A few weeks ago my wife told me a new word she’d heard on a podcast (On Being) that I (Bill) can’t get out of my head: micro-practices. These are simple habits that take less than a minute and yield a disproportionately positive outcome. As Krista Tippett, the podcast host, put it, “I greet that word with relief — not heroic practices, micro-practices that can be woven into the fabric of our days.” I share Tippet’s relief – I need the relative simplicity of spiritual micro-practices.
I’m not denying that there are really, really important macro-practices for rest and renewal. Three of the biggies that come to mind are Sabbath, sabbatical, and retreats. But that’s the subject of another blog. (As is how desperately spiritual leaders need rest and refocus these days.)
What I love about micro-practices is that they are so doable. They don’t require money or expertise or even much time. Micro-practices simply require a touch of commitment or, as you’ll see in a couple of these practices, just enough regular frustration or desperation to help us do something proactive.
7 Spiritual Micro-Practices
Below are 7 spiritual micro-practices that have found space in my life. Please don’t hear these as essentials for you. Think of this as more of a buffet, and as I pass by you get a peek at my plate which may stir a thought or two about some dish you’d like to try. And no doubt, you already employ some micro-practices that help you move towards rest and refocus (for example, a common one is saying a prayer before eating, a simple reminder not to take things for granted).
- Bedtime Gratitude. A little over a year ago, Katy (my spouse) read a book touting the positive aspects of gratitude. As a physician she’d been aware of this and actually has a practice of prescribing listing gratitudes to her patients… but this time she realized she needed a dose of her own medicine. So when we climb into bed each night we each list three things that we are grateful for from the day. 90% of the time it takes less than a minute (another 5% of the time this strikes up a conversation and that last 5% entails us falling asleep while the other – or even ourselves – is sharing).
- Threshold Prayer. We have a keypad lock on the door to the house which I use most often, and to my great annoyance it has recently decided to take a 15 second break between us inputting our code unlocking the door. After at least a hundred instances of foot tapping and wiggling the door knob, something finally struck me: intense person that I am, things have a tendency to go south for the family when I walk into the house with a pile of emotion, ideas, and expectations unsorted from the day. In a flash of insight – nicely summed up by the scripture “it is his kindness that leads us to repentance” – I realized this annoyance was a gift. Since I literally cannot enter the house without pausing, why not make the most of it and say a prayer to enter with calmness and kindness? I never go longer than the 15 seconds it takes for the lock to let me in, but that prayer is a doorway to the refocus I (and my family) need. This is a new micro-practice for me – I’m hopeful it’s a keeper.
- Deep Breath Cues. After some sweet experiences of simple breathing exercises at the beginning of meetings led by different pastors or church leaders, I made a connection. I’ve been in therapy for a few years now, and inevitably, once or twice during our time together my therapist will take a particularly deep breath. He doesn’t do it loudly at all. He’s clearly not trying to draw my attention. What struck me, though, is that he’s connecting with both himself and the emotion of what I’m sharing. It’s noticeable. And I realized I need that, too. Now rarely am I good enough to be able to practice that during intense conversations. But what I have done is that I’ve started a training-wheels micro-practice of scheduling a reminder to show up on my phone at 11:30am each day that says, “Breathe.” And before I can mark it as complete, I need to take a deep breath and connect with myself and the emotions of the day so far. I never cease to be amazed at how that single deep breath helps me enjoy a moment of rest and reconnection.
- Right-sizing Rituals. One of the consistent challenges I’ve faced since entering fulltime ministry in 1990 is feeling robbed of peace by my disappointment of how ministry goes. Over an over a meeting or church service would just not go the way I had envisioned it, I’d react by feeling real disappointment, and then that disappointment would stick for hours or even days. In conversation with an elder, I realized it would be a lot easier to rightsize my expectations before a ministry event rather than trying to clean up the disappointment afterwards. So maybe this practice sounds embarrassingly simple, but it helps me so much: on my walk to worship on Sunday mornings, when I come into view of the elementary school where we meet, I remember out loud what Jesus said (slightly adapted from John 16:33): “In this church service you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome this church service.” Remembering that we’re not trying to get everything right, that I and my friends all are human, and that God will show up one way or the other – that has made a huge difference on the backend, making Sunday afternoons far more restful.
- Morning Affirmations. For some of my macro-practices I spend time at Catholic monasteries and churches. Raised very protestant, I often find myself wondering why the Catholics get all the cool whistles and bells. One of those is the sign of the cross – that simple hand motion going from the forehead down to the chest and then side to side, often accompanied with a whispered “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I’m still too self-conscious to bust this one out in public, but now it’s the first thing I try to do every morning when I wake up. As I make the cross I use the words, “Beloved child, God’s delight” (an adaptation of Mark 1:11) and it’s the first refocus of the day for me, reminding me to enter into the world grounded in my core identity.
- Naming Pain. For years, I’ve gotten a couple of migraine headaches each week. Thankfully they respond well to medication, but only after an hour or so. Recently I’ve stumbled into a micro-practice that’s been immensely helpful. As the pain descends, I’m often tempted to press on with whatever I’m doing at the time, which inevitably makes it worse. Now, when I notice the pain (with awareness as opposed to avoidance) I’ve been starting to say these two words, half to myself and half to God: “I hurt.” Often I’ll say them a dozen times before they really hit home. But just naming the reality of the pain gives me permission to pause and care for myself that was already there but which I hadn’t paid attention to.
- Surfacing Strong Emotions. In two decades of talking with my spiritual director (a macro-practice, to be sure) we’ve focused on how to pay attention to what God is up to in my life. Out of one of those conversations a year ago we came up with a new micro-practice to help. At the time I was struggling to name daily moments of connecting with God, so now each day before dinner I take a moment to reflect on the question, “What was my strongest reaction today?” As an Enneagram 8 (the ‘Challenger’ type), it’s often in those strong reactions where God was showing up, and asking the question this way helps me see it. And sometimes that leads to a quick (or not so quick) apology to someone or a moment of self-care.
Each of these spiritual micro-practices takes less than a minute and yet bears fruit far greater than the time they take. Some are ingrained in my life now and some I’m still learning. I’m not committed to each of them, but I am committed to a life where rest and refocus are daily and intentional. I hope there’s some helpful food for thought here for you as well.