When you say the word “devotion” it carries with it a lot of connotations. Devotion is not just about liking or even loving a person or thing. Devotion is more than just showing respect for something. Devotion carries with it the idea of sustained service, of a willingness to make sacrifice on behalf of its object. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary includes among its definitions of “devotion” that it is “an act of prayer or private worship — usually used in plural” and that it is “the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal.”
Religious and spiritual leaders have recommended some form of regular devotional practice for as long as humans have had spiritual and religious practices. In pagan circles, devotion can take a number of forms. Maybe it’s a regular practice of making an incense offering to particular deity. Maybe it’s a quick moment where you ward yourself with some personal shield work before walking out the door and starting your day. Maybe it’s a brief rhyme you sing to yourself before bed so that you can sleep well.
There are as many ways to create devotions in your life as you can think of, and the truth is that even people who don’t think of themselves as religious and barely spiritual will take on some kind of regular practice like meditation or going to the gym or “me time” in the bathtub. And for them, devotion goes by the name of “self-care.”
You’ll notice I am not using the term “meditation.” Meditation is a form of devotional practice, but it’s a specific type of practice, one that has many specific techniques. Most meditations can be a devotional practice, but there are plenty of devotions one can do that are not meditation.
Devotional practice, whatever form you do it in, will grow you as a person, in a lot of different ways. Even something that seems boring and repetitive, if done with intent and with attention, will grow you. Try, for instance, reciting the same short poem every day for a month, and paying close attention to every word as you say it. Not only will you most likely memorize the poem by the time that you’re finished, you’ll find that what you think about the meaning of the poem will evolve over the course of that month. Each recitation, if you are really focused on the words you are saying, will call up different layers of meaning. You will find that some phrases contain more thoughts in them than you initially understood. You might find that the poem has an entirely alternate interpretation if you look at it from a different perspective.
Devotion’s power lies in the fact that it is sustained over time. Doing something once will give you an experience. But taking on that experience over and over again turns it into a practice. And it is that repetition, that practice, that offers a rabbit hole you can fall down into. And while often we think of a rabbit hole as a waste of time or energy, what it really does is allow you to go on a journey that teaches you things, things that you bring back with you. And because you are not the same person every time you take that journey, or perform that practice, the experience won’t be the same either. Those differing experiences stack up on top of each other, and as you assess them and compare them and build on them, you grow as a person.
Most of us, pagan or not, have thought about taking up some kind of devotional practice. And we often harbor a lot of misconceptions about it that block us from actually taking up a devotional practice. Many of those thoughts can be reframed. Here are some of the most common misconceptions and how to reframe your thinking about them.
- I’m so busy with work/kids/school/other important thing to have time for a devotional practice.
This one is easy to fall into, and often it is a legitimate reason to not do something. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, the idea of taking on one more thing to do, even a thing that might be good for us, is just too much. Especially during this time, with the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis and racial reckoning and so many other things, most of us are at a breaking point physically, emotionally, and economically. Most people do, in fact, know what’s best for themselves and how much is too much. The first thing I want to tell you about this is you should ALWAYS trust your instincts.
And at the same time, we often do not recognize how thoroughly we misunderstand how time works. We all get the same 24 hours in a day. And it is true that how many of those hours in a day are usable is often dictated by things we must do, like the need to eat and sustain ourselves and our families, which often means a job that pays us. But after that, you get to decide what you do with what’s left. Again, your options will be limited by circumstances — what you can afford financially and physically and emotionally. And sometimes there truly isn’t much left. But the fact that your choices are limited does not mean you don’t have them. So instead of saying to yourself “I do not have the time for this activity” you need to call your problem by its right name: “I have not made this a high enough priority to allocate the necessary time to it.” Why is this reframing important? Because the necessary condition to make change on this point isn’t acquiring more time. There is no such thing. You cannot magically expand the 24 hour day to get more time. You can, however, change how you’re prioritizing the things you are using your time for.
Keep in mind there’s no judgement here. It’s your time, and your choice, and your agency here deserves all the respect in the world. Make the choices that are best for you. If that doesn’t include devotional work, that’s fine. You can always make a different choice when you’re ready to. Or not. That’s what it means to have a choice. But if you’re really wanting to do it, if it’s important enough to you, then put in on the roster. Change how you use your time to make it fit. You are not completely powerless over your time, even if most of it is claimed by obligations that cannot be shed.
Another way to reframe your thinking here is to rethink what time is necessary, which brings me to:
2. Doing it takes too much energy/money/time/know how that I do not have.
It’s important to check in with your preconceptions about what devotional work actually is. Because it might be that the things you think you need to do as part of devotional work are not actually requirements. Say the word “devotion” out loud and what images and feelings spring into your head? Do you imagine sitting in front of an elaborate altar burning incense and being in deep meditation? Maybe you are imagining some kind of elaborate set of hand gestures performed in front of a picture of a deity. Perhaps you are thinking it’s about reciting a rhyme in a beautiful stone circle in a garden. Go ahead and take a minute to indulge your wild fantasies of what you would do if there were no limits.
