and I felt that I had encountered a truly spiritual man.
One of the primary marks of deep and authentic spirituality is the love of life. Unfortunately, spirituality is not generally known for igniting excitement, amazement, play, celebration, and laughter. Most spiritual paths focus on sacrifice and self-giving. We are taught to die to self, be self-less, and embrace suffering. These are not bad lessons to learn, but the result has often been a spirituality that is dry, pleasureless, overly serious, and lacking a sense of humour. As Julia Cameron’s book suggests, for most Very Spiritual People, God Is No Laughing Matter (Affiliate Link).
If spirituality is about consciously evolving to be more compassionate and connected, then it has to include becoming more abundantly alive. Jesus may have said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” But he also said, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” (John 10:10b NLT). So, maybe dying to self is about allowing ourselves to be constantly resurrected. Maybe it’s about dying to everything that stops us being vibrantly alive so that we can experience life more abundantly. The truth is that the only way we can truly give ourselves to others is when we are so filled with life that we can’t help but share it.
HOW TO BE FULLY ALIVE
Our longing to know a life that is vibrant and abundant is not just naturally human. It is essential to our spiritual health. But, while we have lots of spiritual practices that teach us self-denial, we have few that teach us to enjoy life more. Most of our spirituality tends to be focussed on the next life rather than enjoying this one. And there is almost a sense that it is wrong to enjoy life while others are grieving and going hungry. It helps me to remember that my misery doesn’t serve those who suffer. But my joy, when it motivates me to compassionate, life-giving action, definitely does.
In the last year, in our collective struggle with the Coronavirus pandemic, many of us have lost our sense of being fully alive. And the additional stress of protests, economic uncertainty, and violence against a fair and lawful US election has only made things worse. To speak of enjoying life in this context may sound flippant and callous. But I believe that we need to feel more alive if we are to survive these trying times. So how do we go about moving from merely existing to truly living? How do we sustain a sense of aliveness even in the worst moments of our lives? Here are five simple, but effective spiritual practices that can help us.
Make Room for Awe
When we encounter great beauty, majesty, mastery, and courage, we can seldom resist being stopped in our tracks. Our eyes grow wide, our mouths fall open, and our hearts soar with excitement. In that state, it is almost impossible for despair, fear, and hopelessness to keep us captive. Rather, we are inspired and moved to embody in ourselves some of the greatness we have witnessed. Awe gives us hope and empowers us to dive ever deeper into the mystery of life.
To make room for this kind of awe requires us to be mindful and intentional. We can train our eyes to be more aware of awe-inspiring moments. And we can train our hearts to stop us so that we don’t just hurry past. There are so many choices for how we can nurture a sense of awe: watch great artists perform music, dance, or theatre; spend time in a beautiful garden or wilderness; get lost in beautiful cinematography or immersive story-telling—to mention just a few.
As we practice opening ourselves to awe we grow more attuned to encounters with wonder. And we become practised in stopping and giving ourselves to the moment before moving on with a deeper sense of aliveness.
I never cease to be amazed at the way impoverished communities embrace celebration. It’s like their determination to celebrate defies their suffering and subverts the injustice that causes it. I’ve been moved to tears by the exuberant singing, dancing, and laughter that I’ve experienced with those who seem to have little cause for joy.
While we may not be as expressive in our celebrations, we can only find life when we learn to mark moments of goodness and joy in our lives. Celebration is basically about giving thanks, honouring what we value, and marking important moments. And when we develop a daily practice of simple celebration, we can’t help feeling more alive.
Laugh with Abandon
I don’t need to list the benefits of laughter to our mental and physical health. Most of us know this already. Yet it is surprisingly easy to fall out of practice when it comes to laughing. I believe that creating intentional moments of laughter can be a very liberating and empowering spiritual practice. This is why I love stand-up comics and sitcoms. In the last few years, my wife and I have worked our way through Friends and The Big Bang Theory. Now we have gone back to the wonderful Dharma and Greg. The time we have set aside to watch these shows has helped us to keep a sense of aliveness even when we’ve been dealing with great sorrow.
So find what makes you laugh and prioritise giving it space and time in your life—every day if possible. You’ll be glad you did.
Most religions have a conflicted relationship with pleasure. This is even more the case with pleasure of a sensual or sexual nature. And so-called secular society is not much better. But our capacity for pleasure is just as important for our health as our capacity for pain. Pain is protective, telling us when something needs to be addressed in our bodies and minds. Pleasure is both restorative and preventative. It floods our bodies with chemicals that help us to relax and that can heal us. Pleasure soothes, calms, and grounds us. We can never be vibrantly alive without a deep and healthy enjoyment of pleasure.
One of the best things we can do to feel more alive is to be intentional about silencing our pleasure-robbing, internal voices of guilt and judgement. This is not about becoming addicted to unbounded hedonism. It is about freeing ourselves to experience pleasure wholeheartedly and embrace the life-giving benefits it brings. And then, once we’ve given ourselves permission to feel pleasure, we can find what we truly enjoy and bring more of that into our lives.
The final spiritual practice does not need a long explanation. We all know that play makes us feel alive, and the more we play the more alive we feel. We don’t all play in the same way, though, so it’s very important to find what is truly playful for us. It’s ok to be competitive when we play if that’s our thing. But it’s important to add some frivolity into the mix. When the stakes are low, when we’re a bit whimsical, and the outcome doesn’t matter at all, play is a deeply life-giving spiritual practice. And it teaches us to be more playful generally—to take life and ourselves a little less seriously.
We instinctively know that we are designed for more than mere existence. We know that our mental and physical health demands that we feel vibrantly alive. And we are all too aware that most of us don’t feel as alive as we need. But if we can integrate some of these practices into our own spirituality, we can nurture our sense of aliveness. I could also include loving well in this list, but we’re going to look at that in a separate post.
Last week we explored how learning to evolve consciously can help us to thrive. One of the central processes of evolution is Life. So, if we want to be intentional about how we evolve, we need to learn to cooperate and participate in the process of Life. And that means we need to learn how to maintain our own vibrant and abundant sense of aliveness.
Which of the above practices speaks to you the most? What will you commit to doing this year in order to feel more alive in 2021? Add your responses in the comments below. Over to you!
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