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When Your Practice Gives You a Shove

The invitation can upend your life in ways you never expected—and create great joy. How will you respond?

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Illustration of floating woman with flowers

Boundless Wonder by Duy Huynh

I’d come to this gala year after year: the annual awards dinner for local professional marketers like me. Same good friends and colleagues. Same banquet hall. Same stale jokes and cheese cubes and speeches and choice of prime rib or chicken. 

This time, I had no idea why I was there.

I’d just returned from three days at a local monastery, and the visit had given my whole normal life a giant shove. It left me sitting in that banquet hall and thinking: Why do we do this, any of it—the schmoozing and “networking” and grasping for more business? How have I ever justified selling things to people? Why do we give out awards, anyway? Who ever thought this was important?

In the 10+ years since, the shove toward a different life has changed me. My thriving full-time business is no longer thriving or full-time. Instead I work part-time to pay the bills and spend half of each day writing articles like this. I’ve felt drawn into much more solitude, as much as a married person can have. I’ve written a book and become a spiritual director. None of this has generated commercial success.

At the same time, my joy level has soared. So has the sense that what I’m doing means something. 

We don’t usually think of spiritual practices as having this sort of effect. We adopt them for what they give to us. So we meditate to reduce stress, practice mindfulness for clarity, pray for inner peace. Of course these benefits often come.

But there’s something else here too. Most spiritual practices connect us with something or someone much, much larger than ourselves. You might call it God, or the Divine, or Buddha-nature, or the Universe, depending on who you are. Let’s call it the Larger for now. The punchline is this: In our spiritual practices, we open our hearts wide to this Larger, and the Larger opens its heart to us.

And if we let it, it changes us.

That is, it shapes our deepest selves to look like itself. Most faith traditions paint similar pictures of the traits this fosters in us. Compassion. Equanimity. A clear vision of reality. A desire for justice. Humility—not self-deprecation, but simply an accurate view of ourselves for who we are: one person in a boundless universe, able to make one person’s contribution, no more but certainly no less. 

This sort of transformative shove has been going on forever, inside and outside of spiritual practice. The wealthy prince Shakyamuni led the ultimate in sheltered lives, until the sight of suffering nudged him toward a life of begging and being the Buddha. St. Francis of Assisi dreamed of a military career, until a series of events—including two vivid dreams—nudged him to embrace poverty and love for all beings. Mother Teresa could have remained a teacher in a Kolkata boarding school, but her encounter with God on a train plunged her into some of the most wretched slums on earth. 

These stories look noble from 50,000 feet. And after all, we know how they come out. But what does the journey look like in the middle of it? If your spiritual practice—or rather, the Larger behind it—is inviting you to something, what can you expect?

Into the Desires 

I sat through the awards show and ate my prime rib and applauded when required. I think I did, anyway. On one level I can’t be sure, because my mind was elsewhere. The questions kept coming. 

They also followed me—right out the door of the banquet hall, into my prayer time the next morning, into the days and weeks that followed. Eventually, those questions coalesced into what I call the “nudge,” like an aftershock of the shove: a vague restlessness to do something different. 

Often, I believe, the Larger nudges us toward the deepest desires of our deepest selves—as opposed to new ventures (like asking me to become a construction worker; God help the occupants of that building), or toward things we might instinctively say we want (financial security, good health, “living well”). These deepest desires might surprise us, but in truth they’ve been there all along: They are the things that animate us. They are, to borrow a traditional Christian concept of God, the things for which we are designed. They are home. 

For me, that nudge couldn’t have been anything else but a nudge to write. 

So write I did: on Saturday mornings at first. Hey, anyone can give up half a Saturday to fulfill a calling, right? But the nudge persisted. Maybe an hour every morning would do the trick. No go. I’d launch a blog to hold all this writing and put it out in the world. Still not enough. 

Now this was starting to cost me. It cut into my income-producing time. Maybe that was part of the point.

Indeed, the nudge didn’t stop until I was devoting one-half of every weekday to writing about spiritual topics. The effect on my income was predictable: It fell by half—and then it fell by more. Curiously, my life started forming around this new direction: Paying clients mysteriously went away, a brief stint at a permanent job ended in failure, but websites and publications showed great interest in what I wrote. Ultimately, when the nudge came to write books, I was startled but somehow ready.

Joy with Mixed Results

Here’s a big part of following the divine nudge: Acclaim, attention, wealth—all the results our culture defines as success—are not guaranteed. Not even close.

Yes, the Buddha, St. Francis, and Mother Teresa ended up winning worldwide acclaim. But as psychologist and author John Neafsey writes in his book A Sacred Voice Is Calling, “The call of compassion… sometimes beckons us in a countercultural direction. Contrary to our expectation that we will be carried upwards, we experience instead an unsettling downward pull.” As a result, Neafsey notes, “Holy people all over the world are quietly going about the business of doing valuable things that make a difference all the time. Though most of them make very little money and never make the newspapers, they are, nonetheless, successful in the eyes of God.”