Whatever image you concocted in your mind is terrific. And maybe, sometime in the future, you will have all the time and energy and resources to make that your daily devotion. But almost no one has that kind of time, energy or resources. Most of us who have devotional practices will tell you that those practices contain compromises chosen to make our practice fit the circumstances of our life. Maybe you can’t have an elaborate altar because you share space with a roommate. Maybe you only have five minutes because that’s the amount of time you can spare given your current work and life obligations. Maybe the only time you have to consider doing anything is when you’re nursing your newborn baby. None of us is living our devotional fantasies to the fullest.
Do not let the fact that you can’t do everything prevent you from doing anything.
The truth is you can turn almost anything into an act of devotion. The two essential elements of devotional practice are (1) an action that that offers a moment of reflection on something important to you, and (2) consistent repetition of that action over time.
There are a lot of things you can do that fit that criteria. And even small acts of devotion, done consistently, can yield big results. Maybe you stop by your ancestor altar with your morning tea to say hello every day. That might only take a few seconds. But doing that daily can have big impact. You don’t need a fancy altar or expensive incense or candles or thingamajigs. You can stand in front of an open window and look out of it as a way to connect with the sky and light and air, and say a quick rhyme.
Also, consistency and repetition do not necessarily mean that you have to do your devotional daily. A weekly practice, if that is all you can manage, can be just as effective. You don’t even need to do it the same day every week. You don’t even need to do the same thing forever. Maybe you switch up the content of your devotional every month, or every year. Once you feel you have exhausted the learning that you can extract from one practice, you can switch it up, or pause for a time. Doing a special devotion for a limited period of time can bring amazing results. This year I chose to devote a social media post every day to exploring Black History Month by looking into the ways that Black people have made historic contributions to areas of interest in my life. It’s been a valuable education for me on a lot of levels. While the practice itself was only a month, it has left a lasting impression and I’ve learned a lot.
You also don’t have to have a full understanding of why you are doing what you have chosen to do. If you don’t know where to start, what practice to undertake, don’t stress it. Pick something random, a verse you find inspirational, and recite it every day. It is frequently the case that we think we will learn one thing from a devotional practice, only to find once we’re halfway into it that we’re learning something entirely different. Begin where you are, with what’s readily available, or seems plausible. Don’t worry about where you’ll end up. That will take care of itself. You are supposed to learn and change as you go with this. You don’t need to know how something ends in order to begin, and that’s frequently how the best stories unfold. Life is boring when all the outcomes are foregone conclusions.
3. I don’t have enough discipline to keep it up.
Changing this frame is pretty simple. Ask yourself this question: So what if you can’t?
Really. Think about it. If you decide to try and start some kind of regular devotional practice, and you find that you can’t keep it up, what happens? Does the devotion police come and take away your birthday? Is someone going to punish you for not being able to keep up your practice? If you have been foolish enough to make an oath about it and then break it, there might be some spiritual consequences, but absent that, really, what’s going to happen? While you might feel legitimate disappointment at not obtaining some of the benefits of devotional practice, and maybe a little disappointment in yourself, that’s truly more about your hangups than about anything else.
Let me let you in on a badly kept secret: nobody’s perfect. I consider myself to have a daily devotional practice, even though there are days when I completely whiff and fail to make it to my altar. They come about once every two weeks, usually because my body has claimed more sleep than I usually let it have. There are days when I set myself down and I realize that I am too distracted and all over the place to actually do my devotion. When that happens, I do something perfunctory, call it done, knowing that I will try again tomorrow. Screwing something up from time to time does not make you a failure. Forgetting for a day or even two does not make you a failure. The only way you fail at this is if you stop trying.
And we need to get over this notion that failure is categorically bad. Sure, some kinds of failure are bad. Failures that result in people being harmed or killed are bad. But unless I’m missing something here, most of what we might take up as a devotional practice is not going to have the kind of life-or-death consequences that make it imperative that we succeed. If you fail at it, so what? If you have to lay aside your attempts at a devotional practice because something else like school or a new job or an illness has come along, that’s fine. Maybe you’ll try again someday. Or not. You are not a bad person if for some reason you can’t do this or aren’t perfect at it. If you’re holding back on trying because you’re predicting the guilt you’ll feel when you’re not perfect at it, the issue in that dynamic isn’t your lack of perfection, it’s your feeling guilty about something that isn’t something to feel bad about.
Try. Screw up. Try again. Fail. Try again. Do it imperfectly. Do it again. And again. Forget. Fall down. Get up. This is the rhythm of success. It will get easier eventually. But in the beginning, it will feel herky-jerky and uncomfortable and you won’t always be happy with how you’re doing. And that’s okay.
Devotion is about what you get over time. It requires patience and tenacity. These are hard to come by in our instant gratification world. But they are worth cultivating. And like all things that need to be cultivated, devotional practice requires you to show up on the regular, in whatever state of mind or body you may be in, and try, in whatever manner you can. It’s easier than you think, harder than it looks, and worth every bit of effort it takes.