Our personal practices are what carry us through our lives. What we choose as our practices, what we offer our devotion to, how we spend our time, attention and energy – this is what makes up our experience of life. Anything can be a practice and we can bring devotion to anything in our lives. What makes something a practice is the consciousness we bring to it, and our willingness to let it open us to something beyond our perceived limitations in the moment.
There are 4 main areas of practice I see, and it’s essential we find some way to balance them in our lives, or else we may become tipsy, like a table with one leg shorter than the others. There’s a lot of value in distinguishing between these 4 areas of practice, so we can learn how they play together and begin to understand our habits within them. Each of these areas has layers and subtleties (i.e. Masculine and Feminine practice, Dark or Light practice, Sexual or Platonic practice,etc…), and all of these areas have overlap with each other, which I go into much more detail in the full video.
The 4 Areas of Practice.
1. Personal Practice—Relationship with Self
Our personal practices are the kinds of practices we do by ourselves, for ourselves and include things like yoga asana, meditation, pleasure practice, solo sexual practices, and most breathing or chanting practices.
These practices inevitably impact other areas of our lives, like our relationships with others, but they are done primarily with and for ourselves. These can be body, mind or breath practices. Yoga asana classes, even though they are usually done in groups, are often solo practices, as they are designed to connect people more deeply to themselves.
We must know ourselves first in order to attempt to know others.
Personal practices for deeper self-awareness are essential. We begin with the connection to ourselves because if we don’t have this, then we don’t know who it is that’s connecting with another or who is choosing the steps we take in our life. And if we don’t understand ourselves, our habitual thoughts and patterns of response, we don’t have any chance at growing or shifting them. We must know ourselves in order to attempt to connect with, or know, others.
But when people are focused primarily on personal practices and exclude the other 3 areas, they can become very rigid, forgetting that other people’s experiences also matter and that there’s a whole world out there. They can fall too far on the side of agency, i.e. being an island unto themselves, and losing sight of the importance of communion, connection, and interdependence. Sometimes, people unconsciously use an emphasis on solo practice as a way to avoid or bypass relational issues and fear of intimacy.
2. Relational Practices—Relationship with Other(s)
Relational practices are practices we do to better understand and cultivate our relationships with others. They require more than one person and focus not just on the individuals involved, but on the connection, or relationship, between two or more people. These practices include circling, authentic relating, conscious sexuality, non-violent communication, praise practice, asking for help, setting boundaries, polarity practices, intentional dialogue, etc.
Humans are social creatures, and, as such, bringing consciousness to how we relate to others is essential to our wholeness and well-being. No matter how much solo practice we do, relational practice will show us parts of ourselves that we would never see otherwise. Just as we cannot see the back of our heads without a mirror, we cannot see all parts of ourselves without the reflection of others. Parts of us become activated and alive within relationships (and not just romantic or sexual relationships), that wouldn’t otherwise.
Solo practices feed interpersonal practice.
Just as I see people lean too far to the side of solo practice, it’s also possible to get caught up in relational practice and lose sight of the importance of the other 3 forms of practice. Many people, when they find relational practices, can become so enamored with them that they forget solo practices feed relational practices.
Depending on how they are done, an over-focus on relational practice can become a bit like a closed system of mutual navel-gazing, while forgetting that not everything is human-centered. The other major downfall I have seen when there is an over-emphasis on relational practices is endless processing, oversharing, and a tendency towards valuing feelings and vulnerability above all else.
3. Earth-based Practice—Relationship with Earth.
We are animals born on the planet earth. From our Protestant (and/or missionary) ancestors to modern, new-age spirituality, we have been offered the message that what is beyond, after, or above earth is better, that being animals who are part of the natural world should be denied or, at the very least, risen above.
Earth-based practice is about having a regular, conscious way you make a connection with the earth you live on. To honor your connection with the Earth in a conscious way is to acknowledge that you have a place within the larger ecosystem of all plant and animal life. We understand that we are of the Earth, that our animal selves are not a mistake. When we connect deeply with the Earth in this way, we experience true belonging, in a way that even a connection to the Divine doesn’t always offer.
