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There is an underlying, in-dwelling creative force infusing all of life––including ourselves.
~ Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way


There is a Danish saying that translates, "A loved child has many names." We humans, around the globe, have many names for the creative force Cameron refers to––God, Higher Power, the Whole, the Source, Presence, Spirit––and those are just in English. Maybe it says something about the love and gratitude we feel for that underlying, indwelling force. Here, I mainly use the name "Creator," in part because this post is about creativity as spiritual practice and also to honor the way many Indigenous people refer to the force that infuses all of life.
All around us when we pay attention, we see creativity in action. As fall lengthens into winter, milkweed plants go brown and then creamy white. Their pods turn from spiky green to hard, thin shells and then open to scatter their silky parachutes, which are weighted down by small black seeds. They appear to have died, but in spring they come back, green again, evidence of the prolific creative force in nature. In summer it's easy to start taking creation for granted when there is such a profusion of growth; but what a miracle flourishes in the garden––the fact that a tiny, flat, yellow tomato seed becomes a ripe red tomato and not a curved, yellow squash; that a corn seed no bigger than the tip of a little finger becomes a tall stalk bearing several ears of corn, precious for nourishment of body and soul.
We humans, too, are part of creation. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, we are told that Creator formed us in Creator's own image. If we take that name––Creator––and think of ourselves as Creator's image bearers, then we, too, have been formed to create. Not creating, as Julia Cameron says in The Artist's Way, goes against our fundamental nature. It is a denial of the creative life force that infuses us.
I've often heard people say, "Oh, I'm not creative." They might believe that about themselves because they take a narrow view of what creativity is. They may think it's only about art or music or poetry. But we all have the creative force within us. Think of making a beautiful, nourishing meal. Of finding a unique solution to a knotty mechanical problem. Of figuring out a way to help a child who is having difficulty reading. I love watching physical therapists stand and ponder the best way to address a problem in the musculoskeletal system––creativity in action, there to observe.
Practice is an activity we engage in on a regular basis. The Artist's Way refers to a creative practice as one in which our focus is on the process of what we are doing, not the product. It is about being as present as possible, being in that moment, not some other moment.
For many years, I enjoyed cooking, but more recently, it has become a chore, something that has to be done regularly, if I'm to survive on more than peanut butter on a rice cake. However, even more recently, I began to look at cooking as an opportunity to be creative. I don't mean making some elaborate, extraordinary meal. I mean being present with the process. Attending to the brilliant orange of carrot discs, as I chop. Delighting in the contrasting colors, when I put together the green of a pepper, the red of a tomato, the white of a cucumber for a simple salad. Absorbing the smell of the lemon I'm squeezing over the salad.
When I pay attention, I'm often overcome by gratitude. Gratitude for these simple pleasures, for the smells and tastes and sights. Gratitude is one of the most genuine ways we connect with the indwelling force––saying thank you that we are graced to be part of it all. Just thank you. Medieval theologian Meister Eckhart wrote, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."
One aspect of spiritual practice is the regularity of it––something we do most days, maybe even several times a day. However, spiritual practice is not just a habit. It's something we do regularly to consciously connect with God, or whatever name we give to that Force that infuses us and all of Life. Pearl S. Buck, perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Good Earth, grew up with Presbyterian missionary parents in China. She did not stay in the church, but she remained deeply impressed by how her father spent several moments in silence before praying aloud, using those moments to establish conscious contact with God. His tradition emphasized the intellect; yet he also recognized the need for a deep, felt connection with Creator.
Creativity requires us to pay attention, to be present, to bring something to life––whether it's a solution to a problem; a beautifully woven rug; a fine squash blossom necklace; a painted mural; an embroidered pillowcase; an expressive dance; a lovingly, thoughtfully prepared meal. It's easy when we are creating to forget about the present moment, to think about the outcome we hope for. Entering into creativity as a spiritual practice enables us to discover the joy of the process; the product becomes secondary, which doesn't make it less meaningful or beautiful. But the process becomes a vehicle for knowing ourselves and the Source more deeply.
This entry was first published in The Gallup Independent on August 19, 2023 in slightly different form. Reprinted here with permission.

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This entry was first published in The Gallup Independent on August 5, 2023. Reprinted with permission.



