How to Admit Defeat: Letting Go of the Search for the Perfect Spiritual Practice

It’s all too easy to think that in order to have a spiritual practice, the FIRST thing we need to do, is go online and buy a meditation cushion. Then we need to set up an altar, preferably with crystals, and little objects that are special to us, or holy images. Then get a prayer bracelet, or learn some new prayers, or start chanting. You’ve gotta have the right incense and a clean and quiet house and the right amount of time.

But none of this is true.

Here’s the good news: The only way to do a spiritual practice, it turns out, is to do it imperfectly. And we can all manage that.

Maybe you have an awesome spiritual practice going right now. You’re getting up early, journaling, praying or meditating, reading spiritually grounding materials, and doing yoga. You feel like a million bucks. You start your day totally calm, feeling optimistic and connected.

That’s awesome.

And, also, it’s not going to last.

Because that’s how life is. Nothing lasts. Everything is changing, all the time. So, the practice that works brilliantly for you, will stop working as well at some point.

You’ll start phoning it in. You’ll keep doing the practice but feel like, really, what’s the point of this? Or, you’ll wish you COULD keep doing it, but you’ll have house guests, or summer break will happen. Or the holidays. (Remember those? Your schedule’s going to get totally screwed up.)

Or maybe you have no spiritual practice right now.

Maybe you’re getting up, pulling a shirt out of the pile on your floor, smelling the armpits and deciding if you can wear it to work again. Maybe you’re making coffee, then sitting on the toilet looking at facebook for 20 minutes before you realize it’s starting to make a ring around your butt and it’s drafty besides.

Maybe you're looking at the clock and realizing you’re running late. You brush your teeth and grab a sleeve of crackers and an overripe banana for a sad lunch but then eat them on the way to work and end up buying a sandwich that you really can’t even afford.

Ok. That doesn’t feel awesome, but that’s ok, too. If this is you, it turns out you are perfectly positioned for starting a new spiritual practice. It’s going to be easier than you think. No meditation pillow required. (Cancel the Amazon order now.)

Alice Walker once interviewed Pema Chodron about meditation and said something like, “I get so much out of my meditation practice, so why do I just stop doing it sometimes?”

And do you know what the famous Buddhist said? She said, “Yes, why do we do that? I do that, too.”

Before reading that interview, I thought you became a famous Buddhist practitioner by having a PERFECT meditation practice. That you’re always doing a great job. But no. It turns out, Pema Chodron is just practicing in public.

The point is, you just keep practicing, even when the “practice” is skipping a day. Or a series of days. One day at a time, you show up for yourself, completely, as you are, and witness yourself. You’re there, with yourself, no matter what.

Our spiritual practice must be robust and flexible, because our circumstances are constantly changing.

We may have a new baby at home, or our spouse may be traveling for work, or we may have a co-worker on vacation whose work is now falling to us..

And the holidays are coming. That’s a change of circumstances that’s probably going to impact all of us. Our kids will be home for school, or we’ll be traveling to visit relatives, or we’ll be eating differently and going to endless holiday parties.

But our internal circumstances shift, too. So, nothing may look differently on the outside, but you may be feeling depressed, or tired, or sick of your job. So, you go to facebook to zone out, or you just don’t have it in you to go to the gym. Or you GO to the gym, but just look at magazines while half-heartedly PRETENDING to work out on the elliptical, and stewing about resentments toward your family.

So, in these times, we can ask what is the right spiritual practice for this particular day? For this moment?

Maybe you love meditation or prayer, but skipped it, and today’s spiritual practice becomes just not yelling at your kids today. In this circumstance, maybe the most “spiritual” step is to pick up Thai carry-out and watch sit-coms together instead of cooking and silently hating everyone in your family. In this case, the carry-out and the tv, THAT is your spiritual practice.

The practice of radical self-acceptance is not to be underestimated. By accepting imperfection in myself and in the world, I can be present with my actual self and my actual life, and not hate the people around me just for existing.

Being flexible about my standards releases me from doing “my best” at all times.

I accept that doing my best looks different at different moments.  

My internal terrain, while invisible to the world, is still a real and important factor in my life and how I make decisions.

Or, if I find myself being grumpy with other drivers, maybe the appropriate spiritual practice for today is slowing down and cutting my errand list from a “best case scenario” of five tasks completed, to the bare minimum of the one task that actually needs to be completed.

While I may not have a “good reason” for my feelings, I can accept myself anyway and often, I find, I come to understand why I am feeling so frustrated. I make sense to myself.

The point is, these are all legitimate spiritual practices, and we aren’t going to be using the same practice on all days, because all days are not the same.

So, today, let’s give ourselves a pass on the “perfect” spiritual practice and remember that we can practice right in the moment, with what we have, with the self we have today, with today’s circumstances, inside and out. 

We can choose the right spiritual practice for our circumstances right now, even if it doesn’t look very “spiritual” to the outside world. No meditation cushion required. No alter. Just ourselves, and our lives, and our circumstances today.