What does a healthy spiritual practice look like? Well, what does a healthy life look like? There’s considerable wisdom in recognizing that a spiritual practice is not separate from the life the surrounds it; therefore the health of one is going to be indicative of the health of the other. To answer these questions we must therefore take a closer look at the idea of health.
In this context the concept of “health” or “healthy” suggests robustness, strength, the ability to withstand interruptions and unexpected circumstances. We might also extract suggestions of stability, predictability, and resilience from this particular use of “healthy”. On a further level of analysis, I’d suggest that “healthy” in this context also includes the ability to problem solve, to identify shortcomings and develop strategies for improvement; healthy is not an end point but the state in which positive, productive, and beneficial development is increasingly possible. I encompass these things and more in the prayers I make to Holy Death when I request “a quiet life”.
Some of the traditions I am part of emphasize the unpredictable nature of life and the wildly variable situations we might find ourselves in. The highs and lows are what makes incarnate life and material reality so very, very difficult to cope with but these things are also what characterize this existence; to reject it would be to also reject the many possibilities that incarnation and material reality have to offer us. They are inseparable and since unpredictability, tragedy, loss, destruction, ruination, setback, disappointment, and pain are all entirely unavoidable we must discover ways to make peace with their fact – and indeed, we must integrate them into our spiritual landscape, since there is no separation of spiritual life from every other facet of life.
There is a tendency in American paganism (and in American magical culture and in American polytheism) to equate stability, predictability, and the ability to cope with change as indications of a healthy spiritual life and a healthy life more generally. And this certainly has a justifiable logic (see above), but this logic is misapplied when the lack of these features is interpreted as a moral or magical failing. In other words, a life and spiritual practice that is hemmed in by tragedy, poverty, exploitation, illness, anger, interpersonal conflict, loss, and can’t-catch-a-break would be judged “unhealthy” or “broken”compared to a “healthy” spiritual practice. If nothing else, a “healthy” spiritual or magical practice gives you the means to express your will in the world and make the changes required to achieve increasing and continued well-being.
And it does. But.
If you look at the life story of virtually any saint or holy person you’re going to find a long list of obstacles that made spiritual life difficult for them. If a saint is closer to their god than other people, then their spiritual life must be “better” or “healthier” than that of other people – but would a saint measure up to the standard of spiritual health outlined above?
Let’s set saints aside; being exceptional people their spiritual lives were similarly exceptional and so don’t really offer a useful metric to the rest of us. We can imagine a pious friend or relative, maybe a community member. I’ll think of my paternal grandmother, a devoted Catholic woman who lit a candle to the Virgin every Friday. There was a key on her keyring that said, “I’m a Catholic; all a priest.” She explained to me once that if she was ever hurt or sick that I would need to show this to people so a priest could be called (I was quite young at the time). Her family was Mexican but they became American when the map was redrawn; they had lived in what is now New Mexico for generations before suddenly finding themselves citizens of a different country. They had been ranchers. When she was young my grandmother swept up snips of film left on the cutting room floor of the editing department of a major urban movie studio; later she became a hair dresser and worked out of the back room of her house. Her marriage was not happy; her husband and son were both alcoholics and she received no support in her faith from either of them. She died following a battle with leukemia.
It’s impossible to say if my grandmother’s spiritual life was healthy or not. Indeed, I have no idea if she herself was a happy person. She was always poor; she never had new things. I own one of the two “nice things” she ever owned, a tiny carved Madonna from Ireland. Everything in her house came from yard sales. Like countless other people in this world she lived somewhere between pennilessness and financial stability of some kind. Certainly her husband’s cancer diagnosis sent her household, her son’s household and eventually my household into precarious financial circumstances; I am still living with the repercussions of my grandparents’ material losses. What does this say about the health of my spiritual life?
This isn’t a post about the politics of poverty or generational wealth or anything like that – except it kind of is. We see fortune and misfortune in isolation, as if it is the sole achievement of individuals when in fact we often have no idea why opportunities open or close before us.