When I taught in an alternative middle school classroom, my high-risk students attended for half a day. My afternoons included supervising after-lunch detention, home visits, consultation with my supervisor and community resources, and planning. My classroom stood away from the main campus, across several fields, so the janitors almost never came to clean. Most days, when detention was over, and before I went out into the community, I cleaned the chalkboard and swept the floor. One afternoon, my supervisor called, and I told him I'd been sweeping the floor, so it had taken me a minute to get to the phone.
"Why are you sweeping the floor?" he asked. "Aren't the janitors coming out to clean your classroom?"
"Hardly ever. Maybe twice last semester. But I don't mind, really. It's quiet, and while I sweep, thoughts come to me about the morning and about what different students might need."
"Oh, you're collecting your thoughts while you collect the dirt." He laughed.
"Yes, and sometimes I'm collecting my internal dirt, too."
In Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, a character explains some of the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, who is considered the 18th century founder of Hasidic Judaism, saying, "He taught them that the purpose of man is to make his life holy––every aspect of life: eating, drinking, praying, sleeping." I would add to that, "working."
Making a conscious connection with the Holy One is what spiritual practice is about. As I understand it, the Ba'al Shem Tov was saying that we can seek conscious contact with the Presence through every action in our daily lives. In the yoga school where I have taken courses, the work we did––in the kitchen, in the gardens, cleaning toilets, digging ditches to repair plumbing––was called "karma yoga." In Zen monasteries monks chop wood and carry water. And sweep floors.
My teacher taught that karma yoga is work done for the sake of the work itself. Not for someone's approval, not because it earns us money, not to get through it as quickly as possible. To do work for its own sake, it is necessary to be aware of what we're doing, to be present, to do it as well as possible, also knowing that it is a task we may have to do again the next day, and the next.
Another teacher at the yoga school also said that karma yoga is work done with love. To me that means love of the work itself, as well as love for the people who will benefit. The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, "Work is love made visible."
I can't say that I always swept my classroom with complete awareness of what I was doing, and as I told my supervisor, it also became a time of reflection, of problem solving. But those are things that often happen when we make contact with the Holy One through the work we are doing or through prayer or meditation. Our awareness of the work itself may shift, as we are led to answers we need.
As I swept the floor, I can't say, either, that I was thinking loving thoughts or feeling love for my students. But the act itself was love made visible, especially if we think of love as action, rather than feeling. In creating a clean and orderly space for my students, I was loving them––making love visible.
A spiritual practice is something that is done regularly. Work, whether done at home, whether done out in the world voluntarily or for pay, can form a spiritual practice when it is done with consciousness. Today, I live in a place far from my homeland so I can be close to family, but I long so often for New Mexico. There are certain tasks, and they are often more physical than mental, that remind me that I am doing karma yoga. Watering plants is one of them. I check the needs of the plants, remove leaves that have died and thus sap energy from the plant, note if a plant might need a larger pot. I feel gratitude for the pleasure the plants' beauty brings me. In those moments of conscious work, I discover that I am content to be where I am, maybe because I'm fully present then––the essence of spiritual practice.


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A somewhat different version of this entry was first published in The Gallup Independent on June 24, 2023. Reprinted with permission.

I count among my friends atheists, practicing and non-practicing Jews, people of Islamic heritage, Christians––both progressive and evangelical––agnostics, people who identify as spiritual but not religious, people who practice Indigenous spiritual traditions, Buddhists, pagans, and animists. No doubt more. One of my atheist friends is one of the most spiritual people I know. She told me when she is out hiking, she often sits in one spot for three to four hours. She is inhabiting the landscape as she witnesses it. I don't know if she would describe it this way, but when I (for a much shorter time) sit in one place in the natural world, I feel I am becoming one with the rocks, the trees, the grasses, the animals. She might say she is connecting with something larger than herself. I would say that in those moments, I am in contact with the Presence through all that is sacred.
When I was around seven, my dad took his oldest sister, my younger brother, and me fishing in the San Juan River. It was a spot we could get to only by a two-track dirt road. We left for home after catching several catfish. Suddenly my aunt's heavy, black 1940s sedan jerked to a stop. Its underbelly was caught on a large rock. The car's wheels spun fruitlessly, and Dad was worried that the oil pan could've been damaged in a way that would mean severe harm to the engine. The sun was setting, chilling the air. While my dad worked to free up the car, I said to my brother Rick, "Let's go behind that salt bush and pray." A few minutes later my dad shouted as the car rolled forward, oil pan intact.
That wasn't an isolated incident in my childlike way of thinking. I had been taught that we could go to God any time we or someone else needed help. But prayer was not only for emergencies; it was a daily practice. We prayed six times a day as a family—before and after every meal. I learned a bedtime prayer as soon as I could speak. When I turned seven, my parents gave me my own Bible and told me I was old enough to make my own prayers before sleeping. Prayer was definitely about relationship, and I often felt a deep connection with the Holy One when I prayed. Dad also invited me to offer an after-meal prayer once in a while, especially after supper when we read from the children's Bible storybook. We read from the Bible or a devotional after every meal and before bed.
We didn't call it spiritual practice, but that's what it was. One thing that defines spiritual practice is that it is done regularly, most often daily, sometimes several times a day. The Muslim spiritual practice that is most familiar, even to non-Muslims, is prayer that takes place five times a day. Taking a daily walk in nature and being present to everything around us can be a spiritual practice. Step Eleven in Twelve Step Programs is about developing our conscious contact with God as we understand God, through daily prayer and meditation.
A Diné friend once told me that his grandmother had taught him, "If you find a place where you feel the presence of God, go to that place often." "Often" is what I've just been talking about—that daily action, a habit. But the other part of spiritual practice is what my friend's grandmother was talking about––a place or a time where we go to feel the Holy One's presence, to make a conscious connection with the Divine, an aware connection, a connection that is entered into with heart and mind.
Sometimes, we may be gifted with spiritual experiences that bubble up without our asking. The deep connection we feel with the Whole at those times washes over us with amazing grace; often we are caught by surprise. Those times of sudden connection are sweet and precious. But the idea of spiritual practice is that we don't have to wait for that unexpected grace. Daily practice allows us to experience regular, sustained connection with Spirit, a connection we know how to find because we practice it regularly.
Life in the twenty-first century is so much busier than it was for our grandparents and even our parents. It can seem impossible to find a regular time for reflection, time to draw close to Creator. A friend of mine was attending graduate school and raising her young son who had multiple, severe disabilities. At a regular health check-up, her doctor asked her what she was doing for exercise. She said she'd like to exercise, but she simply couldn't find the time. The doctor said, "Even if you just walk around the block, that's something. And something is better than nothing." Even if your life is too busy for twenty minutes or a half hour (or three or four) of stillness, maybe you can find five minutes to say thank you before you get up in the morning or before you go to bed at night. Spiritual practice is like physical exercise: It offers many benefits, and something is better than nothing.

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