I recently shared some preliminary information about my upcoming Practical Spirituality Circle with a small group of friends for feedback. One friend, a self-described “spiritual nerd,” had questions about the difference between spiritual principles and spiritual practices. After doing quick searches on those terms, I realized that much of the material in the interwebs doesn’t address the clear distinction I have in mind when explaining the two, thus the birth of this blog post.
Let’s start with some dictionary definitions:
principle noun prin·ci·ple \ˈprin(t)-s(ə-)pəl, -sə-bəl\
A fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.
from Latin principium source, principia (plural) foundations
practice noun prac·tice \ˈprak-təs\
The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.
from Medieval Latin practicare to do, perform, practice, from Late Latin practicus practical, from Greek praktikos practical
The way I define and distinguish between spiritual principles and spiritual practices exactly mirrors the respective dictionary definitions.
Spiritual principles are those fundamental truths that form the foundation of my spiritual understanding. They are my rock, my fall back. Whenever I find myself spinning because of something “bad” or “wrong” that seems to be going on in my world, I revert back to spiritual principle. What do I know, at the deepest level of my being, as the spiritual Truth behind whatever is showing up? This can be a very quick process, or it can take some time and effort for me to work through the “bugs” and get back to center. It all really depends on how deep I’ve allowed the belief system that’s triggering my reaction to permeate.
Spiritual principles are timeless Truths, not tied to any specific religious, philosophical, or spiritual tradition. On the other hand, spiritual practices reflect how we live them and vary based on the specific religious and spiritual traditions we adhere to.
For example, both Judaism and Islam are strongly grounded in the spiritual principle that God is One. The tools used to bring that principle into practice obviously vary. Jews read the Torah and Talmud and have their own particular process for prayer. Muslims read the Qu’ran and pray five times per day in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. Even within each religion, there are different practices – Ashkenazic and Sephardic practices, customs, and traditions vary in Judaism, as do Shi’ite, Sunni, and Sufi practices, customs, and traditions within Islam. Yet the practices, customs and traditions across all of them remain anchored in the spiritual principle of Oneness.
Spiritual practices, customs and traditions, while valuable, are not the crux of why we engage in spirituality and religion. They are merely techniques to support us in anchoring a deeper awareness and understanding of the spiritual principles behind them. When we confuse this, and believe the practices and traditions are the “why” in and of themselves, we often get stuck in blind faith and wonder why our prayers aren’t getting answered, why we’re not worthy, and ask whether expending the effort to learn and engage with religious and spiritual traditions is worth it.
That’s not to say that spiritual practices are unimportant. Not by any stretch. For me, they provide the critical bridge to making my spiritual philosophy practical. Because if it’s not practical, if it’s all an unprovable theory, it’s really not worth it for me.
If I’m engaging in prayer, meditation, gratitude, intention setting, or other spiritual practices, and am not experiencing at least an inner shift (feeling more at peace, for example), that’s a sure sign that either my practice isn’t grounded in principle or I’m paying “lip service” to the principle in order to “get something” out of pursing the spiritual practice – trying to make a “corrupt bargain” with God, so to speak. Needless to say, there’s no bargaining with God because God is All there is. Practically, that means there’s no thing outside of myself to bargain with. It took me many years of spiritual study and application to really understand and appreciate all of this.
When I’m on my game and really doing my own inner work, I don’t look to the people, circumstances and events outside of me to blame and find fault for the perceived ills in my world. I shine the spotlight squarely within because I know that somewhere, somehow I’m believing that core spiritual principles are not operating. I’ve separated myself from Truth. The perceived ills in my experience are merely showing up to alert me to that fact and giving me the opportunity to clean the cobwebs of belief and get back to center. My work is always to look inward, because that is the only place where true change can occur. In that understanding lies my true power.
Spiritual practices are the tools and techniques I use to support me in living the spiritual principles I espouse. They are my go-to for getting back to center when I get off track. In tying my spiritual practices back to spiritual principles I am able to move away from blind faith and towards greater awareness and understanding. And it is when I’m living this understanding in my daily life that I encounter significant shifts in my experience.
In my next post I’ll highlight the key spiritual principles I espouse, what they mean, and provide some examples for how I take them from theory into practice. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts. How do you use spiritual practice to ground yourself in your spiritual principles? Is anything still unclear? Remember, your questions will give way to understanding as you go deeper in working with these principles. They are perfectly natural, so there’s no such thing as a “bad” or “wrong” question. Ask your questions below and I’ll do my very best to answer them!