Cultivating Spiritual Practices for the New Year

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Welcome to the New Year! I am used to greeting a new year with optimism, big goals, and renewed energy. However, given the flux of these last two years, I am approaching this year with renewed vigor for daily habits that will allow me to not only adapt, but calibrate to the challenges and opportunities that unfold. A growing body of psychological science has begun to reveal the power of spiritual practices, and how they shape our minds, emotions, and relationships. Consequently, this year I am aiming to expand my daily practices of reading scripture and prayer to include more contemplative practices of silence and meditation. Finding time for new things is always a challenge in a full life that includes school drop-offs, an energetic dog, and even a bunny. So, I am focusing on slightly expanding or augmenting daily habits. Research confirms that these moments are life-giving. In my own experiences, such practices have helped me to understand myself, feel more empathetic toward others, and draw me closer to God.

One Day at a Time

Habits are best developed by making changes to our daily behaviors. As an example, your dentist reminds you that you need to floss your teeth daily. It’s a simple thing. Yet, you hadn’t done it as consistently because you don’t like flossing. However, your dentist stresses the importance of flossing for your health. So, your New Year’s resolution is to floss your teeth every day. Changing habits takes discipline. That is why 12-step programs use the slogan, “One day at a time.” So, you intentionally start flossing, one day at a time, until it becomes a habit. The same applies with any practice, including spiritual practices. We need daily spiritual practices to keep us grounded in what we believe, and deeply connected to what matters most. Moreover, spending time with God provides clarity around the direction and decisions we make each day. Spiritual practices are best undertaken at a regular time, on a daily basis (maybe even twice daily). So, I encourage you to choose a practice that you can engage in one day at a time.

Wired for Spirituality

There is growing evidence that our brains are hard-wired for spirituality. Scientists are learning how spirituality not only provides a defense against depression and languishing, but also contributes to the overall wellbeing of young people. Indeed, both formal religion and spirituality—two distinct constructs—significantly contribute to the wellbeing of youth. In a study1 by Dr. Lisa Miller and her research team, she identified that the human brain experiences spirituality as:

  • An involuntary reorientation of attention;
  • A sense of love or embrace consistent with intimate attachment or bonding; and
  • A sense of self that is both distinct and part of the greater oneness.

Finding Connection through Spirituality

At the Thrive Center, we are interested in contemplative practices2 because they connect us to not just ourselves, but also to God and others. We find more compassion and love when we take time to sit quietly with our breath, opening ourselves to God. With open and compassionate hearts, we are able to observe our thoughts and biases, examine our relationships with others, and gently let go and give God unproductive, negative thoughts. Through contemplative practices, we open ourselves to God’s love. We become more aware of how God invites us to participate in His ongoing work in the world with our unique gifts and talents. I hope that your chosen spiritual practice will help you thrive and contribute toward a flourishing world.

A Spiritual Practice of Love

Adapted from Dr. Miller’s book, below is a spiritual practice1 that focuses on the experience of love. In the Christian tradition, we feel that the love of God is a unifying force contributing to all aspects of thriving.

  1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths.
  2. Imagine before you a table. Invite anyone to your table, whether living or deceased. Each person you invite must truly have your best interest in mind.
  3. Visualize each person sitting at your table, and ask them if they love you.
  4. Now invite the deepest, most honest and real part of who you are. This is the part of yourself that exists beyond anything you have done or haven’t done, anything you have or don’t have. 
  5. Ask that part of yourself if you love you. 
  6. Now invite God to be present at your table. Ask God if He loves you. 
  7. Feel God’s love for you, as well as the love of those seated at your table. Feel the love you give to yourself. 
  8. Settle yourself into knowing that you are loved. 
  9. Finally, ask the guests at your table what they need to tell you at this moment.  Is there anything you need to learn?
  10. Take a few deep breaths—long, slow inhales and then long, slow exhales. Open your eyes.

I encourage you to join us in committing to a daily spiritual practice this month. This might mean choosing something new that helps you to center yourself and sit with God. Start your day with this practice, even before you touching your phone. My deepest wish for you this new year is that you can personally thrive and share the message of thriving with your communities.


Endnotes

1. Miller, L. (2021). The awakened brain: The new science of spirituality and our quest for an inspired life (pp. 191-211). Random House Publishing Group.

2. Dahl, C. J., Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2020). The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(51), 32197–32206.

3. For more meditative practices, please see Centering Prayer by Dr. Brian Russell.

About the Author

Pamela Ebstyne King

Pamela Ebstyne King

Pamela Ebstyne King, PhD, is the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at the School of Psychology and Marriage and Family Therapy in Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests are applied research at the intersection of human thriving and spiritual development. Dr. King's work combines theology, empirical research, and community engagement to further understand what contexts and settings enable all people to thrive.

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