A couple years ago I was diagnosed with migraines that were considerably different than the ones I had lived with my entire life. Instead of pronounced pain and sensitivity to light and sound that would last for days, I found myself experiencing debilitating vertigo, nausea, and disorientation. I fell a couple times as a result, thankfully not badly but enough to feel intimidated at the idea of even going down the stairs. I stumbled frequently. I was scared to leave the house until I finally got answers and started to get a handle on my symptoms. Things are a little more under control these days but there are many, many factors that go into triggering a migraine attack and only some of them I can plan for. I can’t use the computer for more than a couple hours before the symptoms begin. Fluorescent lights, LEDs, high efficiency bulbs, and even strong sunlight will start the symptoms up in less than a minute. Guess how hard it’s been for me to find work that doesn’t leave me actually vomiting on other people?
Difficulty finding better work has led to a slow spiral of financial deprivation and worsening of multiple chronic health problems. I’ve found myself socially isolated, exhausted, violently depressed, and finally experiencing some of the worst symptoms I’ve had in years. All through this I’ve been wondering if these things are an indication that my spiritual life is broken, if I’ve broken my life in general because I’m a shitty person unable to make the right decisions.
And you know what? My spiritual life does need some improvement – but it needs improvement even when everything is going my way. A life that looks perfect, stable, predictable, safe, and abundant might contain all kinds of problems, including spiritual ones.
Amazingly, life resists simplicity – and so does spiritual life. The correlation between safety, stability, predictability, abundance, and all the rest of what constitutes a “healthy” life and a spiritual state in which one is aligned with their gods, surrounded by cheering ancestors, and free from curses and crossings is actually pretty weak. These things might not be entirely and completely forever unrelated but neither are they a completely predictable linked pair of cause-effect. If the gods do not reach out their hands to fix the problems besetting their most favored holy people, can we truly expect that spirituality will allow us to avoid similar complications? Besides, if having a great life was linked entirely – or even primarily! – to being spiritually awesome then there would be no atheist success stories. (Also people who demonstrate themselves to be assholes would not be successful magicians.)
The link between cultivating a spiritual life that can cope with change, adapt to variable circumstances, seek compassion, and be generally uplifting and having a life with secure material assets, dependable friends, and meaningful opportunities lies not in that one is the automatic cause of the other but in the fact that the skills by which a person can cultivate one lets them also cultivate the other. You might not choose to have a spiritual life at all – witness atheists who are happy and successful – and you might not choose to use these skills to improve yourself and your life more generally – witness the asshole magician – but you could. But even if you did you would not be free from the unpredictable character of the container that life exists inside of. Just as our spiritual life is not separate from our life more generally, so our life is not separate from the material reality that surrounds and suffuses it.
Yes, looking for the unhealthy patterns in one’s life and spiritual practice are good strategies for solving problems that tend to come up again and again. There are always ways in which we can improve these things and to some degree, the health of one will absolutely influence the health of the other. But I think the reason for this is deeper and has to do with more basic skills and self-awareness, not with any sort of supernatural transference. Do the gods bless us? Of course – but disaster does not necessarily indicate divine displeasure and this conclusion should not be at the top of the list. Does a life that is stable and secure support an optimal spiritual practice? Of course – but success in one realm does not offer a shortcut to success in another.
Here you might rightly wonder why, if my life has continued to have a host of material obstacles, have I persisted in my spiritual practice. Sometimes I wonder this too, because I still have some baggage that contains ideas of gods being fairytale creatures that can and will warp reality to rescue a believer from distress. They are not this way. Instead, they are companions in my distress; they remain close when I suffer. They also remain close when I succeed. My variable circumstances are not experienced alone. While I directly credit them for many of the wonderful and terrible things that have happened in my life, requiring them to author every obstacle out of existence seems like an unreasonable thing to ask. Whether they can’t or won’t doesn’t matter; they haven’t, and so I accept that reality. I ask that they help my actions have increased effects, that they lead me to greater self-knowledge, that they stay with me as I learn and persist as I do.