Spirituality

Physical “Stuff” in Sacred Practice

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I’ve started tying my sacred practice more and more to the physical world in the past year. I had some misgivings about it, which I’ll explain, but by and large I feel like the objects, postures, and activities a have helped me better engage with and understand my spirituality.

So I wanted to share a with you a bit of what that looks like for me. This post will be about my general philosophy of the part physical things play in a spiritual practice, and then I’ll be writing some follow-up posts to tell you what, exactly, I use and why.

I was wary of using physical objects in my spiritual practice because it sounded a lot like idolatry to me in the beginning. But I’ve come to understand that using physical stuff in spiritual practice does not make that stuff “divine”. It does not mean that I believe crystals, for instance, have spiritual power. They just help me slow the hell down and focus on the spiritual task at hand. (Other people believe differently, of course, and that’s fine.)

You can think of the physical stuff you use in spiritual practice as the bell for Pavlov’s dogs. When you, say, take a kneeling posture during prayer every night for a month, just kneeling by your bed will tell your body, mind, and spirit that it’s time to focus on prayer. This doesn’t mean that kneeling gives you spiritual power – it’s just the cue that helps you focus on connecting with the divine. (And who doesn’t need a little help with that in the modern world?)

For the most part, I don’t think it matters what you use in your spiritual practice, with one caveat and one exception:

The caveat is that it helps to use objects that are widely accepted by your spiritual community. Spirituality is a community activity as well as an individual journey, and there’s power in connecting with the divine through shared symbols, like a cross for Christians. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have your own practice. It’s just edifying to be able to share a spiritual language with someone else.

The exception is taking symbols or objects used in the spiritual practice of other people, especially disadvantaged people – in other words, cultural appropriation. There’s no hard line on this. It’s something you have to sort of feel out by educating yourself and staying aware. Here are some resources to help you understand what it is, and I can also give you an example from my own practice:

Burning white sage is pretty common now in spiritual cleansing. I used it, but I became uncomfortable with the fact that the only thing I knew about it was that it had (maybe) been a Native American practice in the past. I was worried that I could be appropriating some tribe’s spiritual tradition, and frankly that worry got a little distracting during rituals. So I stopped using it and use incense instead.

So that’s a bit about my philosophy for using stuff in sacred practice. I’m excited to share what I actually use in the next post, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts and feelings about using physical stuff in your sacred practice? Has it changed over time?

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