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10/22/2014 09:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

4 Spiritual Practices That Will Get You Through The Roughest Times

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The author of The Endless Practice shares some unexpected ways to get through challenges both small and large.

By Mark Nepo

Being opened quietly for moments every day creates a path by which life reaches us, the way rain carves a little stream in the earth by which the smallest flowers are watered. The purpose of a spiritual practice is not to be done with it and the reward for practice is a thoroughness of being.

Given the pulls to be cruel or kind, to be clever or sincere, to hoard or give away, we can explore four practices that, if personalized, can help us turn the task back into wonder; practices that if listened to can help us transform ourselves, one more time:

1. The Practice of Uncertainty

The practice of uncertainty is patience. That is, the only way to move through uncertainty, the only way to listen for what it has to say, is by being patient. The speech of uncertainty is slow. When we move too fast, the lessons are unintelligible. For sure, it’s hard to be patient. Waiting was one of the great teachers that appeared during my cancer journey, the most difficult teacher and greatest ally. In the three-year heat of my medical journey, every step required a different decision which only waiting uncovered. During that waiting, I became more and more grounded in the free fall of uncertainty.

We are born both patient and impatient. While our being is born moving slow, the life that carries it flits like a hummingbird, rapidly twitting even when we hover. Yet when our body, mind, and heart are aligned -- like tumblers in a mystical lock -- something eternal opens.

How then can we learn to be patient? By slowing down when we speed up. By following whatever part of us is moving slow. If your heart is racing, let the calm at the center of your mind slow the rest of you. If your mind is racing, let the tiredness of your body slow the rest of you. Difficult as it is, the practice of patience centers on trying to have our body, heart, and mind pause until they all can move in unison, at the pace of what is real. An ounce of music, silence, or truth can bring us closer.

2. The Practice of Opportunity

The practice of opportunity is trust, which means following our heart. Opportunity always presents itself as an opening that seems a bit smaller than we think we can fit through. Following our heart means trusting that we will fit through the opening we have to go through. It might be the narrow opening back to health, or leaving a life of quiet secrecy to swim into the sea of love, or putting all our weapons down, even the invisible ones, so we can humbly shimmy through the tunnel of now to an authentic life. Trust means dropping closer to the earth so we can inch our way through the one opportunity that is presenting itself.

Though it seems daunting, we never know what we carry or what we can seed until we strip down to meet our opportunity. We never know what is full-born or waiting deep inside our pain until we trust what is under all our explanations and doubts. Opportunity doesn't promise a destination or relief from the press of not being who we are. Opportunity provides fresh water for the fish of our soul to swim in. And it's the swimming in fresh water that cleanses us of all that doesn't matter.

3. The Practice of Courage

The practice of courage is doing small things with love. This was Mother Teresa's anthem. We begin one kindness at a time, one utterance of truth at a time. From the outside, things that require courage seem impossible, but once we begin, we're no longer on the outside. This lets us see more. This lets us feel the current of the situation we have to cross. Any small act of love shows us the next step to be taken. So it's imperative to stop rehearsing the perfect starting point and just begin.

We can practice doing small things with love when we're not afraid, so it will be available to us when we are afraid. You can do this by making dinner for your dog, or getting coffee for your loved one, or holding the door for an elder who's taking way too long to cross the parking lot in the rain. The world is our practice ground.

The word authentic comes from the Greek authentes, which means bearing the mark of the hands. Doing small things with love is how we care for each other, one hand at a time. Doing small things with love releases our courage. And each small act we're led to leads to more. Doing small things with love is the atom of bravery. I tell myself when afraid, "To be courageous, I don't need to become my best self, I just need to open who I already am and courage will fill me."

4. The Practice of Connection

The practice of connection is holding and listening. When we feel disconnected, any act of holding or listening will return us to the larger world. With regard to listening, the difference in being an introvert or an extrovert is mostly the direction of our attention; where we naturally face when we listen, toward the inner world or the outer world. Just as some of us are born left-handed and some right-handed, some of us are born to listen inwardly first or outwardly first. One is a strength and the other is an unused capacity. The practice connection requires that we complete the one that doesn't come naturally.

Our challenge is to do the dishes and pay the bills while somehow stilling ourselves, though there are so many places to go. If we can't stay connected to the stream of life in the midst of the thousand tasks, our frustration and disconnection will begin to hurt others. Tending and being go hand in hand. When we can tend and be in a way that complements our soul, we discover time and again that holding leads to finally being held.

Like everyone, I still struggle with this. My only thoughts, when feeling disconnected, are to stay open to the teachers around me moment to moment. Just the other day, I was drawn to hold some of my father's tools, now that he's gone. I have a chisel, a T-square, an awl. And when I can't really fathom the fact that he died and is no longer here on Earth, I hold one of his tools. I hold something he held. Because we can listen to what we hold. When we touch something that's been touched, it speaks to us. Not in words, but in the felt language of being from which all words arise.

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