I don’t think I’d ever claim holiness, but the rest of the description fits. My initial dream was to become the next Deepak Chopra, or a down-market Malcolm Gladwell. It’s not happening. Most of my articles never get read, my book undersold my publisher’s expectations, and my next book may not see the light of day. 

All of which leads me to the grand lesson that I am learning oh so slowly: This is not about quantitative results. This is about faithfulness. It is about coming to this calling every day, laptop glowing in front of me, coffee at my elbow, cat on my lap, pouring out the ideas that fill my heart to overflowing. All because I listened to the Larger and paid heed to its nudge. 

Notice I said quantitative results. There are other kinds. People from the most obscure corners of my life come up to me and say they read my writing regularly. One good friend, with a generous heart but aggressive manner, told me that my book changed the way she relates to people—and I can see the difference. A total stranger just emailed me that an article I wrote several years ago is helping him through a time of doubt.

If all these things—the overflowing heart, the deep communion with the Larger, the small changes made in people’s lives—don’t constitute joy, I don’t know what does.

What about You?

Does everyone with a spiritual practice have to follow the nudge? No. I believe that whoever, or whatever, shapes our inner lives is generous beyond imagining—certainly generous enough to understand that there are some places we just can’t go. I also believe that the deeper you go, the more joy you’ll find, and the more you can make the unique impact you’re designed for. But the pressure is off. All we’re left with is the choice at every nudge. 

But if you do want to follow it, how do you even start?

If your spiritual practice is working for you, it probably brings you into the depths already—the depths of your own heart, the depths of the Larger. That gives you a leg up. From there, maybe try this:

  • While in the depths, adopt an attitude of listening. In other words, don’t just focus on the breath, or read the words of your sacred text, or pray your beads. Instead, put your antennae up for any subtle signal. You know how parents of young children suddenly go still and turn their full attention to listening, because it’s too quiet and they’re wondering what the kids are up to? Try that. 
  • Listen for anything. What do you hear? What currents are moving in your deepest self? What are the things you desire most, when the dross of our culture and the drumbeat of everyday life are stripped away? What do you resist hearing? What do these say about you, the Larger, and the invitation you’re receiving? 
  • Take baby steps. Early on, as I started to sense my own nudge, I somehow communicated to my wife that I was going to close my business and write for no money full-time. Her visceral reaction made it clear that I would not be doing that. Keep in mind, you’re hearing a vague movement of the spirit in the mysterious depths of your heart. Anyone could mishear that. So take it slow.
  • Don’t go it alone. A wise mentor, or a teacher, or a spiritual director can provide a tether and some needed wisdom (see “Pick a Buddy and Hold Hands”). 
  • Finally, notice the change you begin to be, or make, in the world. Ultimately, this is what responding to the Larger is all about. St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish monastic of the 16th century, insisted that the pursuit of union with God—one’s ultimate quest, in the mystical view—must give birth to “good works and good works alone.” If it’s not about making our unique, one-person’s contribution to the good of the world, what good is it, after all? 

Pick a Buddy and Hold Hands

My spiritual director’s questions never sounded that spiritual to me. I lean toward the mystical by nature, so in most of our sessions I’d bring him my latest new calling or flight of fancy. Typically, he’d affirm what I was hearing, and then bring me back to solid ground. “What does your wife think of this?” was his favorite question. As I pondered training programs to become a spiritual director myself, he kept asking, “Are you sure you can afford the tuition?”

The danger in following an inner nudge is that you have to crawl inside your own heart to do it—and sometimes you forget to come out. Spiritual buddies can help you stay in touch with reality while pursuing that calling. This kind of buddy can be a wise elder, a Zen teacher, a guru—or a spiritual director. 

Spiritual director may be the worst misnomer in the history of English. We don’t direct anything; rather, we’re companions to our clients, or “directees”—the people really in charge—who are working out the nudging of this Larger in the depths of their souls. In our monthly meetings, we sit with each directee and let her share her story: what happened in the last month, or what happened 20 years ago, or how it ties together. We just inform and suggest and empathize and ask wide-open questions.

We also listen—with full attention. We listen to our directee, we listen to the Larger as we understand it, and we try to hear what the Larger might be doing in our directee’s life. 

Often what happens is a long series of monthly meetings that shed insight here and there. Stephanie came to me seeking more focus in her spiritual practice. In her own words, she felt “scattered.” Not surprisingly, so were our sessions: She’d talk about her tarot practice one time, the daughter she homeschooled the next, her passion for nature walks the time after that. All this fed into an active involvement with social justice causes. 

Gradually, I realized that “scatteredness” didn’t describe what I was hearing. I was hearing an account of a life rich beyond imagining. I began to wonder if this, what she called “scatteredness,” was actually her calling. When I asked her, though, she restated her need for focus as a deep desire of her heart. We are still trying to suss out where the Larger might be nudging her, and what helps her bring her best self into the world. 

Sometimes there are breakthroughs. More often there is simple exploration, with insights and growth along the way. Whatever the outcomes, having such a person to gently probe and inquire and listen alongside you can help you respond to your nudges with a more confident heart—knowing you don’t have to do it alone.


John Backman is a spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery. He is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths) and has presented at a range of conferences, including the Parliament of the World’s Religions.


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