Earth-based practices include touching the earth daily, communicating with local trees, drinking directly from springs, being in the wilderness (or as close as you can get to it) with no distractions, learning the native plants of your area, learning about your land-based ancestors, learning about the land-based ancestors of the land on which you currently live, asking nature for guidance, learning how birds (or other animals) in your area communicate, following the rhythms of the seasons, or the moon.
As fundamental as I believe this kind of practice is, just like with any of the other 3 forms of practice, it is possible to over-emphasize Earth practices and lose touch with the importance of, for instance, relational practices. I have experienced communities that had incredible knowledge and practices around ways to connect with earth and place, but didn’t know how to negotiate difficult conversations, or set boundaries, or where any expression of sexuality was shut down out of fear.
4. Spiritual Practice—Relationship with God, Source, The Divine.
Developing a relationship with God, or Source, requires a willingness to acknowledge and then to be in a relationship with something larger than ourselves. Some examples of spiritual practice are prayer, making offerings, creating altars, bowing, chanting/mantra, inviting and/or allowing for guidance beyond the human realm, reading divine or spiritual writings, or tarot.
While many people find this comforting, this can also be a humbling and sometimes frightening experience. If we acknowledge that there is something larger than all of us, then we are forced to acknowledge that we are not fully in control. Through practice, this can be profoundly liberating, but the path to get there can sometimes be challenging. Cultivating a relationship to God, Source, etc, can create a sense of deep trust that is hard to come by any other way.
While this form of practice is essential, we all know countless examples of people devoted to spirit, and falling short in the realm of human connection, or misusing the earth through considering divine more important than the earth. Throughout history and into today, we see the way that ‘connection to spirit’ can be used as a way to bypass human connection, emotion, our bodies, or truly doing the personal work of looking inward. The value of including spiritual practice cannot be overstated, and it is essential that it be balanced with the 3 other forms as practice, in order to truly serve, both our individual wholeness and also the wholeness of the world.
How to use this framework.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that some practices may fall into more than one category. Your dance practice may be a personal practice and a spiritual practice; you may meditate outdoors on purpose, making it both an earth-based practice and a personal practice (and possibly even a spiritual practice, depending on the form of meditation). Perhaps your partner and you have a sexual practice you do together, that is also an offering to the divine. These are not static. Allow yourself some playfulness and flexibility as you use this framework.
Second, none of us has a billion hours in the day. Take this on, starting where you’re at. You don’t need to change who you are, what you believe in, or dedicate hours and hours every day to ensure that you are doing all of the practices, in all of the areas, all of the time. Start by choosing just a few practices that work for you, that feed you, that feel good in your body, heart, and soul.
- Start with a pie chart. In each corner, write the headings of each type of practice. Go through and rate yourself, without judgment, on a scale of 1-10 with how fully expressed you feel in each area. You may even want to write in what practices you engage in regularly fall into each area (it’s OK to duplicate).
- Notice if one ‘slice of the pie’ is full, while another is empty.
- Then ask, what might need to shift to create more balance, or to serve your wholeness? This might be practices that need to be added or others that may need to be let go of for now. List out 5 options that you already do or you could do.
It’s normal to lean more towards certain areas and away from others. Sometimes our preferences are a result of a habit or a rebellion against how we were raised, and sometimes they’re just more comfortable. If we don’t bring our attention to this on a regular basis, over time you’ll see the deficit that gets created by normal habits of over and under-emphasizing certain areas of practice. What is most important is looking at how we can include all parts of ourselves by finding ways to include all 4 of these forms.
Rather than imagining we need the exact same amount of all of them in order to be stable, it’s been truer in my experience that we might need more of some and less of others at different times. There are times when we need a little more of one of the other, like adding a new supplement to our life. If there is any part of you that has been longing for something, without knowing what exactly it is, this framework is a place to start. If you’ve felt off-balance in your practice in some way, this framework is a good place to start. If you notice that 1-2 of these forms never even occurred to you as areas of practice, those are probably the first places to begin inquiring into practices that could add to the wholeness of your life.