Every spiritual practice should serve a definite purpose, according to what drives us to spirituality, and the goal we are seeking.
Here is an overview of the different types of spiritual practice, across multiple traditions. They seem to fall into three categories:
(a) Practices of personal cultivation, sublimation, and exploration.
(b) Practices of learning, understanding, absorbing.
(c) Practices of external action.
Prayer. Prayer is an exercise of directing our mind to the Divine, with devotion and surrender. It may be scripted or spontaneous; spoken out loud, silently in the mind, or without words (pure communion).
Meditation. It’s an exercise of controlling your attention. The three main general types of meditation are: focused attention (concentrating your mind on a single point); open monitoring (being aware of whatever is in your experience in the present moment); pure awareness (resting the attention on consciousness, undistracted and unengaged).
Breath & Energy Work. These are specific ways of breathing and moving our attention through the body. They are often accompanied by visualization or repetition of sacred sounds (mantras). It can be done for the purpose of healing, energizing, purifying, calming, contemplating, etc.
Somatic Techniques. In conjunction to breath-work, some traditions use body postures and movements for developing health, freeing energy flow, and other purposes.
Qualities of Mind/Heart. All traditions speak of the development of certain qualities of mind and heart. Common virtues that are valued are: tranquillity, equanimity, humility, detachment, loving-kindness, compassion, trust, devotion, discipline, courage, mindfulness, concentration, truthfulness, morality, discernment, and energy. These are developed through reflection, study, specific meditation and breathing techniques, and mainly by being mindful of them in our moment-after-moment choices.
Chanting. Chanting is used in some paths as a means of prayer, study, and focusing of the mind in preparation for meditation. In devotional paths it is used for developing feelings of surrender and devotion; in other traditions, key texts are sometimes chanted instead of being read, as a help for memorization and contemplation.
Asceticism. Periods of intense self-discipline, simplicity, and no self-indulgence. These include fasting, intensive retreats, vows of silence, abstinence, long hours of meditation, etc. It’s like a “mind detox” or “spiritual cleansing”, and it’s a great way to burn negative patterns and quickly advance in the practice. It develops will power, self-control, and a sense of peace and contentment that depends on nothing else. In Yoga traditions they call this tapas.
Study & Contemplation. Listening to talks or reading spiritual texts of a tradition, and thinking deeply about the meaning and implications of those teachings. This can be both the foundational texts and commentary literature. We find this in basically all traditions. In Christianity it is called lectio divina. Some seek to actually memorize the whole texts.
The purpose of study is gaining understanding, insight, and wisdom. The contemplation aspect is to think how those teachings apply to my life, what it means to me, and how knowing these will change the way I see the world and act. The teachings are often to be seen as a model to understand reality, and not necessarily as precise descriptions of reality. They are a framework of how to relate to things, and how to practice the path – and as such are either useful or not-useful.
Community & Teacher Relationship. The relationship with the teacher, and spending time in a community of practitioners, is a valuable way to not only learn the tradition, but absorb the gist of it. A community offers: support in overcoming difficulties on the way; motivation; insight on the finer aspects of practice; answers; and like-minded people with whom to relate.
Belief. In some spiritual traditions, having faith on certain basic tenets is the entry door to the practice. In any case, it is natural that as you start deepening in a path, and experiencing real progress, you gain more confidence in the wisdom behind the teachings – even the ones you don’t understand yet.
Ethics. Following a set of principles or specific rules of behaviour. For example, The Ten Commandments. Most traditions have similar instructions. They are deeper than what they appear on the surface, and they exist so that our actions in body, speech and mind support and reflect the truth we are seeking.
Ritual. Some traditions are more ritualistic, but basically all of them involve some type of ritual. A ritual is basically any set of actions that are done in the same way, for a specific purpose. Usually a feeling of reverence, seriousness, or intensity is associated with them. The ultimate purpose of rituals is to develop certain feelings or states of mind – and not to put up a show.
Service. Serving the community – be it other spiritual practitioners, or society at large – can be an expression of one’s spiritual commitment. Feeding the poor, social reform, translation of scriptures, supporting online communities, etc. What makes it “spiritual” is not so much the type of work done, but the attitude, heart, and intention behind it.
Start with one or two practices and blend them with the foundations of “developing qualities”, “ethics” and “study”.